“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors.  She was a brilliant short story writer during the 1950s and early 60s.  You can find out more about her by clicking “Who was Flannery O’Connor.”  The following post is an analysis that I wrote on her short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find (click here to read the story).

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In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor tells the story of a confrontation that takes place between a kindly old Grandmother and a murderous serial killer named The Misfit.  In keeping with her with her distinctive Christian perspective, O’Connor masterfully weaves a parable that subtly reveals the insidious nature of sin and the shocking nature of grace.  The reference “A Good Man is Hard to Find” obviously correlates to the character of the amoral serial killer in the story known as The Misfit, but she also intends the phrase to describe the Grandmother.

Of the phrase itself, O’Connor uses it as a double entendre.  One one hand it is reference to a popular song that was originally recorded in 1919 by Marion Harris.  The dark lyrics could have easily been written by O’Connor herself.

My happiness is less today
My heart is broke, that’s why I say
A good man is hard to find
You always get the other kind

On the other hand, the phrase is also designed to call to mind that provocative passage in Romans 3:10-18:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.
Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

And so, this is The Misfit.  He is, like all men, not a good man.  He is the other kind.  He is evil.  His throat is an open grave.  His tongue practices deceit.  His mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.  He is swift to shed blood.  And most unsettling of all, as is certainly clear in his speech near the end of the story, there is no fear of God in the eyes of the Misfit.  Again, he is not a good man.  Yet, O’Connor wants the reader to know that, despite the Grandmother’s self-evaluation, she is not good either.  The ‘evil man’ is not good.  But neither is the ‘good man’ good.  The self respecting Grandmother maintains a façade of goodness, but underneath her veneer, poison is also on her lips.  Bitterness is in her heart.  Her feet are also swift to shed blood.  She also has no fear of God in her eyes.  And this is ultimately what O’Connor is driving at.  The unrighteousness of The Misfit and the so-called righteousness of the Grandmother are equally worthless.  At the end of the day, all that matters is Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection…The Gospel.  Because without the reality of the Gospel, no man is good.  This is why Flannery said in Mystery and Manners that this story is a definitive “parable of grace and redemption” and for the believer “there can be no further discussion” other than this perspective.

In the story, the Misfit is to be viewed as the overtly obvious bad man who needs to hear the Gospel.  With the perspective that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’, he is the kind of man that churchy religious people like the Grandmother avoid.  Moving further, the Grandmother is a symbol of the church in a graceless state. She is like the Pharisees of old.  Her aim is to keep herself and her children unsullied by the bad people in the world.  The Grandmother’s son, Bailey, symbolizes the impotent and banal priest or pastor.  Instead of teaching, leading, and nourishing others with the Gospel, Bailey represents the kind of pastor that is controlled by the church.  He is a milk toast leader, who allows the church constituency to nag him into compliance.  Bailey’s job is to keep the ‘good’ people of the church away from the ‘bad’ people of the world.  At one point in the story the Grandmother warns Bailey against men like The Misfit.

“Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

And so, the Grandmother, like the graceless church, thinks that she is a good woman and her children are good children.  She is prideful, manipulative, and self pleased.  She continually “measures herself against others.”  She also has a remarkable capacity to make others ‘respectful’ of her because she uses her goodness and ‘kindly old lady’ persona to control others.  There is an unspoken agreement between her and everyone she meets.  She plays the kindly old woman who “ain’t doing anybody any harm.”  Society, like whiny Red Sammy, plays the patient, eye-rolling patron who puts up with her because, after all, she is a good woman.  This describes the modern relationship between the church and the world.  The church is kindly and means no harm.  Therefore, the world is patient because, although the church is misguided and fussy, she does bring a moral goodness to the world.  So just put her in the back seat and leave her be.  Yet, things will not stay this way.  The “cat gets out of the bag.”  When Pitty Sing escapes from the grandmother’s purse, causing the car to crash, everything changes.  The Misfit is about to burst on the scene.

