The short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor could be viewed as a comic strip about massacre and martyrdom. What stops it from becoming a solemn story is its intensity, ambition, and unfamiliarity. O’Connor blends the line between humor and terror as she uses a ?reasonable use of the unreasonable?. She introduces her audience to the horror of self-love both with Hulga in ?Good Country People? and with the grandmother in ?A Good Man is Hard to Find?. The grandmother is thought of by the community as a good person and appears to be so on the surface, but she is also mean and narcissistic. She forces her family to abide by her wishes; she sees them as an extension of herself; and she seizes every opportunity to get what she wants. By manipulating her grandchildren, she gets her son to go back to the house with the “secret panel”, causing them to meet The Misfit, and ultimately sealing the entire family’s death. O’Connor makes the trite seem sweet, the humdrum seem tragic, and the ridiculous seem righteous. The reader can no longer use their textbook ways of interpreting fiction and human behavior because O’Connor is constantly throwing our assumptions back at us.
Throughout “A Good Man is Hard to Find” O’Connor reinforces the horror of self-love through her images. She contrasts the two houses, The Tower: the restaurant owned by Red Sammy, and the plantation house. The restaurant is a “broken-down place”, “a long dark room” with a tiny place to dance. At one time Red Sammy found pleasure from the restaurant but now he is afraid to leave the door unlatched. He has given in to the “meanness” of the world. In contrast to the horrible Tower is the grandmother’s peaceful memory of the plantation house that is filled with wonderful treasures. However, the family never reaches this house because this house does not even exist on the dirt road or even in the same state. Because of the grandmother’s pride she cannot admit that she has made a mistake. “‘It’s not much farther,’ the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up….”. The grandmother’s pride and self-centered wish to see the house causes the Misfit to discover and murder the family. Both houses are, in effect, ruins of the spirit.
It is a comic view of the family that the reader receives in the first half of the story. The comedy is in the way O’Connor has very nonchalantly reported the characters outlandish actions and appearances. O’Connor has made this even more funny by not appearing to tell it in a funny way. The grandmother is the funniest and most colorful of the characters in the story; she is pushy, annoying, and at times an endearing grandmother. O’Connor makes the grandmother a target for her satire right from the beginning by exposing her absurd wardrobe and old-fashioned mannerisms. “…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. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”. The last line becomes ironically funny because ultimately this is where the grandmother ends up- in a ditch dead. As a reader, one must then question the seriousness of the author towards her characters and should the reader have a sympathetic view towards these characters when they are being presented to an audience as comical figures and an elaborate joke.
The first words uttered in the first pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are directed to the reader almost as much as they are directed to Bailey: “Now look here, …see here, read this.” The reader themselves are rustling the pages of the story almost simultaneously as the grandmother is shaking the newspaper at Bailey. Cleverly, O’Connor has made her reader self-conscious of her printed medium and undoubtedly made the reader aware of the similarities between them and her characters. Once the reader can understand the satirical overtone of the story, the absurdities become less important. For example, the writing is monotone but has a dramatic quality to it which O’Connor later uses to describe the family massacre. A man that views murder as a sport will kill the grandmother?s family. He can look at a pile of bodies as nonchalantly as Bailey skimming over the weather report. The irony is absurd.
O’Connor is re-enforcing her stylistic approach to the literature by having the children read comic books in the beginning of the short story, all the way through their fateful journey. This story, in many ways, is a verbal comic strip. It mimics that of the frames of a comic strip with small self-contained scenes. There are no smooth transitions in the narrative but rather abrupt juxtapositions. One could almost imagine a bubble over the characters head saying “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!”. Even the names of the characters allude to comic book figures: June Star and Red Sammy. The story could even be said to read like that of a comic book and imitate its layout. One example is the sign advertising Red Sammy’s Restaurant. “TRY RED SAMMY’S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY’S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY’S YOUR MAN!”. But then the narrative continues in a comic book like fashion describing the odd and bizarre scene as the family pulls up to the Tower. “Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby,”.
O’Connor’s satirical irony is apparent in the scene with the little “Negro child.” While the grandmother tries to beautify this poor pant-less black child living in a shack, O’Connor does not allow the reader to see the beautiful picture that the grandmother wants to paint. “…’Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!’ she said pointing 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 that picture,’ she said.” The grandmother’s pretty picture is ruined when the little boy shows his bum to her. The old women’s attempt to look beyond a blatant reality and make it pretty is being mocked by O’Connor.
