Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953) If you Google “great short stories,” or the syllabi of just about any high school or college short story course, this is one of the first tales you’ll spot on every list. O’Connor is, in a way, both over- and under- sung. Aside from “A Good Man,” there is little else by her that is regularly read or that could even be name-dropped. Who but her fans and well-read lit profs could name another work by O'Connor? It’s a shame, because she deserves to be read, and read more broadly.
And her most famous story might not send people in search of more. It’s not an easy story, either to read or to interpret. It certainly leaves ample room for teachers to draw students into discussion but, despite this fact, I am hard-pressed to say something meaningful about it, no matter how well I liked it. There is no key or legend that cracks it open cleanly, and perhaps it is the more satisfying for this fact.
We are introduced to a grandmother who begrudgingly accompanies her son Bailey Boy, his wife, and their three children, on a holiday from their Georgia home to Florida (she’d rather go to East Tennessee—and who wouldn’t?). The grandmother opens the story by complaining that an escaped murderer named The Misfit, who is still on the loose, is headed for Florida. One suspects right away that we will be running into him later.
We first see the family dynamic at home—the grandmother seems to be suffered by the family rather than loved—and the tone sounds like a darker and more profound version of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” complete with southern dialects (though here rendered in a more legible way than in Welty’s sing-song version). The next morning they all bundle into a car, with Grandma smuggling along her beloved cat, hidden in a hamper at her feet. En route to Florida, but still in Georgia, Grandma gets it into her head that they are near a plantation house she once visited in her youth.
She knows that if she asks to detour to see the house her son will refuse, so instead she mentions that the house had a secret panel, supposedly with a fortune in silver hidden during Sherman’s March. The children take the bait and proceed to harass their parents with requests to visit the house and seek out the panel, until Bailey Boy submits. They follow a dirt road that Grandma points out to them. Just as she begins to realize she’s gotten it confused, and that the house she remembered is actually in Tennessee, Grandma’s cat hops out of the hamper, latches onto Bailey Boy’s shoulder, and the car crashes.
To this point the mood had been lightly comic, about an elderly busy-body and her ill-mannered family, but now it turns darker. A car winds towards them on the horizon and three men step out, carrying guns. We immediately think that this is surely The Misfit, though it takes the family a bit longer to realize. Grandma blurts out that she recognizes him, and he replies that it would have been better for them if she had not. As Grandma converses with the wonderfully polite and self-reflective outlaw, his two associates escort first the males and then the females into the woods, and shots ring out each time.
It is a brutally drawn-out scene, in which the violence takes place “off-camera” in the woods while Grandma and The Misfit discuss the merits of Jesus, but the hopelessness of the scene makes it hard to read; it is gripping, pummeling. Grandma’s tactic is to reason with The Misfit, appealing to his good instincts and the fact that he comes from good people, but her entreaties and her invocation of Jesus do not sway the eloquent outlaw. The Misfit finally shoots Grandma after she reaches out to him, saying “you’re one of my babies.” When one of his men seems to enjoy himself while dragging off her corpse, the Misfit cuts him short saying, “it’s no real pleasure in life.”
What to make of the story? While it behooves a column like this to offer up an interpretation that “solves” the puzzle laid out by the author, there is no overt puzzle here and so no solution. It is simply a masterfully-written, engrossing story of bottled and uncorked violence and the humans who enact it. Though I may sound like a teacher cheating his students, go read the story, then tell me what you think. The other stories in this series have immediately made me think of what I wanted to say in this column. This one was so good, but somehow different, less of an enigma, so that I have little to say beyond how much I liked it.