Flannery O’Connor is a Christian writer, and her work shows Christian themes of good and evil, grace, and salvation. O’Connor has challenged the theme of religion into all of her works largely because of her Roman Catholic upbringing. O’Connor wrote in such a way that the characters and settings of her stories are unforgettable, revealing deep insights into the human existence. In O’Connor’s Introduction to a “Memoir of Mary Ann,” she claims that Christians live to prepare for their death.
This statement is reflected in her other works, including her short story “A Good Man is Hard To Find.” After reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” many questions remain unanswered in my mind. Is the Grandmother an evil person? Do readers feel a sentimental attachment to the Misfit? Why did the Grandmother call the Misfit her child? And the list goes on.
After multiple readings of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” while it is not clearly stated in the story, God’s grace is the central theme in this short story. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” begins with the Grandmother trying to convince her son Bailey that they should drive to Tennessee rather than Florida for vacation.
She tries to convince him for her own selfish benefits by telling him “Now look here, Bailey…see here, read this…Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people.
Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” (O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 137) Her son ignores her and the next morning they start their journey to Florida. The grandmother brings along her cat and hides him so her son, Bailey, doesn’t notice. In the car the grandmother talks almost the entire ride. She tells the children about a house with secret passages she used to visit as a child. The children want to visit and they beg their father until he agrees. The grandmother directs them to the house, which leads them down a dirt road, and then she realizes that the house that she spoke of was in Tennessee and not Florida. The cat jumps out of the hidden basket onto Bailey’s neck. As a result, Bailey loses control and flips the car, landing in a ditch below the road. The children are excited about the accident and the grandmother fakes an injury so that her son would sympathize for her instead of be upset at her. They all sit and wait for help. A car comes and the grandmother waves it down.
Three men get out of the car and they all had guns. The grandmother recognizes the Misfit and announces it. The Misfit confirms by stating, “Yes’m, but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.” (O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 147) The two men take Bailey, the grandchildren, and their mother to the woods and kill them. The grandmother tries to bargain with the Misfit to save her life but it doesn’t work. He shoots her three times in the chest. At the beginning of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” grace is something that all of the characters lack, especially the grandmother.
The grandmother is portrayed as a very selfish woman, yet considers herself a devout Christian. In this story she lies and manipulates her family to get what she wants. “There was a secret panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .” (O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 143) John Desmond states in his critical essay “Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit and the Mystery of Evil,” that, “her lying and selfishness lead directly to the accident and the subsequent murder of her family. Her self-image as a good woman is stripped from her.” (150) The grandmother tries to portray herself as a good Christian but her actions show otherwise.
She believes that the way she dresses and her southern manners give her power, but she finds out when she has her encounter with the Misfit that she really has no power. The irony in the story is shown when the grandmother, who thinks she is a good Christian, in reality is just as evil as the Misfit. When the grandmother and the Misfit are alone the grandmother’s selfishness becomes apparent to readers. Even though her family had just been murdered, largely because of the consequences of her selfish acts, she is focused on saving her own life. Furthermore, she tries to convince the Misfit that he is a good man. “I just know you’re a good man.” (O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 148) The Misfit replies with, “Nome, I ain’t a good man…but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.” (O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 148) He accepts the fact that he has done wrong but knows there are others who are worst. The grandmother speaks of prayer to the Misfit but is unable to recite one single prayer. She just repeatedly uses Jesus name, almost as if she is cursing. This symbolizes her weak understanding of being a Christian. The Misfit is struggling with his faith in God.
While he believes in the existence of a God, he does not believe in an active God. His faith struggles are likely because of the injustice he has experienced as a result of his wrongful conviction of murdering his father. He explains his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead with the grandmother: “‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t…I wisht I had of been there…It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known…if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’”(O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 152) John Desmond states in Flannery O’Connor’s “Misfit and the Mystery of Evil” that “The Misfit feels evil in this bones, and he finds it incomprehensible.”(145) The Misfit shows his personal struggle with his evil condition through responses to the grandmother’s calls for him to believe in Jesus and accept grace. However, because of his wrongful conviction and the negative stereotypes that were placed on him from society, the Misfit chooses to commit evil acts by murdering the grandmother. The act of murdering the grandmother shows that the Misfit has come to believe himself as an evildoer, just like society placed him as following his murder conviction. The Misfit knows of his evil doings, and he wants answers to the evil he feels himself and that he sees in the world. These questions are answered when the grandmother tries to extend grace to him, and he rejects it.
The central theme in this story is grace. Many may struggle with this being the theme because of the violent killing of the grandmother and her family but O’Connor once said, “I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. (Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work”) The character of the grandmother reaches the climax of its development at the climax of the story right before she experiences death. She extends grace to the Misfit, which is her only positive act in the story. She realizes that her and the Misfit are bound together by the good that is in them by calling him her child. “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 152) At this moment the grandmother understands there is nothing else to do that is going to prevent her from dying.
She tries to reach out to him and extend grace but the Misfit embraces death. Mark Mitchell states in his journal, “The Melancholy Tyrant Democracy and Tyranny in Flannery O;Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that “at this moment O’Connor highlights the sad reality of so many who hear about the grace of Christ but refuse to surrender to it, which enslaves them.”(3) The Misfit is enslaved in evil. He has many questions as to why he does, feels, and sees evil things, but he rejects the answer to his questions when he receives it. When the grandmother extends her grace, the Misfit reacts in terror, as if a snake had bitten him. The Misfit experiences her moment of grace as a moment of evil revealing that he will never understand why evil exists. In “Gravity and Grace”, Weli states that a “hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation we bear in ourselves. That is why we are inclined to commit such acts as a way of deliverance.” John Desmond says, “shooting the grandmother can be seen, in, part as the Misfit’s spontaneous attempt to transfer his own felt degradation to another as a mean of liberation.”(149) The Misfit States, “No pleasures but meanness.”
(O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”152) The Misfit cannot make himself equal from his feeling of degradation; he can only intensify his pain, hence the last quote from the Misfit, “It’s no real pleasure in life.” (O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 153) The Grandmothers encounter with the Misfit unfolds into Godly grace. Although it is rejected, The Misfit understands the grace and knows that if he accepts that his moral character that he has built would be destroyed. After shooting the grandmother he says, “She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”(O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” 153) The Misfit is noting that she would have been a “good woman” if a gun was pointed at her every second of her life. In this way, the grandmother would have been constantly humbled and in a place where she was living her life towards the “good” of others, extending grace to those around her.
Overall, the theme of grace as explored by O’Connor’s short story depicts her belief that “all human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor 307) In the case of the Misfit, accepting grace is difficult for him to do because it would change the perception of himself that he had adopted, as a result of the negative stereotypes placed on him by society. His doubts about the Christian faith influence his struggle to accept grace. His struggle is demonstrated through conversation with the grandmother about his ability to be a “good man.” In the case of the grandmother, she was humbled when faced with death and began to realize that God’s grace can be extended to anyone – well-behaved Christians or convicts. She realizes that she is not any better than the Misfit, and they are considered equal in the eyes of God. Sadly, she realizes what true godly grace is at the conclusion of her life, despite having spent decades trying to be a good Christian. True to O’Connor’s Christian background, she demonstrates grace in this short story as being offered to everyone, but accepted by few.