“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor uses her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to demonstrate the transformative power of human compassion and grace. Transformations of the two character stereotypes, which are embodied by the grandmother and the Misfit, are used to get across the story’s message. By allowing the stereotypes to evolve into round characters with the potential to change, the author demonstrates that anyone can change through the presence of grace.
The grandmother represents the stereotypical southern, Christian, domineering mother who is often hypocritical and two-faced. She is flawed and annoying from the start, and more than anyone else, is responsible for the family’s dire predicament. While she considers herself a “lady” (2) and morally superior to others, she freely and frequently passes judgment on others without inspecting her own hypocrisy, selfishness and dishonesty. She criticizes the children’s mother for not traveling to a place that would allow the children to be “broad,” (1) and she compares the mother’s face to a cabbage. She chastises John Wesley for not being more respectful to his home state, Georgia. She also takes any opportunity to judge the lack of goodness in people. All the while, she appears prim and proper, wearing a carefully selected dress and hat. When the family gets into the accident, she opts not to reveal that she made a mistake about the location of the house with the secret panel. And when the Misfit systematically executes her family, the grandmother never once begs him to spare her family, but she pleads for her life when she sees her own turn coming.
The Misfit is portrayed as the stereotypical criminal and more specifically, an illiterate, violent hick – someone who has gone wrong in life. It is hard to empathize with him, especially after he kills the grandmother’s family in such a casual manner, as if he’s used to murder. The Misfit carries on a philosophical conversation with the grandmother, explaining that he doesn’t view actions as right or wrong, and that if he does something that others considers wrong, he gets punished, and that’s it. He acknowledges that praying to Jesus might save him, but he claims that he doesn’t need that kind of help. The Misfit’s attitude is in general apathetic toward any notion of morality. The Misfit and the grandmother both embody perfect candidates to receive grace, but surely, grace is intended for everyone.
Both characters, by the time of their final encounter, undergo deep transformations. Only when the grandmother is facing death does she realize where she has gone wrong in life. Instead of acting superior like she has throughout the story, she recognizes that she is flawed like everyone else. She sees that both her and the Misfit are the same at their core – they are sinners in need of grace. By seeing the murderer as “one of my [her] own children!” (15), the grandmother offers him unconditional love and acceptance that transcends what he deserves. In Christian terms, this ability to feel love for a person you should hate, even if only in an instant, is called grace, something understood to be from God. It redeems people by changing them from sinners to people of God. From the catholic worldview, the grandmother as a human being is inclined towards evil and selfishness, so she could never have come to feel such love without God’s help. The grandmother has grown more at the moment of her death than she ever did before in her life and dies peacefully with “her face smiling up at the cloudless sky” (15). As suffering is an essential part of receiving grace, the grandmother has made this journey from spiritual blindness to suffering, and thus, grace.
This recognition of shared humanity represents the grandmother’s sanest moment in the short story. As “her head clears for an instant” (14), she has been granted clarity and compassion before she dies. Not only does she redeem herself, but she seems to have affected some kind of change in the Misfit. In other words, this action of grace is not confined altogether to the grandmother but begins to undermine The Misfit’s own sadistic egotism. After he shoots her, The Misfit says about the grandmother that she would have been a good woman if he’d had been there “to shoot her every minute of her life” (15). The Misfit’s response shows that he recognizes her act as one of goodness, even though he reacted by killing her. At the end of the story, having previously claimed that the only pleasure in life was “meanness,” the Misfit now declares that violence and meanness are “no pleasure in life” (15). Killing the grandmother gave him no pleasure; instead it troubles him. In this way, grace has worked on the Misfit too, and this could mark the beginnings of a deep transformation for the Misfit. Grace beginning to enter the Misfit is hope for grace at large.
Both the grandmother and the Misfit are portrayed as their stereotypes throughout the story, but their final encounter changes them. The grandmother’s journey from spiritual blindness to the realization of her own sins allows her to affect hopeful change in even the most despicable, unrepentant character, the Misfit. The author of this short story purposefully uses the two character types represented by the grandmother and the Misfit to show that anyone can change, as both characters, to varying degrees, represent humanity in all of its sinfulness. Looking carefully at the final encounter in the story, grace, an incredibly important concept for Flannery O’Connor, is shown to operate in both of these characters, presenting them with a possibility of change. Change through the delivery of grace is possible in anyone, as story seems to suggest.