Inaugural Edition, December 2008

ENL 258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis

3rd Place Winner

Flannery O’Connor’s Duality in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Sara Kelley

Flannery O’Connor, the renowned Southern author, has earned the reputation of writing shocking, violent stories. Strangely, she uses this violence to depict salvation, often through spiritually or physically grotesque characters. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one of O'Connor's best-known stories, exemplifies this principle; a self-righteous grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer (the Misfit) who kills first her family and then her. This paper will discuss the emphasis critics place on the fulfillment of salvation in O’Connor’s stories, usually through the grandmother’s spiritual experience in this particular story. Indeed, the grandmother’s salvation experience is significant; however, I would like to suggest that perhaps critics should be paying more attention to an equally critical character, the Misfit, in order to analyze completely the spiritual aspects O’Connor intended the story to have. In this paper, I will first discuss the role that spiritual experiences play in O’Connor’s writing. Next, I will talk about critics’ general focus on the grandmother’s spiritual conversion in the story, followed by the significance of the Misfit’s rejection of God and his motive for doing so. The final point I will discuss is how the dual personality of O’Connor is portrayed through the two main characters of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Generally, critics focus on the importance of the exemplification and fulfillment of salvation in O’Connor’s works. One such critic, David Eggenschwiler, says, “O’Connor joins many excellent philosophers and theologians in assuming that man is a spiritual creature and that human problems cannot be adequately considered without regard to his full being” (73). This point is emphasized in most, if not all, of O’Connor’s stories, the writing of which allowed her to express her own religious convictions (Shinn 64). Critics tend to focus on characters that fulfill their salvation experiences because they must obviously be the ones O’Connor intended to highlight with the spiritual aspects of her stories: they reveal the simplicity of conversion. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” however, I believe that Flannery O’Connor intended for the spiritual aspect of the story to be addressed not only with the grandmother’s simple conversion, but also with the Misfit’s more complex rejection of salvation.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” most critics focus on the grandmother as the character on whom O’Connor intended to place the spiritual focus because she reaches spiritual awareness at the end of the story. Eggenschwiler reiterates, “O’Connor’s stories usually reach their climaxes and end with the violent beginnings of this new birth, or at least with the traumatic shock to the ‘old man’ that makes the birth of the ‘new man’ possible” (78). In the end of the story, the grandmother’s violent birth of the new man is quite literal. She experiences the birth of the new man into eternal life through her physical death. Her spiritual transformation from a self-sufficient woman to that of a praying woman dependent on Jesus peaks with her compassion for her murderer right before her physical death. She even suggests to the Misfit that he pray: “‘Well then, why don’t you pray?’ she asked trembling with delight suddenly” (O’Connor 373). This, the grandmother’s conversion experience, is indeed significant to the story’s meaning and purpose; therefore, the focus placed upon the grandmother by critics is justified. However, I believe more emphasis should also be placed on the Misfit because his spiritual experience is equally important to the complete meaning of the story.

One critic mentioned the fact that, “While everyone in the collection [of stories] may be looking for his own particular Jesus, that good man who is so very hard to find, few of them do more than stumble” (Hendin 62). The Misfit does not find Jesus through salvation in this story, though he does make a conscious decision to reject Him. He knows there is a choice to either throw away everything and follow Jesus or continue enjoying himself doing whatever he pleases, indeed worshipping himself (Friedman 97). He knows the cost of living for Jesus and chooses not to pay. He chooses instead to cling to his self-sufficiency, and says, “I don’t want no hep [sic]…I’m doing all right by myself” (O’Connor 373). Eggenschwiler suggests that the Misfit can clearly see the association between the grandmother and Jesus; he recoils from her touch—and her forgiveness—because of his adamant rejection and defiance of God (92). As a further act of rejection, he shoots the grandmother three times, a number sacred to religion because of its association with the trinity. The climax of O’Connor’s violence and the peak of the grandmother’s salvation experience (her new birth) occur in that moment: “She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor 375).

What motive could possibly have driven him to reject Jesus in such a violent and irreverent way? One critic suggests that self-love justified the Misfit’s rejection and that the murder gave him the illusion of power and freedom. His spiritual grotesqueness led him to violence, even murder (though his real conflict was with God, not the grandmother). He tries to hide his true character from himself, and in his attempt to be self-sufficient, he rejects the truth of life offered by Jesus. He then continues to do nothing except what pleases himself, because as he says:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead […] If He 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,” he said. (374)

As this critic says, “the ending of the story shows The Misfit falling away from God, as bitterness sinks the murderer into senselessness and anger hurls him into the spiritual ditch where he discarded his victims” (Gionnone 51).

Another aspect to be considered is how Flannery O’Connor portrayed herself through these two characters. One critic describes O’Connor as living almost a double life. She presented one side of herself as the “good,” uncompromising Catholic girl, the perfect daughter forced to suffer a life of sickness (Hendin 4). This portion of her life can be associated with the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her spirituality; it can be argued that O’Connor was representing herself in this story through that character.

However, the duality of O’Connor’s life begins when we consider her as an author, as this critic says, “the more enigmatic writer of those strange and violent tales” (Hendin 5). Just as the Misfit finds pleasure in killing an entire family in this story, so O’Connor appears to enjoy writing violent stories in which many characters are killed in varied grotesque manners. Therefore, I conclude that O’Connor’s duality in life is represented through both of these characters—the grandmother and the Misfit—in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The critic summarizes:

From the tension between these disparate selves—between O’Connor as Catholic daughter and O’Connor as writer—you begin to get some idea of the complexity of her character, a complexity she concealed so thoroughly that you are almost inclined to think that Flannery O’Connor’s greatest and most spontaneous fiction was her life. (Hendin 5)

I believe the spiritual events surrounding the Misfit are just as important as those happening to the grandmother. Most critics tend to focus merely on the fulfillment of salvation in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but this is too simple. That viewpoint almost reduces O’Connor’s genius in its assumption that such an obvious conversion could be her only intent to complete her own requirement of the spiritual element within this story. No, this great Southern writer must have intended for there to be a deeper experience. The rejection of God by the Misfit, his choice to rely on himself—this also qualifies as a consideration of the full being of a man as a spiritual creature, not just the grandmother’s conversion (Eggenschwiler 73). Therefore, the spiritual focus of the story must encompass both the grandmother and the Misfit, the two characters through which O’Connor represents herself in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” so that the complete spiritual meaning O’Connor intended for this story might be considered.


Works Cited
Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972.

Friedman, Melvin and Beverly Clark. Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor. Boston: G. K. Hall, c1985.

Giannone, Richard. Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Hendin, Josephine. The World Of Flannery O’Connor. London: Indiana University Press, 1972.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Norton Introduction to Literature: Shorter Ninth Edition. Booth, Alison, J. Hunger, and Kelly Mays. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2006. 364-375.

Shinn, Thelma. “Flannery O’Connor and the Violence of Grace.” Contemporary Literature: 58- 73. JSTOR. UMass Dartmouth. 12 Nov. 2006 <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.umassd.edu/>.

printer-friendly

back to top