Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - an Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

30 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Flannery O‘Connor
2.1. Biography
2.2. Relationships
2.3. Bibliography and Awards

3. Historical and Socio-Cultural Background
3.1. The Southern Literary Renaissance
3.2. The Cold War Narrative
3.2.1 The Myth of Pastoral Innocence
3.2.2. An American “Culture Religion“
3.2.3. The South and Segregation

4. Defining the Style
4.1. O’Connor’s Church
4.2. The Southern Grotesque

5. Textual Analysis
5.1. The Plot
5.2. The Characters
5 .2.1 The grandmother
5.2.2. The Misfit
5.2.3. June Star and John Wesley
5.2.4. Bailey and the children’s mother
5.2.5. Red Sammy Butts
5.3. Themes and Motifs
5.3.1 The Concept of Grace
5.3.2. Good vs. Evil
5.3.3. Southern Manners and Protestantism
5.3.4. Dysfunctional Family
5.4. Narrative Technique
5.5. Presentation of Settings
5.6. Cultural Signifiers
5.6.1. “The Tennessee Waltz”, tap-dancing and “Gone with the Wind”
5.6.2. “Queen for a Day”
5.6.3. “The watermelon story”
5.6.4. Pitty Sing

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The following paper gives an in-depth analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s acclaimed short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. A detailed account of O’Connor’s life and her status as a fervent Roman Catholic in the predominantly Protestant South during the period of World War II and the Cold War sheds light on her literary motivations and her brilliant use of the grotesque. The historical and religious context complements the second part of the paper, which consists of a thorough textual analysis of A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Special emphasis is put on the exploration of character relationships, important themes and cultural signifiers, which again links up with the first part of the paper.

2. Flannery O’Connor

2.1. Biography

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born on March 25th, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, as first and only child of Edward Francis O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor. She spent her first thirteen years in her home town, the cosmopolitan coastal city of Savannah, which in those days still “[…] carried an aura of the Old World, with its seaport, its half dozen theaters, its almost European architecture and its Roman Catholic enclave” (Cash 31).

In order to understand Mary Flannery’s self-evaluation as a Roman Catholic and Southern writer in a Protestant environment, it is essential to focus on her upbringing and heritage. Both her parents were devout, practicing Roman Catholics, whose Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century. Despite their Catholic faith, they quickly achieved assimilation, eventually becoming an integral part of Georgia life and culture. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Catholic community of Savannah was to be sure still considered a minority, but increasing in size, well-established and tolerated among Protestant society (see Getz 6). Growing up in the family home facing the historic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Mary Flannery developed a strong Catholic faith very early in her life, a faith, and, one might say, religious determination, which she would never come to doubt. In contrast to her experience as a member of the Catholic patriarchal community, her family was markedly matriarchal and structured around her mother Regina, who dominated her life and exerted prime influence on her (see Cash 12). Her father, on the other hand, was a renowned real estate agent whose business suffered heavy losses during the time of the Depression between 1920 and 1930. Nevertheless, his influence on Mary Flannery should not be underestimated in that he shared her passion for literature and always encouraged her in her early literary endeavours (see Getz 8).

In 1931, Mary Flannery entered the first grade at St. Vincent’s Grammar school, run by the Mercy Order of Nuns and briefly attended Sacred Heart Academy in 1936. Her uniqueness stemmed from her fascination with things that were out of the ordinary: she showed an early interest in exotic fowl and birds and even gained certain popularity from owning a chicken that she trained to walk backwards (see Cash 21-22).

In 1938, Mary Flannery moved with her family to her mother’s family house, the Cline House in Milledgeville, a city so very different from Savannah. The former capital of Georgia, Milledgeville was at that time a remote town of ten thousand inhabitants, provincial instead of cosmopolitan, agrarian instead of coastal. Although a predominantly Protestant fundamentalist area, the small Catholic community in Milledgeville was tolerated and known to make “[…] exceptional contributions to the civil and cultural life of the town” (Cash 27). Mary Flannery was sent to Peabody High School, where she stood out in her reading and writing but kept to herself, never quite able to make close friends among her fellow colleagues.

