Reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in College
My professor, Sr. Jeanne d'Arc Kernion, was a senior Catholic Nun with a doctorate in English. She had been the mother superior of her monastery until it had dwindled in numbers. She was one of the few sisters left — her motherhouse was in Atchinson, Kansas — but she stayed in Louisiana until she retired a few years ago. She was one of the best English teachers I ever had because her instruction came with a love of fiction. She was always reading a new novel every week — and I felt like, for her, talking about fiction was as easy as making one's coffee with warm milk in the morning. I took her Contemporary Fiction course — which was a way for her to teach college-age students many of her favorite works of fiction she could cram into a semester.
Coming from the South, We All Knew Someone Like the Grandmother (And More Spoilers!)
We read O'Connor in that class — and I think I knew people like the Grandmother at nineteen or twenty years old. So she wasn't that shocking. In the South, we had grandmothers before anyone ever heard of a "Karen"! I also remember being attuned to O'Connor's insertions of absurd details. For example, a monkey is tied to a Chinaberry tree in the story. Who does that? And the unnamed mother has a face, according to the text, as innocent as a cabbage! Those strange details hooked me to O'Connor's fictional world, so I devoured her other stories and two works of fiction with delight.
O'Connor's fictional world is inter-connected — while her stories do not feature repeat characters and there isn't overarching worldbuilding inherent to her storytelling — it is evident that the universe of the Grandmother and the Misfit are the same universe as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Shiflet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." The universal theme that connects all of O'Connor's fiction is that our lives of dreary banality can often become undone by the macabre to shake us out of our complacency. In "A Good Man," the innocent family vacation that ultimately turns deadly shakes the reader out of their complacency. But, as you notice, if you've read the story repeatedly, O'Connor has signposted the narrative with heavy-handed hints that something awful is just around the corner.
O'Connor's Foreshadowing Technique is in Retrospect Obvious, But No One Gets it At First
I'm a high school English teacher, and I often teach the short story to Ninth and Tenth graders. I like to read the story out loud, and I have different students read different parts. I tend to read the narration. No one gets the foreshadowing until the end. Most of my students are surprised when I remind them that the Grandmother reads about the Misfit in the newspaper — it's mentioned in the first paragraph! And a quarter of the way in — Red Sammy's wife talks about a murderer attacking her restaurant. And there are other less than obvious hints. The Grandmother complains that she should dress formally for the car ride in case anyone who would find her dead on the roadside would know right away she was a lady!
Spoiler Alert! And Why People Don't See the Misfit Coming
There is also symbolic foreshadowing of the Grandmother pointing out to June Star and John Wesley a cotton field cemetery dotted with five or six grave markings. Oh no. In the end — the body count is six dead. I am assuming you, my reader, have read the short story, or you wouldn't be reading my review — but now I know you will return to the text and find the examples I just pointed out to you. My students are often shocked. And I think it says a lot about O'Connor's craft as a writer. She does not write a stray sentence. Every word, every line, is purposeful — even the details, that on first reading, seem redundant, at the end are memorable and shocking. Ironically, the Grandmother would worry about what her corpse looked like — as if people would wonder whether her dress color matched her hat! But it's those details that stick with us, the absurd and zany happenings of the Grandmother's storytelling and the insouciant children, June Starr and John Wesley — that catch our attention, and we are drawn into their world that by the end, we forget there is a Misfit on the loose. We don't see him coming.
The Grandmother's Actions Are the Biggest Red Flag
Yes, people don't see the Misfit coming, and they miss the textual clues that point to a potential dumpster fire. Yet — the sticking point is that it's all the Grandmother's fault! I think many readers see the Grandmother as goofy and a nag — slightly annoying and hypocritical. But there is also something else about the Grandmother that bothers me (besides being an archetypical Southern nag).
She doesn't think about the ramifications of her actions. If you chart it out, the entire story is the Grandmother's series of mistakes that lead to her and her family's death. And she is oblivious to her moral responsibility in this fate until the end — when in the story's climactic moment, she sees the Misfit and reaches out to him and says he is one of her own babies. I think the Grandmother sees that she is about to die, but she also, in a flash, has a revelation about her own broken, human condition.
People sometimes quip that before you die your life flashes before your eyes. But for the Grandmother — I think — she sees everything she did wrong in painstaking detail. She saw how she didn't want to go on the vacation, and when she reluctantly went, she hid the cat in her basket so no one would find out. She never thinks that perhaps her son, in reserving a motel room, would need to know that there was a cat on board. She ironically is worried that in her absence, the cat will accidentally turn on the gas burner and asphyxiate itself. When in truth, her caviler attitude is one step that brings her to her own death. Telling her son and family that she knows the location of a house with a secret door — I won't riddle you with all of the details — she forces everyone to go on a wild goose chase, which eventually leads them off the beaten path and lost. The Grandmother realizes that she has no idea how to find the house — that's it's not in Georgia — but in Tennessee — and in that moment instead coming clean with everyone she jostles the basket with Pitty Sing the cat — who jumps out in a rube-goldberg scenario that causes the Father to lose control of the car and crash it.
You may miss it if you have only read the story once — but there is a moment when the Grandmother is crouched in the fetal position, another foreshadowing of her death? She fantasizes that she is injured, so her son will have pity on her rather than become angry about leading the family astray. Now — it is perhaps easy to whisk away the Grandmother's action as just a senile senior citizen. But if we take the Grandmother to court, it becomes clear that this is a person who would rather be hurt, to be injured, to put her family in danger, rather than act honestly and allow her words to match her actions.
