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Stephen Barnes 7 October, 2013
Flannery O’Conner’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, raises many intriguing questions about the nature of grace, morality and the human condition. This paper will address the most salient question raised: Is it hard to ﬁnd a good man? I will also investigate why O’Conner decided to focus on this question.
Before suggesting a provisional response, let’s look at some of the story’s elements.
Consider this, for instance: Is the grandmother a good person? Much of the story’s meaning turns on this one question. On the one hand, we can argue that she is evil - she manipulates those around her and trivializes the suﬀering of others. And yet one cannot easily argue that she is purely evil. For instance, she seems to show genuine remorse at Bailey’s death. (“There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.” (132)) Or, observe the part of the story where she lies about the hidden silver: ““There was a secret panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were.” (141) She may have just been wishing for the silver, but the story is ambiguous - she could have been wishing that she did not constantly have to choose between manipulating her family and being ignored by them.
I posit that the question of whether the grandmother is good is frustrating precisely because it is not substantive - when we argue about whether people in general are “good”, the disagreement in opinions stems largely from diﬀerent interpretations of the meaning of “good”. What makes a person “good”? Must they go out of their way to be as good as possible? Is it suﬃcient for them to merely have good intentions? Must they be good all the time, or most of the time, or is it enough for them to regret the bad things they’ve done? If we stop talking about whether people are “good” and instead only look at their actions, intentions and circumstances, much of our disagreement disappears.
I will suggest this as a proto-thesis, a provisional response to our question: People’s intentions and circumstances are too complex to be accurately describes by a simple binary “good or evil” classiﬁcation. The impulse to attempt such a classiﬁcation is driven by a desire to evade full engagement with the full intricacy of the human condition. If we insist on classifying people this way, we need a clear dividing line, but “good” is too vague to be meaningful.
As an illustration of this answer, look at these parts of the ﬁnal conversation between the grandmother and the Misﬁt: “Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!” “Yes mam,” he said, “ﬁnest people in the world.” When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. “God never made a ﬁner woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said. ... “Bailey Boy!” the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was looking at The Misﬁt squatting on the ground in front of her. “I just know you’re a good man,” she said desperately. “You’re not a bit common!” “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misﬁt said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.” (127-128)
It seems clear that the grandmother is calling the Misﬁt a good man in hopes that he won’t shoot her. But the Misﬁt notes that the situation is more complicated than this. Many parts of the conversation reveal the Misﬁt’s mind and morality to be complicated messes that even he doesn’t fully understand.
We can also see this theme in the conversation in The Tower: “These days you don’t know who to trust,” [Red Sammy] said. “Ain’t that the truth?” “People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” said the grandmother. “Two fellers come in here last week,” Red Sammy said, “driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?” “Because you’re a good man!” the grandmother said at once. “Yes’m, I suppose so,” Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer. His wife brought the orders, carrying the ﬁve plates all at once without a tray, two in each hand and one balanced on her arm. “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she repeated, looking at Red Sammy. (121-122)
Here we seem to see two contradictory viewpoints. On the one hand, Red Sammy and his wife state that you “don’t know who to trust” and that there “isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust”. Yet the grandmother states that Red Sammy is a “good man”. If there is a contradiction between these two opinions, the characters do not seem to notice it. It seems as if they are using “good” as an oversimplifying label - instead of trying to understand each other’s motivations and intentions well enough to actually know why they do the things they do, they explain good actions by saying the person is “good” and they explain evil actions by saying that people in general are evil. They use “good” as a way of avoiding the diﬃcult task of fully engaging with the complexity of people’s actions and circumstances. This lack of understanding echoes the interpretation of The Tower as being symbolic of the Biblical Tower of Babel.
The grandmother’s ﬁnal scene, where she seems to show grace, has been interpreted variously by diﬀerent people. In one interpretation, she has achieved some sort of divine realization, and her ﬁnal act is an attempt to transform the Misﬁt by showing him God’s grace. In another interpretation, this is simply another of her attempts to manipulate people, and she is merely trying to save her own life. Sixty years after Flannery O’Connor wrote this story, why is there still no consensus as to the meaning of its most important scene? I will now revisit our initial question and provisional response in light of the analysis above. Our initial question, “Is it hard to ﬁnd a good man?”, seems incomplete. We should also ask, “Why did O’Conner choose to focus on this question, even titling her story around it?” In response to this second question, I posit that O’Connor was not proposing to divide people into “good” and “evil” at all. Rather, she was trying to show through her story that the human condition is more complex than this, and if we are to make sense of people, we must abandon our attempts to blindly categorize them and instead try to fully understand all their complex, individual experiences and circumstances. Its author was one of the best writers in America’s history - it seems natural to conclude that, after sixty years of critical analysis, the ambiguity that remains was deliberate. Reading the story with this interpretation in mind, it seems almost as if the story was intentionally and intricately constructed to preserve ambiguity in questions that are crucial to the story’s interpretation. As mentioned above, was the grandmother reluctant about lying to her family about the hidden silver, or did she only care about the money? Why do we feel a strange sort of sympathy for the Misﬁt at the end of the story, and did he really kill his father? Did the grandmother really show divine grace, or was she still merely being manipulative? Was the Misﬁt at all changed by his conversation? It seems these questions will never be answered, but perhaps we can guess at why they were left open. (1068 words) 4