A Good Man is Hard to Find

As one of the most celebrated writers of Southern Gothic literature, Flannery O'Connor has written 2 novels and 32 short stories. Arguably her most well-known and anthologized short story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (1953) is a quintessential example of Southern Gothic literature. Teeming with violence, the ironic story reveals O'Connor's attuned sense of humor and religious influence. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find" O'Connor explores the notion of a good man, and how it is possible to look for the good in a seemingly evil individual. Do you think you could forgive the person who just murdered your family and is about to murder you?

A Good Man is Hard to Find A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Table of contents

    Fun Fact: Flannery O'Connor's first name is Mary. She rarely used it. She was educated in parochial schools and was a devout Catholic. Her religious beliefs influenced her writing with ideas of salvation, good versus evil, and grace.

    Summary of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a short story that focuses on a family of 6—two parents, Bailey and the mother, the grandmother, two children, June Star and John Wesley, and an infant. They are taking a family vacation to Florida, although the grandmother wants to go to east Tennessee to "visit some of her connections." The story begins with the grandmother's appeal to her son, Bailey, as she uses the recent news regarding felons on the run to plead her case. She cautions him that running into the Misfit would be detrimental to the family. Her appeal and warning go unaddressed.

    The family packs the vehicle for the trip, and the grandmother takes her cat, Pitty Sing, hidden away because Bailey does not want him to go. Sitting sandwiched in the back seat between the two children, June Star and John Wesley, the grandmother makes observations regarding the scenery along the way. The grandmother, or "the old lady" as she is also described, is concerned with appearances and is dressed in her best attire for Sunday church with a fancy hat. She does this "in the case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know she was a lady."

    Along the way, she notes a plantation home the family drives by with "five or six graves" in the middle of a cotton field. After a snack in the car, the grandmother shares a story from her youth when she was courted by a young man who would gift her watermelons. The children find the story entertaining, and the family stops for lunch at a restaurant called The Tower, owned by a man named Red Sammy Butts.

    A Good Man is Hard to Find, White Plantation House, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This is a typical Southern plantation home.

    While the family waits for their meal, the children run and play around the mostly empty establishment, sometimes conversing with and being disrespectful to Red Sammy's wife—with June Star saying the building is "a broken-down place." The grandmother and Red Sammy converse. Red Sammy notes "you don't know who to trust" and shares how he was swindled by two men "driving a Chrysler" the week before. Grandmother notes Red Sammy is "a good man" for allowing those two men to charge the gas they bought on credit. Grandmother briefly mentions the escaped felon, the Misfit. Reiterating the title of the short story, Red Sammy states, "A good man is hard to find" and reminisces about the day when "you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched."

    Fun fact:

    Flannery O'Connor loved mayonnaise. She even asked her mother to send her mayonnaise while she was in Iowa City and struggled to find any.1

    After the family eats, they leave and drive off into "the hot afternoon." After dozing off during the drive, the grandmother awakens outside the town of Toombsboro and shares that she lived there as a young lady. She describes an old plantation home and asks to stop. Bailey says "no" but she presses on and tells a lie about a secret panel to entice the children and force her agenda. After the children beg, Bailey gives in. The grandmother gives them the directions, leading them onto a narrow and treacherous dirt road "with sudden washes in it and sharp curves with dangerous embankments." Suddenly realizing she was mistaken, and the plantation home is in Tennessee and not Georgia, the grandmother jolts in her seat, scaring her hidden cat awake. The cat jumps up, scratches Bailey who is driving, and causes him to lose control of the vehicle.

    A Good Man is Hard to Find, Car Crash, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The grandmother's deceptive act leads to the family's car accident.

