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.
More main ideas from A Good Man Is Hard to Find
This intensely ironic story investigates with horrifying effect what happens when one of the worst anxieties of modern life, the threat of sudden violence at the hands of an unknown assailant, becomes a reality. Because such occurrences are relatively rare, the characters and the reader are lulled into a false security that such a thing will never happen to them. In addition, by voicing anxiety about encountering a psychopathic killer, the grandmother makes such an encounter seem all the more unlikely.
From Flannery O’Connor’s point of view, the grandmother’s encounter with The Misfit presents her with the supreme test and the supreme opportunity that every human being must face: the moment of death. Her death, moreover, comes through the agency of an apparently gratuitous and incomprehensible evil. Her ability to accept such a death is therefore the supreme test of her faith. That the grandmother at the moment of death truly embraces the Christian mystery is her great triumph. Although, in Christian terms, such a moment is always a gift, it is one for which the recipient has prepared throughout her life. The grandmother’s most essential attribute is therefore not her meddlesomeness or her smugness, of which there has been considerable evidence throughout the story, but her maternal compassion and concern, and it is through this maternal love that she has her moment of revelation. As O’Connor once described it, “she realizes . . . that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far.” The action of grace is not confined altogether to the grandmother but begins to undermine The Misfit’s own egotism and sadism. Insisting on the possibility of redemption for even this most evil of her characters, O’Connor expressed the hope that “the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.” In O’Connor’s own words, this story, like all of her fiction, “takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. . . . Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.”