A year after the tragic death of her father from disseminated lupus in 1941, she entered Georgia State College for Women where she became art editor of the student newspaper, The Colonnade, editor of the literary quarterly The Corinthian and eventually graduated in Social Science. Despite of her “twofold” education (restrictive / parochial primary education and progressive / secular secondary education), she felt that her experiences in writing did not suffice for the career she was already set on pursuing. In an interview in 1955, she said, “‘After I graduated from [GSCW], I realized I needed expert advice if I were ever to be a real writer. So I entered Paul Engle’s course in creative writing at Iowa State University’” (qtd. in Cash 76).

Receiving the Rinehart scholarship to the State University of Iowa, Mary Flannery was able to enroll in the Writers’ Workshop of said University in September of 1945. The following years far away from her beloved Georgia shaped her immensely as a human being and writer. Gradually, she became acquainted with established Southern writers such as the visiting professors Andrew Lytle and Robert Penn Warren, who recognized her literary talent and became her critics, as well as Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, with whom she shared many ideas and who would become her dear friends. Her first modest literary accomplishments boosted her social and literary self-confidence, which resulted in the first publication of her short story The Geranium in Accent in 1946 (see Cash 90). In 1947, she received the Master of Fine Arts degree and was admitted to Yaddo, the famous Writers’ Colony in Saragota Springs, New York, with the intention to work on her first novel, Wise Blood. At Yaddo, Flannery O’Connor – who by now had legally dropped her first name Mary – was introduced to her lifelong Roman Catholic friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, who subsequently invited her to their farm in Connecticut as a paying guest where she worked toward the completion of her novel.

In the late 1950s, as she visited her relatives in Milledgeville, O’Connor became so weak and ill that she had to be hospitalized in Atlanta. Eventually diagnosed with disseminated lupus, a chronic systematic immune disease that causes inflammation of nearly every part of the body, her life changed dramatically. She moved with her mother to Andalusia, a working dairy farm four miles north of Milledgeville, which Regina O’Connor had inherited and chosen for its adaptability and idyllic setting as permanent family house (see Getz 27). Initially reluctant to return to Georgia, both “[…] daughter and mother prospered in their new setting, with Mrs. O’Connor running the farm with great verve and dedication, and Flannery O’Connor continuing to write […]” (McKenzie xviii). Surrounded by remnants of the Old South, O’Connor found the solitude she needed to immerse herself completely in her literary work. In 1952, her first novel Wise Blood was published and greeted with both great scepticism and enthusiasm.

Flannery O’Connor dedicated the last years of her life to the publication of the majority of her short stories and essays, publishing her first collection of short stories A Good Man Is Hard To Find in 1955 and her second novel The Violent Bear it Away in 1960. Additionally, she reviewed a number of books by her favourite Roman Catholic theologian thinkers Friedrich von Hügel, Romano Guardini and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for diocesan publications and found great pleasure in giving lectures all around the country – her preferred short story for public reading being A Good Man Is Hard To Find because it “[…] was the only one she could read ‘without laughing’” (Cash 261). Her travels granted her independence, established her literary reputation and gave her the opportunity to make her work understood “[…] as the account of desperate seekers looking to find God in a world where secularism has increasingly prevailed” (Cash 263). In April 1958, she made her last long excursion abroad and went with her mother on a seventeen-day pilgrimage to Europe, where her group was granted an audience with Pope Pius XII in the Vatican.

In 1963, already almost too weak to write, a large ovarian tumor had to be surgically removed and reactivated the receded lupus. After a months-long struggle, Flannery O’Connor died on August 3rd, 1964 in the Baldwin hospital of kidney failure brought on by the lupus (see Cash 316).

2.2. Relationships

As already mentioned above, O’Connor grew up in a largely matriarchal, protective environment, centering her life around her controlling mother. Sarah Gordon asserts that even though “[…] the young O’Connor enjoyed a very close and loving relationship to her father, […] his premature death ensured that Regina O’Connor would be the dominant adult in O’Connor’s adolescence” (20).

