Religion in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"

Term Paper, 2006

19 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 Flannery O`Connor`s Biography
2.2 Summary of the Short Story:
2.3 Character Analysis
2.3.1 Bailey
2.3.2 The Children`s Mother
2.3.3 June Star and John Wesley
2.3.4 The Grandmother
2.3.5 The Misfit
2.4 Religion in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
2.4.1 The Jesus-Question
2.4.2 The Misfit`s Sense of Injustice and the Amnesia of His Crimes
2.4.3 The Grandmother`s Adoption of the Misfit and Her “Moment of Grace”
2.5 The Author`s Style
2.5.1 Foreshadowings
2.5.2 Symbolism
2.5.3 Irony, Humour and the Grotesque
2.5.4 Point of View and Narrator

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

At first sight “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O`Connor just appears like a grotesque story because it begins with a happy family trip and ends with a conversation about Jesus and six murders. But if the story is read under the aspect of religion, it has indeed got a deeper meaning. The fact that the author herself was a very religious woman, as will be obvious from her biography, and that religion appears in all of her works, shows that this short story can only be interpreted with the focus on religion.

2. Main Part

2.1 Flannery O`Connor`s Biography

To know about the life of Flannery O`Connor is important to understand her work. O`Connor`s life was characterized by her devotion to Roman Catholic faith and her Southern uprising, which is reflected in her stories. Therefore, her biography is important for the interpretation of A Good Man Is Hard To Find.

O`Connor was born on 25 March 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She was an only child in a middle class Southern Catholic family, whose father was a real estate broker.[1]

Her education to Roman Catholic faith began early as her first school years, which fell into the time of the Depression, took place in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was located near the house of her parents.[2] Already at the age of six years, she showed a talent for writing and illustrating her own stories. In 1938, her father was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus and therefore the family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, in the same year. Milledgeville was her mother`s birthplace and more Protestant and tranquil than Savannah. At High School, O`Connor wrote satirical articles and drew illustrations for the school paper. At that time, she was very interested in the genre of satire, but later she found that this genre`s limits were too narrow for her talent and religious concerns.[3] In 1941, O´Connor`s father died of his disease and therefore she and her mother moved to her mother`s family farm Andalusia, which is a few miles outside Milledgeville. O`Connor studied at the Georgia State College for Women and in 1945, she graduated with a major in social science.[4] During her college time, she was editor of the school newspaper and the literary journal. Then she moved to New York City and later to the Connecticut farmhouse of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, who were friends of hers from New York, and lived there for only a few months. During that time, she started working on her first novel Wise Blood.

At the age of 25, she showed first signs of lupus, the disease that had killed her father in 1941.[5] 5 Lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease, that infests the skin, inner organs, the kidney and brain and leads inevitably to death.[6] 6

O`Connor thought she had only three more years to live, like her father did after he had showed the first symptoms, but in fact she lived on for 14 more years. But instead of resigning over her fate, she saw it as an opportunity to refine her art of writing. She returned to the South and to Andalusia, where her mother could care for her.[7] 7 She spent the rest of her life writing, visiting friends and reading.[8] 8

Her first novel Wise Blood was published in 1952, but the reviews were bad because they branded it as only grotesque and nihilistic. Therefore, O`Connor immediately began working on her second novel The Violent Bear It Away. Then she turned to writing short stories, which were honoured with three O. Henry Awards.[9] 9 Her short fiction shows autobiographical influences because The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Good Country People, A Circle in the Fire and other stories contain a woman, who lives on a farm with her solitary daughter.[10] 10 Although O`Connor could only walk on crutches from 1955 on, she travelled to Lourdes and to Rome and lectured at several colleges. In 1960, The Violent Bear It Away was published, but again the reviews were bad as the novel was labelled anti-Catholic and therefore was misunderstood. O`Connor died on 3 August 1964 at her home in Milledgeville.[11] 11

2.2 Summary of the Short Story:

The story begins with a seemingly happy family trip from Atlanta to Florida. The participants of the trip are Bailey, who is the father of the family, his wife, his children, who are called June Star and John Wesley, their baby and the grandmother, who is Bailey`s mother.

Before the trip, the grandmother tries to persuade Bailey rather to go to Tennessee than to Florida because she wants to visit some of her friends there. She warns him that a convict called “The Misfit” has escaped from the Federal Penitentiary and is on his way toward Florida. In her opinion, it would be irresponsible to go the same direction. Neither Bailey, nor his wife react to what the grandmother says, only June Star and John Wesley talk to her in a rude way and imply that they would rather want the grandmother to stay at home.

The following day, the grandmother hides her cat, Pitty Sing, in the car, as she knows for sure that Bailey doesn`t want to take the cat with him on the journey. The grandmother`s fear is that the cat might unintentionally turn on one of the gas burners and suffocate. During the drive, the grandmother comments on the landscape, but she is being ignored by the rest of the family as the children are reading comic books, their mother is sleeping and Bailey is driving without talking. Only June Star and John Wesley react to the grandmother`s comments and stories, but again in a rude and disrespectful way.

