A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the most outstanding works of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose blood-chilling stories confront the usual stereotypes about religion, the good and the evil. Indeed, in A Good Man is Hard to Find O’Connor condemns the conventionalism of religion and proclaims victory over Catholic dogma. In the story, religion serves as an instrument of social criticism exposing the society of strangers and portraying the collapse of ‘neighborly’ ties between people in modern American social life. This paper hypothesizes that literary means used in the story help to create the atmosphere of hypocrisy the Bailey family lives in and serve to bring the author’s message about.
The story depicts a family – Grandma, her son Bailey, his wife and three children – who set on a journey from Atlanta to Florida. The grandmother is aware that a dangerous criminal – the Misfit – is roaming about the area but nevertheless she does not cancel the trip. In fact, grandmother’s interests revolve around the outer entourage of the trip. It is important for her to look like a lady and to be perceived as a good person, while she does not mind the danger her family is likely to be exposed to at her whim. Her definition of what it means to be “good” is symbolized by her very correct travel outfit. O’Connor writes: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (3). Thus, with the help of lexis, the author conveys the fact that goodness, for the Bailey family, is narrowed down to following certain norms accepted in the society.
The language used by the author serves to convey this idea. The author narrates the story in the third person and, at the same time, gives glimpses of Grandmother’s inner world using phrases as ‘she thought’, ‘she believed’. The descriptions are very detailed and convey the idea that the façade, the dogma is more important to Grandmother that the inner world. The language Grandmother uses is high-flowing; thus, she begs the Misfit not to shoot a ‘lady’, names Mr. Teagarden a ‘gentleman’ which shows the importance of outer societal stances and ‘norms’ adopted in the society. While speaking of a lady does not seem adequate in the context of killing, the use of this word depicts how far from the reality Gradma’s dogma is. Grandmother does not treat killing as an ultimate evil, but perceives it as a matter of etiquette, something which should not be done not because of its moral value but due to its societal inappropriateness.
The Misfit’s language sharply contrasts that of Grandmother’s; his sentences are rasp and short; the words and grammar he uses may be incorrect but understandable. This mode of speech characterizes him as a man who looks behind the façade and to whom it is more important what is said than how it is said. Thus, the author characterizes him as a person who “is going to be into everything” (O’Connor 10). He is not a usual villain in the sense that his tries to understand God, the nature of sin and his own place in the world.
As the language of the characters is contrasted, so there is a sharp contrast of what they stand for. While Grandmother with her high-flowing language may be seen as a symbol of hypocrisy and dogma, the Misfit, on the contrary, is seen a person who finally defeats the conventionalism and the dogma. He crushes the outer façade of conventions revealing their true essence and confirming the fact that true feelings are more important than the outer decorum. Killing all the family, he actually kills all the family stands for: focus on material values, hypocrisy and outer entourage.
While the story is narrated in a descriptive style and nothing seems to predict the bloody denouement, there are symbols in the texts that point to the opposite. Thus, the Misfit comes in “a big black battered hearse-like automobile”; and hearse-like automobiles are used in burials for carrying corpses (O’Connor 9). The driver “look[s] down with a steady expressionless gaze”, the phrase that can be associated with death, since death messengers are usually portrayed as black-hooded figures, expressionless and unemotional (O’Connor 9). Furthermore, “the Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again”, the process that copies burial on a small scale (O’Connor 9). The journey undertaken by the Bailey family can be seen as personification of journey from life towards death. The author speaks about “the sharp curves on dangerous embankments” that symbolize the difficulties of life (O’Connor 6). On the road the family passes six graves, equal to the number of people in the Bailey family. Finally, the family arrives “in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them” (O’Connor 6). The imagery here represents cemetery where corpses lie under the trees watching over them.
The theme of heaven as opposed to hell is also revealed through a wide use of imaginary in the story. The author speaks about “silver-white sunlight” usually associated with heaven; Grandmother mentions Jesus as she realizes her life is doomed (O’Connor 6). On the face of it, the Bailey family, religious and sticking to conventions, should symbolize goodness, while the Misfit who kills them is a villain, but the story goes beyond such simplicities. In fact, portraying the family’s reverence for material things as opposed to inner beauty, their sense of superiority over others as well as their infamous end, O’Conner shows them worthy of their fate. The Misfit, vise versa, is seen as the angel of death. The very fact that “[the Misfit’s] face was as familiar to [Grandmother] as if she had known him all her life” can be construed as association with God or Heaven (O’Connor 9). Usually, it is the face of Jesus that can be described this way. This allusion is further supported by the fact that though the Misfit kills the family he gets no pleasure from the action. To him, it is some kind of duty he performs by putting an end to hypocrisy, superiority and the dogma.
In her story A Good Man is Hard to Find, O’Connor aptly uses imagery to convey her idea to the reader. The literary means used in the text unfold in two planes. The first plane centers around the imagery that portrays the base values of the Bailey family, their dogma, greediness and the outer decorum they seem to value. The second plane includes imagery portraying ‘heaven to hell’ contrast, symbolized by Grandmother and the Misfit respectively. This second plane is enriched by symbols that point to the bloody end of the story, where death is seen not as a tragedy but a liberation from dogmas and conventions imposed on the society.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find: And Other Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955.