In order to understand her fiction, it is crucial to take into account that her prime relationship was that she had with her mother. Gordon even concludes, that O’Connor “[…] never really left home at all” (14). In this regard, her decision to move up North can certainly be seen as an attempt to break free and find her own identity. Indeed, it was during her time in Iowa and New York that she began to establish her literary reputation and formed most of her lifelong friendships.

When the outbreak of lupus forced her to move back to Georgia, Flannery succeeded in creating her own territory and distanced herself from her mother through her fiction and her correspondence with literary friends. Notable and influential figures in literary life such as Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon and Robert and Sally Fitzgerald accompanied her all her life, guiding and encouraging her in her work. She also formed a major friendship-correspondence in 1955 when she answered the letter of Elizabeth “Betsy” Hester, who had written to her with a deep and intelligent understanding of Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard To Find (see Cash 219).

2.3. Bibliography and Awards

In 1952, Flannery O’Connor published her first novel Wise Blood, a novel that should take her townspeople and relatives a long time to appreciate and understand due to her grotesque use of familiar Southern motifs and figures. In 1955, she completed a collection of nine short stories which were published in A Good Man Is Hard To Find and won O. Henry Awards for the title story and Good Country People. Her second and also last novel, The Violent Bear It Away, was published in 1960.

Her posthumous publications include her second collection of nine short stories with the title Everything That Rises Must Converge in 1965, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald’s collection of Flannery’s occasional prose Mystery and Manners in 1969, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, which received the National Book Award for 1971 and The Habit of Being in 1979, a collection of her letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (see Gelfant).

In 1988, the University of Georgia established The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in her honor, encouraging young writers to submit their work to a national readership.[1] In the twentieth century, Georgia Women of Achievement and Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame paid homage to her by inducting her as an inaugural honoree and a charter member.[2]

3. Historical and Socio-Cultural Background

3.1. The Southern Literary Renaissance

After the Civil War, which Robert Penn Warren considered “‘[…] for the American imagination, the great single event of our history […]’” (qtd. in Grant 93), the glory of the Southern troops, the Confederacy and the romanticized image of the defiant Southern rebel shaped Southern literature and culture. The end of World War I in 1918, however, saw not only the re-entry of the South into the world, but also the literary demystification of Southern traditions and Lost Cause mythmaking during the period of the Southern Literary Renaissance. Undoubtedly, this thriving of a new “literary consciousness” among Southern writers (see Grant 104) has to be seen as the result a number of crucial regional economic and social changes, which will now be elaborated upon.

First of all, the sudden influx of non-Southerners to training camps in Southern states diminished provincialism and intensified an emerging sense of unity between the North and the South, which stemmed from their fight against a common enemy in Europe. As the federal government financially supported the growth of hydroelectric power and chemical manufacturing in the South, the region was confronted with the modern industrial world and the loss of its rural isolation (see Lee 672-673).

Startled by these changes, the so-called Nashville Agrarians, a group of renowned writers including Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle, who were among O’Connor’s literary advisors and friends, adopted a new approach to the South and its loyalty to the past, rejecting the “[…] conformity enforced by antebellum society [that] had stifled creative thinking and expression […]” (Brinkmeyer 149). The conflict between Southern heritage and postwar consequences provided material for a critical re-evaluation of Southern values and traditions such as Lost Cause mythmaking as well as the “American way” of industrialization, urbanization and scientific progress threatening the rural South. Allen Tate once said that after World War I, “‘[…] the South re-entered the world – but gave a backward glance as it stepped over the border: that […] gave us the Southern renascence, a literature conscious of the past in the present’” (qtd. in Manning 242). Even though Flannery O’Connor cannot be considered a typical representative of Southern renaissance writing, she was definitely influenced by the Agrarian / New Critical method and perspective, often identifying the consequences of the modern industrial superficial and material world with Southern secularization (see Manning 257).