The Misfit, like Parker in “Parker’s Back,” is a prophetic anti-prophet.  The big difference is this: Parker avoids being a prophet by trying to run away from God, the Misfit avoids being a prophet by going to war with God.  The Misfit will disqualify himself by attacking God and trying to make God hate him.  We get the sense that the Misfit wants to believe in Jesus.  He wants to believe that Jesus is God and he wants to believe that Jesus is good.  But, he has never found any proof. When speaking about Jesus to the grandmother, the Misfit says,

“It ain’t right I wasn’t there (at the Resurrection) because if I had of been there I would of known…If Christ did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” 

Again, the Misfit wants to believe in Christ, but he wasn’t there to see the empty tomb and he refuses to believe in anything that he can’t measure, or see or touch.  Yet, in his estimation, the idea of Christ confused everything.  It turned everything upside down.  The whole issue of Christ is a primary irritation in his life.  He wants to believe, and in one sense, he does believe.  Yet, he cannot allow this belief because it requires blind faith.  And so, his solution is a showdown.  He will go to war with this supposed God.  He will flush Him out of hiding.  If there is a God, then He must prove Himself to the Misfit by stopping his murderous rampage.  If Christ is indeed God, the Misfit will throw away everything and follow him.  If He is not God, the Misfit will go out in blaze of inglorious meanness and murder.

So here is the Misfit, killing and murdering and searching for some evidence that Christ is who he says he is.  At the end of the story, we find this murderous anti-prophet in the presence of the church – the Grandmother – needing some tangible indication that the Gospel is valid, that the Gospel is true, that it is good. Yet, all the grandmother can manage is to try to manipulate, to try to prove the validity of her own existence.  In the face of the murderous Misfit, she grasps at self-preservation by playing the same game that she has always played – I’m a good woman. I don’t mean any harm to anybody.  You don’t want to kill a kindly old lady.  But, in her pleading, the Grandmother unintentionally stumbles upon the one thing that resonates with the Misfit – Jesus…the Gospel.  She doesn’t intend it to preach the Gospel.  In fact O’Connor says that the way she mutters the name of Jesus, “sounded as if she may be cursing” but she mutters it just the same.  She exclaims, “If you would pray…Jesus would help you!”  It is clear that this is merely an act of desperation on her part.  The Grandmother’s religion is entirely of the lip-serving variety. “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead,” she mutters, for it hardly makes any difference to her, one way or the other.  In the midst of the blood-bath that has engulfed her family, she is only concerned with her survival. The fact that Bailey, his wife, and their children now lie dead nearby seems to have as little meaning for her as the divinity of Jesus.  They both are irrelevant.  The Gospel was simply one of many things in her “I am a good person” goodie-bag.  Yet, the Gospel is there. And she preaches it.  She preaches it from bad intentions. She preaches it poorly.  Like Jonah of old, she preaches it as a curse instead of a blessing.  She uses Jesus as a bargaining chip.  But in the end, the Gospel is still preached.  And unexpectedly, it takes hold of her.  She can’t help it.  At this moment of crisis, the Gospel begins to melt her icy heart toward the Misfit.  At her moment of grace, the Gospel changes her view of herself and her view of the Misfit.  She and the Misfit are no longer on opposite sides.  She does not see herself as good and the Misfit as evil.  They are one.

As the Grandmother reaches out to touch the Misfit on the shoulder she says, “Why you’re one of my babies,” she says.  “You’re one of my own children!” And indeed he is one of her babies, for as she touches the Misfit, he is bitten by the Gospel.  O’Connor described this final gesture as an “action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul” (Mystery and Manners 113).  She adds,

“…however unlikely this may seem, 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 (Mystery and Manners 113).”