    The family is thrown from the car, which results in bumps and bruises. Bailey, with the cat still clawed into him, pries Pitty Sing from his neck and tosses it "against the side of the pine tree." The mother has a broken shoulder, and the baby is crying. A car approaches, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Three men holding weapons exit. The grandmother recognizes the Misfit from the newspaper article. She asks him if he is the Misfit, and he admits his identity, noting, "it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me." Bailey reproaches the grandmother with harsh words, and the "Misfit reddened" with anger.

    One of the men, Hiram, inspects the family's car and notes that it can be repaired within "half a hour." The Misfit instructs him and Bobby Lee to take Bailey and John Wesley "back in them woods." Bailey pleads, but the men guide him and little John Wesley away as Bailey calls out to his mother, "'I'll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!'" The grandmother, sensing what is about to happen, calls out "'Bailey Boy!'" and pleads with the Misfit stating, "I just know you're a good man." The Misfit corrects her, says he's not, and two pistol shots are heard from the woods.

    A Good Man is Hard to Find, Light in Forest Trees, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Misfit's men take the family into the woods to murder them.

    Bobby Lee and Hiram return with Bailey's shirt. They pass it to the Misfit, who has been shirtless until now. The mother begins to sob loudly, and she, June Star, and the baby are led away by Bobby Lee. He holds June Star's hand, who notes that he "reminds [her] of a pig." The grandmother continues talking to the Misfit, who has revealed that he was locked up because they think he killed his father, although he contests his father died from the "epidemic flu."

    The Misfit shares that he feels the punishment he received does not fit the crime—which he doesn't remember ever committing. He believes that there is "no pleasure but meanness." A loud scream is heard from the woods and another gunshot. Realizing her end is near, the "grandmother's head cleared for an instant" and she tells the Misfit, "You're one of my babies" and reaches out to touch him on his shoulder. He recoils, "as if a snake had bitten him" and shoots her three times in the chest.

    The other two men return from the woods, and the Misfit instructs them to take the grandmother with the others. He notes that "[s]he would have been a good woman if it had been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life." The story ends with the Misfit stating there's "no real pleasure in life."

    Characters in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" focuses on several key characters. Here is a list of the central characters.

    CharacterDescription
    The grandmotherThe protagonist of the short story. The grandmother is an elderly woman who lives with her son, Bailey, and his family. She lies to manipulate her family to go see a plantation home. This lie and the deceptive act of taking her cat on the family vacation leads to an accident and the eventual murder of the entire family.
    BaileyBailey is the grandmother's son, and the head of the family. Although often visibly annoyed by his mother, he tries to please her.
    John WesleyA loud and somewhat disrespectful eight-year-old boy. He is very adventurous and seems to misunderstand the gravity of the situation when the family has a car accident.
    June StarAlso a child, June Star is loud and disrespectful. She is also blunt and makes true, although ill-timed and sometimes inappropriate, observations.
    The MotherThe mother is the wife to Bailey and mother to June Star and John Wesley. She is a flat character, primarily focused on caring for the baby.
    The BabyThe youngest of Bailey and the mother's three children. The baby sits on grandmother's lap for part of the car drive and is also murdered by the Misfit and his gang of criminals.
    Red Sammy ButtsRed Sammy Butts owns the Tower Restaurant, where the family stops for barbecue before their accident. He is not an attractive man, and he recounts the time he was recently swindled by men who bought gas on credit. The grandmother describes him as a good man, although he appears naïve and gullible.
    Bobby LeeBobby Lee is one of the criminals with the Misfit. June Star describes him as "a pig" as he grabs her hand to take her to her death.
    HiramHiram is the third member of the Misfit's crew and also an escaped criminal. He inspects the family's car and estimates how long it will take to get it running.
    The MisfitThe Misfit is an escaped criminal and the antagonist in the story.

