It is for centuries past that the theme of death and salvation was encapsulated majestically in western literature. Also, it is for centuries that modern writers have refrained from the intervention of such topics into their pieces of work, condemning its solemn repetition and its obsoleteness. However, in 20th century American literature, Flannery O’Connor has revived the thematic significance of Christian salvation in which death occasionally gets involved. A devout Christian she is, O’Connor combines her profound religious knowledge with her Southern milieu, contemporary violence, and satiric sense of humour, which has emerged mostly in form of the short story, her most celebrated genre.
Published and re-published since 1955 is O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, throughout which her Christian beliefs have been meticulously patterned. Apart from other short stories that deal with the downfall of pride is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” whose major concern has been directed toward death and salvation and has been embodied with other minor concerns, such as adults’ influences upon children and changing values in American society. This short story contains many jaunty features that help depict Flannery O’Connor’s theme of death and salvation. O’Connor’s unique choice of narration allows the reader to interpret the thematic messages at different dimensions, to display the evils of adults’ world as well as to capture more clearly the psychological complexity in the protagonist’s mind.
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Using the intrusive third-person limited omniscient narrative, O’Connor introduces her heroine of the short stories along with her characteristics and her familial relationships. To begin with, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is viewed through the eyes of a talkative grandmother who, ignored by the rest of the family, relies on the “texts” to structure her reality. With no desire to go to Florida as well as the burning desire to visit east Tennessee, the grandmother in disguise of a good-hearted person refers to the newspaper article about the escaping Misfit and exclaims to her son Bailey, “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it”. It should also be noted that the article itself is a written text and, even though it refers to events outside and prior to the primary r’cit, it stands as an unrecognized prophecy of the latter event. At this stage, indeed, the Misfit does not represent a real threat to the grandmother but is just a ploy to get her own way. The grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is typified as talkative and manipulating. O’Connor’s highlighted portrayal of the grandmother is, in some way, associated with the image of an old, deceitful ‘witch’ with her hidden cat, Pitty Sing, and ‘her big black valise that [looks] like the head of a hippopotamus’. The head of a hippopotamus is an African sacrificial offering that is believed to placate the haunting spirits.
The reader is also acknowledged at the beginning of the story that the heroine is about to take a journey that she is apparently unwilling to. The grandmother is on the way to Florida with her family. On the way to death and salvation, O’Connor equips her stories with many picaresque elements in order to reflect the protagonist’s background as well as to illustrate the protagonist’s limited secular and religious knowledge. The grandmother’s behaviours in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” reemphasizes the fact that she is deceptive, a characteristic that will harm not only her family but also herself.
She, prior to the trip, has managed to sneak the cat-that ‘her son, Bailey, didn’t like to arrive at a motel with’-justifying her behaviour by imagining ‘[the cat] would miss her too much and, [fearfully,] he might brush himself against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Then, the grandmother reads fiction to the children, John Wesley and June Star, recounts them some ostensibly true stories, and provides a continual gloss on the physical world they are passing. “Little niggers in the country don’t have things as we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture”, or “Look at the graveyard! […] That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation.”
Further on, the conversation between the grandmother and Red Sam, in which they discuss “People are certainly not nice like they used to be”, unveils the truth that the older people are delusory about their own bad characteristics and unaware of the inheritance of such behaviours to their innocent descendants. To be specific, the grandmother bequeaths her superficiality that is exposed through her obsession with the ladylike image to June Star’s praise of materialism: her money-driven appearance, for instance.
The concrete evidence for the inheritance of Grandma’s characteristics is Bailey’s ‘yellow shirt with a bright blue parrot in it’, which is passed from hand to hand, from dead Bailey to the Misfit. The blue parrot is somewhat a reminiscence of O’Connor’s thoughtlessly talkative grandmother who is likewise in a navy blue dress that day. An aggressive, bossy person like Red Sam is, at the same time, responsible for militant John Wesley, who always uses forces to get his own way: “We’ll poke all the woodwork and find [the hidden silver]”. Some readers may look at the kids in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as an exaggeration as well as externalization of adults’ bad characters, the caricatures of adults’ bad manners.
Having prepared the ground for the protagonist’s cathartic moment, O’Connor then creates a critical moment for the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, which functions as a stimulus for the enlightenment of the central character. Having had an accident on the way to the ‘house with a secret panel’ and now encountering the Misfit, the grandmother is in the most crucial position that life offers the Christian; she is facing death. She does not really prepare for it and struggles to have the event postponed. Thus, she initiates the conversation with the Misfit, which allows her to contemplate with her own but unrecognized bad deeds and to realize, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her. O’Connor, before the moment of sudden awareness, lets her heroine digress through her false values.
