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A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Flannery O’Connor

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Moral Codes

Themes

The Elusive Definition of a “Good Man”

The grandmother applies the label “good” indiscriminately, blurring the definition of a “good man” until the label loses its meaning entirely. She first applies it to Red Sammy after he angrily complains of the general untrustworthiness of people. He asks her why he let two strangers charge their gasoline—he’s obviously been swindled—and the grandmother says he did it because he’s “a good man.” In this case, her definition of “good” seems to include gullibility, poor judgment, and blind faith, none of which are inherently “good.” She next applies the label “good” to the Misfit. After she recognizes him, she asks him whether he’d shoot a lady, although he never says that he wouldn’t. Because being a lady is such a significant part of what the grandmother considers moral, the Misfit’s answer proves that he doesn’t adhere to the same moral code as she does. The grandmother desperately calls him a good man, as though appealing to some kind of underlying value that the Misfit wouldn’t want to deny. Her definition of “good,” however, is skewed, resting almost entirely on her claim that he doesn’t have “common blood.”

The grandmother’s wanton application of the label “good man” reveals that “good” doesn’t imply “moral” or “kind.” For the grandmother, a man is a “good man” if his values are aligned with her own. Red Sammy is “good” because he trusts people blindly and waxes nostalgic about more innocent times—both of which the grandmother can relate to. The Misfit is “good” because, she reasons, he won’t shoot a lady—a refusal that would be in keeping with her own moral code. Her assumption, of course, proves to be false. The only thing “good” about the Misfit is his consistency in living out his moral code of “no pleasure but meanness.”

The Unlikely Recipients of Grace

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother and the Misfit are both recipients of grace, despite their many flaws, sins, and weaknesses. According to Christian theology, human beings are granted salvation through God’s grace, or favor, which God freely bestows on even the least likely recipients. In other words, God has the power to allow even bad people to go to heaven, which he does by granting them grace. The grandmother is an unlikely candidate for receiving grace. She lies to her grandchildren, manipulates her son, and harps constantly about the inadequacy of the present and superiority of the past. She has no self-awareness and seems oblivious to the world around her. Certain of her own moral superiority, the grandmother believes that she is the right person to judge the goodness of others as well as the right person to instruct other people on how to live their lives. However, she herself has an inherent moral weakness. She instructs the Misfit to pray, for example, even though she herself is unable to formulate a coherent prayer. She changes her mind about Jesus’ rising from the dead as she grows more afraid of what will happen to her. The Misfit, for his part, is an unrepentant murderer. Both “bad” people in their own way, they are each unlikely—even undeserving—recipients of grace.

Grace, however, settles on them both, suggesting that even people like the grandmother and Misfit have the potential to be saved by God. The grandmother, moved by the Misfit’s wish to know for sure what Jesus did and didn’t do, experiences a moment of grace when her head momentarily clears and she exclaims, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” The Misfit isn’t literally the grandmother’s child; rather, this points to the fact that she realizes they are both human beings. Her comment seems inappropriate—even insane—given the circumstances, but this is actually the grandmother’s most lucid moment in the story. She has clarity and, more important, compassion. God has granted her grace just before she dies. The Misfit, too, is open to grace at this moment. Although he had claimed earlier that there was “no pleasure but meanness” in life, he now denies that there is any pleasure in life at all. Killing has ceased to bring him happiness, suggesting that he, too, may harbor the possibility to change.

Motifs

Nostalgia

The grandmother, Red Sammy, and the Misfit’s nostalgia for the past suggests that they all believe that a “good man” was easier to come by long ago and that pursuing goodness in the present day is difficult and even pointless. During the car trip, the grandmother reminisces about an old suitor, Edgar Adkins Teagarden, who brought her a watermelon every weekend. She suspects she should have married him because he was a gentleman—and therefore a “good man” as well—and became wealthy. Red Sammy and the grandmother reminisce about the past, when people could be trusted. Red Sammy says outright that “a good man is hard to find,” considering himself—gullible and foolish—to be one of this dying breed. Even the Misfit remembers things his father said and did as well as the unfairness of his punishment for crimes that he can’t remember committing. According to these characters, the present is rife with ambiguity and unhappiness, and things were much different long ago. In a way, this belief allows them to stop short of deeply exploring their own potential for goodness because they’ve convinced themselves that the world is not conducive to it.

Symbols

The Grandmother’s Hat

The grandmother’s hat, which she wears for the sole purpose of showing that she is a lady, represents her misguided moral code. When the grandmother prepares for the car trip with the family, she dresses up to be prepared for a car accident so that anyone seeing her dead body would know that she’d been a lady. The grandmother seems to be entirely unconcerned with the fact that she’s dead in this scenario and oblivious to the fact that other people—including her three grandchildren—would have probably died as well. For the grandmother, the only thing that matters is her standing as a lady, a ridiculous concern that reveals her selfishness and flimsy moral conviction. When the grandmother does become involved in a car accident, the hat—like her moral convictions—falls apart. After she is thrown from the car and the family is facing the Misfit, the brim of the hat falls off. She drops the broken hat as her self-conception as a lady dissolves.

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