Study Guide

A Good Man is Hard to Find Good vs. Evil

By Flannery O'Connor

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Good vs. Evil

"A Good Man is Hard to Find"
The Misfit

"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life." (142)

This is the reversal of what the Misfit said earlier about meanness being the only pleasure in life. What he's just done – shooting the grandmother dead – merits being called "mean," yet apparently he doesn't feel good about it. Perhaps he's fallen into complete despair, since now there's nothing left to give him pleasure. This would mean that killing the grandmother seriously affected him. Or perhaps it's the beginning of his transformation into a good man. Perhaps both.

[The Misfit:] "I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain't recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come." (113)

That The Misfit literally can't remember what he did seems unlikely. How could he forget what sent him to prison in the first place? Maybe if he were innocent and falsely accused it would make sense. However, we know from what he does and says in the story that he's far from being either. It's more likely his "not remembering" either indicates that he doesn't feel as if his past actions are wrong or doesn't take them seriously.

"No pleasure but meanness," [The Misfit] said and his voice had become almost a snarl. (134)

The Misfit commits crimes – killing people and destroying thing – because there's nothing else for him to do. He's not motivated by any desire for gain, and he doesn't believe in the concepts of right and wrong. Destruction seems to be the only thing that gives him pleasure. But you might wonder: given that he recognizes what he does to be "mean," doesn't he have some sense of right and wrong? Could it be that it's just because something is wrong that it gives him pleasure to do it?

"No, lady," The Misfit said while he was buttoning it up, "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." (123)

Here again, The Misfit mentions "forgetting," and it doesn't seem like we can take him literally. What really makes The Misfit a bad person is that he doesn't have a sense of guilt. He's not troubled or haunted afterwards by what he does; none of his crimes feels wrong to him. That's why he can speak of forgetting what he's done. Even if he did literally forget his crimes, (perhaps after all he's committed so many he's really forgotten some), this could only happen because they don't affect him at all. They "mattered" so little that it was possible to forget them.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." (140)

Here someone besides the grandmother is talking about being "good," only this time it's the person who's obviously not good. After all the grandmother said about "good people" and The Misfit himself being good, The Misfit now judges that she would have been good in the unlikely circumstance of him continuously threatening to shoot her. What does The Misfit mean when he says this? It looks like he's recognizing that the grandmother's final act, for which he killed her, was genuinely good. This implies that it was her confrontation with him, and with death, which made her good. But if the grandmother only became good at that moment, what does it mean to be good?

Red Sammy

"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"

"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once. (36-37)

The grandmother, barely knowing Red Sammy at all, is awfully quick to call him a "good man." Why does she do that? Does the grandmother really mean it, or is she just trying to charm Red Sammy quickly? Does she play fast and loose with the word "good," and apply it to everyone she deems "respectable"? Does she think Red Sammy's good because he was trusting and willing to help decent-seeming people? However you look at it, the grandmother appears to use the word flippantly.

"A good man is hard to find," Red Sammy said. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember that day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more." (43)

When Sammy complains that a good man is hard to find, he seems to mean that trustworthy people are hard to find. To him, "good" means "decent" or "respectable," like it does for the grandmother. Of course, the grandmother – herself certainly a "good" person – and the family will encounter somebody who's "the other kind," (see "What's Up with the Title?"), so there's something humorous yet foreboding about what Sammy says. But there's also a more serious irony because the encounter with genuine evil will pose the question of what it really means to be good. It could be that it means a lot more than Sammy or the grandmother think it does.

The Grandmother

"You must have stolen something," [the grandmother] said.

The Misfit sneered slightly. "Nobody had nothing I wanted," he said. "It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie." (116-117)

The grandmother, still trying to convince The Misfit that he's a good man, assumes that the crime he committed must have been the most "respectable" kind, (i.e., stealing). She knows better; it was she who brought our attention to The Misfit's being dangerous (presumably a killer) at the beginning of the story. The Misfit's response is revealing. He claims that he's not interested in crime because he wants to get rich or take things from others. What, then, could be his motivation? Nothing, but the pleasure of destroying things, out of "meanness."

[The grandmother:] "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. 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)

We get a lot in this seemingly ridiculous warning from the grandmother. First, it makes introduces The Misfit right at the beginning of the story, and gives the reader the feeling that a confrontation with him is inevitable. It also sets up the story's great irony: the grandmother will be the one who brings everyone to The Misfit, by taking them down the wrong road, by indirectly causing the accident, and then by telling The Misfit that she recognizes him. Even if the encounter with The Misfit is unintended, should the grandmother to be faulted for this, especially in the moment when she reveals she knows who he is? That she even brings up "conscience" here is also suggestive. The grandmother is implicitly setting herself up as a "good" person, since good people are people who follow their conscience.

"Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." (129)

The Misfit claims not to understand how what he's done that merits the punishment he's received. Is it because he doesn't feel what he's done to be "wrong," and doesn't deserve punishment at all? That's what some of his earlier remarks suggest. Or could it be because he thinks everybody commits acts that are "wrong," but only some get punished? Or does he actually think that what he's done is wrong but doesn't deserve to be punished as harshly as it is?

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