A story is written to convey a message because otherwise, it would serve no purpose. Sometimes, the author chooses to reveal the message straightforwardly and realistically. However, the author decides to take a more symbolic approach so that the story’s message will be more memorable. For example, author Flannery O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic whose stories often contained religious messages. In one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which was first published in 1955, O’Connor uses a popular literary device known as an allegory. Allegories are a perfect way to explore morality through the symbolic use of characters, language and action.
In O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a religious allegory is used to determine how good and evil are actually distinguished in the Christian faith. In the story, a grandmother, along with her son and his family, is embarking on a brief vacation. Despite the escape of a dangerous murderer from a Florida prison, the grandmother suggests they take a detour to visit an old family homestead, which may be symbolic of a leader being led astray. The grandmother represents the old-time Christian value system. She resents the changes in morality and blames them on the troubles of the world.
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While stopped along the road so that the son can change a flat tire, the family is accosted by a group of men whose leader is referred to only as The Misfit. Thus, the stage was set for a classic allegory of good and evil, with the name of The Misfit symbolizing a black sheep who has veered away from the spiritual flock. While his men are killing her family, one by one, the grandmother is engaging in a dialogue with The Misfit, which sometimes resembles that of a sinner confessing his sins to his priest. When The Misfit explained, “I never was a bad boy that I remember of… but somewhere along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the prison.
I was buried alive”, the grandmother responds, “That’s when you should have started to pray… If you would pray… Jesus would help you”. At this point in the allegory, O’Connor demonstrates how people often turn to religion during times of trouble. The Misfit seems to think that his imprisonment has robbed him of any goodness or redeemable characteristics. In other words, from his perspective, a sinner cannot be redeemed, which is why evil continues to be perpetuated. Later, The Misfit observes, “I found out the crime doesn’t matter. You can do one thing, or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it”.
Again, The Misfit is suggesting that the critical aspects of Christianity contribute to evil because punishment is inevitable. If redemption is impossible, punishment is no longer a deterrent but accepted as nothing more than a consequence for an action. Then, the allegory considers whether or not there is an afterlife. Naturally, the Christian religion has steadfastly maintained that all good souls will be rewarded by being resurrected, just as Jesus was. The Misfit remarked, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead… I wish I had of been there… It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there, I would of known”.
Here is an essential key to unlocking the mystery of The Misfit. For him, seeing is believing. He has never seen anybody being raised from the dead, so he kills people to determine whether or not it’s possible. If he sees one of the people he has slaughtered miraculously brought back to life, then resurrection would be a verifiable fact. Then, perhaps, there would be some hope for The Misfit as well. Besides, killing good people really isn’t a crime, because they’ll be brought back to life in another incarnation anyhow.
There is an interesting shift in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when the grandmother, after hearing the blood-curdling screams of her family members, realizes that she is only moments away from death. Suddenly, it is she who is face to face with the Grim Reaper, and it is she, not the Misfit, who is forced to seek redemption. After all, she is the same woman who was quick to pass judgment on anything that was foreign to her or seemingly contrary to her beliefs. It was this supposedly good Christian woman who had just remarked a few hours before, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust… And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody”.
Now, it was the grandmother’s Judgment Day. Here, O’Connor seems to be questioning the nature of goodness. Is a good Christian someone who has the Bible memorized, but yet constantly makes value judgments about people? Is a good Christian someone who attempts to wipe his spiritual slate clean by going to church on Sunday morning after getting drunk and disorderly on Saturday night? The Misfit is, certainly, a bad person, considering all the people he has senselessly murdered, but he has never claimed to be otherwise.
There seems to be certain hypocrisy associated with Christian fundamentalism, which is evident throughout “A Good Man is Hard to find.” The grandmother is frequently applying the labels of good and bad on people, but does she actually know the difference between the two? When she invoked the name of Jesus, as O’Connor wrote, “The way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing”. While pleading for her life, she cried, “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”.
Suddenly, the grandmother achieves insight, just before death. She sees the error of her judgmental ways, and her attitude toward The Misfit changes. Now, she is not attempting to convert him through prayer but is moved by compassion toward this troubled soul, in the true spirit of Christian charity. When she reaches out to touch him, just as Jesus did when healing the sick, the grandmother says in a soothing voice, “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” It is at this moment when she welcomed the spirit of God into her heart that the grandmother was fatally shot in the chest three times.
At the conclusion of her allegorical tale, Flannery O’Connor implies that there is religious salvation in the end. The grandmother did not achieve this through her Bible reading or churchgoing but in an intimate moment of human interaction. She had, in the final moments of her life, finally been saved, having, at last, learned the difference between good and evil, with the suggestion being that this realization only occurs at the moment of death. In a chilling observation, The Misfit noted of the grandmother, “She would have been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”.
- O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyer, R.V. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins’. Pg 327-338