As the story begins, The Grandmother is complaining about going on a road trip to Florida; she'd rather visit friends in east Tennessee. She worries aloud to the rest of the family, Bailey (her son), his wife, June Star and John Wesley, their children, and the baby, about The Misfit, whom she has been reading about in the newspaper. The Misfit is a serial killer who has escaped from the Federal Penitentiary and is on the loose.
The next morning, the family sets out on the road trip. They stop at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches, where the owner, Red Sammy Butts, and his wife wait on them. The Grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate about the current state of the world, complaining that you cannot trust anyone these days. He tells a story about how he gave two men gas on credit; clearly he has been taken advantage of and regrets his decision.
As they set off again, The Grandmother remembers an old plantation that she thinks used to be in this area. Bailey does not want to take a detour to go find it, so The Grandmother makes up a lie about how there are secret doors in the house with hidden treasure; this makes June Star and John Wesley scream and complain until their father agrees turn around and drive down the dirt driveway. However, after they have been driving for a while, The Grandmother realizes that the old plantation is actually nowhere around there at all. Her reaction causes the cat to escape from its box and jump on Bailey's shoulder, and he veers off the road.
The car has flipped over and is in a ditch. Another car approaches, and from out of it climb The Misfit, Bobby Lee, and Hiram. The Grandmother recognizes The Misfit, and he answers, "it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me." She begins to talk about how The Misfit is clearly not of "common blood," and how he must "come from nice people," flattering him. But he calmly orders Bobby Lee and Hiram to take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods, and soon gunshots ring out as they are murdered,
As The Grandmother advises The Misfit to pray to Jesus, Hiram and Bobby Lee return from the woods dragging Bailey's yellow shirt with bright blue parrots on it, and The Misfit puts it on. Then Bobby Lee and Hiram politely help up The Mother and June Star to take them back into the woods, as well. The Grandmother begins to panic and resumes trying to convince The Misfit to find Jesus. She repeats, "I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady." Then she bargains with him, offering all her money to save her life.
When The Grandmother hears the pistol shots that announce the deaths of the rest of her family deep in the woods, she cries out, "Bailey Boy!" for her son. The Misfit reminds her that no one has raised the dead except for Jesus, and opines that Jesus shouldn't have done that: the only pleasure he finds in life is "meanness." He reveals his lack of faith in God by saying that he can't believe Jesus even raised the dead, since he wasn't there to see it, and blames this lack of knowledge for how he has turned out.
Noticing he looks like he is about to cry, The Grandmother cries out, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" and touches him on the shoulder. The Misfit responds by firing three shots into her chest and killing her. Hiram and Bobby Lee come back from killing The Mother, June Star, and the baby, and The Misfit comments that in fact, there is no real pleasure in life at all.
The title of the story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," echoes Red Sammy Butts in his conversation with The Grandmother. The mistrust of others in general is a continuing theme throughout O'Connor's short stories, and in her conversation with Red Sammy Butts, The Grandmother confirms her belief in this idea: "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust." This belief contradicts her Christian faith, of course, but in the end her Christian faith results in the achievement of Grace.
Grace, an important theme to O'Connor, is given to both The Grandmother and The Misfit, neither of whom is particularly deserving. As she realizes what is happening, The Grandmother begins to beg The Misfit to pray so that Jesus will help him. Right before The Misfit kills her, The Grandmother calls him one of her own children, recognizing him as a fellow human capable of being saved by God's Grace. Even though he murders her, the Misfit is implied to have achieved some level of Grace as well when he ends the story by saying, "It's no real pleasure in life." Earlier in the story, he claimed the only pleasure in life was meanness.
The glorification of the past is prevalent in this story through the character of The Grandmother, who expresses nostalgia for the way things used to be in the South. Her mistake about the "old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady" leads to the demise of the whole family when they get in a car accident while driving down the dirt driveway. Before she realizes that the plantation is actually not in Georgia but in Tennessee, she remembers "the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey," imagining the beautiful scene she believes they will soon find.
