The Good, the Evil, and the Righteous

If you haven’t yet read any work by Flannery O’Connor, now is the time to start–and start with this one: A Good Man is Hard to Find. It is hard for me to encourage people to read this without having some previous knowledge of the story, but if you have never read it–read it–even though I am going to spoil it a bit in a short summary of the plot.

The story opens with a family in a kitchen, and immediately the dialogue is dominated by the one of the story’s main character; the Grandmother. Her son’s (Bailey) family is taking a trip down to Florida and she is making her objection through manipulation, pointing to the newspaper and explaining that there is a murderer, an man called The Misfit, on the loose. The next morning, the Grandmother is the first in the car, dressed well, in dark blues, blacks, purples and a fancy hat. Against the request of her son, she sneaks her cat into the car by carrying it in her bag. As the family travel, the Grandmother entertains the children in the back seat, June Star and John Wesley, by telling them stories about her life as a young girl. One story in particular catches the children attention because it is about an old house with secret passages that apparently they can visit. The kids begin to complain to their father until he gets so irritated that he turns the car around and follows the directions given to him by the Grandmother to the old house. Their journey leads them down a worn, dirt road. Ironically, along the road the Grandmother realizes that the house she has in mind is actually in a different State. She jumps at the thought, kicking her bag, frightening her cat, which jumps out and lands on Bailey’s shoulders. Bailey swerves off the road and rolls the car into a ditch. No one is seriously injured and soon a vehicle coming the opposite direction stops by the side of the road as a result of the Grandmother’s frantic waving to get their attention. Out of the cars steps The Misfit and two of his men. The two men round everyone up, and starting with Bailey and John Wesley, begin to murder each member of the family. While the two men are off in the trees killing the family, The Misfit and the Grandmother are talking. The Grandmother refuses to believe that The Misfit is pure evil and that all he has to do is pray and everything will be ok. But The Misfit begins to tell his story and explain how he is different and how prayer can’t help him:

“Yes’m,” The Misfit said as if he agreed. “Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.”

“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

And then, the final moment’s of the old Grandmother’s life:

“I wasn’t there [when Jesus rose from the dead] so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children !” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. 

Jesus is Hard to Find

As we ourselves do not witness the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden, so too do we not see the murder of an innocent family. We only hear its loud echo in the trees, imagine a smirk, and listen to the bitter and distant words of a wicked Misfit, “there is no pleasure, only meanness.”

In her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor shows us the disturbing and grotesque side of fallen man through one of her main characters, a degenerate being who does evil for the sake of doing evil. But O’Connor’s story and style, The Grotesque, leaves no character’s closets closed. Everything must come out. In O’Connor the focus is not on moral evil, rather it is on the transcendent evil of all humanity. Therefore, nobody is “off-limits” in O’Connor’s stories. Her second main character, the upper-class grandmother, the stories only “lady, proves to be just as a vile and fallen as the murderer whom she is contrasted with.

But O’Connor is also distinct in that she writes with the burden of provoking her readers to understand that, “Jesus did what he did.” That his death is the second chance that humanity needs—the reason that humanity needs him is because it is totally depraved.

Deep within the fibers of O’Connor’s ink stained pages is the stain of sin—what is depicted is our world’s reality. Although her stories are muddied with evil they reveal the deep need for grace and redemption by showing how far man has fallen. O’Connor’s writing has captured the heart of Southern Gothic Literature, but with a Christian grace. O’Connor employs the same story telling techniques as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. But what she adds to the story is the deep Christian conviction of unveiling the gospel through her own ironic plot twists, and unusual events. Because of her Catholic upbringing, O’Connor’s characters often reveal her beliefs of the fallen world; inwardly wicked and in desperate need of deliverance.

From the very beginning of the story we see the working out of the Grotesque style in the ironic plot taking shape in the form of its hints of foreshadowing. ‘“Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this…this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida.”’ Ironically, we find out as the story unfolds, that in the Grandmothers attempt to avoid Florida she actually ends up delivering their family straight to the Misfit.

Also, in an appeal to Southern Gothic literature, this story is guided by unusual events that take the family on a one-way, bumpy, dusty, dirt road, directly to their deaths. Ironically as well, all of the reasons that the family and the Grandmother find themselves traveling along this road, and end up in ditch on the side of it after having experienced a traumatic car accident, can be traced back to decisions made by the Grandmother. She begins by manipulating her son, Bailey, into driving down a certain road by exaggerating the details about a house she used to visit when she was kid. “There was a secret panel in this house,” she tells her grandchildren. This gets the kids whining and screaming until finally Bailey decides to appease them by turning around.

As they are driving along the old dirt road, the Grandmother realizes that the road they are driving on is not the dirt road that the leads to the old house she remembers from her childhood. That road is in a different state. She jumps at her own startling thought, and kicks her bag. Again, in typical ironic fashion, the Grandmother’s cat, Pitty Sing, who Bailey specifically asked the grandmother not to bring on their trip, springs out in an angry snarl onto Bailey’s shoulders. Frantically, Bailey swerves, the children are tossed to the floor, the car flips, rolls into a gulch, and then settles down broken and right side up below the road.