    Symbolism in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    One of the key symbols in the short story is the Misfit himself. A symbol of evil, and even the devil, he appears as though out of nowhere, seemingly as a sign of salvation after the family has suffered a car accident. However, the three men in the vehicle appear holding weapons. The Misfit is concerned about the car and the semantics of what happened, correcting the grandmother by saying the car flipped “oncet.” He has no worry about their well-being because his intentions are nefarious. He conceals his face and identity with a black hat. Black, a common color associated with evil, darkness, and the devil, also correlates in the story with the Misfit. He is shirtless, showing he rejects the common norms of society.

    The Misfit seeks order and balance, saying “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” This puts him in opposition to the epitome of O’Connor’s sense of goodness: Jesus. The Misfit says he believes “meanness” is a pleasure and shows no remorse for killing the entire family. Like Lucifer himself, the Misfit feels he has been wrongfully punished, and he seeks to make things right for himself and notes that he “don’t want no hep” anymore.

    He asserts that the crime doesn’t matter, whether “you kill a man or take a tire off his car” the only thing that matters is that you are “just punished for it.” He gave himself the name the Misfit because he feels that the punishment he has received does not fit the crime he committed. And for the Misfit, this too is a crime. With his “black hat” and “bare shoulders” the Misfit is the representation of the indifference of evil and the way it is punished.

    Analysis of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a prime example of Southern Gothic literature.

    Southern Gothic is a genre of literature from the American South. The stories are typically set in that region and focus on grotesque, macabre, sinister, supernatural, and fantastic events. It centers on the social and racial tensions prevalent in the southern United States, particularly after the Civil War. Other Southern Gothic writers include William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Stephen King.

    Let's take a closer look at "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor through an analysis of some literary devices.

    Foreshadowing in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    O'Connor uses a great deal of foreshadowing throughout "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The title itself, ironic in nature, foreshadows that a good man will likely not be found in the story.

    Foreshadowing is the inclusion of key details early in the narrative that gives hints to what is to come in the plot.

    Bailey, the grandmother's son, although tolerant of his mother and a leader in the family, is not necessarily portrayed as good. He remains a flat character throughout the story, and even acts aggressively towards the cat by flinging it against a tree. He additionally admonishes the grandmother for revealing the identity of the Misfit, showing disrespect towards her. Because he doesn't develop as a character, and we see his insensitivity towards his mother, readers are not likely to identify him as being a good man. Red Sam, another man within the story, is not good or bad either. Although he is described as unattractive, naïve, and gullible, his core character remains ambivalent. These two male characters in the story contrast the central representation of a bad man. A lack of strong and positive male influences at the onset of the piece foreshadows the malevolence to come from the Misfit, who kills the entire family with no remorse.

    Another instance of foreshadowing in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is in the description of the grandmother's attire. She is dressed in her best because "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." She is dressed as though ready for her burial, which inevitably happens at the end of the story.

    The last key example of foreshadowing happens on the drive while the family is observing their surroundings. Passing a plantation home and cotton fields, they observe "five or six graves fenced in the middle of it." The family is six people, counting the infant child. They are literally driving towards their graves.

    Irony in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    O'Connor uses irony in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" to reveal the true meaning of her story and compel the reader to think critically about their own values and concepts of goodness in humankind.

    Irony is when the opposite of what is stated, intended, or expected is revealed to be the truth.

    The grandmother has a hard time identifying and exhibiting goodness. She is manipulative with her family. She is deceptive and much of her actions are superficial. She dresses in her best clothing to appear to be a lady, rather than exhibiting the characteristics of a lady. Although the grandmother discusses goodness in several instances throughout the story, she does not embody goodness herself. The grandmother is looking for goodness but only finds it superficially.In a case of situational irony, she becomes the catalyst for the very thing she fears at the onset of the story.

    Situational irony is when something happens that is very different (or even opposite) of what is expected.

    The grandmother's deception in "hiding a basket with Pitty Sing" and manipulation in "craftily" telling a lie to see a plantation home, leads the family off-course and right to the murderers she worried about. Then, in an ironic twist, the story ends with the reader and the Misfit finding "a good woman" in the grandmother just as she is shot to death.

