A Short Story by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Type of Work and Publication Information
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a short story with opening comic episodes that belie and foreshadow a tragic ending. The story contains elements of southern Gothic, a fictional genre that vests its stories with foreboding and grotesquerie and replaces the romanticism of nineteenth century Gothic works with realism. However, southern Gothic retains the disturbing elements of earlier Gothic works, whether in the form of a deranged character, a forbidding forest, or a sense of impending doom. A southern-Gothic story may call up ghosts of the past, as Bailey’s mother does when she apparels herself in the finery of an Old South grande dame and when she persuades her family to visit a Civil War-era plantation with a secret panel.
first appeared in 1953 in Avon Book of
Modern Writing, edited by William Phillips
and Philip Rahv. It was published again in 1955
in a collection entitled A Good Man Is Hard
to Find, and Other Stories.
The story begins in Atlanta, Georgia, in the home of a family preparing for a trip to Florida. The action continues the next day as the family travels southeast on a highway and takes a side trip on a dirt road, where the car rolls over and lands in a ditch. The final scene takes place after the accident. The time is the mid-twentieth century. Landscape descriptions and the apparel of the characters indicate that the action occurs during the warmer months.
Atlanta resident with a wife and three children.
He and his family are preparing for a trip to
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Bailey’s mother wants to go to Tennessee, not Florida. In an attempt to change her son’s mind, she calls his attention to a newspaper article saying that a dangerous prison escapee called The Misfit is on his way to Florida.
“I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it," she says (paragraph 1).
Besides, she notes while turning to Bailey’s wife, the children have already been to Florida but have never been to east Tennessee. The daughter-in-law, who is feeding the baby, does not respond.
“If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” says John Wesley, eight (paragraph 3). Little June Star adds, “She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day"1 (paragraph 4).
The next day, the old woman sits in the back seat, between John Wesley and June Star, with her black valise. Hidden beneath it is a basket containing her cat, Pitty Sing.2 She does not want to leave the animal home alone for three days. But because Bailey does not like to check into a motel with a cat, she must hide it from him. Bailey’s wife is in the front seat holding the baby as her husband pulls out at 8:45. Although she is wearing slacks, her mother-in-law is dressed elegantly. “In case of an accident,” the narrator says, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (paragraph 12).
After cautioning Bailey against speeding, the old woman calls attention to points of interest along the way. John Wesley then urges his father to "go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at much" (paragraph 14).
"If I were a little boy," his grandmother says,"I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground, and Georgia is a lousy state too," John Wesley says (paragraph 16). June Star agrees.
The old woman holds the baby for a while, making faces at him. He reacts with a faint flicker of a smile. After John Wesley and June Star put down the comic books they have been reading, they eat lunch with their grandmother, who dines on a peanut-butter sandwich and an olive. She tells them a story about the time when a young man named Edgar Atkins Teagarden left her a watermelon on her front porch when he was wooing her. He had carved his initials into the rind. But, the old woman says, she never got it “because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials. E.A.T.!” (paragraph 26). She tells June Star that Teagarden would have been a good man to marry because he had good manners, bought Coca-Cola stock, and died rich.
The family stops at the Tower, a restaurant owned by Red Sammy Butts, and orders his specialty, barbecued sandwiches. Red Sammy sits down near them and complains about how untrustworthy people are but notes that he recently allowed two men to charge a gas bill.
“Now why did I do that?” (paragraph 36)
“Because you’re a good man,” the old woman says (paragraph 37).
The waitress, Red Sammy's wife, brings the food and says, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust.” Looking at her husband, she adds, “And I don’t count nobody out of that . . ." (paragraph 39).
The old woman asks Red Sammy whether he has heard about The Misfit, and his wife says she wouldn’t be surprised if he “attacked . . . this restaurant right here” (paragraph 41).
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy says. “Everything is getting terrible” (paragraph 43).
The old woman says Europe is to blame for everything because of all the money it gets from the United States. Red Sammy agrees.
When the family is on the road again and approaching Toomsboro,3 the old woman recalls a plantation she visited in the vicinity. She wants to see it again. Realizing that Bailey won’t want to stop, she makes up a story to whet the family’s appetite, saying the house has a secret panel behind which all the family silver was hidden during Sherman’s march through Georgia.4 The story intrigues the children, so she asks Bailey to turn off so they can see the house. He refuses. John Wesley begins kicking the back of the driver’s seat, and June Star complains to her mother. The baby begins crying. Bailey gives in.
