Characterization inFlannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a tragically absurd, Southern Gothic tale, with characters that could indeed be described as cartoonish. The best example is the grandmother, who is a relic from a more innocent time in America’s history, heavily fixated on manners and proper presentation of one’s self; for the family’s road trip to Florida, she wears a fancy navy blue dress, with white lace on her collar and cuffs, and cloth violets pinned to her neckline, so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once she was a lady.” Her choice of formal attire in an informal setting makes for an awkward contrast with the rest of her family, such as the children’s mother who wears slacks and a kerchief. Later, when the family stops at the Tower to eat, the Grandmother engages in a conversation with the establishment’s owner, Red Sammy Butts, wherein they discuss how unworthy people are of trust these days. “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody.”

She is a parody of an elderly person, obsessed with pointing out the moral failings of the younger generations and how her generation was superior. Unfortunately for the family, the grandmother’s nostalgia is indirectly responsible for their murders at the hands of The Misfit and his gang. After passing a dirt road, she remembers an old plantation house she used to visit. The grandmother talks so joyously about the house that her grandchildren become enamored and beg their father to take them to see. After traveling down the road for some time, the grandmother realizes that the house she was thinking of was in Tennessee, not Georgia, where the family is. At that very moment, the grandmother’s cat escapes from its cage, and leaps onto the father, causing the accident that places them in The Misfit’s path.

I find the grandmother’s antiquated take on the world to be unsettling, particularly during her exchange with The Misfit. She recognizes him as the criminal who has been dominating the headlines and yet feels compelled to appeal to his sense of decency. “Listen,” the grandmother almost screamed, “I know you you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people.” She holds fast to her certitude about the power of a proper upbringing, even when she and her family are facing certain death. In this respect, The Misfit is her perfect counter, as he displays such a wanton disregard for politeness and decency, his characterization is as comically extreme as the grandmother’s, except he occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. The Misfit fully embraces his nihilism, saying after the grandmother advises that he seek forgiveness in religion: “Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t  have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s 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.” O’Connor displays striking levels of creativity in this story;  by creating two characters with extreme opposing viewpoints and placing them in direct conflict with each other, readers are afforded a chance to bare witness to one of the most profound moral dialogues in American literature, with the grandmother representing the belief that proper behavior and faith are what holds society together, and The Bandit maintaining that morality is arbitrary, and that the best, most natural thing a person can do is embrace their base desires, regardless of how much damage is caused.It is a debate as relevant today as it was when O’Connor first wrote:  “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”  

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