Performative goodness does not equate to spiritual goodness.
For a majority of the story, the grandmother believes that her outward acts of goodness, all of which are inherently self-serving, make her a morally upstanding person. She uses the dangerous possibility of meeting The Misfit as an excuse when she advocates for a trip to Tennessee rather than Florida, for example, when she really only has personal motivations for the change. Other moments, such as the grandmother’s suggestion that visiting the plantation house will be educational for the children, reflect her reliance on performative goodness as well.
When she meets The Misfit, however, this disingenuous morality becomes powerless, and she must come to terms with what true grace looks like. The Misfit’s refusal to believe in anything he cannot prove to be real makes the grandmother’s surface-level sense of righteousness particularly noticeable, especially once she begins talking to him about prayer and Jesus. He insists that if Jesus was not who he said he was, then there is no reason be good at all. This perspective emphasizes that performative goodness, or an inauthentic act of kindness, is not equivalent to true spiritual goodness and therefore not worth practicing. Only in her final moments does the grandmother make this connection and understand what real grace feels like, reaching out to The Misfit on a deeply human level rather than putting herself first.
People are inherently selfish.
Almost every character in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” acts in self-serving ways and attempts to impose their will onto others. While the grandmother and The Misfit may serve as the most obvious examples of this trend, Bailey, his wife, John Wesley, June Star, Red Sam, and his wife all possess selfish streaks which put them in frequent conflict with those around them. Bailey repeatedly argues with his mother, the children lack respect for figures of authority, and Red Sam refuses to trust anyone out of fear for his own bottom line.
Given Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic background, her choice to create a world of stubborn, inconsiderate characters seems to reflect the notion of original sin, or the idea that all individuals are born inherently sinful. This religious belief adds to the meaning of the story’s title by challenging surface-level definitions of goodness and creates a darker mood for the story as a whole. By developing secondary characters whose flaws are particularly noticeable, O’Connor is also able to heighten the impact of the grandmother’s epiphany at the end of the story. Preceding the grandmother’s understanding of grace and connection to The Misfit with scenes of selfish behavior shows just how significant her shift in perspective is and how rare truly good people are.
Everyone has the capacity to change.
Despite how uncompromising most of the characters seem throughout the story, the ending suggests that even the most stubborn people have the capacity to change their ways. The grandmother and The Misfit are each committed to a particular worldview when they first encounter each other, but their interaction ultimately causes them both to shift their perspective in an unexpected manner. O’Connor establishes the grandmother’s resistance to change right from the beginning of the story, her desire to have everything go her way quickly becoming her defining character trait. Even when she knows she is in the wrong, such as when she realizes the plantation she remembers is in Tennessee and not Georgia, she refuses to admit it in order to maintain her sense of superiority. Similarly, The Misfit insists that following God is pointless if he cannot prove His existence despite the grandmother’s desperate attempts to convince him otherwise. He remains committed to the notion that there is “no pleasure but meanness” as he proceeds to have his two companions mercilessly kill the family in the woods.
Listening to The Misfit’s questions about Jesus, truth, and his own life, however, causes the grandmother to have an epiphany which inspires her to change her attitude and become more considerate of others. Her sudden reach to The Misfit, whom she refers to as one of her own children, reveals her newfound understanding of their shared humanity. While this surprising change causes The Misfit to shoot her, his response in the aftermath implies that he has also begun to see the world differently. He tells Bobby Lee that there is “no pleasure in life,” and this comment suggests that witnessing the grandmother’s moment of genuine grace has altered his understanding of life’s meaning. As flawed as these two characters are, the twist at the end of the story offers the possibility of redemption for everyone.