A Good Man is Hard to Find
by Flannery O'Connor
A Granny Who Gets What She Wants
Let's face it: the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a manipulator. The first thing we learn about her is that she doesn't want to go to Florida because she's got relatives to see in Tennessee. The second thing we learn about her? "She was seizing every chance to try to change Bailey's mind" (2). Whenever something runs up against the grandmother's will, she tries to have it her way. Notice that she never does this directly or confrontationally, though. Her style is always a bit more subtle. How does she try to get Bailey not to go to Florida? Not by saying, "Well I want to go to Tennessee," but by trying to scare him with reports of a criminal on the loose and guilt trip him about taking his children there:
"Just you read it. 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." (1)
When that doesn't seem to get a reaction, her next recourse is to say that the children have already been to Florida. It's not about her, she implies, it's about the children. For some reason, though, we don't quite believe her.
The rest of the story shows the grandmother doing more of the same. We learn that Bailey doesn't want her to bring the cat. Instead of causing a ruckus (Bailey's the type who would make a big stink), the grandmother just hides the cat in a basket and secretly brings it along. The grandmother decides she wants to go see the old plantation, but knows Bailey won't want this. Her solution? Let the kids get him to do it:
"There was a secret panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, "and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . ." (45)
So the grandmother's seems to be selfish, and tries to satisfy her selfishness by manipulating people. A big question to consider is what kind of role does manipulation play in her encounter with The Misfit, when getting her way will amount to keeping her life?
A Lady of the Old South
Another important thing we learn about the grandmother is that she considers herself a lady. This characteristic of herself is very important:
Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her necklace she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (12)
If the grandmother's going to die, she better darn well die looking like a lady (she does, by the way, although her hat gets a bit disheveled). She'll also appeal to being a "lady" in trying to get The Misfit not to shoot her: "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" (86)
What does being a lady mean for the grandmother? As you can gather from the clothes, it's in part a matter of appearances, of looking "nice" and "respectable." It's also a matter of manners and of being respectful. She complains to her grandchildren that:
"In my time," said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then." (18)
She also makes similar laments to Red Sammy about people no longer being trustworthy.
Being a lady, for the grandmother, is tied to the way things were in the past. She has in mind the ladies of the Old South. And that means one more thing about being a lady: it's has to do with blood, with what kind of family into which you're born. We learn in passing that the grandmother's family had a plantation, the remains of which she points out to the kids (22). And we see those well-bred-lady ideas coming to the forefront in her encounter with The Misfit, a situation in which her notions are totally out of place:
"Listen," the grandmother almost screamed, "I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!" (88)
For the grandmother, being "good" amounts to coming from the right people and behaving as a lady (or as a gentleman should). In her own mind, the grandmother is certainly a "good person," as are all people of her social class.
A Master Manipulator, or Just a Lady Who's Gone Slightly Senile?
Now once the grandmother encounters The Misfit, and tries the "you're a good man" stuff, some readers think she's the same selfish manipulator we've known from the story's beginning. She's particularly selfish in that she doesn't even beg for anyone else's life. The first words out of her mouth (after she's recognized The Misfit) are, "You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" She keeps up this routine even as the rest of her family is taken to the woods and killed. From this "master manipulator" view, the grandmother is insincere and unconcerned with the rest of her family. And how, you might ask, could such a selfish woman be genuinely moved to love The Misfit? It seems to make sense to view her relationship with The Misfit as one more instance of clever manipulation.
Undoubtedly, the grandmother is selfish. But one problem with the theory of the grandmother as "master manipulator" is that she seems a bit senile. Think about her many acts of manipulation. Bringing the cat? Can she really expect that she'll be able to keep it hidden the whole time, and that Bailey won't blow a gasket when he inevitably discovers the feline friend? Then she forgets that the plantation is in a different state! And then, of course, there's her biggest mistake of all: telling The Misfit that she recognizes him. Anyone who's watched crime flicks knows revealing a murderer's identity is a horrible idea.
Plus, once she actually gets down to the work of "manipulating The Misfit," she doesn't seem adept. Telling a shirtless, oddly-dressed, gun-toting criminal who probably doesn't care what she says that he's a "good man," because he doesn't look like he has common blood would probably not be the best move in anyone's playbook.
