Earlier this year, One Story Magazine listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find made the short list. Deservedly so.
In this story, a grandmother navigates her son and his family to their death at the hands of “The Misfit.” She is a self absorbed character, her memory possibly fading with age. The story starts off with her railing against her son Bailey, saying they shouldn’t make this trip to Florida because of a killer on the loose. Her young grandkids mock her, because they know she won’t pass up taking the trip with them.
The next morning, she’s the first one in the car, seated in the center of the back seat with the kids on either side of her. She has snuck her cat into the car. As they drive, the grandmother spouts off her arcane beliefs. The irony in this paragraph is remarkable:
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture now?”
When they stop for barbecue sandwiches, the proprietor Red Sammy and the grandmother converse.
“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”
As they continue on their trip, the grandmother has a recollection of a grand house she believes she once visited and describes it in almost heavenly terms.
She said the house had six white column across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side…
She gets the children riled up about seeing the house because it allegedly has a secret compartment. Bailey grows irritated but agrees to turn off down a side road to see this house. As they drive down the desolate road, the grandmother recalls she has made a mistake and the house she was thinking of is actually in Tennessee. This realization shocks her. She lifts up her feet and the cat jumps up on Bailey’s shoulder as he drives. The car flips over in a ditch and the family is injured.
As they sort things out, a car meanders along the road and three men climb out and look down on the family. One of the men is described as the leader.
His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look.
The grandmother has an eerie sense she has seen the leader of the three men before.
She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re the Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once.”
The grandmother starts immediately trying to placate the Misfit.
“I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”
The Misfit instructs his men to escort Bailey and the grandson into the woods away from the family. The grandmother keeps trying to insist to The Misfit he is a good man and he should pray. After they disappear into the woods, two gunshots are heard.
The grandmother continues pleading with the Misfit, “You are a good man.”
As they escort the daughter in law and girl back into the woods, the grandmother pleads more.
At one point, the Misfit says to the grandmother, “Does it seem right to you lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
More gunshots are heard from the woods.
…The grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.
The Misfit says,
“Jesus was the only one to raise the dead, and he shouldn’t have done it. If He did what He did, there is nothing for you to do but throw away everything 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. No pleasure but meanness.”
The grandmother says in a delirious way, “You’re one of my own children!” She reaches out and touches the Misfit. He jumps back and shoots her dead.
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
O’Connor’s Catholic faith was at the core of her stories. She was devout in her belief that the Eucharist was actually the body and blood of Christ. She famously said one time, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Her faith played an important part in her writing, and particularly so in this story. The grandmother claims she lives an upstanding Christian life, but in truth she is self absorbed, believing that people come from “good blood” and that’s what can save them. Much has been written about the ending when she reaches out to the Misfit and says, “You’re one of my own children.” The statement leads one to believe O’Connor is asking – what really breeds evil in this world. The Misfit’s final words echo the idea of living one’s live with faith throughout, and not just at the end of one’s life. Although I first read this thirty years ago, it remains a startling story with a deep message about faith.