In this classic 1953 story by Flannery O’Connor, a grandmother subtly navigates her family’s travel plans…with disastrous results.
Read the story here first.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an absolute favorite of mine to teach. Unlike, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” or “Revelation,” it resists a straight-forward moralistic reading. While O’Connor’s Catholicism is overt in those stories—and many others like it—here it comes to the reader at a slant, and a disturbing slant at that. Though the story resists an easy moral, it offers writing students a great look at escalation, intention, and irony.
“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” the story begins and everything that unfolds from that point onward is a direct result of her desires and meddling. In order to avoid the terrible fate of Floridian travel, she warns her son Bailey about a dangerous outlaw nicknamed The Misfit who has broken free from prison and is supposedly headed to Florida. “You read here what it says he did to these people,” she tells Bailey. “Just you read it.” From this point forward, she uses fear, deception, and filial and Christian obligation to steer her family toward absolute tragedy.
One thing I noticed the last time I read this story was the cat. Because her son doesn’t want to bring the family cat, the grandmother must hide it beneath her valise in a basket. Once the grandmother has guilt-tripped, tricked, or otherwise manipulated the characters onto that fateful dirt road, hilly with “sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments,” the grandmother realizes the house they’re looking for with it’s mythical silver-filled “secret panel” is located elsewhere.
“The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting the valise.” What comes next is a beauty of escalation, cause-and-effect, and payoff. Pitty Sing, the cat, leaps onto Bailey’s shoulder who is driving the car. He sends the car turning over and its occupants flying.
There on the side of the road, the family waits for help, but are met instead by The Misfit himself. At this point, all of the grandmother’s conniving and cajoling fail. In the end, she gives up trying to control others and has a transcendent moment, seeing the Misfit not as a tool for her use (to strike fear, to persuade, to comment on the state of the world) but as a human being with a soul: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”
The theological implications of this moment and the stark critique of the grandmother’s brand of Christian judgment are profound, but what I am most drawn to as a teacher and writer is the ironic cause-and-effect that drives the narrative forward. In nearly every action, the grandmother inadvertently causes their meeting with The Misfit to come about. It is all her fault. O’Connor makes no concessions about this. The grandmother begins with a simple argument—If you don’t listen to me, we will all be murdered by this monster—and develops and complicates it throughout.
A simple set of rules for a devilishly ironic story could be derived at this point:
- The protagonist is her own antagonist.
- Her actions necessarily push the story forward to the climax.
- Finally, the end is the exact opposite of what she wants or said she wants.
Concerning #3: What does the grandmother want in this story? She wants to tag along and she wants to call the shots. In the end, she does just that. The irony arises, not because she meets the Misfit or because she feared the Misfit. Rather, she has used him as a boogeyman to achieve her far less profound goals. If her true goal was to be a part of the family’s trip and determine its destination, then voila, she has succeeded. We laugh or recoil or toss the story across the room because through all of her fear mongering she has produced the very monster herself.
In the end “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a critique of the entire family—the fear monger most, but also those people willing to be lead by the fear of bad ends, as improbable as they may be.