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The Theme of Religion in O'connor's Works

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Flannery O’Connor’s body of work as seemingly counterintuitive. Here is a devout Roman Catholic woman with a perceived obsession with the faults of believers and the joyful humanity of nihilism. So much of O’Connor’s work is characterized as this awkward theopoetic work in which frequently the central characters are constrained by both their own theology, and more literally, locked in theological debate for quite some time. “Wise Blood” features an “anti-pastor” who attempts to found a “Church of Christ without Christ” stemming from a childhood fear of Jesus Christ. “Good Country People” features Joy, a staunch atheist and professor of philosophy in theological debate with a fraudulent bible salesman who, upon stealing Joy’s prosthetic leg, asserts that his nihilism is much more profound than hers. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is also a conversation on theology between the believer and the non-believer, the grandmother and The Misfit respectively. Except, it isn’t. Respective, that is. The Grandmother, faced with death at the hands of the homicidal Misfit, attempts to use her theology to save her own life, only for the Misfit to outplay her in theological knowledge at every turn. While the two have opposite outspoken theological positions (believer and non-believer) The Misfit knows the good book better than the old woman. For this, neither can be considered more “Christian” than the other. So where is the debate? Which two positions is O’Connor placing in the arena of thought? For the sake of argument, we will simplify their “religious-ness” to present them as equals so as to highlight their true difference in perspective: Class. The Grandmother, of course, is killed in the end, along with her family. O’Connor was never one for happy endings. Her theological judgements do not save her in the end. The family’s death is an indictment not of faith, but instead of the false correlation between faith and decent living- being “a good man”.

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‘Look at the graveyard!’ the grandmother said, pointing it out. ‘That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation.’ The Grandmother comes from old money as we learn from this passage. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is a mid-20th-century text, but it is a reminder that the racist grandparent trop is not unique to modern day- not due to her familial wealth being built on the back of slaves (though her casual tone when she says the plantation is now “gone with the wind” certainly lacks reverence for that particular atrocity) but by way her passing comments on black children as they make their way to Georgia. The Grandmother is dismissive of the times they live in, blaming her version of indecent folk, Europeans etc.,

It is important to discuss framing here for a moment. Critique and analysis of O’Connor’s body of work is largely focused on the theological elements, and rightfully so. Thus far this essay’s framing of The Grandmother as theologically ignorant, and chiefly through a theological lens- however, this is not how she is framed in the story. In fact, theology isn’t mentioned until the grandmother resorts to talk of Jesus Christ in begging for her life. The Grandmother is presented as forgetful, selfish, and classist. Equally, the Misfit is framed very early on in the story as a savage criminal, a low life, and the Grandmother thinks as much of him. The word she uses is “common”, though only in begging for her life when she asserts that she” know(s) you’re [The Misfit] a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’ Of course, later, the Grandmother reneges on this notion that “coming from nice people” means he must be a good person at heart when he recounts his common upbringing and says he “still has a chance” to be good. Through O’Connor’s framing of both the Grandmother and The Misfit up until their meeting, we learn exactly what The Grandmother believes in- high class is good, low class is bad. Everything else is window dressing, including faith.

The grandmother is in fact pushed into faith by The Misfit, however they both miss the mark theologically due to their societal standings. The Misfit concedes that Christ accepts every person that is considered “bad”, and forgives them and gives them everlasting and unconditional love. Misfit additionally concedes that he is a bad person, but might not have been if he had witnessed Christ firsthand. The line “She would have been a good woman if there was somebody there to shoot her every day of her life”.

The grandmother feels entitled to respect, she is a lady, after all. This is emphasized in her actions and her clothing, especially compared to her daughter-in-law. Shown here, the grandmother “…settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window…” (O’Connor 1), the woman is used to certain comforts, and has been all her life. Times, of course, have changed, and while she and her son’s wife are in the same class, fashion has middled out somewhat by this time to disguise this. The mother has on “…slacks and still has her head tied up in a green kerchief…” (1), compared to “…a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print…”. This is important to the Grandmother because “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at one that she was a lady” . Even as a corpse, she would want to be noted for her class. To the grandmother there is a decided difference between a dead lady and a dead commoner.