Soon, “a big black battered hearselike automobile” will come slowly and cautiously down the road—most likely to avoid a similar kind of accident the family on the way to Florida just went through. Most likely this big black car would have passed by the ditch without stopping, either not seeing the wreckage, or assuming that no one could have survived that kind of accident. But, if bringing the family right to the Misfit’s front door wasn’t enough, the Grandmother stands up on the hill and invites them into his cozy little murder cabin by standing up, waving her arms, flagging him down and yelling for help.

Finally, the Grandma grabs the gun and points it at herself and her family, ‘“You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once.”’ The Misfit even tells her it is her fault, now that she has recognized him that he has to do what he is going to do. ‘“Yes’m,” the man said… “but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t reckernized me.”’

O’Connor also develops the Grotesque within the actions, morality, and hearts of her two main characters. The Grandmother and The Misfit live lives that are socially and culturally juxtaposed to each other, and O’Connor does this in order to prove that no one is good. She portrays evil for the sake of evil, rather than people choosing to be bad or good in this world, as is a common perception of those who think good and evil are only about morality. Her focus is on how much our depravity drives our need for grace.

One unique characteristic of Flannery O’Connor is her ability to use characters that appear relatable, loveable, that we can empathize and sympathize with, but in reality are vile and putrid. It is this gift of bringing all the characters in her stories down to the same level and showing them as tainted by corruption within, that gives her story am ironic Christian grace. Throughout the story we get a sense that the Grandma is not evil—she is not a murder. She is a “lady.” We are given these clues in the way that she talks and the way that she dresses. She has good intentions in the way that she wants to bring up her children and her grandchildren. She could very easily be a likeable character within the story. But O’Connor doesn’t just show us her in a good light. She shows us she is a racist, manipulative, and a liar. We see her in the story as self-righteous. On the long car ride, she dresses like royalty, “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would at once know that she was a lady.” Many readers come to hate the grandmother by the end of the story. She appears good, but she is evil. We see her as inwardly rotten.

The Misfit, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. At first, all we are told is that he is an evil murderer. At the end, he smiles at the thought of killing and takes pleasure in the scent and sound of death. But after the narrators’ unbiased description of the Misfit, and the Grandmas judgmental depiction of him as pure evil, the reader finally gets to hear the story of the Misfits childhood from his mouth, and his tragic life slowly unfolds, making it easier to feel compassion for him. You get a sense of understanding why the Misfit calls himself the Misfit, and readers begin to feel the same emotions towards him as the grandmother does. Readers want to reach out as well and touch him; save him from himself.

But this is the ultimate reality that O’Connor shows us. We are all evil. The Misfit, though we may come to love him, is still a murderer—and we have to wrestle with the truth that he ruthlessly kills people for fun. The Grandmother, although we learn to hate her for her racism and self-righteousness– we come to realize that we are just like her, often self-righteous, often unaware of our deep need for grace. This is the shocking reality of O’Connor’s writing. No one is good, no matter what good you have convinced yourself you do, or by what sob story you have to offer or had to endure; there is no excusing responsibility, because, “Jesus did what he did.”

What makes Flannery O’Connor’s writing, and this story in particular, distinctly Christian Southern Gothic Literature, is the ironic message of our need for grace and redemption that permeates it’s pages without an ending that has any clear redemptive quality. This exaggeration of the human condition as corrupt and disturbed forces readers to muse over the narrative of their own life and to consider how far they have fallen. She wants people to know how filthy they are in order to show that the only thing that can save them is something apart from themselves—God.

Flannery O’Conner says this about fiction. “Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try and write fiction.” O’Connor’s emphasis here is on the truth that we are all dirty and disgusting creatures. It is necessary to take steps of dirtying ourselves in order to understand our need for grace. The fear of dust is the Grandmother’s mentality, a fear of recognizing evil inside our self: admitting that we are the problem. The fear of being weak is The Misfit’s mentality, a fear of recognizing the goodness outside of our self: admitting that we are not the solution. We can go self-righteously to our death, trying to change people without changing ourselves, or we can jump back like a snake at the first sign of love and shoot it three times in the chest.

I didn’t expound on this at all, save the allusion of the title, but something that struck me as I read this for what seemed like the twentieth time was the title’s simple way of saying, “no one is righteous, not even one.” Not the Grandmother, not The Misfit, not Me and not You. But what also caught me off guard is how difficult it is to accept the only one that is righteous, Jesus Christ. Like the Misfit, we weren’t there when he rose, or life is unjust and we need to find someone to blame. Or we are like the Grandmother and our  own false goodness has blinded us to our real badness. Because it is easy to call really bad things evil and really petty things mistakes, terrible circumstances God’s fault, good things–good luck, or make our selves victims when injustice meets us, we make make it easy maintain goodness apart from the righteousness of God. It’s plain and simple though, to find the kind of humility that takes responsibility for petty things as well as big sins, maintains trust in bad circumstance, and in the moment of injustice doesn’t pretend to be a victim, but intends to be victorious, is to find righteousness…and that day after day is hard to find.

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