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People may have preconceived ideas of what they believe it means to be good, but it seems like a far cry from true perfection. Not only is a “good man hard to find,” but a good man is impossible to find at least according to what Mary Flannery O’Connor’s writing suggests. In the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find, the author uses symbolism, realistic characters, and a theme of grace to illustrate humanity’s problem and provide a solution.
One of the reasons that A Good Man is Hard to Find is such a profound story is because of its intricate layers of symbolism. There are several symbols that seem to foreshadow the family’s brutal destruction at the end of the story. For instance, the family stops to eat some of Red Sammy’s barbecue; their exchange with the owners is almost prophetic as they discuss the possibility of encountering the Misfit who escaped from the penitentiary. More foreshadowing includes, when the family passes through a town named “Toombsboro,” which implies that their doom is awaiting them. After the family’s car accident, the three convicts drive up in “a big black battered hearse-like automobile” (O’Connor 228). The three convicts themselves are thought to be symbolic.
The Misfit with two other thugs, who together comprise, like Dante’s three-headed Satan, an infernal perversion of the Trinity. Indeed, like Satan, The Misfit is an anti-Christ. Jesus loved children, whereas children make the anti-Christ Misfit “nervous.” (qtd. in Bethea 247)
Another way in which O’Connor uses symbolism is with the different clothing that the characters wear. The clothing that each character wears is symbolic of how they each had their own facade, or way of covering up their imperfections. The grandma is extremely prim and proper; she takes pride in her appearance. Ironically, she wanted to make sure that if an accident did happen that “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor 225). There is a sharp contrast between what the grandma wears and what Bailey’s wife wears. While the grandma is arrayed in dress and hat, Bailey’s wife is just wearing slacks and a green handkerchief. Although Bailey is wearing a yellow shirt with parrots on it—typically thought of as a tourist or party shirt, he does not seem to be having much fun. He is all business, just driving to get there. When the Misfit first shows up he isn’t wearing a shirt at all until Hiram and Bobby Lee murder Bailey. Then they give Bailey’s shirt to their leader, the Misfit, to wear. Also the Misfit is said to have been wearing spectacles. Ironically the characters’ attire, and its contrast to their real selves, shows that their imperfections are still very evident. This, in a sense, shows how each character is really unfit for receiving grace. O’Connor’s use of symbolism is very effective in subtly getting her ideas across.
O’Connor’s portrayal of her characters almost reaches the point of caricature (Haerens 179). An example of an unflattering description is when O’Connor describes Bailey’s wife as having a face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage” (O’Connor 224). Red Sammy is described as having a stomach that hung over his trousers like “a sack of meal swaying under his shirt” (O’Connor 226). While the author gives less-than-flattering description of her characters’ appearance, their personality traits are even more undesirable. Bailey is impatient and short tempered. His wife seems to be overly passive. John Wesley and June Star are both highly obnoxious and disrespectful. Red Sammy is lazy and rude to his wife. Though all the characters each have many foibles, the Misfit and the grandmother seem to possess the most noticeable imperfections. The Misfit is a criminal on the loose; his imperfections are the most blatant. While the grandmother’s imperfections appear to be more tolerable, she is vain, hypocritical, and manipulative. O’Connor skillfully uses characters that seem overly-exaggerated in both physical appearance and personally traits so that the reader will better understand the imperfect state of all humanity.
The main theme in O’Connor’s short story is people’s different ways of perceiving life and their certain blindness to reality. O’Connor’s own perception of life is one that sees the foibles of humanity. Her humorous observations and descriptions almost make these qualities endearing in her characters. But she also confronts the reader with the gritty reality of evil and injustice in the world. This form of shocking writing reveals even more the religious theme of “redemptive grace in a fallen world” (Haerens 178). In the story each character is blind to some aspect of reality. Bailey is strictly focused on driving and getting to their destination. John Wesley and June Star are blind to the scenery around them so they resort to entertaining themselves with reading the comics. The mother is apparently just along for the ride; she is a follower. Then there is the grandmother who sees the scenery as being beautiful, though she is very blind to the pending reality. Ironically the Misfit wears spectacles, yet he is blind to understanding the meaning of grace. After he shoots the grandma, he takes his glasses off to clean them. This action could represent his first step to gaining a new kind of sight. In an earlier comment to the grandmother, he says that if Jesus was who He says He was, then one should either “throw away everything and follow him, and if he isn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left…by killing somebody. No pleasure but meanness,…” (O’Connor 230). After the murder, he refutes his own conclusion in reply to his accomplice, “It’s no real pleasure in life” (O’Connor 231).
Many peoples’ first reaction to reading A Good Man is Hard to Find is the feeling of wrongness because the story starts off being very humorous and then it has a grisly, tragic ending. This story shows that the author, the characters, and the reader, all wear their own perceptions of life with areas of blindness as well. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a powerful apologetic for a Christian faith that leads to transformed lives rather than empty religious ceremonialism” (McClinton-Temple 4) put on like clothing.
Bethea, Arthur F. Summer 2006, Vol. 64 Issue 4, p246-249, 4p. Literary Reference Center Plus. EBSCO Host. University of Massachusetts—Lowell.
Haerens, Margaret. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 1996. 178-241. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. LINCC, Library Information Network for Community Colleges. 10 April 2012
McClinton-Temple, Jennifer ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom's Literary Reference Online.
O’ Connor, Mary Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. LIT. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. 224. Print.