Flannery O'Conner's short story, a Good Man is Hard to Find is a modern parable. The story is laced with symbolism and religious subtext. In many ways the piece is similar to classical Greek plays about pride and retribution.
Before launching into a discussion of O'Conner's story it is important to understand the woman and her motivations to write. O'Conner was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925 to her devout Catholic parents, Edward and Regina O'Conner. Flannery spent her youth attending Catholic parochial schools. In 1938, the family moved to a town just outside Atlanta called Milledgeville where Flannery continued her education. Unfortunately, her father would ultimately die in this town as the result of complications from the disease lupus. Flannery went on to Georgia State College for Women and then proceeded to the State University of Iowa where she received her MFA in 1947.
It was 1951, O'Conner went to the doctor complaining of heaviness in her arms. It was then that she was diagnosed with the same disease that killed her father. She would go through the rest of her life fighting a losing battle against lupus.
In the end, O'Conner wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories. She went on tour and won numerous awards and honors, struggling with her disease the entire time. Flannery O'Conner died of lupus in August of 1964. She was thirty-nine years old.
O'Conner's work was rooted in two facets of her life, her religion and her disease. The combination of these two items fashioned both her outlook on life and on her characters. Her work, however is never preachy. One must look beneath the surface to understand what she is really trying to say.
Her writing is filled with meaning and symbolism, hidden in plain sight beneath a seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief. In this way, her writing is intrinsically esoteric, in that it contains knowledge that is hidden to all but those who have been instructed as to how and where to look for it, i.e. The initiated. Flannery O'Conner is a Christian writer, and her work is message-oriented, yet she is far too brilliant a stylist to tip her hand; like all good writers, crass didacticism is abhorrent to her. Nevertheless, she achieves what no Christian writer has ever achieved: a type of writing that stands up on both literary and religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both. (Galloway, Pg. 1)
O'Conner was heavily influenced by the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. This particular "great thinker" developed a theory which he called dasein. The idea behind this particular theory is that death represents the moment wherein a given person's life is complete, for better or for worse. O'Conner probably interpreted this particular theory as meaning that were one witness to another's death, some type of understanding of that person's life would come about.
Greek theatre had a similar understanding, but it did not necessarily require death. When a Greek tragic hero in a play such as Oedipus the King or Antigone made a realization about their life and about the lies that they have lived, the Greeks referred to this moment as an anagnorisis.
The Grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find makes a realization which would be akin to anagnorisis at the same moment that she encounters her dasein. This element will be discussed in depth shortly.
Before delving to far into Grandmother's dying moment it is important to look at her character. Throughout the story the audience is provided glimpses of a woman who is living a lie. Her values and her belief system are seriously flawed as is her sense of self-worth and pride.
The Grandmother does everything in her power to control her family, to make them do what she wants them to do. The manipulation which she uses involves everything from veiled insults about her son and his wife's parenting skills; "I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that on the loose." To inciting the children by making up stories; "there was a secret panel in this house." She is judgmental and manipulative throughout the story.
Aside from her obvious need to control the family, she is also full of false pride. Her vanity and pride is easily seen in lines such as, "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." Every element of the Grandmother's thought process revolves around her image. She believes that she is an upstanding Christian citizen. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, she has convinced herself that she was courted by the wealthiest and most revered of Southern Gentlemen. In a classic Southern Gothic manner, she reminisces about the plantation days and purports to respect only those who "come from good people." Her pride is so warped that she uses it while pleading for her life. "I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have com-mon blood. I know you must come from nice people!"
In the Greek Tragedies, those who were filled with pride were punished. The most horrible things happened to they and their families. Not only that, but their enlightenment and an understanding of their wrongdoings underscored the actual punishment. Like the Greek Tragic Hero's, the Grandmother was also assaulted with an anagnorisis.
Just before she is shot to death by the fugitive killer The Misfit: "...the Grandmother's head cleared for an instant...she murmured, 'Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!' She attempts to touch The Misfit's shoulder and gets three bullets in the chest, along with his observation that "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." This seems hard, but in fact it's true; the character of the Grandmother is self-centered and morally platitudinous, completely unaware spiritually. O'Conner provides her with an epiphany, one which she probably would not have been able to deal with, had she lived. Self-knowledge can be a curse, and, indeed, it is the characters that are allowed to live that are the more to be pitied, for they are confronted with the unbearable truth of their own folly, their own pathetic, wasted lives, which they can no longer deny. (Galloway, Pg 4)
Both anagnorisis and dasein are experienced by the Grandmother immediately before her death. She knows who she is and she knows what kind of life she's lived. The Misfit is not literally the Grandmother's child but figuratively. The Misfit is an extension of the Grandmother's pride and self-centered lifestyle. Certainly violence and murder appears to be a rather large extension, however the Grandmother's wistful reminisces for the days of the plantation is also a nostalgia for a time of slavery and human bondage. The jump is not as large as it initially appears.
The Misfit cannot be reasoned with. He is a force of nature and from the moment his car came into view all that saw him were certain to die. This was as certain as if a tornado came down right on top of the stranded family. It was as certain as an act of God. O'Conner sent a wrathful character in to face the Grandmother and to force her to make the realization that she made before punishing her for her crimes. Indeed, O'Conner may want the audience to look at the Misfit as a messenger from God.
When all is said and done, A Good Man is Hard to Find is a Christian parable. It is a documentation of how not to live and it illustrates in graphic detail…