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A Good Man Is Hard To Find Critical Thinking Questions

In the first paragraph of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," what clues show the grandmother is not the upstanding person she portrays herself to be?

The grandmother has a high opinion of herself and wants to be seen as a lady. However, in the very first paragraph she acts insincerely and selfishly. The family is planning a trip to Florida, but she wants to go to Tennessee where she has connections. To influence their destination, the grandmother "was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind." The grandmother tries to manipulate Bailey through guilt. She insinuates—with The Misfit on the loose—Bailey is putting his children's lives in danger by going to Florida and claims she would not do that because "I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did." The grandmother is cynically claiming concern about the safety of her grandchildren in order to get her way. Over the course of the story the grandmother displays several negative traits, such as dishonesty and pettiness, that show her high self-opinion may be a false one.

In what ways does the author suggest the story's ending is inevitable in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

While the family is in shock when they meet The Misfit and his men at the end of the story, the reader is not. This is because the author, Flannery O'Connor, has foreshadowed the story's developments. In the very first paragraph, in an attempt to guilt Bailey into going to Tennessee rather than Florida, the grandmother says, "The Misfit is ... headed toward Florida. ... read here what ... he did to these people." Later on while talking to Red Sammy Butts the grandmother again mentions The Misfit. Red Sammy Butts's wife replies, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attact this place right here." These two hints let the reader know that the family will run into The Misfit.

How does each of the grandmother's family members feel about her in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The family does not respect or care much for the grandmother. As she expresses her concern about the trip to Florida, Bailey and the children's mother don't even respond to her. Bailey hardly speaks to his mother. "The Tennessee Waltz" stirs happy memories that the grandmother tries to share with her son by asking him to dance. His silent glare of refusal communicates far more than would be conveyed by a simple "no." The children's mother does not speak to the grandmother throughout the story. Attention from her grandchildren is mainly in the form of insults. The only time they respond positively to anything she says is when she tells the story about the plantation—and then their reaction is to loudly demand to be taken to see this "house with a secret panel." When the grandmother recognizes and acknowledges The Misfit, Bailey says something harsh to her that shocks even his two rude children. His outburst and the grandmother's tears manage to embarrass The Misfit, a hardened criminal. The Misfit recalls his mother as the finest woman God ever made, and Bailey's lack of regard for the grandmother does not sit well with him. This may be part of the reason that Bailey is one of the first family members sent to the woods.

In what ways is June Star's assessment of her grandmother's character accurate or inaccurate in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The grandmother does not want to go to Florida and makes that known to her family. John Wesley suggests that she not accompany the family. June Star asserts the grandmother will go because she is "afraid she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go." June Star views her grandmother as a busybody and someone who is excessively curious. These traits lead the grandmother to obsess over The Misfit. When The Misfit and his men find the family along the road, the grandmother is sure she has seen him before. When she calls out his name she must realize this endangers her and the rest of the family. Despite this probability the grandmother cannot help herself: she feels compelled to show off by sharing the information.

Why does the grandmother report details about the scenery as the family is driving in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

This running travelogue on their surroundings is another example of the grandmother's self-absorption and conviction that she is an important member of the family, even if no one else treats her as such. Therefore, she indulges in backseat driving and rambles on about "interesting details of the scenery." She finds this enjoyable despite the fact that none of the family seems to be listening to her. The grandmother's ideas on self-respect are tied not only to family but also to her surroundings. She is both hurt and annoyed when John Wesley voices rude opinions about Georgia and Tennessee. Her reply, "In my time ... children were more respectful of their native states and their parents" shows she is proud of where she comes from and regrets that John Wesley doesn't seem to feel the same.

How does the grandmother show more concern for her cat than for her grandchildren in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

When the family leaves for their vacation, the grandmother sneaks Pitty Sing, her cat, into the car despite knowing Bailey would not approve. The grandmother believes the cat will miss her too much if she is gone for so long and that he "might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself." The grandmother claims to be worried about taking the children to Florida—where The Misfit is believed to be headed. However, she puts the children into possible danger when she has Bailey turn off onto a deserted dirt road. If she was truly concerned about the children she would not interrupt the family's journey on a whim to see the plantation but would encourage Bailey to get them to their destination as quickly and safely as possible.

