Fourth Edition, November 2011
259: Best Essays in Literary Theory
2nd Place Winner
Feminist Analysis of Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
Flannery O'Connor's 1955 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” shows a family vacation that quickly meets a violent end by a criminal known as “The Misfit.” As the title suggests, the men in this story are short-tempered, sexist, and at worst, murderers. Although a good man in this story is hard to find, O’Connor ultimately shows “The Misfit” to be a tragic character, and the tale becomes the story of the redemption of the grandmother at the hand of this violent criminal. Many allow the violence of the story to highlight the purest moment of the Grandmother, however, the redemption story throws a shadow on the story’s treatment of women. The female characters in this story conform to a patriarchal view of how a woman should act, and the story’s conclusion suggests that woman must be redeemed, and woman can only be guided to redemption with help from “a good man.”
Readers see the use of traditional gender roles right from the start of the story. According to Lois Tyson in Critical Theory Today, these gender roles “cast men as rational, strong, protective and decisive; [and] cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (Tyson 85). We see woman's heavy reliance on man when O'Connor describes the Grandmother's living conditions, “Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy”(O’Connor 678). This line suggests that while the Grandmother has other children, because Bailey is the only male, she sees him as being the one to provide her with a proper living situation; none of her female children can provide for her like a man. The grandmother is a “patriarchal woman” – “ a woman who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy” (Tyson 85). Women are perceived as being “irrational” and “emotional” early in the story. In opposition to the Florida trip, a possible location of The Misfit, the grandmother tells Bailey: “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”(O’Connor 678, my italics). The Grandmother appeals to emotions, how she will feel if something happens, not the logical process of the chances they might run into The Misfit. In addition, the mother has all the attributes and virtues rewarded within patriarchy – she is selfless, self-sacrificing, nurturing, and unassuming. The mother performs stereotypical tasks of a wife and mother, “feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar” (O’Connor 678). Again we see that women are subservient to men, always relying on him, or serving him. In this sort of (patriarchal) family, it is no surprise then that the boy, John Wesley, has learned “male privilege” early on, and he disrespects his grandmother, saying: “If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?”
Although still a boy, John Wesley has no respect for his elders, and does not see his Grandmother as an equal; his status as a male allows him to talk to her however he likes. John Wesley shows more traditional male behavior when the grandmother asks him what he would do if The Misfit caught him. John Wesley replies, “I'd smack his face,” giving the idea no thought, and immediately jumping to the macho, masculine response of violence (O’Connor 678). John Wesley shows more chauvinistic, male behavior in the car, when he cannot let his sister win a simple game based on cloud shapes. He lies to her and becomes physically aggressive. He would rather fight and argue than admit loss to a girl. John disguises his insecurity at the loss by becoming angry and aggressive, “behaviors associated with patriarchal manhood” (Tyson 88). John’s behavior reveals his social programming into dominant masculinity. His case shows the case of “gendering,” which Tyson describes as: “raising a child to conform to his or her traditional gender role both socially and psychologically” (Tyson 114). His disrespectful attitude towards women (his grandmother and his sister,) and his violent attitude at such an early age, reveal his gendering.
The Grandmother’s class and race pretensions are exposed, and she appears smug and self-complacent. She performs notions of Southern femininity, as she dresses from head to toe in white to appear as lady-like as possible. She wears “white cotton gloves...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 collar and cuffs were white organdy...In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady”(O’Connor 679). Being a “patriarchal woman,” she has bought the patriarchal ideology that women are to be looked at and appreciated in the male gaze. She is obsessed with keeping herself on the pedestal of a traditional, proper woman. The Grandmother chooses to dress this way so anyone they encounter will be assured that they are witnessing someone with “good blood.”
During the car ride, the Grandmother shows the superficiality of her “good blood,” through her hypocritical nature. The Grandmother’s use of deception sends readers the message that even prim and proper women can be sneaky and deceitful. The text depicts women as manipulative, through the Grandmother, as she hides the family cat in the car, against the wishes of her son. Again the Grandmother uses her emotions to guide her decisions, justifying to herself that the cat “would miss her too much” (O’Connor 678). Midway through the Grandmother's rant about her time when, “children were more respectful of...their parents and everything else,” she points to an African American child standing in the streets, exclaiming “Oh look at that cute little pickaninny!” When June Star points out the child has no pants, the Grandmother feels no sympathy; instead, she finds it quaint, explaining “Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture.” The Grandmother is exposed as racist and heartless. She has more sympathy for their cat, who might have missed her, than a human child, too poor to own pants. Moreover, when the children get out of hand, she tells a racist story to entertain them, providing more detail to her hypocritical behavior. The grandmother – a product of the American South – is revealed as a conservative and traditionalist when it comes to both gender and race.
