The title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” points directly to the text’s primary interest in the meaning of goodness and its relation to spirituality. While the relationship between these concepts seems rather fixed according to the grandmother’s perspective early in the story, her encounter with The Misfit challenges her moral code and ultimately enlightens her moments before her untimely death. The most explicit conflict of the narrative is the grandmother’s fight for her life against The Misfit, but this interpersonal struggle arises from the thematic tension between performative goodness and spiritual goodness. Putting these two characters up against each other reveals the consequences of having a superficial and self-serving code of conduct, and the grandmother only becomes consciously aware of her role in this broader moral conflict in her final moments. 

O’Connor begins to establish the grandmother’s performative goodness right from the beginning of the story as she cites The Misfit’s escape as a reason for not wanting to travel to Florida. This justification, however, is not the first one given to explain why she so desperately wants to change their destination. O’Connor reveals that her initial motivation is a desire to visit her connections in Tennessee, and her disingenuous fear of The Misfit is secondary. The fact that the grandmother uses a moral argument to justify her selfish goal suggests that she is not as righteous as she believes herself to be. This debate over travel plans, which serves as the story’s inciting incident, elicits snarky attitudes from many of the family members which add to the tension of the moment. 

The rising action starts developing as the family gets in the car and begins their journey out of Atlanta. Throughout the car ride, the grandmother’s hubris is on full display, reinforcing the sense of superiority she feels as a result of her outward projection of goodness. She specifically dresses up for the trip to ensure that, in case of an accident, any onlookers would know she was a lady. With this logic, she draws on stereotypes regarding the assumed morality of both the upper classes and women. Beyond this visual display of the grandmother’s status, she dominates the family discussion in the car and chastises the children whenever they disagree with her. The irony that emerges when she mocks a little Black boy immediately after scolding the children for lacking respect serves as further evidence that she does not actually live up to the moral code that she projects.

As the trip continues, the grandmother’s personal definition of “goodness” becomes even murkier as she engages in deceptive behavior. She intentionally lies to her family about the existence of a sliding panel and hidden treasure at the plantation house she wants to visit, a choice which seems particularly ironic given that moments before she had talked with Red Sam about the present lack of upstanding individuals. Much like her insistence on traveling to Tennessee instead of Florida, the grandmother’s lie is self-serving and emphasizes that she only cares about herself and not others. This act of deception, along with her hidden cat, cause their car to crash, an event which represents the first consequence of her performative goodness. The far more serious impacts, however, emerge as The Misfit and his companions arrive on the scene. This moment marks the beginning of the direct conflict between the grandmother and The Misfit as she begs for her life, and it makes even more clear the tension between disingenuous morals and their consequences.

The Misfit, with all of his doubt regarding faith and Jesus, ultimately reflects the most harmful effect of the performative goodness that the grandmother, and presumably many others, embrace. For a man who seems genuinely invested in knowing what truth looks like, the shallow acts of spirituality that people like the grandmother engage in are off-putting and turn him away from God entirely. The conflict between the grandmother’s false goodness and The Misfit’s complete rejection of goodness comes to a head when, at the climax of the story, she has a moment of epiphany and calls him “one of [her] own children.” In this moment, the grandmother sees past her performative morals and understands what spiritual goodness truly looks like as she reaches out to The Misfit as an equal human being. 

While this seems to resolve the broader thematic tension of the story, The Misfit’s response, shooting her three times in the chest, marks the conclusion of their physical conflict. The story’s falling action reveals that, even though he succeeds in their literal struggle, The Misfit changes upon seeing the grandmother’s final display of true goodness. Witnessing her moment of grace is enough to lose the pleasure he once felt in harming others, and this shift reveals the possibility for redemption.