In fact, all of the ways in which the grandmother tries to "manipulate" The Misfit seem like appeals that would only carry weight with someone like her. In the situation with The Misfit her arguments are irrelevant and inappropriate. She clings to what's familiar to her, even when it's beside the point. He's a serial killer, and probably doesn't care about shooting a lady if he's on the run and has been recognized.
Even if she's not a master manipulator, does she seem exceptionally selfish? That's a harder question. It's true that the grandmother doesn't make any pleas for anyone else. But then again, if you don't buy the manipulator thing, it's hard to see her cries of "Bailey Boy!" as deliberately faked. She probably is genuinely heart-broken to lose her son. If that's so, though, why doesn't she try to fight for him?
It could be that, even if losing her boy hurts, her number one concern is still her own skin. But we think this may be an unnecessarily harsh reading of the grandmother. If you see her as a somewhat delicate older person, rather than a diabolical genius, there are plenty of signs that she's in a state of shock, and not really thinking about what she's doing. In her panic, she may be instinctively trying to save her own life. It certainly looks as if she's losing control of herself and simply collapsing, especially towards the end:
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her. (135)
Even before then, we've already seen plenty of indications that the grandmother is barely keeping it together. From losing her "screaming" early on to saying things "desperately" to eventually losing her voice, it seems as if she is paralyzed by fear. Perhaps she feels powerless to save anybody else – her calls after Bailey definitely broadcast a certain sense of powerlessness.
Or perhaps some of her appeals to The Misfit's better nature are intended to save her family as well. She doesn't specifically beg for her own life for some time after the first "You wouldn't shoot a lady would you?" and responds to Bailey's being taken away with: "I know you're a good man," she said desperately. "You're not a bit common!" (98). At this point, she could be trying to change The Misfit's mind about Bailey.
Although she talks about Jesus a lot with The Misfit, the grandmother certainly doesn't seem to be deeply religious. She never brings it up in the rest of the story, and only brings up Jesus when she hopes that it might help save her life. Her first appeal is not a religious one; remember she begins with the "You're not from commonfolk!" business.
Religion would have a place in her life as a respectable "lady." And she probably does believe that "if you would pray, Jesus would help you" (118), as she tells The Misfit. According to her notions, a respectable lady should believe in a merciful God. But her faith doesn't seem to run very deep. She probably can't understand how God could let something horrible like this happen to her, a good woman. That may be why, when she cries "Jesus, Jesus," it sounds "as if she might be cursing" (128).
Whatever faith she has is overcome by the shock of what's happening to her. That comes out most obviously when she doubts Jesus (above), at which point the contrast between her shallow faith and The Misfit's deeper but more troubled thinking about Jesus is most apparent.
But does Granny get grace? At the end of the day, she's not a particularly admirable or religious woman. In fact, she seems to be a petty, superficial, and somewhat selfish woman. However, we don't think she's a bad human being. She's more of a flawed, comical, and somewhat pitiable person. O'Connor is less sentimental in painting her, and more attentive in bringing out her faults than another author could have been. We tend to feel sorry for her, though we don't admire her.
Unfortunately, the grandmother's character won't help us all that much in resolving the question about grace. Grace, as O'Connor sees it, is supposed to be something sudden, miraculous, undeserved, and not produced by the human being upon whom it acts. The grandmother only becomes a "good" woman (that's not to say she was bad before) when she leaves behind her superficial ideas about "goodness" and religion and "being a lady" for a moment and does something radically out of keeping with herself. That sudden transformation is the focal point of the story.
The grandmother doesn't exactly seem like the kind of person to give her love to a murderer. But that isn't a compelling argument against the "moment of grace" theory. There's no reason to think that her final gesture is just one last attempt to manipulate The Misfit. In fact, a lot in the story points against that interpretation.
That being said, you also can't argue for the grandmother's moment of grace on the basis of anything else in the story. As we've said elsewhere, how you read the story's ending can depend on whether you share O'Connor's own religious outlook. Then again, you might treat the grandmother's gesture as something like a moment of grace, without explaining it religiously. All we can say for sure about the moment of grace itself is that it will remain mysterious. That might be one reason why people continue reading "A Good Man is Hard to Find."