    Imagery in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    Flannery O'Connor uses detailed visual imagery to help the reader imagine the actions of the story and enhance the meaning. Here is an example of visual imagery in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

    Imagery is any detailed description that appeals to the five senses. Visual imagery appeals to the reader's sense of sight and helps the audience conceptualize and imagine the actions of the story as they are described.

    The children’s mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet."

    The grandmother places a great deal of importance on her appearance. Her fancy attire for a car ride and a family trip proves that her focus on the superficial aspects of life is a core aspect of her character. The details of her clothing, the "white organdy" trim, "blue straw sailor hat" and the "purple spray of cloth violets" additionally highlight the superficiality of her values. The violets are synthetic rather than real, and her straw hat will not even function to block out the sun. She wants to appear a certain way, perhaps because the core of her character does not contain those attributes she so admires.

    The Last Line of "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    The last line of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" indicates that pleasure, as the Misfit sees it, does not exist in this world, but in leaving it.

    It's no real pleasure in life."

    The misfit feels he is doing good by shepherding others into a better form of existence. The grandmother is not a good woman. During the events of the story, she is prideful and dressed in her best attire in case she dies in a car accident. She cares about how she appears, rather than caring about the content of her character. She is deceptive, hides her cat, and lies to get her way. Ultimately, her tiny acts of seemingly harmless deception lead to the deaths of her loved ones and herself. She finds grace only as she is leaving the earth, as the Misfit himself asserts that "she would of been a good woman...if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." In the Misfit's eyes, there is no real pleasure in this life and true goodness appears in glimpses in those about to die. He is witness to this, and he is perhaps seeking to view the goodness in others by killing them.

    The Theme in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

    The theme in "A Goodman is Hard to Find" revolves around goodness. The main point is that goodness can be found in the most unexpected places, even in a perceived evil creature. At his core, the Misfit is evil. However, through carefully chosen dialogue between the two characters who are both in need of salvation—the Misfit and the grandmother—the reader understands that the potential for goodness once existed within him.

    The grandmother offers grace, as she attempts to find goodness in the Misfit by stating he has "good blood." She then attempts to accept him as her own by claiming he's "one of [her] babies", and a fellow human capable of feeling. The compassion she shares is rejected, and he steps back to ultimately shoot her to death. While he initially sees "no pleasure but meanness" in life, the short story concludes with him saying, "It's no real pleasure in life." This shift in mentality proves that he did not enjoy taking the grandmother's life.

    The reader is left to speculate what happens to the Misfit as the story ends.

    A Good Man is Hard to Find - Key takeaways

    • "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is an American Gothic short story written by Flannery O'Connor.
    • Flannery O'Connor uses visual imagery, foreshadowing, and irony to force the reader to challenge their own morals and ideas of what makes a good man.
    • Flannery O'Connor's religious beliefs are prevalent in her writing. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find" she deals with the notions of good and evil and grace.
    • The Misfit symbolizes evil in the world.
    • The theme of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" focuses on goodness. Goodness in others can be found, even in the most unexpected places.
    1. Davis, David A. "A Good Mayonnaise is Hard to Find." Southern Quarterly. Fall 2018.
    Frequently Asked Questions about A Good Man is Hard to Find

    Who wrote "A Good Man is Hard to Find"? 

    Flannery O'Connor wrote "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

    What does the Misfit symbolize in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

    In "A Good Man is Hard to Find" the Misfit is a symbol of of evil.

    What is the irony in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

    The irony in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is that the title proves true, and the grandmother never finds a good man.

    What is the main point in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

    The main point in "A Goodman is Hard to Find" is that goodness can be found in the most unexpected places, even in an evil creature who no longer embodies goodness.

    What does the last line of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" mean? 

    The last line of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" indicates that pleasure, as the Misfit sees it, does not exist in this world, but in leaving it. True goodness sometimes appears in glimpses in those about to die.

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