Following his mother’s directions, Bailey turns around and drives about a mile to a dirt road and swings onto it. After he goes a considerable distance, a “horrible thought” comes to his mother. It is so unsettling that she jerks upward, moving the valise and uncovering the basket. Pitty Sing jumps out and lands on Bailey’s shoulder. Bailey loses control of the car. His wife falls out her door, hugging the baby close. The children spill onto the floor, and the old woman ends up in the front beneath the dashboard. After turning over but righting itself, the car comes to rest in a deep ditch on the side of the road. Everyone is all right except Bailey’s wife, who has a cut on her face and a broken shoulder. The children are delighted with the idea that they have just been in an accident.
The old woman decides not to tell anyone about the “horrible thought” that precipitated the accident: She had remembered that the plantation she visited was in Tennessee, not Georgia. While they are all sitting in the ditch, she stands up and waves her arms as a black car resembling a hearse approaches.
After it stops, two young men and an older man, the driver, get out. All are carrying guns. The old woman thinks she recognizes the driver, who is wearing glasses, but can’t place him. He greets them and tells one of the younger fellows, Hiram, to try to start the car. John Wesley asks why he is carrying a gun. The man tells his mother to have the children sit next to her because they “make me nervous.” June Star asks why he is telling them what to do. Then their grandmother remembers who he is.
“You’re The Misfit!” she says (paragraph 82). Apparently, she had seen his picture in the newspaper article about him or on a wanted poster.
He confirms that he is indeed The Misfit, seeming pleased with himself. But he says it would have been better for everyone if she hadn’t remembered his face. Bailey, apparently angry with her for letting on that she recognized him, says something to her that makes her cry. The Misfit tries to calm her down.
“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” she says (paragraph 86).
The Misfit says he hopes he won’t have to. The old woman then says he looks like a nice man who comes from a good family. He says his mother and father were among the finest people you could meet. Then he tells the other young man, Bobby Lee, to watch the children, again noting that they make him nervous.
Meanwhile, Hiram reports that it will take a half-hour to repair the car. The Misfit then orders Hiram and Bobby Lee to take Bailey and John Wesley into nearby woods because “the boys want to ask you something” (paragraph 94).
After the boys leave with Bailey and his son, the old lady tells The Misfit, “I just know you’re a good man. You’re not a bit common” (paragraph 98). The Misfit says he is not a good man; his own father predicted that he would go wrong. He then apologizes for his shabby apparel, saying, “We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better” (paragraph 99).
The old woman tells him he could live an upright life if he really wanted to and nobody would be “chasing you all the time” (paragraph 104). Her words make him reflect. Two pistol shots ring out from the forest.
“Bailey Boy!” the old woman says.
The Misfit says he has done almost everything in his life. He was a gospel singer, a soldier, a husband (twice), an undertaker, a railroad worker, and a farmer. Moreover, he says, “[I] been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet, [and] even seen a woman flogged” (paragraph 109). The old woman repeatedly tells him to pray, although he had already told her that he doesn’t pray. He says he can’t remember why he went to prison but acknowledges that a prison therapist had told him that he killed his father. "[B]ut I known that for a lie," the Misfit says, claiming that his father died of the flu in 1919 (paragraph 117).
Hiram and Bobby Lee return from the woods. Hiram has Bailey’s shirt, which displays imprints of bright blue parrots. The Misfit puts the shirt on, then sends June Star, her mother, and the baby off to the woods with the boys. The Misfit and the old woman are now the only ones at the crash site. When she tells him that Christ will help him, he compares himself to Christ, saying he was wrongfully punished. He calls himself The Misfit, he says, because what he was supposed to have done wrong does not fit the severity of the punishment he received.
There is another pistol shot, and the old woman begs for her life, saying she’ll give The Misfit all her money. Two more pistol shots ring out.
“Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” the woman cries (paragraph 133).
Christ raised the dead, The Misfit says. But He shouldn’t have done so, he says, because “He thown [thrown] everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow [throw] everything away 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” (paragraph 134).
The Misfit says he wishes he knew for certain whether Christ did or did not raise the dead. If he knew, he says, “I wouldn’t be like I am now.” He looks as if he is about to cry, and the old woman reaches out and touches him. The Misfit pulls back and shoots her in the chest three times. When Hiram and Bobby Lee return, they look down at the woman’s face, which is smiling. The Misfit tells them to dispose of her body in the woods, where the other bodies are lying. He picks up Pitty Sing.
