Flannery O’Connor is perhaps the most iconoclastic writer in American literature. It’s difficult to find anyone to compare her with; anyone who preceded her or succeeded her. I suppose Shirley Jackson has some thematic qualities that could be considered similar, but their stories share almost nothing in the way of plots or characters. Critics love nothing better than to box someone in with a pithy description and the one typically chosen for Flannery O’Connor is southern gothic.
It’s as good as any, I guess, but it’s utter futility is best expressed by comparing O’Connor to another writer who has been tainted as writing within the southern gothic tradition, William Faulkner. O’Connor has about as much in common with Faulkner as she does with Hemingway, so there goes my last mention of the term southern gothic. If Flannery O’Connor is known for any one piece of writing, it would probably be A Good Man is Hard to Find. This classic short story has been anthologized almost as often as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and more often than not winds up on the reading list of at least one college class per semester at any institute of higher learning
A Good Man is Hard to Find kicks off with a simple story told in probably a hundred other tales: A nuclear family is headed to Florida. In this case O’Connor peoples the car with a husband and wife, two annoying children, a baby and, most importantly, the mother of the husband. It is this grandmother who is the central player in the drama and her influence over the events that will short be revealed is brilliantly foreshadowed by her initial act of rebellion: smuggling her cat into the car against her son’s order. The grandmother’s rebellious influence over events is not always so openly defiant; as the trip progress she wheedles her son into making a side trip so she can visit a plantation she recalls from her younger days.
Along the way the family stops off for a bite to eat at a restaurant called The Tower. Conversation during lunch is primarily centered on memories and recollections about how good life used to be. Almost offhandedly, the grandmother mentions that a criminal named The Misfit has taken it on the lam after successfully breaking out of the big house. The family hits the car again, intent on making their way to Florida without resorting to killing the grandmother. The central event in A Good Man is Hard to Find involves that smuggled cat. The grandmother knocks open the valise in which she had hidden the cat and in a scene that any reader can instantly visualize better than any film could, the cat lands on top of the husband’s head. His sudden, frightful reaction results in an accident in which the car flips over.
Once the car comes to a rest, the family gets out. Though deeply shaken by the accident, none appear seriously injured, though, of course, the grandmother complains of internal injuries. At this point a car appears in the distance and the grandmother rushes out to flag it down. Three men exit the car, all carrying guns. The grandmother recognizes one of the men as The Misfit; worse, she announces this recognition. Talk about sealing your own fate! Which is actually what The Misfit asserts, informing the grandmother that things would have been much better for them all if only she had never recognized him.
At this point Flannery O’Connor utilizes a technique more well known in telling a story cinematically, that of montage. O’Connor cross cuts between a conversation taking place between The Misfit and the grandmother while the other members of the family are each taken into the woods to be murdered. It is not the killings that form the centerpiece of A Good Man is Hard to Find, however; it is the discussion between The Misfit and the grandmother. Their conversation richly engages Christian symbolism as they touch upon such subjects as crime and punishment, redemption and salvation and, especially, forgiveness.
The grandmother compares The Misfit to Jesus Christ; at this The Misfit offers up his unique take on Christ’s legacy, in effect saying that Jesus’ raising of the dead basically throw, to which the criminal asserts that Jesus’ raising the dead knocked everything out of balance. The grandmother counters this argument by saying that perhaps Christ never did raise the dead. The Misft expresses his wish to have been there to see for himself. He claims that he wouldn’ thave turned out the way he did if only he’d seen actual undeniable proof of Christ’s existence.
And this is the point where the whole them of this elegantly simple, yet often frustratingly ambiguous story kicks in. The grandmother looks up into the face of The Misfit, her own face beatific with Christian love. Her reaches out to lay upon the cheek of The Misfit as she calls him one of her own children. The Misfit instantly recoils from her touch, almost as if she is the serpent in Eden about to strike, and he sends three fatal bullets into her body. On the way back to their car one of the other men observes that the grandmother talked too much, to which The Misfit replies if only someone had always been holding a gun to her, she would have been a good woman.
Like so many other O’Connor’s stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find has a downbeat ending; indeed, it is not just downbeat, but even ambiguous. Yes, the whole family is dead, and there’s certainly little that is open-ended about that aspect, but remember that The Misift does get away with it. He literally gets away with mass murder. And yet there seems to something left to told; not something as simplistic as what eventually happens to The Misfit. We all know he’ll die young and violently. But there is something thematically that still needs to be told. The final image we get of the grandmother is of her lying dead in a ditch, a smile on her face. There is so much going on in the final few paragraphs of this relatively short tale that it probably comes as no surprise that most serious academic critiques of this O’Conner masterpiece run at least twice as long as the story itself. A Good Man is Hard to Find is shockingly short considering its status in American literature; a straightforward linear narrative that is told in plain, easily accessible language, but that is nonethless as complex as any of the far more intricate short stories of Joyce or Faulkner.