When the Grandmother touched him, the Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and he shot the Grandmother three times through the chest.”  The response of the Misfit is hostile, immediate, and explosive.  The Grandmother has her moment of grace and at the same time that the Misfit has his.  The righteous and the unrighteous must come to the Cross the same way – not by their own efforts, but by Grace.  They must be bitten.  Or they must be shot.  In either case, Christ must subdue them by His Grace.  So now, at this moment of grace, the Misfit becomes the prophet and his first sermon to the church is resolute.  He fires three bullets into her heart, symbolically announcing the arrival of the Triune God.  The Gospel has arrived in full force.  Eerily, after this moment of salvation, the Misfit takes a moment to clean his glasses (the prophet can finally see).  He looks at the grandmother and says, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”  Now, the Misfit is that somebody.  He has been touched by the Holy Spirit.  He has been bitten by the Gospel. He is no longer a “missed fit.”  He knows his place.  He knows his role.  There is no turning back.  The Misfit is compelled to shoot the Grandmother with grace just as a prophet is called to preach the gospel to the Church.  So just like the Apostle Paul, the Misfit was a murderous god-hater, but now he is a prophet of God.  In order to make her truly good, the Misfit is now called to preach the unadulterated Gospel into the very heart of the church of Jesus Christ.  And with clear vision and a true faith, preach it, he will.

9 thoughts on ““A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor

  1. Tim, I have never read the story, but until grandma was finally touched by the Holy Spirit, the story reminded me very much of the parable of the prodigal son, or actually, The Prodigal God. She was very much an elder brother, and Misfit seems to be the younger brother. Thanks for your insights! I definitely want to read the book, now.

    Mango

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  2. Thanks for posting this. I hadn’t thought of the actual shooting being a grace-filled gospel. I had thought grace for the grandmother was her recognition that he was one of her “babies.” But the fact that there were three shots must be significant. Something to chew on. Thanks again.

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    • Yeah, I think the three shots to the chest was a definite symbol, especially in light of O’Connor’s commentary on the story. The Misfit’s bite and the Grandmother’s gunshots to the chest was a symbolic gesture of salvation for each. The Rebel and the Pharisee both need a shocking moment of awakening that reveals their sin, reveals their Savior, and brings them to salvation. O’Connor says that this is a parable of grace and redemption and she applies that perspective to the Grandmother as well as the Misfit. Many were critical of O’Connor’s treatment of the grandmother, not only because of the shooting at the end, but also because of how she subtly etched the wicked irony and evil intentions of the grandmother’s inward character. Answering this criticism, O’Connor says, “(People do not like my treatment of the grandmother) because they all had grandmothers or great-aunts just like her at home, and they knew, from personal experience, that the old lady lacked comprehension, but (they believed) that she had a good heart…The Southerner is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and he knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit (Mystery and Manners 1110).” This statement reveals much about O’Connor’s intentions in writing the story. Flannery had no respect for the church’s tendency toward self-preservation nor did she have any tolerance for the church’s tendency toward self-righteousness. In fact, these are the two manifestations of the grandmother’s corrupt character that are most evident – self-preservation and self-righteousness. In order to receive a grace leading to salvation, both idols must be broken, and in the end, they both are.

      On the other side of the parable, the Misfit possess a completely different manifestation of sin than the grandmother. His twin idols are self-destruction and nihilism. The Grandmother believes that she can save herself. The Misfit believes that there is no salvation. The Grandmother has faith in her own personal goodness. The Misfit has no faith in anyone’s goodness. In fact, he rejects the ideas of faith and goodness altogether. The Grandmother believes she belongs at the center of life in order to preserve and bring goodness to the world. The Misfit believes that he belongs at the center of life in order to destroy and tear apart. At the end of the day, both the Grandmother and the Misfit are wrong. There is someone bigger who is at the center of life. Someone who is good, loving, and able to bring redemption. Jesus Christ is at the center. Ironically, the Misfit and the Grandmother unintentionally preaches the Gospel of Christ to the other. And as the Gospel is preached by one, it unhinges the other. The Gospel bites the Misfit, infusing him with life. He is not a Misfit, he is a child of God. The Gospel shoots the Grandmother, humbling her with compassion. She is not her own deliverer, Christ is her Messiah. She must listen to Him.

