Study Guide

A Good Man is Hard to Find

By Flannery O'Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find Introduction

A Good Consensus on "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Is Hard To Find

It's a little hard to know how to introduce a story as totally polarizing as "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

  • Some people think it's a cynical tale, uncompromising in the way it brings out human pettiness and manipulation. 
  • Others think it's a uproarious black comedy—like a film by the Coen Bros or a twisted R. Crumb comic.
  • Still others think it's an uplifting depiction of the mysterious ways God works through human beings over and above their own wills.
  • Or you could think of it, quite simply, as a horror story.

However you choose to define "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"—and we usually define it as "all of the above"—chances are pretty good that you're going to be marked (or should we say scarred?) for life after reading it.

The setup: a family (dotty grandma, bratty kids, angry cat) set out on a road trip to Florida. Being cooped up in the car together brings out everyone's worst qualities: the children are annoying and entitled, the grandma is wistfully nostalgic and racist, and the dad is a grouch. Plus, the grownups are a little nervous—and a little titillated—to know that a dangerous murderer named The Misfit has escaped from the penitentiary and is also headed to the Sunshine State.

We're not going to give you all the details about what happens when the family gets lost on a disused back road...but we will let you know that it's frankly disturbing.

A Good Critical Opinion on "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" Isn't Hard To Find

Even during O'Connor's lifetime, her works provoked strong reactions among readers and critics. The naysayers found them consistently grotesque in their depiction of debased, repulsive (and usually unsympathetic) characters and their spectacular displays of violence or cruelty. "A Good Man is Hard to Find"—which is O'Connor's most popular story—frequently stood at the center of discussion. 

O'Connor, though, saw all of her fiction—including this story—as realistic, demandingly unsentimental, but ultimately hopeful. Her inspiration as a writer came from a deeply felt faith in Roman Catholicism, which she claimed informed all of her stories.

She wrote:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. (Source: The Habit of Being, p. 90).

A recurrent theme throughout her writings was the action of divine grace in the horribly imperfect, often revolting, and generally funny world of human beings. And this theme is out in force in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

This story affords perhaps the best place to start in exploring the work of O'Connor—after all, it was the 1955 collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories that established Flannery O'Connor as a major voice in American literature, and a modern master of the short story.

Will you love this story? Will you hate it? That's as hard to say as a good man is to find—it really depends on your worldview and the strength of your stomach.

But what's not impossible to determine is this fact: you're not going to forget "A Good Man To Find" anytime soon.

What is A Good Man is Hard to Find About and Why Should I Care?

So: is a good man hard to find?

We know: this question sounds like it might have come straight off the cover of Cosmo ("30 Tips For Finding A Good Man—And Wowing Him"). But it really alludes to a very philosophical, very-much-not-Cosmo-esque question of ethics: what makes a person good?

And that's a question that "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" confronts head on.

By pitting an average old grandma against a criminal who appears certifiably evil by just about anyone's standards, Flannery O'Connor's surprisingly deep little story really opens up that question.

  • Is being "good" a matter of being respectable or decent? Having a good upbringing, or good blood? Being religious? Kind and honest? Or is it something more demanding?
  • How does genuine goodness square with the way human beings actually are—with their pettiness, their selfishness, their annoying little quirks and vanities?
  • What does it mean to be not good, and what does it mean to be evil?
  • And—a particularly important question in the story—do we need religion to answer any, or all, of these questions?

(Yup; Flannery O'Connor essentially crams a five-hundred-page philosophical treatise into a fifteen page story.)

And the deep dive into ethics doesn't stop there: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" also makes us think about the possibility of dramatic transformation in a person.

Having just lost all of her family and threatened with death herself, the old grandmother appears to undergo a sudden and miraculous change of heart: she reaches out lovingly to the very person who has killed those she loves (and is about to kill her) and tells him that he's her baby.

This act, of course, opens up ever more Q's on the nature of goodness: how can we understand such an act of forgiveness? Can it only be understood religiously, as O'Connor would argue? What might the extreme situation have to do with bringing about such a moment? Can such a sudden transformation really happen at all, or should we dismiss it?

We'll stop asking you these questions...because we know that you'll stay up all night pondering these on your own after reading this powerful little story.

A Good Man is Hard to Find Resources

Websites

The Flannery O'Connor Collection
The official O'Connor site on the web, particularly for researchers. Has biography, resources, and also manages access to O'Connor's manuscripts (not online).

The Comforts of Home: Flannery O'Connor Information Center
Another good O'Connor resource on the net. Has biography, essays, links, etc.

The Andalusia Foundation
The website for the Andalusia Foundation, dedicated to preserving and promoting the understanding of O'Connor's work. It's also responsible for preserving her farmhouse.

"A Good Man is Hard to Find"
An online version of the story at Pegasus.

Videos

Black Hearts Bleed Red
Jeri Cain Rossi's 1992 adaptation of the story. Fifteen minutes.

Sufjan Stevens "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
Artist Sufjan Stevens wrote and recorded a song inspired by the story. Here's a live video of him performing the song.

Audios

Flannery O'Connor reads "A Good Man is Hard to Find"!
A link to a radio station site that has O'Connor reading both "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and a lecture she wrote entitled "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction." File is in Real audio.

Images

Flannery O'Connor
Perhaps the most famous photo of Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery O'Connor with Peacock
A crutch-bound Flannery with one of her peacocks.

Flannery's Farmhouse
Flannery O'Connor's farmhouse near Milledgeville, Georgia.

Flannery's Workspace
Flannery's desk and typewriter.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
The original cover for the 1955 collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find.