Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
The search for the truth is pursuit that has occupied people for as long as humankind has existed; some look for it in science or medicine, some try to find it in art or literature, and others seek it in philosophy or religion. The satisfaction a doctor feels when diagnosing and successfully treating a patient, the pride of an artist creating an excellent portrait, and the joy of the faithful when they feel God has answered a prayer are similar feelings. These people feel that the truth has led to a positive outcome for themselves and others. However, the truth is not always rosy and bright. Flannery O’ Conner’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” presents a different aspect of the truth. In O’Conner’s story, she demonstrates that authentic truth is complex and not always what people is expect it to be.
Although it was written in 1955, O’ Conner’s story could easily be set in the present. It follows a southern family including Mom, Dad Bailey, Grandma, Son, Daughter, and cat as they travel from Atlanta, Georgia for a vacation in Florida. The Grandmother is the central figure in the story; she tries to convince her son Bailey that the family should travel to Tennessee instead of Florida. The real reason she wants to go to Tennessee is because “she wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee,” but instead of revealing this reason to her son, she attempts to persuade him with fear by telling him about a convict called The Misfit who has escaped from a penitentiary in Florida (O’Conner 331). However, she fails to persuade Bailey to change the destination of the trip, and so the family begins the journey to Florida. The beginning of the story presents the grandma as essentially a good person. She is a woman concerned with appearances and propriety, in spite of her nagging and her deception concerning her real reasons for wanting to go to Tennessee and hiding of her cat, Pitti Sing, in order to take it on the trip. The rest of the family is portrayed with little sympathy. The children are bratty and their parents are passive.
It is not until the family encounters The Misfit that the real action of the story begins. The author herself said the story is “a duel of sorts between the Grandmother and her superficial beliefs and the Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement in Christ’s action which set the world off balance for him” (Hendricks 202). It is interesting to consider how the entire trajectory of the story would have changed if the Grandmother had not decided to shout out the truth and name the man who came to the family’s assistance for who he truly was; “'You’re The Misfit!' she said. 'I recognized you at once!'” (O’Conner 337). If The Misfit could have gone on unrecognized by the family, or at least believed they did not know who he was, the family may have been rescued and never realized their close encounter with a dangerous person. However, the Grandma’s need to spell out the truth at this pivotal moment and the consequences that follow accent not O’Conner’s preoccupation with truth.
The dialogue between the Grandma and The Misfit provides the greatest insight into the main truth that O’Conner wants to impart to her readers, which is about faith. The Grandma begins to counsel The Misfit to “Pray, pray” (O’Conner 339). Their dialogue continues as the rest of the family is led into the forest and shot.. Although the Grandmother continues to insist that Jesus will help The Misfit, he tells her, “Jesus thrown everything off balance . . . was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance . . . If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can” (O’Conner 340). The truth about faith for the Grandmother and for The Misfit appears to be very different at this point. She sees faith as a saving grace and a concrete truth while he sees faith and the God behind it as unknown, unproven, and unreliable in nature. The irony is that the Grandma’s faith is something she has blindly followed, which is seen as a negative thing, while The Misfit’s faith is something he has contemplated deeply, which is usually seen as a positive thing.
The Misfit becomes extremely agitated when considering the fact that he cannot know the truth about God and faith in general. When the Grandma says, using Christlike words, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” he shoots her three times (O’Conner 341). As Stanley Renner observes, this supports the author-sanctioned idea that “limited though she is, the grandmother is granted a moment of illumination during which she realizes the emptiness of her faith and extends to the man who is about to kill her the true love of Jesus” (124-25). Alex Link observes a similar relationship in the encounter between the Grandmother and The Misfit, writing that their dialogue “culminates in a dialectical synthesis of the mean – as in petty – Grandmother, and the mean – as in cruel – Misfit. Together, they find moral good and valuable meaning beyond the world of goods and means” (125). The clash of the irony of their faiths leads them to truth but not necessarily to salvation.
O’Conner’s story demonstrates that the truth s are often found at unexpected times in unexpected places. The irony of this unexpected realization of truth is reflected in the story’s title, because it seems like a bad man was easy to find. Truth is unexpected, it can be confusing, it can be illuminating, gratifying, it can be something someone like The Misfit is unable to face, and knowing it is not always advantageous. Yet, O’Conner appears to believe that in spite of the darker and unexpected aspects of the truth, morally it is desirable for people to attain.
Hendricks, T. W. “Flannery O'connor's "Spoiled Prophet. "” Modern Age 51.3/4 (2009): 202-210. Print.
Link, Alex. “Means, Meaning, And Mediated Space In "Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Southern Quarterly 44.4 (2007): 125-138. Print.
O’Conner, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, Robert Funk, and Linda S. Coleman. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2013. 331-341. Print.
Renner, Stanley. “Secular Meaning in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’” College Literature 9.2 (1982): 123-132. Print.