The author has blended the line between the satirical and the lyrical to form a beauty that would not be considered a standard “pretty picture.” The same blending of the satirical and the lyrical occurs later in the story with the children playing with Red Sammy’s monkey: “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,”. O’Connor practically compares the chattering children to the chattering pet. She also subtly mocks the grandmother’s concern for manners: Red Sammy’s monkey eats his fleas as though he were eating a gourmet meal. The “white sunlight” and the “lacy chinaberry tree” become the monkey’s intelligence and mannerisms. O’Connor’s writing is so clear in this passage, and her entire work for that matter, because she will not separate what pleases her from what disgusts her.
O’Connor incorporates into her writing tenderness and compassion but these caring qualities are intertwined with caricature and satire to avoid superficiality and insincerity. For example, when the family is traveling through Georgia, the grandmother’s ability to nurture is demonstrated but still eluding to her triteness. The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children’s mother passed him over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing? Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island. ‘Look at the graveyard!’ the grandmother said, pointing it out. ‘That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation.’ ‘Where’s the plantation?’ John Wesley asked. ‘Gone With the Wind,’ said the grandmother. ‘Ha. Ha.’
The contrast between the angelic baby and the old grandmother is apparent, however the feeling the reader gets here is not disgust but rather a warm and intimate feeling. Rather abruptly the passing of the graveyard interrupts this gentle exchange. The five or six gravestones are foreshadowing the family’s fate with the Misfit. The emotional exchange between the baby and the grandmother is a reminder to the reader of the family’s mortality. The grandmother?s joking and light- heartedness lighten the tone of the scene. This scene marks an incredible emotional accomplishment for the family.
The story never breaks its comic book format, even as the family is dragged off a few at a time to be put to death. The deaths are framed in a series of comic book squares. Irony again sets in when the only survivor is the cat, which the grandmother would not leave home by its self for fear it would “brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself,”. Even the massacre of the family is comically written. The line between tragedy and comedy has become completely blurred by the time the family has gotten into the accident. The Misfit is as much a cartoon as the grandmother.
The Misfit is “a good man” because her grace sees into his soul and glimpses salvation. This moment of grace causes the grandmother to be the ultimate dynamic character, changing from judgmental and superficial to forgiving and compassionate. The missionary tactics she initially uses for her self-preservation result in a spiritual triumph. Due to this encounter, the grandmother finds herself in a significant position and emerges a sort of heroine. This act of grace while facing death is a form of compassion the grandmother takes with her to eternity, and this innate grace allows the grandmother to recognize that spiritual ties of kinship join her and the man who vehemently shot her family. The Misfit’s response to her grace coincides with his statement, “No pleasure but meanness”, and when he says, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”, he only proves his necessity in the grandmother’s religious realization and the contrast between the superficial exterior and the spiritual grace of her soul.
O’Connor saves her most subtle writing for the grandmother. She combines every contradiction that seems to make up the grandmother’s personality into one sentence. ?’Jesus!’ the old lady cried. ‘You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady! I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!” For the first time in her life, the grandmother experiences a moment of clarity. When she reaches out to touch the Misfit, this is truly an unselfish act. She knows that her fate is sealed and she too will end up dead like the rest of her family. She is waiting for the inevitable to happen. She has nothing to gain by reaching out to the Misfit, and that makes her gesture all the more amazing. She is not thinking of herself but of the pain and heartache that the Misfit has gone through. After the Misfit shoots the grandmother three times in the chest, the reader is able to see the Misfit’s eyes when he takes off his glasses they are “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless looking”; this is what provokes the grandmother’s selflessness.
The point in which O’Connor brings her two extremes together is at the very end with one sentence. The Misfit says “She would have been a good women if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,”. The satirical and the saintly have completely blended together in this one sentence. Basically, the only way the grandmother could have been good and sustain that goodness was if someone were to threaten her with death daily. There is something about the grandmother that has made the Misfit uncomfortable. The old women’s behavior is a mystery that confronts not only the Misfit but also the reader’s traditional ideas about goodness.