3.2. The Cold War Narrative

The end of the Southern Literary Renaissance after World War II in the 1940s and the new world order established during the Cold War resulted in a new literary awareness focusing “[…] less on regional than existential issues, less on the cultural stresses of Southern society than on the anxieties and psychoses of the self, less on Southern history than on personal history” (Brinkmeyer 163).

Even though Flannery O’Connor is considered a religious and not essentially a political writer, it is obvious that she too was influenced by the consequences of the Cold War that pervaded American culture during her literary career. Her unique role as a Roman Catholic Southern writer separated her from the literary mainstream and gave her a territory from which she could criticize U.S. American culture and spread her religious themes (see Bacon 60).

3.2.1.The Myth of Pastoral Innocence

Politically speaking, the unrelenting conflict between the democratic and free United States and the totalitarian Soviet Union brought about a decisive shift in U.S. diplomacy which affected all aspects of American life and culture. While isolationism was associated with moral superiority and national security after World War II, the U.S. government now pursued an interventionist policy of containment in order to prevent the spread of Communism not only abroad but also in the United States. As a result, many postwar Americans clung to the security of isolation in the agrarian, pastoral setting, which was often used to prove the greatness of the U.S. and the subversive intentions of the Soviet Union (see Bacon 9-12). Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, issued a hard judgment of the belief in pastoral innocence “[…] suggesting that the preoccupation with national security had produced a great moral complacency” (Bacon 40).

3.2.2.An American “Culture Religion”

Even though the conflict between democracy and communism was at the forefront of the Cold War, one should not forget the religious concepts underlying and reinforcing these political ideologies. The liberal Cold War consensus of the 1950s was not only grounded in capitalism and materialism, but also in a religious revival which necessitated from U.S. nationalistic endeavours to spread the American way of life to the world.

Flannery O’Connor openly distrusted and rejected this creation of a shallow American “culture religion” or “cult of reassurance”, as Bacon calls it, which pushed religion away from society to the mere personal and encouraged social irresponsibility. The optimism generated not only made Americans believe in their own strengths and abilities but also spiritually contributed to U.S. nationalism, validating “[…] the social patterns and cultural values associated with the American way of life” (Bacon 64).

As a practicing Roman Catholic, O’Connor saw herself as belonging to a church whose doctrine was, during the Cold War, vehemently stigmatised as undemocratic and un-American. Although the American Roman Catholic Church never approved of communism, it was perceived as a great threat and possible invader of American society. Many Americans feared the Church’s interference in national politics, comparing its fixed hierarchy and strong ties to a central power - the Vatican – with the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union (see Bacon 72-75).

Despite these accusations, Flannery O’Connor felt comfortable in her role as a religious outsider and felt that the image of a Church invading the American way of life provided the element of shock that would reach a non-Catholic, secular audience. Since “[…] Catholicism is opposed to the bourgeois mind” (CW 862)[3], she chose a literary strategy that she considered the “true anti-bourgeois style” (qtd. in Bacon 85), the grotesque, which will be analysed later on.

3.2.3.The South and Segregation

As already mentioned above, many Southerners and especially the Agrarians saw the agrarian South as a territory threatened by Northern culture and industrialization. After World War II, as Northern educational ideas replaced industrialism as the main issue, “the racial hierarchy evident in the Southern pastoral [became] central to the discussion of Southern regional identity” (Bacon 88). Two landmark decisions, the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954 and President Eisenhower’s 1957 decision to send military troops to Little Rock (Arkansas) to enforce integration in schools caused massive Southern resistance and aggression. Many Southerners perceived the deployment of troops as a Northern invasion and insidious attack on Southern identity and consequently established private schools to maintain a segregated society (see Bacon 90-102).


[1] see <http://www.ugapress.org/FOC.html>, 10 May 2009, 15:00.

[2] see <http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jso?id=h-498>, 10 May 2009, 15:25.

[3] CW is short for O’Connors Collected Works

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Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - an Analysis
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Bachelor Katharina Eder (Author), 2009, Flannery O’Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - an Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171943


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