“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee says.
“She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” The Misfit says.
“Some fun!” Bobby Lee says.
The Misfit says, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life” (paragraphs 139-142).
Salvation Through Faith
Anyone can become
righteous and gain redemption, no matter the gravity
of his or her wrongdoing, by humbly accepting Christ
and placing faith in Him. When the old woman reaches
out and touches The Misfit—calling him one of her
own children—she achieves forgiveness for her
sins—including her self-centered ways, her racism,
and her lying—inasmuch as her selfless act signals
her own contrite acceptance of Christ. Having
received the grace of God, she becomes the “good
man” who is hard to find.
Breakdown in Values
The behavior of
the characters suggests that the values of the world
are breaking down. John Wesley and June Star are
hellions with sassy tongues, but their parents show
no inclination to discipline them. Although Bailey’s
mother realizes that the world has gone
astray—“People are certainly not nice like they used
to be” (paragraph 35)—she is ignorant of her own
shortcomings: She nags, she lies, she primps herself
excessively, and she uses offensive racist terms
such as “nigger” and “pickaninny." Moreover, she
observes that Edgar Atkins Teagarden would have been
a good man to marry simply because he held Coca-Cola
stock, and she begrudges the money America sends to
Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
Red Sammy’s wife agrees with the old woman's observation that people aren't the way they used to be. In fact, she says, the world is so bad that everyone is false and faithless:
"It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she [Red Sammy's wife] said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.” (paragraph 39)The Misfit, of course, thinks the only worthwhile thing to do in life is to “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” (paragraph 134). His two young companions, who act as his cat’s paws, apparently believe as he does.
Disbelief Breeds Wrongdoing
The Misfit rejects Christ as God because he lacks empirical evidence of His divinity and because he lacks faith in the testimony of the bible. If there is no God, The Misfit reasons, there is no moral order. Consequently, he believes that he may do whatever he pleases —even commit murder.
The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" occurs when the old woman blurts out that she recognizes the driver of the black car as The Misfit. According to second definition, the climax occurs when the old woman reaches out and touches The Misfit, who then shoots her three times.
She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone for three days . . . (paragraph 10).
The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they ...........got back (paragraph 11).
She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house . . . (paragraph 45).
The author sneaks into the story words and passages that foreshadow the tragic developments on the dirt road. Consider, for example, the reference to The Misfit by Bailey's mother in paragraph 1. It raises the possibility, however remote, that Bailey and his family will encounter The Misfit. Bailey's mother again foreshadows later developments when she dresses for the trip in her finest clothes so that "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady" (paragraph 12).
When the family is on the highway, Bailey's mother calls attention to a cemetery in a cotton field "with five or six graves" (paragraph 22). There are, of course, six people in the car. When the old woman observes at the Tower restaurant that people aren't as nice they once were, the owner's wife (a waitress) says she thinks the world is so bad that everyone is false and faithless: "It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust” (paragraph 39). (After the accident, the old woman flags down a black car, unaware that The Misfit is the driver. She trusts him to come to their aid.)
After the travelers leave the restaurant and drive off, the author clues the reader that the trip is about to go wrong by noting that they are approaching the town of Toomsboro. When they turn off to see the plantation with the secret panel, they encounter a dusty dirt road that snakes this way and that, as well as dark forests—all signs that they are headed toward misfortune.
For the trip to Florida, the old woman dresses in finery that reflects her image of herself as a lady. Of particular interest are her white gloves, the white violets on her blue straw hat, the white dot in the print on her navy blue dress, and her white organdy collar and cuffs. These appear to symbolize her opinion of herself as a righteous and principled woman with a sunny disposition. Nature mimics her—or does it mock her?—with its lustrous attire. As the car travels out of the Atlanta area, she calls attention to
the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. (paragraph 13)After The Misfit arrives and orders his cohorts to take her son and grandson into the woods, the old woman begins to reject her selfish image of herself, symbolized by her hat: "The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him [Bailey] but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground" (paragraph 96). When Hiram and Bobby Lee take Bailey's wife, the baby, and June Star to the woods, all of the brightness disappears from the old woman's surroundings: "Alone with the misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods" (paragraph 128).