In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" what do the clothing choices of the grandmother and the children's mother signify about these characters?

The grandmother wears a fancy hat and gloves. She is determined that, in case of an accident, people discovering her "on the highway would know at once that she was a lady." The grandmother is shallow and concerned only about herself. After all, if she ends up dead on the road the rest of the family would probably be injured as well. More than her family's welfare, the grandmother worries about people's opinions of her—even after she is dead. The children's mother is not concerned about what others think. She is wearing the same casual clothes she had on the previous day—slacks and a head scarf. She definitely does not dress to impress. Her only concern is the children—as her character name signifies. The baby is nearly a part of her wardrobe as she holds the infant throughout the story.

What does the grandmother's use of the term pickaninny say about her and the time period in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

As the family is driving further south the grandmother sees a young African American boy and describes him as a "cute little pickaninny!" This slang term is racist and offensive. The grandmother thinks nothing of the term and even uses it as part of a compliment. She does this while in the midst of giving a lecture to the grandchildren about how respectful people were in her time. The grandmother was probably born around the end of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (1865–77). Therefore, her time includes the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan and the discriminatory Jim Crow laws. There was rampant racism in the South, and lynching of African Americans was not uncommon. Her time in the South includes an ugly period in American history. The grandmother glorifies this era and ignores the harshness that was part of it.

Why is it significant that the grandmother points out the old family burying ground in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

The grandmother is tied to the past. Everything about the past is fascinating to her, and she feels it should be passed on to the children. John Wesley and June Star are not, however, interested in this morbid site. When the grandmother points out the old family burying ground, the author is foreshadowing the family's death. They will end up dead but will not be placed in a family burying ground. Instead, they will be stripped of any usable clothing and unceremoniously abandoned in the woods by The Misfit and his men. The grandmother's family will not be buried in a place where people can come by and visit their graves.

What kind of relationship does Red Sammy Butts have with his wife in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?

Red Sammy Butts is rude toward his wife, and he treats her like a slave. He orders her to take care of the family while they are at the restaurant and never lifts a finger to help. When she joins in the conversation he scolds her, saying, "That'll do," and sends her off to tackle more chores. She is not happy with her husband. This can be seen when she notes that there is no one in the world that can be trusted. "Not nobody," she repeats while looking at Red Sammy. Red Sammy Butts is the character who utters the line "a good man is hard to find." Based on his behavior toward his wife, Red Sammy Butts is not a good man.

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)

Contributing Editor: Beverly Lyon Clark

With thanks to LynnAnn Mastaj and her classmates for comments on these questions.

Classroom Issues and Strategies

My students have trouble dealing with the horror that O'Connor evokes--often they want to dismiss the story out of hand, while I want to use it to raise questions. Another problem pertains to religious belief: Either students lack any such belief (which might make a kind of sense of O'Connor's violence) or else, possessing it, they latch onto O'Connor's religious explications at the expense of any other approach.

I like to start with students' gut responses--to start with where they already are and to make sure I address the affective as well as the cognitive. In particular, I break the class into groups of five and ask students to try to build consensus in answering study questions.

In general, the elusiveness of O'Connor's best stories makes them eminently teachable--pushing students to sustain ambiguity, to withhold final judgments. It also pushes me to teach better--to empower students more effectively, since I don't have all the answers at my fingertips. My responses to O'Connor are always tentative, exploratory. I start, as do most of my students, with a gut response that is negative. For O'Connor defies my humanistic values--she distances the characters and thwarts compassion. Above all, O'Connor's work raises tantalizing questions. Is she, as John Hawkes suggests, "happily on the side of the devil"? Or, on the contrary, does the diabolical Misfit function, paradoxically, as an agent of grace? We know what O'Connor wants us to believe. But should we?

Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

One important context that I need to provide for my students is background on O'Connor's Christianity. The most useful source here is O'Connor's own essays and lectures, which often explain how to read her works as she would have them read. Certainly O'Connor's pronouncements have guided much of the criticism of her work. I'll summarize some of her main points:

She states that the subject of her work is "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil" (Mystery and Manners 118). She tries to portray in each story "an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable" (118), often an act of violence, violence being "the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially" (113). Through violence she wants to evoke Christian mystery, though she doesn't exclude other approaches to her fiction: she states that she could not have written "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in any other way but "there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read" (109).

In general O'Connor explains that she is not so much a realist of the social fabric as a "realist of distances" (44), portraying both concrete everyday manners and something more, something beyond the ordinary: "It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners . . ." (124). She admits too that her fiction might be called grotesque, though she cautions that "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic" (40). And she connects her religious concerns with being southern, for, she says, "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted" (44).

I also find it important to address the question of racism in the story. Is the story racist? I ask. Is the grandmother racist, in her comments on cute little pickaninnies and her use of "nigger"? Does the narrator endorse the grandmother's attitude? And what do we make of her naming a cat Pitty Sing--a pseudo-Japanese name that sounds less like Japanese than like a babytalk version of "pretty thing"? Is O'Connor simply presenting characteristically racist attitudes of not particularly admirable characters? I find Alice Walker's comments helpful here, on O'Connor's respectful reluctance to enter the minds of black characters and pretend to know what they're thinking.

Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

O'Connor is usually compared to writers who are southern or gothic or Catholic or some combination thereof: e.g., William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Graham Greene. Louise Westling (in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor [University of Georgia Press, 1985]) has made fruitful comparisons with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, though most critics seem to find it difficult to discover points of comparison with other women writers.

Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

The following questions can be given to students in advance or used to guide discussion during class:

1. What qualities of the grandmother do you like? What qualities do you dislike? How did you feel when The Misfit killed her? Why?

2. How would you characterize the other members of the family? What is the function of images like the following: the mother's "face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit's ears" and the grandmother's "big black valise looked like the head of a hippopotamus"?

3. How does O'Connor foreshadow the encounter with The Misfit?

4. What does the grandmother mean by a "good man"? Whom does she consider good people? What are other possible meanings of "good"? Why does she tell The Misfit that he's a good man? Is there any sense in which he is?

5. What is the significance of the discussion of Jesus? Was he a good man?

6. What is the significance of the grandmother's saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children"?

7. What is the significance of The Misfit's saying, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"?

There are, of course, no absolute answers to these questions; the story resists easy solutions, violates the reader's expectations.

Bibliography

Other O'Connor stories well worth reading and teaching include "The Displaced Person," "The Artificial Nigger," "Good Country People," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Revelation," and "Parker's Back" (all in The Complete Stories [Farrar, 1971]). O'Connor's essays have been collected in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, 1969). The fullest collection of works by O'Connor is the Collected Works (Library of America, 1988).

As for secondary sources, the fullest biography so far, at least until O'Connor's long-time friend Sally Fitzgerald completes hers, is Lorine M. Getz's Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews (Mellen, 1980).

For discussion of O'Connor's social, religious, and intellectual milieux see Robert Coles's Flannery O'Connor's South (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). A fine companion piece is Barbara McKenzie's photographic essay, Flannery 0'Connor's Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 1980).

Four collections of essays provide a good range of criticism on O'Connor:

1. The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (1966; rpt. Fordham University Press, 1977).

2. Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Hall, 1985).

3. Flannery O'Connor, edited by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1986).

4. Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund (Aarhus, 1987).

The Friedman and Clark collection, for instance, includes the Walker and Hawkes essays alluded to above: John Hawkes, "Flannery O'Connor's Devil," Sewanee Review 70 (1962): 395-407; Alice Walker, "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Harcourt, 1983.

Overall, criticism of O'Connor has appeared in more than forty book-length studies and hundreds of articles (including those published annually in the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin). Most criticism continues to be either religious or formalist. But for a discussion that situates O'Connor's work historically, in the postwar era, addressing its intersections with liberal discourse, see Thomas Hill Schaub's chapter on O'Connor in American Fiction in the Cold War (Wisconsin, 1991).

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