36 pages 1 hour read

Flannery O'Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1955

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Flannery O’Connor originally published the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in the 1953 anthology The Avon Book of Modern Writing. It subsequently appeared in several other collections and is today one of O’Connor’s most famous works. It is also one of the best-known examples of the Southern Gothic genre, which O’Connor explored in most of her writing. This genre is characterized by its emphasis on the interplay between grace and the grotesque, as well as its exploration of the post-Civil War American South.

The story is set in Georgia in what is presumed to be the early 1950s. The main characters, members of a Southern family, are Bailey; his unnamed wife; their children, eight-year-old John Wesley, his younger singer, June Star, and a baby; and the grandmother, who is never named. At the start of the story, the grandmother is trying to convince her son Bailey to take the family to Tennessee for their summer vacation instead of Florida so that she can visit some old friends. In an attempt to convince him, she references recent news reports of The Misfit, a murderer who recently escaped from federal prison. When scare tactics do not work, she appeals to the children’s mother by saying the children have never seen Tennessee.

Annoyed, John Wesley rudely tells his grandmother that she could stay home if she does not want to go to Florida. June Star dismisses the idea that the grandmother would stay, saying she would be “afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go” (Paragraph 7).

Proving June correct, the grandmother is the first to get in the car the next morning and is dressed in her Sunday best, ensuring, as the narrator explains, that anyone who found her body in a crash would know she was a lady. She also smuggles her pet cat, Pitty Sing, into the car in a basket. She sits in the back seat with the children and talks the whole drive.

John Wesley remarks that he doesn’t like Georgia or Tennessee because it is “a hillbilly dumping ground” (Paragraph 16), a comment that offends the grandmother. She opines that in her day “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then” (Paragraph 18). However, she then sees a poor Black boy out the window and immediately makes a racist remark about him.

The family passes a graveyard that used to be on a plantation, and the grandmother explains that this plantation, like all others, no longer exists. To pass the time, they eat lunch and play a game watching clouds. Then, the grandmother decides to entertain the children with a story. She tells them that she once was courted by a man who used to bring her watermelon with his initials, “E.A.T.,” carved into it. One day when she was not home, he left it on the porch. However, a Black child—whom she describes with a racist slur—came along and ate the watermelon, mistaking the initials for the invitation: eat. She then states that she should have married this suitor because he ended up wealthy.

They stop at an establishment called The Tower and order barbecue. the owner, Red Sammy, is fixing a car while his wife serves the family. The wife compliments June’s impromptu dancing, but the girl responds rudely. Red Sammy comes in, upset, and says that “these days you don’t know who to trust” (Paragraph 34). He explains how he was swindled by a pair of customers earlier that week because they looked trustworthy. The grandmother agrees that people are not nice liked they were when she was young and calls Red Sammy “a good man” for being so trusting (Paragraph 37).

The grandmother then asks if they have heard of The Misfit. The wife says she would not be surprised if the criminal came to rob their roadside store for the money in the register. Red Sammy says: “a good man is hard to find [...] Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more” (Paragraph 43). He and the grandmother talk of better days in the past, blaming Europe for the current state of the country, while the kids go to play with the family’s pet monkey outside.

The family leaves. The grandmother falls asleep then wakes up and recognizes the area. She believes there is an old plantation she used to know nearby and knows just where to turn to get there. However, she knows her son would not want a detour, so she tells the children exaggerated stories about the house. She goes so far as to lie about the house having a secret panel.

The children are fascinated and scream that they want to go see the plantation until Bailey goes back and turns down the dirt road the grandmother specifies. John excitedly discusses how they will break into the home to find the secret panel while Bailey distracts the owners. The grandmother is happy remembering the dirt roads of her youth.

Bailey complains about how far the plantation is, and just as she is assuring him that it is not much further, the grandmother comes to a horrible realization. She recalls that the plantation she was thinking about is in Tennessee, far away. She is so embarrassed that she accidentally upsets the basket containing her cat. Pitty Sing jumps onto Bailey’s shoulder, scaring him and causing him to drive the car into a ditch.

The car rolls over completely, landing right side up. The grandmother hurts her side in the wreck, but everyone ignores her complaint about her injured organs. The mother, who was thrown from the car while holding the baby, suffers a broken shoulder, but neither of the children nor Bailey is seriously hurt. Seeing the wreckage, the grandmother decides not to mention her mistake. They all sit down in the ditch and hope that someone will pass by. The ditch is recessed from the road above, and behind is a dark wood.