The old woman then realizes that The Misfit's dark soul is similar to her own. She may not have committed heinous crimes, but she is a sinner nonetheless. When she reaches out and touches The Misfit, she completes the transition from selfish old woman to selfless old woman. The misfit shoots her. But she dies with a smile on her face, knowing that a genuinely bright future awaits her.
The plot structure seems to be a metaphor for life. One might label the parts of the plot as follows:
1. Birth and Childhood (Atlanta): The family discusses and prepares for the trip.Irony: Dramatic and Situational
Dramatic irony occurs when a character
in a literary work fails to perceive what is obvious
to the reader (or, in the case of a play, the
audience). The most famous example of dramatic irony
in literature occurs in Sophocles' play, Oedipus
Rex, when he fails to realize what is clear to
the audience: that a traveler he kills on a road is
his own father and that a woman he marries is his own
Flannery O'Connor makes every word
contribute to the overall effect of a story. When she
uses figures of speech, they are not mere dressing to
demonstrate technical skill but integral parts of the
story, as in the following highlighted simile
describing the children's mother: "[She was] a young
woman in slacks, whose face
was as broad and as innocent as a cabbage.
. . (paragraph 2). This simile, together with the
words before it, stresses the mother's guilelessness
and callowness, making it easy for others in her
family to manipulate her. In Red Sammy's restaurant,
she plays "The Tennessee Waltz" on the jukebox,
perhaps suggesting that she wanted to go to Tennessee
too but was afraid to speak up.
His [Bailey's] jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe (paragraph 49).
Like his mother,
Bailey has an opportunity to redeem himself, an
opportunity presented when he is "squatting in the
position of a runner about to spring forward . . ."
(paragraph 91). Apparently, he is considering
rushing The Misfit to save his mother and family.
But he remains fixed in that position; he fails to
act. A moment later, when he and John Wesley are
about to enter the woods with Hiram and Bobby Lee,
he turns and shouts, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma,5 wait on me” (paragraph 96). Here, no
doubt realizing that he is going
his death, his last thought is of his mother. He is
attempting to hearten and console her. And, for the
only time in the story, he addresses her with an
endearing name rather than ignoring her or growling
at her. But is this behavior enough to redeem him?
After all, he addresses only his mother and ignores
his wife. Moreover, he does not include John Wesley
in his statement; he says "I'll be back" instead of
"we'll be back."
The narrator hints that John Wesley and
The Misfit have more in common than the eyeglasses
they wear. Consider that the boy embodies the sadistic
philosophy of The Misfit: There is “no pleasure but
meanness” (paragraph 134). John Wesley is certainly
mean: He insults his grandmother, disrespects his
parents, and resorts to violence—kicking
the back of his father’s seat (paragraph 50) and
fighting with his sister (paragraph 25)—to vent his wrath. Moreover,
he maintains a hostile attitude toward the world:
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” he
says, “and Georgia is a lousy state too” (paragraph
Consider too that both The Misfit and John Wesley want to look beyond the pale of their mundane existence: The Misfit wishes he could have seen Christ and learned what was behind the resurrection story. John Wesley wants to see the secret panel in the plantation house and discover what is behind it. Oddly, The Misfit was a gospel singer who became a killer. John Wesley bears the name of a gospel preacher, John Wesley (1703-1791), and a killer, gunslinger John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895), who shot to death more than twenty men.
Like The Misfit, Bailey's mother's cat,
Pitty Sing, is a dangerous escapee. After the old
woman enters the family car in Atlanta, she hides
Pitty Sing in a basket covered with a newspaper
(probably the same one with the article about The
Misfit), then places her valise on top, "imprisoning"
him. Later, when the old woman discovers her mistake
about the location of the plantation, she jerks
upward, knocking over the valise. "The instant the
valise moved," the narrator says, "the newspaper top
she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and
Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder,"
causing Bailey to lose control of the car. It ends up
in a ditch. The narrator uses the word snarl
one other time in the story, in paragraph 134 to
characterize the sound of The Misfit's voice. After
The Misfit and his cohorts commit the murders, the cat
nuzzles against The Misfit, who then picks it up. Is
Pitty Sing an agent of evil?.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
If the old woman had kept her mouth
shut, not revealing that she recognized The Misfit,
would Bailey, his mother, his wife, and the children
be alive at the end of the story? Or did The Misfit
intend to kill all the family members when he pulled
up alongside their wrecked
car? Keep in mind that he and his companions exited
their car with guns.