The OF Blog: Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

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

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down.  She pointed out interesting details of the scenery:  Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground.  The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.  The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.
“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.
“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way.  Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”
“You said it,” June Star said.
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else.  People did right then.  Oh look at the cute little pickanniny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack.  “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window.  He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained.  “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do.  If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said. (pp. 138-139)
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), later the eponymous title of her 1955 collection, is one of Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor’s most famous stories.  In a little over 15 pages, she constructs a tale in which the social conventions of late 1940s Southern “polite society” are stripped down and their base hypocrisies are laid bare.  There is a lot to unpack from this tale, as there are elements here that O’Connor would revisit in her other fictions.

The passage quoted above appears very early in the tale.  An apparently widowed grandmother, her son, wife, and two children are traveling to Florida for a vacation.  The grandmother does not want to go; she wants to revisit the places of her youth, namely the mountains of East Tennessee where she has kin.  For her, the hills of Georgia and the mountains of eastern Tennessee are home.  It is where she was raised and the values of this region she considers to be the standard from which those of all other regions fail to match.  Her son and his wife, however, are not as enamored with this region and their two children, somewhere between 8 and 12 based on their liking for certain things and their approach to life, have a casual disdain for both states; they want to experience change and aren’t as tied down.  In just a few bits of dialogue, O’Connor has established a generational shift in attitude, but then she goes one step further and shows the vicious limits of the grandmother’s worldview by her condescending, racist view of a black youth.  “Cute as a picture,” with the connotation of all blacks being little more than naive children to her.  It is a passing reference in this story, but there are reappearances of this attitude in other O’Connor stories, so it bears noting now that it is difficult at times to separate the author’s complex views on the issue (some of her essays, which in her day might be viewed as more progressive than staunch segregationist attitudes, would today be viewed more dimly than when they were composed).  But here in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” it is intended to show the grandmother’s “values” in a way that sets up the explosive conclusion.

The first half of the story deals with the family’s travels down south through the clay country of Georgia, with the family asking the owner of a country BBQ place, an unctuous barbeque seller who belies his own comment with his appearance and actions,  about an escaped convict known as “The Misfit”:
“Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?” asked the grandmother.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” said the woman. 
“If he hears about it being here, I wouldn’t be none surprised to see him.  If he hears it’s two cent in the cash register, I wouldn’t be a tall surprised if he…”
“That’ll do,” Red Sam said.  “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas,” and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said.  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched.  Not no more.”
He and the grandmother discussed better times.  The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now.  She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right.  The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree.  He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy. (p. 142)
Although this story is set a few years after the end of World War II, this sort of conversation continues to take place every day at nearly-dilapidated gas stations, front porch restaurants, and farmer’s markets all across the rural parts of the South.  The values have changed.  Dem furr’ners.  The animalistic qualities of the imprisoned.  Why we would never be that way.  The oblivious nature of such self-blinding, self-congratulatory bromides is not only a sharp, biting social commentary, but it directly sets up the “a good man is hard to find” theme of the story’s second half.   Here, the prison escapee The Misfit is set up to be outside these values, to be something rather than someone.  It all falls within the parameters of “polite society’s” view of those who transgress its social mores.  Yet as is often case in O’Connor’s stories, those who subscribe to such rigid, absolutist views are set up for a fall.

It is in the story’s final half where everything unites in a devastating conclusion.  The family car overturns on a hilly road and among the grandmother’s internal monologue of how they should have just gone to the mountains of East Tennessee rather than this godforsaken country road, there are images of her hat still pinned to her head, but with the stiff front brim broken and the violet spray hanging off to the side.  The connection between the damaged and yet still relatively intact attire and the value system that the grandmother represents is clear, yet there is something more to it.  There is also the implication of the fool clinging to unworthy values, to someone who is blind to the changing world around them.  While the children express juvenile disappointment in no deaths or other signs of violence as they scream “‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. (p. 145),” there suddenly appears the metaphorical boogeyman, The Misfit and his crew.

The grandmother immediately recognizes him from his wanted ads and makes the mistake of acknowledging this.  As he and his crew are forced to round up the family and take them away, she continues to try and reason with him:
“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.  The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip.  The Misfit squatted down on the ground.  “Watch them children, Bobby Lee,” he said.  “You know they make me nervous.”  He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn’t think of anything to say.  “Ain’t a cloud in the sky,” he remarked, looking up at it.  “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” (p. 147)
All of her appeals to “good blood,” to manners and to the respect of life down to religion, all of these are easily countered by The Misfit.  It is, for him, society who has failed him rather than he failing society.  Through imagery such as his description of himself as being “buried alive” when sent to the penitentiary for a crime he claims he does not remember or understand (although he says the state claims it was murder of his father years before), there are certain allusions to Christianity, both in the grandmother’s attempt to get him to pray and become “good” and in The Misfit’s conclusion that such religious matters falter in the light of this:
“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed.  “Jesus thown everything off balance.  It was the same case with Him as with me except He hasn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.  Of course,” he said, “they never shown me my papers.  That’s why I sign myself now.  I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it.  Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right.  I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” (p. 151)
Here lies the crux of the debate embedded within “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  How should a society adjudicate those who “sin” or otherwise go against their laws and values?  Should such people be “buried alive” in prison, pushed away because of their heinous actions?  Should there be a dehumanization of those who commit such acts of violence, a removal of them from society that goes beyond just the punishment/rehabilitation aspects of law and order?  This is what The Misfit and the grandmother argue over.  Or rather, the grandmother naively clings to a faith in goodness as embedded in society and in the ability of The Misfit to rejoin it, while he sees further and realizes that he would never be accepted back and that even if he desired so, the order in question is itself flawed.

O’Connor has this exchange take place while The Misfit’s followers “take care” of the other family members.  The matter is as much settled with the finality of pistol shots as it is with the reduction of the grandmother to babbling about how maybe The Misfit really was one of “her children” (itself an allusion to not just the long-denied shared humanity between them, but also to the religious aspects of this).  This conclusion is devastating because it is the final, inevitable response to all of the previously-held assumptions of the grandmother.  The society and its values which she treasures has been shown to her to be not worth a bucket of warm spit in the eyes of one who has walked outside of it.  The “good man” being “hard to find” is shown to be not just the condemnation of the misguided by those who are blinded by their own inflated sense of self-importance, but also a commentary on the violence and darkness that lurks within human hearts.  It is an unsettling commentary, but one which O’Connor revisits in different guises in several more of the stories found in the 1955 anthology A Good Man is Hard to Find.  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a powerful tale because the little bits that O’Connor adds to the main plot aid in creating a collision of social views that underscore the fundamental hypocrisies of “polite society,” particularly that of post-WWII Southern towns and farms.  When read alongside other O’Connor tales, it serves not just as an example of her writing style, but also as a representative tale that contains the germ of several other stories within it.

Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in January 2013.

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