The Grandmother's Racist Microaggressions Should Also Be Considered
Take her behavior earlier in the story when she and Red Sammy, the Bar-b-que restaurant owner, are railing on about the moral degradation of society. But the Grandmother enjoys touting moral platitudes, but easily her actions belie her words. She thinks nothing of taking a photograph of a little black child she sees on the side of the road, not wearing pants (or, as we say in the South, britches). And she thinks nothing of telling her grandchildren a story loaded with racist innuendo about Black people.
O'Connor inserts these insensitivities into the mouth of the Grandmother because it is another way to show that this is a person who does not reflect on the implications of their actions — at all. But the Grandmother is also a person who very easily will point the finger at someone else. So when the Misfit and his henchman find the Grandmother and her family stuck on the side of the road, again, the Grandmother does not hesitate to endanger her family further when she recognizes him and shouts out his name. I should add here that I am not a criminal murderer, but if I were, I certainly would not want a witness to recognize me and shout my name, for all to hear — especially if I am a recently escaped federal prisoner. Now I do not mean to suggest that the Grandmother directly planned and caused her and her family's demise — but I will argue that O'Connor is suggesting that much of society's problems lie in an inability to truly and authentically reflect on our actions.
O'Connor's Story is Radically Relevant in Our Times that Does Not Seem Much Different from 1955
Returning to the racist and demeaning behavior of the Grandmother — she has probably never been put to task for how she talks about and treats people of color. She has become smug in her moral uprightness that she is unable, or unwilling, to see her participation in oppressing those that are not like her. An inability to appreciate difference, to see color, to see racial division is why, O'Connor's short story, is relevant for today — written over fifty years ago, its portrayal of a white person who cannot zoom out and see how she is part of a bigger problem painfully rings true in the recent events surrounding the death of George Floyd.
Black Americans have rallied together and protested the murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And cries have been shouted across the nation that we as a people, must come to terms with our conflicted relationship to race in this country. The axial moment of "A Good Man" is that the Grandmother only comes to realize her cooperation at the moment of her death — as I mentioned earlier in this blog post. The Misfit shoots her twice in the heart — which is telling — because the heart is the symbol of emotion and love. And the Misfit shot her in a moment of recoil when the Grandmother, in an almost tender moment of love, reaches out to him and calls him her child.
I think of a person tending to a wounded dog — and the dog, not recognizing the person's kindness, bites him. The Misfit has had a life of criminality, disavowal of goodness, and a childhood deprived of love and care. In the Misfit, we see a man who has indeed been a "miss fit." He does not fit into society's fabric, so he has isolated himself and chosen a life of delinquency. It is hinted that he killed his own family. And that his father physically abused him.
When O'Connor Alludes to Jesus She is Being More than Just Religious
And the Misfit's theological discussion with his Grandmother — that Jesus threw it all off balance is telling. The Misfit cannot accept a person like Jesus because the Misfit's own life has been absent of the kind of love that Jesus represents. In fact, in an almost desiring way, the Misfit wishes he had seen the person of Jesus with his own eyes and witnessed his miracles. He would have to see it to believe it. But isn't that the final irony of this messed up tale? That a racist, empty-headed, middle-class, commodity obsessed, superficial white woman becomes a beacon of love that infiltrates the misfit's hardened heart. Let that sink in.
Now we don't know what happens to the Misfit. Because the story ends. And as a teaching tip — have your students continue the story! And you may be aware that O'Connor herself gave a rendering of what she believed will become of the Misfit. She sees the Grandmother's action as a moment of grace that plants itself in the heart of the misfit that will grow like a mustard seed into a crow-filled tree! That's an interesting visual metaphor, the action of grace. And I get it. Grace (or call it a moment of aesthetic judgment) is this instantaneous moment of undeserved love — or mercy — that humans are capable of — but we often do not consider it — taken in more by reports of humanity's baser nature or propensity for violence and harm.
So how are we to come away with this story? What is the message that it leaves us with, ultimately? I think the message of "A Good Man is Hard to find" is that "the good" is something that does not come out of moral uprightness or outward bearing signs of good behavior. Do you remember who says the title of the story? It's Red Sammy — and he certainly is not the paragon of a good man. Or is he?
Goodness is Not a Polite Profile But an Eruption
In this story, the good cannot be a profile we affix to a person. As when we say, "Oh, he's good because of XYZ." Goodness is an eruption, a sudden moment of grace that can spring up when we least expect it — come in at a moment of otherwise sheer terror to open up the world anew. Perhaps the Misfit is right — Jesus threw the world off balance. Jesus — here — being an analog for that which comes into the world, despite its own gnarly roughness, and can shine forth.
Isn't it absurd that in O'Connor's worldview, that turns out to be a miserly old woman? I guess that is the truth of "A Good Man is Hard to Find." So now. I try to judge people less harshly. I also try to be more aware of my own words and how they match my actions. When I first read the story with Sister Jean d'Arc, I saw myself as a good man. I was in school, and I tried my best to go to Church, to help others. But I feel like this story is about how the usual trappings of goodness often don't reveal our true selves. For example — remember bratty June Starr and John Wesley? In the story, the children, even though they are spoiled brats and do not show respect to their elders, see the adults' hypocrisy. The family in this story do not listen to one another. They regularly talk over one another — and I think O'Connor presents us with this family for a reason. For they are not unlike many families I know — or the family I come from — in which we often bicker and complain, but rarely take a breath, and achieve quiet. And listen.