"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor (1953) The Library of America: Collected Works (1988)
One of my favorite short stories is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (it’s right up there with almost anything else written by Flannery O’Connor). The story was first published in 1953 in the anthology Modern Writing I and in 1955 was included in the short story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I have read it two or three times a year since the first time I read it around fifteen years ago. I have no inkling that this routine will cease. Not only is it a story that contains layers and layers and is always growing, it is also just a fun story to read, brilliant and painfully hilarious in its development and dark and powerful in its controversial conclusion.
I’ve become a big fan of The Library of America’s series (if not the covers themselves, but I remove the covers and they look lovely together in a row). This collection contains all of her short stories and her two novels, as well as a load of letters, essays, and other nick nacks she wrote through her short life. It’s a dream edition if you’re interested in digging into her work.
When I first read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it shocked me more than any other work of literature had to that point — of that I’m sure — and I’m struggling now to think of any work of literature since that has had the same sudden impact. It was the first thing I’d read by O’Connor, so I absolutely wasn’t expecting the violence and even four or five paragraphs before the ending I had no guess as to where it was going. When I finished it, I was drained and I loved it, but I certainly didn’t understand it. Now, a few dozen reads later and as familiar as I am with it down to its sentences, I’m still not sure I “understand” it, which is I’m sure why my relationship with it has been so fruitful and shows no signs of wearing out.
When the story begins, we meet a family I would consider it torture to be with for more than a few minutes. The head of the house is Bailey. He has three children, two loud-mouthed, selfish children who lack all discipline, and one baby, whom his wife quietly holds or feeds throughout the story. Bailey’s mother also lives with them. She’s a prideful old “lady” of the South, the type who will dress up for a road trip so that, if they get in a wreck, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” No one in the family likes her. The parents ignore her while the children openly mock her. Here’s how O’Connor introduces the story and its characters.
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sport section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey, used to such manipulation, pays her no attention, doesn’t look up and doesn’t speak. Grandma looks around the room, still grasping for anything: the children have been to Florida, she says, but have never been to east Tennessee. Eight-year-old John Wesley shows just how much respect they offer this old woman: “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” June Star, also without raising her head, responds, “She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks. [. . .] Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.” Bailey keeps reading and the mother keeps feeding the baby apricots.
The next day, the grandma dressed nicely, the family piles into the car to drive to Florida. Bailey is driving, his wife is holding their baby in the front seat, and the two older children are sitting in the back on either side of the grandma. Grandma has also secretly packed her cat, since her cat, obviously, couldn’t bear to be without her for three days.
As they drive, we get a little portrait of the South through the grandmother’s misguided nostalgia:
“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?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
O’Connor seems to be giving us a dose of misdirection here. For one thing, as much as we’ve heard the grandmother talk about the good old days, this story is only slightly critical of such wrong-headedness. This isn’t a story about the Old South and the unfortunate new world. The grandma is wrong-headed and selfish, presumably both because it’s in her nature and because it’s the only way she can bolster her pride in the midst of her disrespectful descendents, but she could have been wrong-headed and selfish about anything — the point is that she is wrong-headed and selfish, as is everyone else in this story. This is going to get them all in trouble, and it’s an open question at the end whether the grandmother has done anything to redeem herself or not.
And she has something very specific for which she needs some redemption. As they drive, she begins to dream about a beautiful plantation she remembers from her childhood. She’s certain it’s close by and, rather than ask directly if she can go and see it, she manipulates the children into forcing their parents to take them there. She tells them that there is a secret panel in the house where the family hid its silver, and Sherman, when he marched through, couldn’t find it. It in’t true, though, curiously, she wishes it were. The older children are too unruly, so Bailey relents and takes the rough dirt road to the old house. It’s not for a while, but eventually the grandmother realizes the house is in Tennessee, not Georgia. At that moment, her embarrassment and fear of reprisal create a physical reaction in her, causing her to kick her hidden cat, who jumps on Bailey, who wrecks the car. When they recover, they see approaching a “hearse-like automobile.”
O’Connor paces The Misfits arrival perfectly, though we never for a second (the car is “hearse-like,” after all) think that anything good is going to happen. The Misfit, along with his two companions, comes to the shaken family.
“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you to sit down right together there where you’re at.”
“What are you telling US what to do for?” June Star asked.
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. “Come here,” said their mother.
“Look here now,” Bailey began suddenly, “we’re in a predicament! We’re in . . .”
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
“Yes’m,” the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”
There have been many times when I’ve just sat down to read a bit of this story, to see how it develops to its ending, but each time I get to the arrival of The Misfit I just read it straight through and probably stop breathing, though I don’t know. It’s horrifying, even as the grandmother keeps trying to save her own life through shallow platitudes that The Misfit responds to “kindly.” The mother, who up till now has spoken only a word or two, is given one of the story’s most chilling lines: “Yes, thank you.” And there is the story’s last, strange line: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
It’s a chilling story, fast-paced despite the carefully controlled philosophical underpinnings. O’Connor was a remarkable writer who should be read as frequently as any of the great masters of literature. If you haven’t already done so, this story is, I think, a great place to begin your own relationship with this brilliant woman.