Flannery O’Connor explores the meaning of the word “good” through her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. After a series of deceptions and wrongdoings, O’Connor depicts a grandma leading her family to be killed by a runaway outlaw named “The Misfit.” While the family was traveling to Florida for vacation, the true journey follows the grandma as she begins to understand the true meaning of the word “good” – the most general and most frequently used adjective of commendation in the English language (Oxford English Dictionary). To define a word so commonly overused and socially defined, O’Connor builds the concept of her definition of “good” through the grandma’s interactions with the other characters in the story. By virtue of her interactions with her family, Red Sammy, and “The Misfit,” the grandma transitions from complete ignorance, to misunderstanding, and finally to acceptance of what it means to be “good.”
Initially depicting the grandma as a flawed character with an entirely misconstrued understanding of the word enables O’Connor to establish what does not qualify as “good.” In addition to the grandma’s heedless acts of deception, the narrative uses children as a pure and untainted lens of judgment to expose the flaws in the grandma’s character. In response to the Grandma’s opening efforts to switch the vacation destination, the little girl June delivers a deeply profound critique: “[The grandma] Wouldn’t stay home for a million bucks… She has to go everywhere we go” (1). The establishment of Grandma’s flaws continues as O’Connor parallels the grandma’s perception of herself with the games of the children. Prior to departing on the trip, the grandma dresses with trimmed “collars and cuffs” so that “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (2). This insight into the grandma’s mindset is soon followed by the description of the children identifying clouds in the sky. While seemingly insignificant, the sky serves as an extended metaphor for the grandma’s understanding of goodness across the work. The children identifying clouds signal the grandma’s clouded understanding of what it means to be “good.” Rather than worrying about the wellbeing of her son or her family in the event of an accident, the grandma is primarily concerned with others perceiving her as a lady. The clouds symbolize the opinions of others that block to the true meaning of goodness, the sun.
The interaction between the grandma and Red Sammy initiates O’Connor’s discovery of the misunderstandings and contradictions involved in the word “good.” Early into the grandma’s discussion with Red Sammy, the definition of the word “good” becomes confounded as the grandma calls Red Sammy “a good man” immediately after Red Sammy defines a car as “good.” Instead of taking this as a compliment, Red Sammy is “struck with this answer” (6). Juxtaposing these uses of the same word exemplifies its overuse and stale meaning – explaining why Red Sammy feels no sense of satisfaction when complimented. O’Connor furthers the problematic use of the word when Red Sammy states, “a good man is hard to find” (6). This statement is riddled with irony as the word “good” is used profusely but a “good man” is uncommon – creating a paradox with which O’Connor argues that a word that represents anything also represents nothing. The conversation with Red Sammy also highlights the inconsistency in Grandma’s definition of “good.” The grandma compliments Red Sammy for being naïve and gullible with his interactions with the two boys stealing gas, yet condemns her granddaughter for her insightful and honest comment earlier. It becomes apparent that the grandma is not only flawed but she is also unsure of how to become good.
Through the grandma’s interaction with “The Misfit,” the story paints the grandma’s reverse bildungsroman moment by depicting a profound environment that accompanies her change in grieving and perceptions surrounding what it means to be good.
A raw and honest atmosphere is developed as O’Connor describes the cloudless sky with nothing around the grandma but the woods (9). Contrary earlier in the work, the clouds that blocked the sky had cleared, symbolizing the clarity in the grandma’s perception of goodness. Further, this moment of reckoning takes place on the side of a dirt road with the woods in the background – a natural and profound environment. The use of imagery hints towards the deeply philosophical understanding of morality and goodness that the grandma gains from this interaction.
The shift in the grandma’s grieving signifies the acknowledgment of what it means to be good. Immediately after the grandma realizes that the man was “The Misfit,” she selfishly questions, “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (11). The use of the word “lady” again demonstrates that the grandma is still solely concerned about the perception of others, in addition to her not caring about her family. However, her grieving changes as she starts wailing “Bailey boy” for her son (12). This appears to be the first time in the work that the grandma is concerned about someone other than herself. This transition expresses O’Connor’s belief that goodness is an internal trait that is portrayed to – rather than perceived by – others. When the grandma stopped worrying about her perception and started worrying about her family is when she became good.
Further, O’Connor argues that goodness transcends superficial actions such as practicing religion. Despite the grandma’s attempts to pray, “she opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out” (15). Her inability to pray symbolizes that prayer and religion do not equate goodness. This realization is what causes the grandma to understand that no actions define what it means to be good. Despite their differences, the grandma now understands that little differentiates her and the misfit, stating, “Why you’re [The Misfit] one of my babies. You’re one of my own children” (16). In denial, The Misfit recoils at the accusation that he is good too and shoots the grandma three times. The grandma dies happily with “with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky,” tying back into the innocence and purity associated with children (16).
O’Connor’s development of a definition for the word “good” ultimately serves as a social critique. Due to the overuse of the word, the definition of “good” has been spread too thin, depriving the word of true meaning. While a grave ending, this short story serves as a reminder of that “goodness” is not obtained through performative demonstrations or self-centered thoughts. O’Connor’s choice to never fully define the word “good” indicates how the definition of “good” continues to elude us. On the path to becoming good, the first step is identifying what does not qualify as good.
“Definition of Good.” UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries, Oxford English Dictionary,
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” American Studies at the University of
Virginia, 2009, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html. Originally published in
The Avon Book of Modern Writing. New York: Avon Publishing, 1953, pp. 27-33.