In the granddaughter June Star’s response to the story, we see further evidence of gender as a construct. While John Wesley finds the story funny, June Star is offended. However, June is not offended by the story’s racism. Instead, she reveals her own pettiness when she responds that she “wouldn't marry a man that just brought her a watermelon.” We now have two out of three female characters who apparently care more about “sign-exchange value” (through cultivating an appearance and articulating ideas of what constitutes a proper courting gift,) than decency toward fellow humans. Solidifying this idea, the Grandmother tells June Star that she would have been lucky to marry the man from the story, because “he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out...and had died...a very wealthy man.” The Grandmother doesn't describe what activity this character does to deserve the title of a “gentleman,” but she certainly makes a point of mentioning his wealth. Through this story that the Grandmother tells, she is socializing her granddaughter into appropriate gender roles – “men are wealthy rescuers responsible for making their women happy ‘ever after’” (Tyson 88). June Star is learning a valuable lesson in her gendering process – that woman should be taken care of by an economically well-to-do man, that men are primary breadwinners and providers for the family.
The female characters are not even named; the privilege of naming is reserved for the men of the story. They are referred to as the Grandmother, the children's mother, and the women. The only female character referred to by name is June Star, the child. Even such a minor male character as Red Sam, the owner of The Tower Filling Station and Dance Hall, is named. The Misfit, while not truly named, gets something more than simply The Man. Even the Misfit’s henchmen, who appear briefly, have names: Hiram and Bobby Lee. In contrast, female characters, who we have seen since the beginning of the story, do not receive the same treatment as male characters. This affects how both the audience and the characters respond to the murders at the end of the story. Bailey and his son are the first into the woods, and shot by The Misfit's henchmen. Bailey's death resonates most deeply with the family. His mother demands that he “Come back this instant!” and cries out for him as he goes towards the forest. When the children's mother is asked to “step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband,” the Grandmother doesn't call for her at all, or beg The Misfit to have mercy for her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. The children's passive and submissive mother makes no attempt to resist, “her left arm dangle[s] helplessly,” as The Misfit's henchmen take her. She even seems grateful to go, as though she cannot exist without the support of her husband, and must follow these men to rejoin him. She demonstrates the “patriarchal concept of femininity – which is linked to frailty, modesty, and timidity” (Tyson 88). She thanks them as they take her to the forest, which for her means death.
As the Grandmother begins to comprehend the events that have taken place, understanding that she must share her family's fate, she cries to the heavens for help, asking not for God or the Virgin Mary, but for Jesus, who is frequently portrayed as a young, strong, white, man. When she implores The Misfit should turn to religion for help, again she excludes other deities, telling him, “Jesus will help you,” again suggesting that salvation will come through a powerful male figure.
A criticism of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” notes “O'Connor's penchant for depicting salvation through shocking, often violent experience undergone by characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque” (A Good Man.) Many critics agree that salvation is a major theme of the story, and while it does show the salvation of a morally corrupt figure, the portrayal of that salvation comes from a man committing the ultimate act of violence against a woman. The story leads readers to believe the Grandmother deserves to be shot because of her hypocrisy and stubbornness. The Misfit isn't exactly justified in his actions, but they seem less harsh because readers feel the Grandmother got her comeuppance. Flannery O'Connor describes The Grandmothers reaching out to The Misfit as her way of realizing, “that she is responsible for the man before her.” This quote suggests that the Grandmother essentially created The Misfit, and cannot expect any other response from him. T.W. Hendricks suggests that readers consider The Misfit, “not a monster, but a tragic figure, the victim of what O'Connor regarded as a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between humanity and God” (Hendricks). When we view The Misfit as a tragic figure, we must sympathize with his actions. If we see him as a victim, we take the blame off him for telling his henchmen to kill a family, and then killing an elderly woman himself. One of The Misfits final lines, “She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” summarizes the story’s message; it’s possible to find a good woman if there is a man to keep her in line (O’Connor 689).
Hendricks, T.W. "Flannery O'Connor's Spoiled Prophet." Modern Age: A Quarterly Review . (2009): Print.
O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The Art of the Short Story. Ed. Dana O’Connor. New York: Pearson, 2006. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today.
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