More than that, the grandmother is very comfortable with passing judgements not only to her immediate family but to passers by on the road, using racial slurs in addition to noting that the black children on the side of the road aren’t wearing certain clothes because they don’t have any (despite them being in Georgia during the summer, who wouldn’t dress down for the heat?) . That isn’t to say she is ignorant of poverty, but more dismissive- she notes it would “make a good little picture” as if poverty was simply an object of amusement. This isn’t sympathetic, this is entertainment, it’s funny to the grandmother, and to the children.

The grandmother has a very narrow definition of “Good”. She tells Red Sammy that he is “…a good man”. They talk about how times have changed, you can’t trust anyone anymore, always having to lock your doors, degenerates, etc,.– the sort of talk that yearns for a time where there was less intersection with the lower classes. “A good man is hard to find. Everything is terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

The car ride to Georgia consists of more of these observations, but notable the grandmother is excited about her grandchildren seeing where she grew up. The grandmother values this, obviously because she lived in a mansion. From the old money of the south, living in a mansion was somewhat exclusive to plantation owners and are a veritable symbol of being “set apart” from the common man. And ultimately, grandmother’s cat (that she had stashed away against the wishes of her family) jumps out, which sends the car off the road, and ultimately into the hands of the misfit.

All this is to say that the grandmother’s sense of morality and decency is deeply intertwined with the upper class. So where does this lead us with the Misfit? Returning to the idea of framing, The Misfit is in the headlines as an escaped convict. And the grandmother recognizes him immediately.

The Misfit spent most of his life in prison, recounting his time in solitary confinement, his sense of morality born from his circumstance in life that he was set upon from birth. The grandmother believes that the way that people act and where they come from will determine their place in life, ergo, she never believes that they could truly be equals. However, during her personal encounter with The Misfit she tries to persuade him otherwise in order to save her life. She pleads, “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?”.. She believes if he is a “good” man he wouldn’t shoot a lady, because “good” men don’t shoot ladies.

The Misfit has much less time in this story to demonstrate himself and his believe than the grandmother does but he wastes no time, much of his dialogue waxing philosophic about goodness as the grandmother tries to bid for her life. Perhaps unconsciously, its still about social standing with her when she iterates on his “common blood”. However, The Misfit seems to use the conventional meaning of good by describing his mother like “God never made a finer woman than my mother”, or saying his dad had a heart of gold. He’s forcing the grandmother to flex a modicum of empathy and she is simply unable until she’s lost her entire family.

But she does grant him his basic humanity eventually. She finally sees him as a person. In the last stretch of this story she calls him “one of her children… one of her babies” (11).

But then, she dies. She’s shot three times. This seems to prove her initial reaction right, doesn’t it? That he’s of low birth, goodness was never something afforded to the Misfit. A criminal, uneducated, a killer. His english is mangled, his disposition cold, his actions unforgivable.

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The two share a sense of fatalism when it comes to class- the good are born good, wealthy, set apart, the bad are stains on society. The good men are indeed hard to find. Was the Misfit destined to be the Misfit? O’Connor doesn’t even grant him the luxury of a name- but then, neither does she for the grandmother. The Misfit isn’t necessarily poor, though we can assume he isn’t well off either given his near lifetime spent in prison. O’Connor has always been critical of American Christianity and the Grandmother is possible the object of much of her loathing. The Grandmother’s rigid definition of goodness only veers into the goodness of Christ when it is most dire, as is Jesus Christ is one with the rich and ignorant of the poor. Mark 10:25 gives us “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. The grandmother spends so much of her life equating her life of comfort and privileged upbringing with morality that the truth of Christ is but an accessory on an otherwise lavish, cruel, and ignorant life. 

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The Theme of Religion In O’Connor’s Works. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
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