A varying bunch of us seniors have been studying literature together for two years. Our class is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Georgia, which offers classes, clubs and social events for mature adults.
We just read A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a short story by Flannery O’Connor, first published in 1953 when she was 28 years old, then again in a book of the same name in 1955.
The story involves a deadly confrontation in rural Georgia between a criminal, The Misfit, and a family heading to vacation in Florida. The final scene portends Christian salvation juxtaposed with violence and death, and redemption occurs in so ordinary a way as to invite us to reflect on our own prospects.
The plot involves an Atlanta, Georgia, family with a husband, Bailey, his wife, and their three children. Also part of the family is the grandmother, Bailey’s mother, who is a meddling, self-centered old woman bent on control. She wanted the family to vacation in Tennessee, not Florida. From news reports of an escaped murderer, The Misfit, on the loose in southern Georgia, she cautioned her son about heading south, “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” But the family kept its Florida plan.
The grandmother hid her cat in a basket and sneaked it into the car against her son’s wishes. She chattered constantly in the back seat, pointing out scenery and admonishing her grandchildren toward one or another improvements in their characters.
On the way she recalled an old house on a dirt road and manipulated the family into turning to go see it. While riding along the dirt road she had picked, the grandmother remembered the old house was actually in Tennessee, not Georgia, and the memory so embarrassed her that she moved suddenly, unsettling the cat. It sprang into the open and landed on Bailey’s shoulder. He swerved into the ditch, and the car rolled over and stopped.
As the family recovered from the accident, The Misfit and his cohorts drove slowly along the road and into the story with guns ready. The grandmother recognized him and began to plead through flattery, “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you? … I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell. … I just know you’re a good man. You’re not a bit common!”
After a brief reconnoiter, the criminals led the father and son to the woods to be shot. Next, the mother, baby and daughter were led to the woods and shot.
At the end, the grandmother and The Misfit were alone in the ditch, and she continued to wheedle, “You’ve got good blood!. I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
She tried to bring The Misfit to Jesus and coaxed him to pray for help—but to no avail. In a final redemptive moment, the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant; she saw The Misfit’s face “twisted close to her own,” and she murmured, “Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched his shoulder. He sprang back, shot her three times in the chest and she died with her legs crossed under her.
In that clear-headed instant the grandmother saw kinship with her murderer, extended a touch of recognition and compassion, and finally died on the cross of her own legs.
O’Connor is known as a “Catholic” and “Southern” writer who dealt frequently with Christian themes involving colorful Southern characters. She believed that her religious convictions freed her to observe the world as it is. By knowing why she existed—to participate slowly in Christ’s redemption— she didn’t constantly adore an over-inflated ego. She wrote in an essay, The Church and the Fiction Writer, that a fiction writer “cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns … to be humble in the face of what-is” (O’Connor, 808).
In this story, the grandmother redeemed herself in honesty and compassion, but only at the edge of death. Until the final moments, she was preoccupied with pressing her desires, first on her family, then on The Misfit. Her moment of clearheadedness—perhaps a moment of grace—appeared suddenly without explanation.
How can we see the world clearly? Are we living in elaborate weaves of desire and ego, seeing mostly what we want, being with others for our own ends? Our own redemption, it seems, lies in answering these questions repeatedly through days, weeks, and years of practice.
We will see clearly and live compassionately when we shrink our egos and lace our desires into a timeless fabric of idealized Christian living, a fabric we weave decision-by-decision through all the smallness of daily life. That is the truthful and compassionate living O’Connor refers to, I think, by “… our slow participation in [Christ’s redemption]” (O’Connor, 809).
Older people often live out patterns of behavior that strengthen with age. A manipulative old woman may grow more so over time. If our patterns involve overripe desires and strong egos, as in the case of the grandmother, we will likely need special effort to limit our egos and follow a path like Christ’s—one of truth and compassion. Or there may be no redemption until the moment of ultimate clarity—when we face death.
O’Connor, Flannery: Collected Works. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: LIterary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1988.