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The Essence of Man in O'connor's Story

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In every individual there is considerably more than meets the eye. This point is thoroughly driven home in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Though the  heroine of this short story remains nameless, the reader gets to know far more about her than anyone else. The grandmother, as she is referred to, at first appears to be a perfectly normal God-fearing woman that most people would immediately call “the good type”. After a closer study, however, it is apparent that she considers herself superior to others through the sole declaration that she is a lady. The grandmother attempts to remove all the splinters from the eyes of those around her, but fails miserably when it comes to noticing the plank in her own. Using dramatic irony, O’Connor lays bare the Grandmother’s dishonesty, pride, obstinence, and selfishness, all of which directly contradict her trope of a lady.  

Since the grandmother holds herself apart from the rest of humanity through the belief that she is a lady, she deems it acceptable for her to pass judgement on others and criticize their actions. When her son Bailey plans a trip to Florida, wanting instead to visit some of her friends in east Tennessee she declares, “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida…I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal…aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did”(517). It seems as though she is trying to criticize his plan of action for the sake of the family’s safety, but she is actually trying to convince him to go to Tennessee instead. Because of her sense of superiority, she believes she must get her way regardless of the desires of her fellow family members. 

An unfavorable description of her daughter-in-law, further brings to light how the grandmother sees others in comparison with herself. Her daughter-in-law is “a young woman in slacks, whose face [is] broad and innocent as a cabbage and [is] tied around with a green hand-kerchief that [has] two points on the top like rabbit’s ears”(518). Through her uncharitable criticism of her daughter-in-law, it is clear that the grandmother does not consider her choice of dress ladylike, making her inferior to herself, a lady. While her daughter-in-law is dressed like a man on the trip down to Florida, the grandmother has on “a navy blue straw sailor hat…and a navy blue dress [with]… collars and cuffs [made of] white organdy trimmed with lace”(518). The old woman wishes the world to know that she is a lady amongst a troupe of commoners. 

O’Connors clearly reveals the grandmother’s hypocrisy when the grandmother takes every opportunity to point out the lack of goodness in the people around her, but fails to see her own short-comings. When her family stops for dinner at a rest stop on the way, she strikes up a conversation with the owner about how untrustworthy people are in this present age. She brings up The Misfit as an example of the evilness of society. The grandmother declares, “People are certainly not nice like they used to be”(521). Instead of actively trying to come up with a solution to combat the decreasing levels of virtue in America, she blames it all on Europe’s influence on America. By refusing to accept any responsibility for the state America is in, she indirectly declares that it is beneath her, a lady, and therefore the epitome of grace and virtue, to deal with the problem.

Though she boasts of being a lady, O’Connor shows readers that the grandmother’s obstinance says otherwise. She must have her way even if it means going behind another’s back or using others for her benefit. Although her son says he does not want to bring the family cat, Pitty Sing, along on the trip to Florida, the grandmother hides Pitty Sing in a basket underneath her trunk. She silences her conscience by telling herself that “she didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone…for three days because he would miss her…and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself”(518). Once again it is clear that she thinks she is the only individual the world revolves around. 

Another most excellent example of the grandmother’s pig-headedness rears its ugly head when she asks her son about stopping by a plantation she once stayed at as a young woman. Her son refuses to go off the main road for reasons of safety and timely arrival at their final destination. Instead of accepting her son’s wishes and letting the matter drop, she continues to reminisce about the plantation, going so far as to lie about the existence of a secret panel in the house that all the family silver was supposedly hidden in. This causes her grandchildren to clamor about stopping to go see the plantation. While she should have quieted them down and pacified their desire by saying something like, “It’s probably long gone by now,” or, “Who knows what we might run into if we go off the main road”, the Grandmother merely increases their cries by declaring, “It’s not far from here, I know. It wouldn’t take over twenty minutes”(522) Bailey, unable to stand the tumult any longer, turns off the highway and onto a dirt road the grandma firmly believes will take them to the plantation. 

After driving along the road for a few miles, Bailey declares that he will turn around if the plantation does not show up in another minute. The grandmother assures her son that it is not much farther. Just then a “horrible thought [comes] to her. The thought [is] so embarrassing that she”(523) upsets her valise, which releases Pitty Sing and causes Bailey to lose control of the wheel. The car veers off the road and turns over once all because the grandmother realizes that “the house she had remembered so vividly [is] not in Georgia but in Tennessee.”(523) She cannot accept the fact that she, a lady, has made such a mix-up. This accident plants a seed of uncertainty in the grandmother’s mind. Perhaps she is not as perfect as she considers herself to be.

It is while in this state that The Misfit comes upon the grandmother and her family. At first, the grandmother merely supposes him to be a kind-hearted farmer on his way home who witnesses their fall and comes to their aid. However, after a closer study of the farmer’s face, she cries out, “You’re The Misfit! I recognized you at once!”(525) Proud about her feat, not once does she take into consideration the fact that her words have sealed the family’s fate. It is now a matter of minutes before her and her family meet their gruesome end at the hands of The Misfit and his henchmen. Surprisingly, the grandmother does not seem intimidated by The Misfit unlike her son and daughter-in-law. On the contrary, she demonstrates ridiculous confidence when she says, “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?”(525) This useless attempt to preserve her life clearly shows how heavily she relies on her self-made title of a lady to get her way in life. It has served her thus far so she foolishly assumes she will succeed in appealing to The Misfit’s chivalrous side and live.

Desperate to save her own skin, the grandmother continuously tells The Misfit that he is a good man and can amend his ways. Prior to encountering The Misfit, the grandmother has only criticized The Misfit and his evil deeds. She does not put any effort to try to understand why he is the way he is. All she focuses on are what he has done. Therefore, it is ironic how she makes a sudden pretense of compassion for The Misfit when she realizes her life is at stake. At the beginning of the narrative, the grandmother shows her repugnance for The Misfit by waving the daily newspaper at Bailey, saying, “You read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it.”(517) Then, when she actually finds herself face to face with The Misfit she cries, “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady.”(529) Even in the face of death, the grandmother continues to selfishly think to save her miserable self. The reader infers that she still holds to the belief that she is the center of the universe and must be spared by virtue of being a lady. 

However, as she watches her family members being led off to a neighboring thicket one by one and hears them get shot, her confidence weakens. She realizes that she is not invincible after all. The end is near. In the midst of this shocking awakening, she has a sudden moment of epiphany. All her snide remarks, harsh criticisms, judgements, pride, and selfishness appear before her. For the first time she recognizes them for the evils they are. She understands, in this moment of grace, that she shares a connection with The Misfit. The evilness she associates with The Misfit is visible in her as well. She is a sinner just like him. Overcome by this realization, the grandmother, for the first time reaches out to The Misfit with true compassion and love and murmurs, “Why you’re one of my own babies. You’re one of my own children!”(529)

Though The Misfit kills the grandmother almost immediately after her epiphany, she has at last recognized and repented of her past vices, enabling her to meet her Maker with a clean heart. O’Connor’s prior contrast of the grandmother’s misconceptions of herself with actuality, make the grandmother’s conversion even more significant. At last, the grandmother is truly the lady she always deemed herself to be. While it is unfortunate that it takes the grandmother a lifetime to realize the sinfulness of her ways, O’Connor uses the grandmother’s dramatic change of heart to awaken in her readers a sense of urgency to mend their ways. No one knows the day nor the hour which they will be taken from this life. If a soul waits too long, it may be too late.

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The Essence Of Man In O’Connor’s Story. (2022, April 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
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