      As we observe the story from a distance, we should acknowledge that it maintains the same two characters as the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger rebellious Prodigal is like the Misfit. The self-righteous older brother is like the Grandmother. Both the younger and the older are eaten up with sin. And just like in that parable, both the Rebel and the Pharisee need salvation. The Misfit needs to be saved from hopeless self-hatred. The Grandmother needs to be saved from compassionless self-righteousness. Again, this is an ironic reality. The irony is not just in the simultaneous salvation experiences. But the means by which this grace comes is also ironic. In regard to the preaching of the Gospel, it is often the broken and compassionate Pharisee who is the best preacher to the unbelieving Rebel. And it is the authentic and inappropriate Rebel who is the best preacher to the unbelieving Pharisee. We see this clearly in this story. When the Grandmother truly preaches the Gospel instead of Law, she will do so only in as much as she overcomes self-preservation and self-righteousness. The Pharisee preaches the gospel when all pretense has been shattered and she is moved by compassion. And this penetrates the Rebel. This miracle of compassion ‘stings’ him. It shakes him up. On the other hand, when the Misfit truly preaches the Gospel instead of Nihilism, he will do so only is as much as he overcomes hopelessness and self-destruction. The Rebel preaches the gospel dark thoughts subside and he is moved by hope. And this penetrates the Pharisee. This miracle of hope ‘explodes’ through her pride. The Pharisee is susceptible to gospel hope. The Rebel is susceptible to gospel compassion. And in the story, this is what happens. The Grandmother discovers compassion. The Misfit discovers hope. And at that moment, the grace breaks through. The Gospel is received. Christ brings life to them both.

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      • My brother, my Son …. In all my years and wondering’s I’ve never
        encountered anyone who could find so many ways to present/preach the glorious Gospel……

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  3. I’ve always thought the misfit was a loose symbol for Christ Himself. How can I say a murderer is a symbol for Christ? The misfit (weren’t there two others with him?: Trinity?) was interpreted through the perception of the real misfits: grandmother and co. And God was made in their image: nice, grandfather-type, etc. But God is more a William Wallace type, flooding the Earth, having holy jealousy, leading warriors to conquer the promised land, doing epic, Book of Revelation stuff. If I went to the English, they’d say Wallace was a murdering savage (remember that scene?). But if you went to his friends, he is a warrior poet fighting for our freedom. So, when the real misfits meet The Misfit, he is not what they expect at all, because they’ve made God in their own image, made Christianity in their own image. The Misfit tests their preconceptions through a sort of Socratic Irony, where he goes along with the preconception to test the Grandmother (like the sort of conversation Jesus had with the woman at the well: he doesn’t come right out and say it – he lets his identity remain hidden for the first chunk of the conversation). The Grandmother wants to make him one of her babies. The shooting scene was a sort of ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ symbol: the mercy kill, symbolic of final judgment in Hell. The 3 shots could represent the Trinity, perhaps. So, in my interpretation (it could be way off) is that The Misfit is only a misfit because we view him through the eyes of real misfits. What do you think? Love ya!

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    • Matt, you make excellent points and I think it is viable to see the Misfit as messianic. Yet, for me, the symbols work best through the lens of an older brother/younger brother paradigm as in the parable of the prodigal son. The Grandmother is a picture of the lost self righteous religious person and the Misfit is a picture of the lost self denigrating irreligious person. Both are in need of salvation. Both are unintentional prophets to the other. That’s my take. There are certainly a number of other lenses to look through. Good to hear from you bro. I miss you!

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  4. I’d like to point out that Flannery O’ Connor was not just a “Christian” author, but specifically, a Catholic one. She was “catholic” by BOTH definitions: little “c” catholic, meaning “universal”; and big “C” catholic, meaning Roman Catholic. I offer this perspective for my Protestant friends, especially my most Fundamental brothers and sisters who prefer to reject “Papist” theology. Many of the very profound authors, like O’ Connor, Chopin, Welty, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis were (Roman) Catholic. While the Roman Church considers us all brethren who agree on most issues, many Protestants refute that claim. If those are your views, perhaps you will enjoy reading another author. Ad Majorem Dei,
    Summer Frost

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    • C.S. Lewis was Anglican! Excuse the exclamation point, but me and Lewis are bros. lol.

      “Owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, at the age of 32 Lewis returned to the Anglican Communion, becoming “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England”.[1]

      Luv ya!

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