A Good Man Is Hard to Find | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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Course Hero, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find Study Guide," January 12, 2017, accessed September 23, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Good-Man-Is-Hard-to-Find/.


Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find | Symbols


Grandmother's Hat

The grandmother's hat symbolizes her selfish nature. She wears it so observers will know she is a lady—even when she dies. The hat also symbolizes the grandmother's hypocritical beliefs. She passes herself off as a Christian, and putting the needs of others before her own should be part of her beliefs. However, the grandmother does not worry about other people—even her own family members.

When the accident occurs the grandmother's hat is damaged though it remains "pinned to her head." Once The Misfit's men begin leading her family members to their deaths, the grandmother touches her hat and the brim breaks off. The narrator states, "She stood staring at it and ... she let it fall on the ground." While this symbol of what it means to be a lady has been destroyed, she does not yet change her ways. Instead, she frantically tries to manipulate The Misfit into believing he is "a good man" who would not shoot a lady.

After her entire family is murdered in the woods, the grandmother is at last able to leave her selfishness—and her hat—behind. She reaches a moment of grace in which she clearly sees that she and The Misfit have something crucial in common: each of them is a child of God. Now able to care about someone other than herself, she reaches out to The Misfit—showing forgiveness and empathy.

The Misfit's Automobile

While the grandmother's stunned family sits waiting for assistance beside their wrecked car, The Misfit's vehicle, described as a "big black battered hearse-like automobile," looms over the family sitting in the ditch, as if it is waiting to lead a funeral procession. The automobile symbolizes death.

The death is of the family itself, which has been approaching since the grandmother announced that The Misfit is on the loose in the first paragraph. Death has been referred to throughout the story, including when the grandmother worries about her appearance should she end up dead on the highway and when the family car passes the graveyard.

The Misfit's automobile symbolizes not only the death of the family but also the death of the old South. The way of life that the grandmother grew up with and views as correct and proper is also dying. African Americans are receiving greater freedoms and achieving higher positions. The automobile is commonplace, and people are less tethered to their homes and neighborhoods. They are driving everywhere. Lastly, religious observance is also on the decline. People are leaving organized religion.


There are references to numerous animals in the story, such as a monkey, parrot, rabbit, hippopotamus, cat, pig, cow, and caterpillar. Characters and items are described using animal references: The Misfit is "a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters." When he grows angry discussing religion with the grandmother, his voice becomes "almost a snarl." The children's mother wears "a green head-kerchief that [has] two points on the top like rabbit's ears." The characters, as a whole, show animal instincts.

Animals exist in the moment and do not consider the consequences of their actions. In deciding their destination Bailey does not consider that there is a dangerous killer on the loose in the area. The grandmother lies to get Bailey to take them to the plantation. Like animals Bailey and the grandmother focus on the needs of the now and do not consider the future.

The family members also show their animal instincts when the car crashes. Although stranded, they simply wait docilely, like trained animals, for someone to come along. Once out of their routine they do not know how to act. They need a shepherd to guide them and tell them what to do.

The Misfit and his men also use animal instincts, albeit different from those of the family. They descend on the family like a pack of predators. Unlike the family members, the animal instinct they mimic is the survival instinct. When the grandmother declares, "You're The Misfit! ... I recognized you at once," this recognition triggers The Misfit's predator instincts. These instincts do not allow for sentimentality. He does not react to the grandmother's compliments about him being a good man. He systematically has his men kill the family before finally killing the grandmother.

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