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A Good Man Is Hard to Find | Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

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A Good Man Is Hard to Find | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," published in a collection by the same name in 1953, is a renowned work of Southern Gothic fiction. O'Connor tells of a family road trip gone awry, where a vicious serial killer known as The Misfit accosts the group after an automobile accident. This deadly encounter evolves as family members are led into the woods to be executed. Only the grandmother is left alive to speak with the killer, and O'Connor brilliantly interweaves the killer's sinfulness with the selfish mentality of the old woman.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" blurs the lines between traditional notions of good and evil and, operating within a Christian framework, makes a powerful statement regarding the realistic nature of God in an inherently corrupt world. The story is most notable for its final scene of cruel violence, which Christian scholars have spent decades deciphering in relation to both the Old Testament and New Testament images of God.

1. The clause "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is referenced in a blues song.

The words had become something of a cliché by the time O'Connor wrote the story. Most notably, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" was the name of a blues song popularized by Bessie Smith in 1927. While the song is often described as having a "sultry" tone, O'Connor appropriated the phrase to describe the inherent lack of goodness in the world and in humanity, with the only example of true goodness being the sacrifice of Christ.

2. The clause "a good man is hard to find" also has biblical origins.

Although O'Connor didn't take her title from scripture verbatim, a similar sentiment is expressed in the Old Testament, in Micah 7:2. The passage in the King James version reads, "The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net." As a devout Catholic and a writer fascinated with theology, O'Connor likely found inspiration in this verse.

3. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is an example of the genre known as Christian realism.

Christian realism is a genre with a religious viewpoint, described by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s and 1940s, which states that humankind's corrupt nature prohibits people from experiencing the kingdom of God on earth. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" mirrors this position by showing acts of unspeakable brutality and evil while simultaneously having characters experience God's grace. Relating her story to the genre, O'Connor noted, "The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism."

4. The grandmother's cat is an allusion to an operetta.

The cat Pitty Sing is a reference to the character "Pitti-Sing" from the operetta The Mikado by famous Victorian-era theatrical collaborators Gilbert and Sullivan. In the operetta, Pitti-Sing is a schoolgirl, a minor character, who stumbles onstage alongside two other schoolgirls in the first act. O'Connor borrowed the name because The Mikado includes the famous line "let the punishment fit the crime," which relates to her story's theme of divine justice.

5. O'Connor thought violence was the best way to bring a stubborn character back to reality.

While many readers find the extreme violence described in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" contradictory to its theme of divine grace, O'Connor purposely included this element of brutality to draw attention to the ways grace can be realistically achieved on earth. She stated, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace."

6. A folk musician adapted "A Good Man is Hard to Find" into a song from the perspective of The Misfit.

Musician Sufjan Stevens included a song by the same name as O'Connor's story on his 2004 album Seven Swans. Sung from the perspective of the notorious killer, the song includes these lyrics:

Once in the backyard,
She was once like me,
She was once like me.
Twice when I killed them,
They were once at peace,
They were once like me.

7. O'Connor was displeased at the critical response to "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

O'Connor was upset by reviews that missed or misinterpreted the theological arguments she was trying to make in the story. She responded to criticism by saying, "I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call 'A Good Man' brutal and sarcastic."

8. Some Christian scholars believe both the grandmother and The Misfit are restored to a state of grace.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find" has been read as critically important by Christian scholars since its publication. A Christian reading of the story posits that, despite the inhumanness of the story's action, O'Connor portrays both the grandmother and the killer as having genuine "good" inside them, which is only brought to light through the grotesque violence of the climactic encounter.

9. O'Connor defended her inclusion of "freaks" in her work.

O'Connor included numerous characters in her writing, such as The Misfit, who were meant to be read as "freaks," or inherently evil, unlovable figures, in order to show that there could be goodness inside them. She once noted:

Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.

10. O'Connor was a notoriously poor speller.

Despite her literary prowess, O'Connor's editors were very familiar with the fact that her spelling was downright atrocious. As a writer, she focused more on development of her characters and the philosophical elements of her stories than the nuts and bolts of grammatical correctness.

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