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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Flannery O’Connor

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Grandmother

The unnamed grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” considers herself morally superior to others by virtue of her being a “lady,” and she freely and frequently passes judgment on others. She claims that her conscience is a guiding force in her life, such as when she tells Bailey that her conscience wouldn’t allow her to take the children in the same direction as the Misfit. She criticizes the children’s mother for not traveling to a place that would allow the children to “be broad,” and she compares the mother’s face to a cabbage. She chastises John Wesley for not having more respect for Georgia, his home state. She also takes any opportunity to judge the lack of goodness in people in the world today. During all this, she proudly wears her carefully selected dress and hat, certain that being a lady is the most important virtue of all, one that she alone harbors.

The grandmother never turns her critical eye on herself to inspect her own hypocrisy, dishonesty, and selfishness. For example, the conscience the grandmother invokes at the beginning of the story is conveniently silent when she sneaks Pitty Sing into the car, lies to the children about the secret panel, and opts not to reveal that she made a mistake about the location of the house. When the Misfit systematically murders the family, the grandmother never once begs him to spare her children or grandchildren. She does, however, plead for her own life because she can’t imagine the Misfit wanting to kill a lady. She seems certain that he’ll recognize and respect her moral code, as though it will mean something to him despite his criminal ways. She tries to draw him into her world by assuring him that he’s a good man, but even though he agrees with her assessment of him, he doesn’t see this as a reason to spare her. Only when the grandmother is facing death, in her final moments alone with the Misfit, does she understand where she has gone wrong in her life. Instead of being superior, she realizes, she is flawed like everyone else. When she tells the Misfit that he is “one of [her] own children,” she is showing that she has found the ability to see others with compassion and understanding. This is a moment of realization, one that is immediately followed by her death.

The Misfit

With his violent, wanton killing, the Misfit seems an unlikely source to look to for spiritual or moral guidance, but he demonstrates a deep conviction that the other characters lack. Unlike the grandmother, who simply assumes that she is morally superior to everyone else, the Misfit seriously questions the meaning of life and his role in it. He has carefully considered his actions in life and examined his experiences to find lessons within them. He has even renamed himself because of one of these lessons, believing that his punishment didn’t fit his crime. Because the Misfit has questioned himself and his life so closely, he reveals a self-awareness that the grandmother lacks. He knows he isn’t a great man, but he also knows that there are others worse than him. He forms rudimentary philosophies, such as “no pleasure but meanness” and “the crime don’t matter.”

The Misfit’s philosophies may be depraved, but they are consistent. Unlike the grandmother, whose moral code falls apart the moment it’s challenged, the Misfit has a steady view of life and acts according to what he believes is right. His beliefs and actions are not moral in the conventional sense, but they are strong and consistent and therefore give him a strength of conviction that the grandmother lacks. Twisted as it might be, he can rely on his moral code to guide his actions. The grandmother cannot, and in the last moments of her life, she recognizes his strength and her weaknesses. O’Connor called the Misfit a “prophet gone wrong,” and indeed, if he had applied his moral integrity to a less depraved lifestyle, he could have been considered a true preacher, pillar, or teacher.

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