Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a 1955 short story about a road trip in the South. It is about the relationship between an acerbic grandmother and her family. It is about flawed perspectives and how talking about a moral life is different from living it. It is also the best short story I’ve ever read. Here’s why:
For starters, I immediately reread it with the urgency of Robert Langdon uncovering secrets in the Da Vinci Code—except I didn’t have Tom Hanks’ hairpiece (zing!). I remember it now: it was for a college-level literature class and I was performing the usual “I don’t really want to dig in deep because I’ve got too much shit to do, so I’m going to read the topic sentence of each paragraph and then write my report.” The error in my judgement became clear as soon as I skimmed toward the end, and spoiler alert: an escaped killer murders an entire family while they are on a road trip in the South.
With such a revelation, I had to go back through the text, trace the story to the climax, and then analyze the subtext surrounding the murders of the main characters. As far as entertainment experiences go, it reminded me of one evening in my youth when my father was excited to rewatch the 1978 Franklin J. Schaffner film, “The Boys from Brazil.” I mind you that this was a film I had never seen, so was likewise excited to watch it if only to understand my father’s elation. But then at some point during the day—long before we ever watched the movie together—and for no discernible reason, my father blurted out, “THEY ARE CLONING LITTLE HITLERS!”
I never forgave him for that.
But, on the upside, I really wanted to figure out who was cloning little Hitlers and why they were cloning them, just as I wanted to figure out why the character of The Misfit in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” murders an entire family roadside with little compunction. The why in this instance is much harder to understand if you only give the story a surface-level reading. That is because “A Good Man is Hard to Find” works thematic layers in such a way that each of its main characters, from grandma to the Misfit, has a moral standpoint driving them to their ultimate outcome; and, the irony in their existence pushes the theme forward without interfering with the core components of the story. As such, you can read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and not look at the story thematically and still enjoy it for what it is, even if you consider it a simple piece of outlandish satire. On the other hand, digging deep reveals a tale of American idealism and the faux belief systems that some individuals possess which conflict with the reality of their own lives.
These ideas fill its core and begs the question: what does it really mean to live a moral life?
That is, if you live one way, and yet espouse the virtuous nature of a bygone era, and yet seemingly never employ those virtues into the reality of your own life, then surely your over-moralism has led you astray. On the contrary, if you are a killer, who punishes and murders people as it relates to your own code, then your morals are more pure, abhorrent of course, but you live by your code of ethics, which is a more honest life.
Case in point: dialogue from the grandmother, who early in the story attempts to beat her son over the head with the grand mistake he is about to make by venturing with his family to Florida
Grandmother: “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.”
But when faced with critical examination from one of her grandchildren (John Wesley), she says that:
Grandmother: “You ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad,”
John Wesley: If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?”
It is a perfectly reasonable question, but it underlies the constant moralization of the grandmother, that she knows better than the family, even though:
Narration: “The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go.”
Yes, she claims to know better than her son and tells him that he is making a mistake but ignores even her own bitter rationalization and is one of the most excited of the group to leave for the road. We also find some of O’Connor’s truly genius writing in this section when one of the children mentions, “She has to go everywhere we go.” Considering the entire family dies, including the grandmother, this is truly portentous indeed, because, in the end, she really does go where they go—to the grave.
So, who lives the more morally sound life? Is it the grandmother who demeans her family and waxes nostalgic about her childhood home, about when men were good, and about how it is difficult to find those good men anymore? Or, is it The Misfit, who does not necessarily kill indiscriminately, but in a way that “No Country for Old Men’s” Anton Chigurh might approve. Grandma draws you into her make-believe world with what she perceives as her own truth; yet, she is unable to critically analyze herself in any meaningful way, which leads to a disconnect between her perceived character and who she actually is in people’s eyes. A “true lady” she claims to be, but a “true lady” she is not. Cognitive dissonance at its finest.
The Misfit, meanwhile, may be evil, but he is living by his convictions in an honest and true manner, rather than living by the idea of his ideals. In other words, he is not a social justice warrior interested in exercising moral superiority rather than pursuing real social progress; nay, he lives by what he feels the truth is and that makes him more honest and more principled as opposed to only professing to live an honest and idealistic life.
Here is an exchange between The Misfit and the grandmother toward the end of the story, which shows the grandmother attempting to give up her own morals to save herself from certain death:
The Misfit: “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
Grandmother: “Jesus! 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!”
The Misfit: “Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”
After the climax of the story, which involves the Misfit shooting the grandmother in the chest three times, he has the following exchange with fellow gang member Bobby Lee. These final lines of the story are a good example of the dichotomy of belief systems portrayed in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as The Misfit has willfully murdered an entire family and now discusses an aspect of killing that differs from the other members of his gang:
Bobby Lee: “She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
The Misfit: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Bobby Lee: “Some fun!”
The Misfit: “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.”
One’s surface-level examination of this story might yield a false takeaway, that The Misfit and his gang are remorseless killers on a road trip of murderous debauchery; and, though they are, there is a difference between Bobby Lee’s reasons for killing and The Misfit’s: Bobby Lee kills for the fun, while The Misfit kills for his moral standpoint. The Misfit isn’t an archetypal villain per say; rather, he is a multifaceted sociopath who has established an existence through questioning the basic tenants that the grandma lives by—faith, nostalgia, and perceptions of moral superiority—because these things don’t exist in The Misfit’s mind, and, even if they did, they don’t matter, because he lives by his code of conduct, his own moral compass, and his own way of doing things, which, one can argue—as I am attempting to do—is a truer way to live, but not necessarily a good one.
With all of that in mind, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is not just some vapid, violent story riffing on the satirical nature of the family unit, but, rather, it is a morally intriguing tale examining people’s ethics and virtues compared to their true selves. Certainly it was a relevant story when it was written, and it is certainly still a relevant story today.