Levels Of “Goodness” And “Evilness” in The Book a Good Man Is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is the engrossing tale of a Grandmother and her killer locked in the emotional climax of a story that would’ve otherwise been the altogether unremarkable tale of a family’s vacation. This dialogue is what allows for an intriguing look at the gradient levels of “goodness” and “evilness” we find within ourselves and others, as Desmond asserts: “Good and evil, as potentialities and as actualities, are inextricably inter-twined in human beings, and this is true for both the Grandmother and the Misfit.” (Desmond). From start to finish O’Connor explores this idea, writing her characters with care and passion.
O’Connor’s modus operandi was truth telling. She never shied from the gruesome, ugly realities of life, rather she embraced them, holding fast till they took her to their logical ends. The author York describes this as a desire to have her work felt more than simply read:
“O’Connor, however, does not seem to excuse the violence or cover it up, but rather uses violence because it is both true to her “felt life” experience and necessary to bring her characters and readers to a point at which they can transcend the text to some “impossible” reading – a reading which, for a writer with a “Christian view of the world,” is not simply “impossible” and mysterious, but “felt,” much like glory and grace themselves.” (York.)
Looking under this lens, the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is indeed quite logical to anyone who had been paying attention to the mention of the escaped “Misfit,” or to the very specifically developed character traits that are brought up. While difficult to see at first, the reader soon comes to realize that the Grandmother’s disconcerting lack of self-awareness, and potential towards rather intense irksomeness, is in fact a critical aspect of the story. O’Connor didn’t include those traits quickly, nor with the goal of rushing through them, but, relative to the length of the story, slowly cultivated them through multiple scenes. The car ride, the start of the epic journey that will lead to the family’s demise, is perhaps the earliest scene where this point is truly sunk in. One especially cutting moment from that ride leaves a lasting impact upon the reader for its combination of irony and foreshadowing:
“‘In my time,’ said the Grandmother, ‘children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!’ she said and pointed to a negro child standing in the door of a shack. ‘Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?’” (Meyer 357).
The Grandmother’s seeming care for manners is overshadowed by her lack of empathy for the child, seeing him as nothing but more of the landscape. She viewed the child as a means towards furthering her status, all the while ignoring her own lecture on manners and caring. The astounding lack of self-awareness was built as a critical component to her character, and is one of the most obvious traits directly involved in the family’s demise. Perhaps had she been more self-aware she could’ve understood that to recognize The Misfit for who he truly was would be a death sentence to her and her family. Yet even that situation she viewed as a means for furthering her status, unaware that it would all together fail to do so. When she shouted: “You’re the Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!” (Meyer 362), there comes this sense of eagerness, of pride even, that the she seems to get when blurting out that she had recognized him, the Misfit, from the very start.
This combination of self-centeredness with a lack of self-awareness is what creates such a unique and interesting dynamic with The Misfit. Bandy’s description of this dynamic is critical:
“What harm finally comes of her simpleminded preoccupation with herself? The answer to that question, it seems to me, is the key to this story, and it becomes clear only when she is face-to-face with the Misfit. He too is a person who lives only for himself, yet knowing that (as he angrily chastises the uncomprehending Bobby Lee) ‘It’s no real pleasure in life’ (133). But the Misfit has at least this advantage over the Grandmother: he knows who he is.” (Stephen).
The Misfit lives as selfish a life as the Grandmother, yet the critical difference is that he is self-aware. If you were to ask the Grandmother if she considered herself a good woman then your answer would most certainly be a hearty yes followed by a lecture on why people in her day and of her caliber tended to be good. William Bonney described her attitude best: “Self-righteously superior, she therefore can justify all of her own behavior” (Bonney). Yet when the Grandmother goes insisting The Misfit is indeed a good man, he reveals a surprisingly humble view on himself: “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.” (Meyer 363). O’Connor implanted the Misfit with this ability to recognize his own faults so that he would be capable of growth, while she kept it from the Grandmother to allow her in the end to be able to look past her numerous shortcomings in order to make some valid points which will eventually lead to the Misfit’s growth. In O’Connor’s book “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose” she makes it clear this was her intent with the characters:
“I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.” (Mystery and Manners 113).
The Grandmother, in attempting to save herself, makes four assertions that will result in what O’Connor hopes will be a change of heart:
She tells him that he couldn’t possibly kill a lady (notice that is a singular “lady”), as her daughter-in-law sobs. She tells him to settle down, as her own domestic life is brought to an end with the death of her son and grandson. She tells him to pray for forgiveness, even as she is faced with the reality that it is her that ought to be praying for forgiveness. As she goes on, the Misfit answers her in ever increasing pain, as Hendricks put it: “This speech brings the Misfit to an emotional pitch. The Misfit’s voice seems to the grandmother about to break; in a moment of clarity she concludes that he is open to a final, emotional appeal.” (Hendricks). As the corpses of her children begin a slow decomposition into nothingness, she makes her final assertion: The very one responsible, the Misfit himself, is her child. As she reaches for him, his gun goes off three times directly into her chest.
O’Connor knew from the start what her story would be. The death of the family was set in stone, as was the Grandmother’s desperate attempt to change that. This is what causes the story to be one of tragedy, but also of beauty and grace. The Grandmother had to be terrible and self-centered, and the Misfit had to look past that. They saw the realities in each other: She saw his potential for salvation, and he saw hers. In doing so, the reader bears witness to the agony of the event, and sees theirs, too.
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