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Good Man is Hard to Find
For the purposes of this essay, I chose Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." "A Good Man is Had to Find" is an apt topic for research such as this, because the ambiguity of the story's position regarding a grandmother ultimately responsible for the death of her entire family leads to a wide variety of possible readings, each with its own adherents and defenders. Upon reading this story, I immediately questioned the grandmother's role in the story, and especially whether or not the story portrayed her in a positive or negative light, because although at points in the story she appears positive in contrast to the other characters, she is ultimately shown to be reactive, shortsighted, and altogether incapable of protecting either her family or herself. Using Google Scholar, I searched for academic essays and books discussing "A Good Man is Hard to Find" with an eye towards those readings which deal explicitly with the grandmother. Although all the sources considered offered useful insights into the meaning of the story, the mot useful sources were Stephen Bandy's essay "One of my babies': the misfit and the grandmother" and John Desmond's article "Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil" because they both focused on the grandmother's final moments with the Misfit, a scene which is crucial for understanding the story's position regarding the grandmother but which nonetheless defies an easy interpretation, instead leaving the precise meaning and effect of the grandmother's final words ambiguous.
Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" follows a grandmother (only ever called "the grandmother"), her adult son, and his family as they drive through Georgia towards a vacation in Florida. The grandmother does not want to go to Florida, instead attempting to convince her son, Bailey, that they should all go to Tennessee, not least of all because an escaped convict calling himself "the Misfit" is supposedly on his way to Florida. The family heads towards Florida anyways, and the grandmother changes tactics from attempting to alter the goal of the journey itself towards coercing her son into a detour to look at an old house she had visited in her younger years before she remembers that the house is actually in a different state. By this point, however, the grandmother's cat has escaped its confinement and attacked Bailey, causing a car accident. While attempting to figure out their plan of action following the accident, the family is stumbled upon by the Misfit and his compatriots, who the grandmother foolishly identifies out loud, damning them all to execution at the hand of the convicts.
The first secondary source considered here is Robert C. Evans' essay "Cliches, Superficial Story-Telling, and the Dark Humor of Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,'" which focuses on the way the story uses certain linguistic tricks as a means of criticizing certain kinds of writing and storytelling. According to Evans, "few works of literature better illustrate the effectiveness of dark humor than" "A Good Man is Hard to Find" because "O'Connor […] uses her own brand of dark humor to shake her readers awake and keep them alert" (140). Evans sees this use of dark humor to mock and criticize cliches and stale modes of thought most explicitly in the interactions between the grandmother and the barbeque shack owner Red Sammy, but this phenomena is also visible elsewhere to the extent that:
The basic point is clear: O'Connor consistently presents characters who speak, think, and act without giving their words, thoughts, or behavior any real or careful consideration, and then she often subverts their empty words and their thoughtless thinking in ways that surprise us, shock us, and often make us laugh, even if her humor is dark and our laughter is often painful (143).
Although Evans' essay focuses mostly on the characterization of hackneyed or otherwise cliche expressions and thinking throughout the story, he does consider the grandmother in somewhat more detail than the other characters, determining based on certain textual details that "the grandmother […] almost sees herself as the heroine of an old-time romance novel rather than as an elderly and somewhat neglected woman from a lower-middle-class Southern family," a characterization which ultimately explains her lack of consideration when identifying the Misfit and her increasing hysteria at her inability to manipulate the Misfit in the same way that she manipulates her son and grandchildren (146). In short, according to Evans, the grandmother's dramatic final scene and last lines may be considered the point at which her fantasy finally breaks down, revealing the reality of her situation precisely when it is far too late to do anything about it. However, this does not account for the remaining nuances and ambiguities of the grandmother's final scene opposite the Misfit, and so additional studies must be considered.
The second secondary source considered for this essay is John Desmond's article "Flannery O'Connor's Misfit and the Mystery of Evil," which addresses "gradations of human good and evil and […] the drama of choice in the face of competing moral options" (129). Desmond claims that "O'Connor's story explores a range of these options and their consequences, as well as suggesting the mysterious invisible forces beyond personality and circumstance that help to shape human destiny" by contrasting the grandmother and the Misfit's differing notions of "good" and "evil" (129). The most important aspect of Desmond's study is his realization that the Misfit's "conversation with the Grandmother reveals many things about his deeper desires, the most important of which is that the Misfit wants some rationale and justification for his spiritual predicament" because "he wants an understanding of what he sees as the disproportion between the personal suffering he feels afflicted with and the actions he has committed" (129). This is starkly contrasted with the grandmother, who, as mentioned earlier, engages in entirely uncritical thinking which precludes her from seeking any deeper meaning or rationale for the Misfit's decisions, instead relegating a person's morality and worth to their blood or familiar background. Thus, in a way, the story uses the gradations of morality to suggest that so-called "evil" informed by logic and a desire for understanding may actually be preferable than an equally reprehensible but morally acceptable ignorance masquerading as "good," because at least the former allows for growth, change, and ultimately, understanding. The grandmother's mental processes and behavior, on the other hand, only lead to destruction and death because they offer no space for adaptation or growth, instead embodying the assumption that one knows all that one needs to know and so the only purpose of speech is to label things, such as repeatedly calling someone "a good man" despite all evidence to the contrary.
Gary Sloan's essay "Mystery, magic, and malice: O'Connor and the Misfit" takes a more sympathetic view of the grandmother by attempting to identify her final scene as an instance of divine grace, an altogether tedious notion which some critics seem to have made a habit of attempting to locate in every instance of O'Connor's fiction. Sloan sees the whole story as a lead-up to the grandmother's "epiphany," and suggests that the dark humor identified by Evans is used to critique the grandmother's un-Christian thought processes and attitudes until she finally relents and is "redeemed" immediately prior to her death (4). According to Sloan, "At the dramatic center of the story is the grandmother, an obvious Christian who, before her encounter with The Misfit, has proceeded on the assumption that the examined life is not worth living" until "the Misfit teases the grandmother into thought" so that "viewed as a catalyst for the grandmother's epiphany, The Misfit is a fruitful device" (4). Sloan's interpretation is challenged by a far more useful analysis of the story, and a look at this final study will serve to better illuminate the reality of the story's characterization of the grandmother.
In the essay "One of my babies": the misfit and the grandmother," Stephen Bandy notes many of the same details as the previous authors considered here, for instance remarking that "unlike the Grandmother, the Misfit has struggled to understand good and evil" so that he is ultimately "simply a more completely evolved form of the Grandmother" (6). Thus, in the final interaction between the grandmother and the Misfit, "those two faces, so close together, are mirror images," because both characters have moral failings, with the only difference being the manner in which either character has developed these moral failings. In stark contrast to Sloan's interpretation, Bandy argues that "To insist at this moment of mutual revelation that the Grandmother is transformed into the agent of God's grace is to do serious violence to the story" because "there is a fierce internal coherence to the character of the Grandmother, and it has nothing to do with forgiveness, witting or unwitting" (7). Far from receiving a moment of grace, the grandmother is murdered by the metaphorical result of her…[continue]
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