Eventually, a car appears on the road, and the grandmother stands up to wave it down. The car stops and three men exit: a fat boy in a sweatshirt, a man in khaki pants and a blue striped jacket, and the driver, who is shirtless but wears blue jeans, a black hat, and glasses.

The children scream excitedly about the accident. The grandmother has a strange feeling that she knows the driver somehow as he climbs down into the ditch with them. The driver tells the family to sit down, to which June retorts: “What are you telling US what to do for?” (Paragraph 78). Meanwhile, John Wesley notices that the driver has a gun and asks him what he is going to do with it.

Bailey tries to reason with the driver, telling him that they are in a predicament. However, the grandmother interrupts because she recognizes that the driver is The Misfit. He confirms her suspicion, looking pleased, but says “it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me” (Paragraph 82). The grandmother starts to cry, and The Misfit apologizes for upsetting her by speaking to her like that.

Frightened, the grandmother asks if The Misfit would shoot a lady, to which he replies: “I would hate to have to” (Paragraph 86). The Grandmother insists that he must come from a nice family—that he does not have common blood. The Misfits confirms this. She then insists that he is not a misfit but is “a good man at heart” (Paragraph 89).

Bailey tells his mother to be quiet and that he will handle it. Hiram—one of the Misfit’s companions—says that he could fix the car in an hour. However, the Misfit tells Bailey and John to accompany Hiram and Bobby Lee into the woods. Bailey tries to protest, but Hiram forces him. He turns back to call to his mother that he will be right back, but he is clearly frightened.

Again, the grandmother tries to tell the Misfit that he is a good man. He says that he is not a good man but that he is also not the worst there is. His father used to describe him as a person who always needed to know why something happened. He then apologizes for being shirtless in front of the women.

The mother screams for Bailey, but the Misfit keeps talking, explaining that his father was a character who had a knack for dealing with the authorities. Again, the grandmother appeals to the Misfit, telling him that he could be an honest man who settles down and does not have to worry about being chased. The Misfit disagrees, because someone is always chasing after you.

The grandmother asks the Misfit if he prays. He says no just before two pistol shots are heard from the woods. The Misfit then tells them how he used to be a gospel singer and had many other occupations. He was never bad, but he did something wrong, so he was sent to jail, where he was effectively buried alive. The psychiatrist in jail told him that he killed his father, but he has no memory of doing so. As he speaks, the grandmother continues encouraging him to pray.

Hiram and Bobby Lee come back. Bobby Lee is carrying Bailey’s shirt, which he gives to the Misfit, who puts it on. The Misfit then says, “I found out the crime don’t matter [...] sooner or later you’re going to forget what you done and just be punished for it” (Paragraph 122). He then tells the mother to take June and the baby into the woods with his companions, leaving the grandmother alone with The Misfit. Unable to say anything else, she says “Jesus, Jesus.”

The Misfit tells her that Jesus threw everything off balance and that both he and Jesus were punished for things they did not do. To combat this plight, he now writes down everything he does. He calls himself The Misfit because he cannot reconcile what he has done with the punishment he has received.

There is a scream from the woods followed by a gunshot. The Misfit asks if the grandmother thinks it’s fair that “one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all” (Paragraph 129). She insists that he comes from good blood and would not shoot a lady. He tells her that money cannot stop death.

There are two more gunshots, and the grandmother cries out for her son, Bailey. The Misfit tells her that Jesus was the only one who ever raised the dead, and it was a mistake because it unbalanced the world. He reasons that if Jesus did perform miracles, then anyone would follow him, but if he didn’t then the only thing to do is what makes you happy, and he knows “no pleasure but meanness” (Paragraph 133).

The grandmother mumbles that perhaps Jesus never raised the dead. The Misfit thinks that it isn’t right that he wasn’t there to see whether Jesus truly performed that miracle, because if he had, he wouldn’t be like he is now. The grandmother looks at him and calls him “one of my babies. You’re one of my own children” (Paragraph 135). She touches him on the shoulder, and The Misfit jumps back and responds by shooting her three times in the chest.

Hiram and Bobby Lee return to see the grandmother lying dead, smiling at the sky. The Misfit says that “she would have been a good woman [...] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (Paragraph 139). He then tells his companions to shut up because there is no pleasure in life.