The Grandma’s litany of convenient fictions involves class distinction: “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood”, and her shallowness: “You shouldn’t call yourself The Misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell”. The grandmother also asserts vaguely that redemption can be achieved through work: “You could be honest if you’d only try […] Think how wonderful it would be to settle down […] If you would pray […] Jesus will help you”. A hypocritical old soul she is, the grandma’s wits are no match to the Misfit’s. Her attempts are sterile; the killing of her family members continues in the ‘woods [that] gaped like a dark open mouth”.
At this point, the reader as well as the grandma has learned about the Misfit’s life profile and opinions in general. He is a ‘different breed of dog’ from his siblings, as his father says: “it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it, and its others have to know why it is, and this boy is one of the letters. He’s going to be into everything”. In fact, the Misfit seems to have been through everything from a gospel singer to a murderer. Unlike the Misfit, the grandmother never questions the mechanics of the universe-to ask herself why things are. This default puts the Misfit several cuts above the grandmother, who is just “afraid to miss something” and would rather choose to ‘settle down. Her eagerness to be in everything is simply an act of jotting down ‘the mileage on the car at 55890’ or an attempt to create a whole universe behind the visual phenomena ‘wishing she were [telling the truth]’.
It is noteworthy that she is the one who has named the Misfit and thus forces him to become what he is recognized to be. The grandmother, who cannot be categorized into either type according to the Misfit’s father, and others who possess the same characteristic are somewhat responsible for coercing a ‘defenceless-looking’ man to become a murderer. “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”, says the Misfit. “They could prove I had committed [crime] because they had the papers on me. [But,] I can’t make all I did wrong fit what all I went through in punishment”. This is his divine reason for calling himself the Misfit.
However, the grandmother has not failed to grasp a rare chance for enlightenment and has therefore achieved moral development, though in her limited way. At first, facing the Misfit and never thinking that God will help her, she affectedly advises him to pray for God’s help: “If you would pray […] Jesus would help you”. Then, still encouraging the Misfit, her genuine thought about Christ manifests itself physically: ‘”Jesus. Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing”, an action similar to the earlier moment that her uncontrollable embarrassment has released a hidden cat accidentally. The grandmother, at last, denies God’s grace: “Maybe he didn’t raise the dead”, which the Misfit objects: “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t”. The role of the two characters is now vice versa. The grandmother, who is supposed to display her faith in God, reveals her true atheistic self and is ironically successful in her contrition and redemption, while the Misfit is reluctant to oppose God, whose help he has earlier denied overtly.
It may be true that a person like a grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” cannot be good unless “it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”. But, it is true that she, cherishing the rare moment of salvation that has been offered, has become aware of her sins: ‘the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant, repents unintentionally at the critical moment of her being murdered: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children”, and ultimately rests in peace: ‘her [childlike] face smiling up at the cloudless sky’.
Ironically, the grandma’s bad influences become evident upon her murderer. The Misfit, in other words, is bewitched by the old lady’s hypocritical soul. He is now wearing Bailey’s shirt in which is the blue parrot, a reminiscence of the deceptive and talkative grandmother. Additionally, as the grandmother reaches out and touches him on the shoulder, the Misfit springs back ‘as if a snake had bitten him. He also inherits the grandma’s witch imagery by ‘picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg’. The grandmother’s bad influences have, at the end of the story, lowered the Misfit’s level of Grace to that of the grandma’s at the beginning of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not merely an account of a family murdered on the way to Florida. In it, Flannery O’Connor has cunningly combined her religious beliefs with her contemporary and realistic environment, presented mainly through a female protagonist, an artful grandmother. Her heroine not only makes the reader laugh heartily but thoughtfully. She instills the universal belief of Christian salvation through the tactful prevalence of humour and bloodshed.
O’Connor’s funny violence in the story is not meant to be the end in itself but a new beginning of eternal life. ‘The man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him’ (O’Connor, ‘The Element of Suspense in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”‘ from The Longman Masters of Short Fiction by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn). The story, thus, reminds the reader of the intrusion of God’s Providence and of the accessibility of salvation, which is regardless of time, place and the impurity of one’s soul.
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