Then they have a break for a snack at The Tower, which is a filling station and dance hall at the same time. The grandmother talks to the owner of The Tower, who is called Red Sammy Butts, about the Misfit and his possible prescence in their region. When they continue their journey, the grandmother remembers an old mansion with a plantation near Toombsboro, that she has once visited in her youth. As she thinks this mansion to be in the neighbourhood and as she knows exactly that Bailey won`t be willing to look at an old house, she invents a secret panel, in which some silver is hidden, in order to make the children want to look at the house. The grandmother`s plan is successful and the children start to whine until Bailey finally agrees to go to the mansion and follows the grandmother`s description of the way. Suddenly, the grandmother remembers that the plantation, that they are looking for, is not in Georgia, where they are located, but in Tennessee. Consequently, the grandmother is so startled, that she hits the basket with her foot, where she has hidden Pitty Sing before. As a result, the cat springs onto Bailey and the car turns over. Just then, a car arrives with three men in it, of whom everybody has a gun. One of them is recognized by the grandmother as The Misfit and this moment is virtually the death sentence for the whole family. The Misfit and the grandmother get along very well with each other and while they are talking about his parents, being in prison, praying and Jesus, his mates, Hiram and Bobby Lee, kill first Bailey and John Wesley and then his wife, the baby and June Star in the woods. Finally, The Misfit shoots the grandmother, after she has tried to touch him on the shoulder.

2.3 Character Analysis

2.3.1 Bailey

Bailey is ignorant towards his mother because she is talking to him and even “rattling the newspaper at his bald head”[12] 12, but nevertheless he doesn`t look up to her or even answer her. In the beginning, Bailey appears like the strong leader of the family, who has everybody and everything under his control: the grandmother may not take Pitty Sing with her because Bailey doesn`t “like to arrive at a motel with a cat” (118) and he is the one, who decides whether or not the family is going to look at the house with the secret panel. On the other side, he is very taciturn as he hardly says anything or “he only glare[s] at her” (121) when the grandmother asks him to dance. He is also quite irritable and nervous because when his children wail for visiting the mansion, “[h]is jaw [is] as rigid as a horseshoe” (123). Finally, he explodes and tells his family three times to shut up. Therefore, he makes a very rude and cold-hearted impression. Actually, this is the first time in the story that Bailey becomes active and really says something.

Bailey`s reiterations are striking as he first tells his family repeatedly to shut up, then he explains to them twice that “[t]his is the one and only time” (124) he is going to stop the car and finally, when he is confronted with death through the Misfit, he can only repeat that “[they]`re in a terrible predicament” (128). Probably Bailey`s reiterations are the reason for why the author has equipped him with “bright blue parrots” (125) on his shirt. His reiterations show that Bailey has a fixed behaviour-pattern: as soon as something disturbs him or a problem appears, he repeats his usual sentences over and over again, trying to restore his order and to regain control.

When the family meets the Misfit, Bailey is the only one of them who sees the danger of their situation and he is right when he says that “[n]obody realizes what this is” (128). He tries to gain control over the situation and tells his family to “let [him] handle this” (ibid.). Thus, he wants to break out of his passivity and and significantly is “squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward” (ibid.), but he fails as “he remain[s] perfectly still” (ibid.).

In the course of events, Bailey changes from the strong leader of the family to a weak and broken man because “his voice crack[s]” (ibid.) and he has to “support himself against a […] pine trunk” (ibid.). When he finally faces death, he expresses his first nice words toward the grandmother as he calls her “Mama” (ibid.).

2.3.2 The Children`s Mother

Like the grandmother, the mother has got no real name, but is always referred to as “the children`s mother”. Her outward appearance is described in a grotesque way as her “face [is] as broad and innocent as a cabbage” (117) and she wears “a green head-kerchief that [has] two points on the top like a rabbit`s ears” (ibid.). According to her looks, the mother stands in sharp contrast to the grandmother because whereas the grandmother attaches great importance to a lady-like dress-code, the mother “still [has] on slacks and […] a green kerchief” (118) on the second day.

Like Bailey, his wife is also ignoring the grandmother because when the grandmother tries to persuade them to go to east Tennessee, “[t]he children`s mother [doesn`t] seem to hear her” (117) and during the drive, the mother doesn`t listen or react to the grandmother`s comments on the passing landscape, but she “[has] gone back to sleep” (119).