Eyes are an important symbol in many of O'Connor's short stories, and here they indicate a character's mindset. The Grandmother's eyes are bright as she listens to "The Tennessee Waltz" on the jukebox at The Tower. As Bailey makes a single effort to argue with The Misfit before he is led into the woods to be killed, his eyes are described as "blue and intense." After they hear the gunshots that signal the deaths of Bailey and John Wesley, The Mother and June Stars' eyes are "glassy." After he kills The Grandmother and removes his glasses, "The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking."
Racism is a minor theme in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find:" The Grandmother reveals her racism when she comments on the child the family observes out the window: "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do," calling him a "cute little pickaninny." Though she feigns compassion for the plight of blacks, her feelings toward them are clearly racist.
As in many of O'Connor's story, the sky is mentioned as an indicator of the characters' moods. Right after The Grandmother identifies The Misfit, he comments, "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither," implying that their fates have not yet been decided. But after Bailey and John Wesley have been murdered, as The Mother and June Star are being led into the woods as well, The Grandmother notices that "there was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun," and now it indicates that she has nothing from which to get her bearings: "there was nothing around her but woods." There is no hope.
Flannery O’Connor is one of the names most closely associated with the southern gothic style of fiction and very often, the American south is one of the main characters in her stories, even if it has no lines and does not play a direct role. Throughout “A Good Man is Hard to Find” images of the south are frequent and interestingly, while we hear the grandmother pining for the good old days of the plantation south, back when she was a belle and could smile at the “cute” negroes, we cannot help but recoil. This sickening adherence to just about every stereotype of the old South that the grandmother represents is part of what makes her a grotesque character. In fact, every member of the family is grotesque in some way; the children by their over-the-top rudeness and lack of manners, the father by his intense, simmering anger paired with a bright, happy-looking parrot shirt, the mother by her lack of personality or character—and, of course, the Misfit by his complete lack of regard for anything or anyone. This is not a delightful portrait of the south or a southern family—it is a critique.
The use of foreshadowing is one of the most-used literary devices in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and instances of foreshadowing range from very direct (constant mentioning of the Misfit and how dangerous he is even though no one has any idea where he is) and smaller uses. Everything in this story works together to create a mood and part of this mood, this tone in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is very much based on foreshadowing, especially after the family crashes. Notice that the car approaches slowly to “help” them and that it looks like a hearse. Notice as well that just about everything that happens once the family leaves is clouded with a certain darkness; the trip to Red Sammy’s, which is touted as being like a tourist attraction, is actually a lot like hell—for a great explanation of this see the web source on the next page that provides important quotes matched with main themes in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”Performing a character analysis of characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” would be rather difficult unless you choose the only character who really stands out—the grandmother. Notice that she is never named directly, she is simply referred to by her status in the family and, of course, her age. The mother, who barely speaks, is not named. If you are writing an essay on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and are looking for a short topic to write about, consider the conference of names and meaning. Those characters who are named, are done so in interesting ways. For example, the young boy, John Wesley, is named after the founder of the Methodist religious movement whereas his sister, June Star, has a very modern name.
The meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor is difficult to untangle, if only because the death of the family is so meaningless and all of their petty business getting to Florida, stopping to eat, having little family squabbles all results in nothing but a swift end. In some ways then, the meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about the lack of meaning itself when confronted with the dull hate of crime. All of the things that we occupy ourselves with, that we find important in the moment, are really nothing. I’m not trying to depress you here or anything (although if you read the story you’re probably already feeling a little depressed) but in many ways it seems that O’Connor goes through such great lengths to detail the journey so that she can build character profiles and also so that she can show just how grimly meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things. After all, it is not until she is confronted with death that the grandmother shows any sign of depth and even this has been, in countless analysis efforts by scholars, also seen as a final act of manipulation.
Look at the sources on the next page for “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for far more explanation of the meaning of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in terms of salvation and religion. This is one of the main themes in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” but there are so many scholarly opinions about the notions of grace, divinity, and the salvation of the Misfit and the grandmother alike that it’s best to let you wander through and see what you think. There is no right or wrong answer here; that’s part of what makes this story so engaging, even so many years after it was written.