How to Find a Good Man
One of the most enigmatic short stories in American literature contains scary truths — and a secret that’s to die for.
It should have been a happy day.
A Georgia family of six finished breakfast before heading out by car for a vacation in Florida. But something wasn’t right. The children’s grandmother, who lived with them, wanted to visit relatives in Tennessee. When her son failed to respond, she pointed to a newspaper story about three murderous convicts led by The Misfit, who were also headed to Florida. So the family set out for Tennessee.
If you’ve ever taken an English class, chances are you’ve come across Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” And if you’re like me, you were left scratching your head at the end. What the heck does this story mean, and why are kids who can’t even vote expected to write papers about it?
When the students turn in their papers, it’s the teacher’s desk that will covered with horse manure. It’s the teachers who’ll have to shovel through and grade them all.
But there might be another reason for assigning this story.
What if there’s something really important about it? Something most of us miss when we are 18.
If you’ve put off thinking about this for years, as I have, you may one day find yourself on the receiving end of a plea for help from a friend or family member. This is what happens when people find out you’ve spent the greater part of your life mucking about with English.
Surely someone like you understands the meaning of O’Connor’s enigmatic story set in the 1950s. At least you knew she was from Georgia, suffered from lupus, and died at 39 — yet retained a remarkable, though dark, sense of humor.
It is impossible in such moments to confess
That you schlepped through school analyzing important but distracting literary devices like dialogue, theme, and character development. Or writing five-page papers about O’Connor’s use of setting-as-character in sentences like this:
“Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.”
But what may have been good enough for school can never be good enough for loved ones. Having shoveled a fair amount of horse manure themselves, kids know it when they see it. Yes, they will say, but what does the story mean?
For me, there was only one thing to do. Promise to circle back. But circling back meant I had to find my copy of O’Connor’s collected works. Which meant I had to kick myself yet again for not alphabetizing my home library before it grew to a few million volumes. Fortunately, I found a PDF online and could save the self-flagellation for later.
One of the scariest things
About the unreconstructed South of the 1950s was a shirtless redneck with a gun. If you were traveling with your family, this is not who you’d want to run into after wrecking your car on a dirt road in Georgia.
But that’s what happens in O’Connor’s story. The last people the vacationing family sees will be The Misfit and his two companions. Unfortunately, it’s the thoughtless, chatty grandmother who recognizes them from the newspaper— and is stupid enough to tell them so.
I read the story before going to bed last weekend and was left scratching my head just as I did as a student. In hopes of finding something intelligent to say the next morning, I searched online, but nothing seemed to satisfy.
There was all this stuff about The Misfit’s nihilism, and whether the grandmother really believed what she said about Jesus, prayer, and raising Lazarus from the dead. There were scholarly papers on religion, O’Connor’s Catholicism, and the grisly, heartless nature of the story’s crime. But I still didn’t know what it meant. So I gave up and went to sleep.
In the past, I’d always focused on the story’s references to good. It’s one of those qualitative words we use all the time, which doesn’t really tell us anything. What does it mean to be good anyway? Although the word comes up several times in the story, O’Connor never clearly defines it.
But miracles sometimes happen after a decent night’s sleep and a double espresso. O’Connor’s message finally reached me.
Here’s what I’d been missing: It’s hard to find a good man if all you ever look for is evil. That’s why the grandmother fails to find one. Despite her Christianity, she only looks for the negative. She’s the one who first brings up the escaped convicts, complains about other people, and fails to behave like a Christian herself. She’s also the one who keeps mentioning The Misfit. In a way, she calls him forth, conjures him.
It’s only when she has lost her family and is about to die that she tries to call forth goodness. She searches for some good in The Misfit. Even reaches out to him as one of her own. It’s in the hour of her death that she tries to embody loving kindness. But it’s too late.
The last word
That’s why the Misfit’s comment at the end of the story is its most important line.
“She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
What we see depends entirely upon what we look for. For people like the grandmother, who makes jokes about niggers and pickaninnies, and for the story’s other characters who complain about Europeans, thieves, and scammers, or spend their days imagining the misdeeds of murderous convicts — a good man is definitely hard to find. And always will be.
Teachers who make us read this story are doing us a favor. The message is important even it takes years to sink in. The story tells us to remember every day that we are going to die. This is a certainty that can come at any moment. We want to move through life fully aware of this. The way we might if someone pointed a gun at us. Only then do we live fully. Only then is it possible to find good men everywhere.
I was ready for my phone call now. When it rang, I might not have all the answers, but at least I wouldn’t be shoveling horse manure at anyone this time.
© 2021 Andrew Jazprose Hill
Thanks for reading.