What is striking about the mother, is her passivity: she only expresses three sentences in the whole story. She also doesn`t seem to have her own will because when the grandmother wants to hold the baby, “the children`s mother passe[s] him over the front seat to her” (119) and when June Star wants to tap, “the children`s mother put[s] in another dime” (121). She also doesn`t reprove her children when firstly John Wesley is disrespectful toward his grandmother by calling Tennessee “a hillbilly dumping ground” (119) and secondly when June Star is rude to Red Sammy`s wife by telling her that she “wouldn`t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks” (121). Anyway, it is not the mother, but the grandmother, who educates the children as she disciplines June Star when she is rude and she is the one, who orders the chilrden not to throw the garbage out of the window.

The mother becomes active only two times in the story. The first time is when she orders that “[they]`ll all stay in the car” (124) and the second time is when she shouts at the Misfit where his henchmen are taking her husband. But when the Misfit doesn`t react to her question, she falls back into her passivity and only replies “[y]es, thank you” (131), when he asks her to join Bailey in the woods.

2.3.3 June Star and John Wesley

Although the children are often rude and disrespectful, they are at the same time very honest and direct. As the grandmother doesn`t want to go to Florida, it is legitimate when John Wesley asks her “why dontcha stay at home?” (117). But in spite of their rudeness, the children are the only ones of the family who respond to the grandmother. What is remarkable about June Star is that she is too grown up for her young age. She is very proud and has already got fixed principles because she knows for sure that “she wouldn`t marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday” (120). Even when she is confronted with three armed strangers, she asks them fearlessly and rude “What are you telling US what to do for?” (127). Her fearlessness and pride don`t even leave her when she faces death because still then she tells her killer that “ [h]e reminds [her] of a pig” (131). John Wesley also proves his courage when he asks the Misfit “What you got that gun for?” (126). But when he faces death, he expresses feelings toward his father for the first time as he “[catches] hold of his father`s hand” (128).

But there are also some grotesque features about the children. They are quite sensation-seeking when they scream three times “We`ve had an ACCIDENT!” (125, 126) after the car has turned over, and the fact that they scream it with “delight” (125) makes the situation even more absurd. Furthermore, June Star makes a cold-hearted and brutal impression when she says disappointedly that “nobody`s killed” (ibid.) after she has discovered that the grandmother is still alive. The children also appear involiable as everybody has to recover after the accident “except the children” (ibid.). The monkey outside The Tower feels this cold-heartedness and fearlessness of the two children and therefore “[gets] on the highest limb as soon as he [sees] the children […] run toward him” (121).

2.3.4 The Grandmother

Like the children`s mother, the grandmother does`t have a personal name because she actually isn`t an individual person but she conforms to the general stereotype of a grandmother: she talks carelessly all day long and tells stories about her time when “[p]eople [still] did right” (119). She seems to still live in the past because she tells the children stories about the time when she was “a maiden lady” (120) and during The Tennessee Waltz, “[s]he sway[s] her head from side to side and pretend[s] she [is] dancing in her chair” (121). But she doesn´t talk realistically about the old times, instead she embellishes the past in her memory as with the mansion she once visited that had “six white columns across the front” (123) and “an avenue of oaks leading up to it” (ibid.). The grandmother also dresses in the Old Southern style with “white cotton gloves” (118) and “a navy blue straw sailor hat” (ibid.). She attaches great importance to small details like the “bunch of white violets on the brim [of her hat]” (118) or the “purple spray of cloth violets” (ibid.), that she has pinned at her neckline. Thus, it is very important for her to look like a lady, but on the other side, she behaves like a racist when she talks about a “pickaninny” (119) and “[l]ittle niggers” (ibid.) and therefore she appears not at all lady-like. The grandmother is a very extrovert person in contrast to her son and his wife, as she talks about the landscape during the trip, she tells the children stories and is “very dramatic” (120). She cares for her cat and educates the children, and she talks to strangers like Red Sammy and the Misfit in an intimate way. She also talks to Bailey and his wife although they are not answering her. Even the baby seems to ignore her and to be bored by her talking because he only occasionally gives her “a faraway smile” (119).


[1] Cf. Evan Goodwin, Little blue light - Flannery O`Connor. 12 May 2003. 11.09.05 <> 1.

[2] Cf. Margaret Earley Whitt, Understanding Flannery O`Connor (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995) 6.

[3] Cf. Goodwin 1.

[4] Cf. Whitt 6-7.

[5] Cf. Goodwin 2.

[6] Cf. Theodor von Keudell, Das Große Lexikon der Modernen Medizin (Bergisch Gladbach: Lingen Verlag, 1994) 259-60.

[7] Cf. Goodwin 2.

[8] Cf. Whitt 7.

[9] Cf. Goodwin 2.

[10] Cf. Whitt 7.

[11] Cf. Goodwin 3.

[12] Flannery O`Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974) 117. All parenthetical references follow this edition.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Religion in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
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religion, flannery, connor, good, hard, find
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Eleonora Reis (Author), 2006, Religion in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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