Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Good Man is Hard to Find

My lecture on "A Good Man is Hard to Find".  Please start or join a conversation on this story in the comment section below!


  1. I can't wait to watch your lecture with my two Homeschool Connectiins students. We just finished reading A Good Man... together as a family this afternoon!

  2. Thanks, Unknown!

    For the rest of you, feel free to ...

    * Ask Questions

    * Respond to points I'm making

    * Tell us what you got from the story

    * Ask me to clarify any of the points I'm making

    * Agree or disagree


    1. I thought my post had gone through after you posted this, but I must've made a mistake in submitting.
      The title is interesting, because in today's relativistic and atheistic society, the only rules on behavior are laws. While most people hold onto their innate moral decency, there really isn't anything to encourage them to be good. From the grandmother's point of view, the abandonment of southern civility certainly makes this more true.
      However, I think that this has also skewed her perception of a "good man." Red Sammy certainly seems like a nice guy, but I'm not sure that letting himself be swindled out of gas really makes him a good man. Her son, Bailey, could be considered good since he takes care of his mother, but because of his curtness she doesn't seem to think that he is a good man. When the Misfit comes along, the term "good man" seems to loose any meaning to the grandmother, as she just tries to use it to keep him from killing her, a "lady." The grandmother seemed to try and comfort Red Sammy with the term earlier, but with the Misfit, there is no evidence to support that he could be a good man. Even worse, she doesn't ask him to spare any of her family's life.
      She's obviously trying to bed for her life, but is there any other significance to the title of "good man" she tries to tie to the Misfit?
      Despite the grandmother's shortcomings, I liked the detail that after she had died she's described as innocent, her face smiling up at the sky. She made mistakes, but her moment of grace appears to have redeemed her seconds before death. It's a sweet detail, and it's nice that Flannery O'Connor makes it clear.
      My mom thought that the Misfit picking up the cat in the end was funny, considering he had just allowed the murders of the entire family, but he shows kindess to the cat of all things.
      Could it show that he could be redeemable? I think that, along with his statement that there is no real pleasure in life, could possibly be interpreted that way.
      Thank you for the video!

  3. I read this story 18 years ago knowing that Flannery O'Connor was a devote Catholic and master storyteller. I was not expecting what I encountered. I was so absolutely blindsided by the violence that I couldn't see past it. I abandoned Flannery all together. But, something is calling me back to take a second look. I just said to some friends about a month ago that I should like to try to read Flannery again but will need some help to look beyond the violence and today I stumbled upon your book club. This is no coincidence. It is a Grace. I haven't reread the story yet. I watched your presentation first to bolster my psyche before I dive in again. Your presentation is exceedingly helpful and I am grateful for this opportunity to study with you.

  4. What will be the next story?

  5. Flannery O'Connor was adamant that the Misfit was not a Christ figure. But there is a Christ-like image posed by the Misfit that strikes me. He is writing in the sand before the "condemned" grandmother as Christ did before the condemned adulterer.

    1. Hi, Ann!

      That occurred to me, too. I think that detail in the story is "ironic" - especially since the Misfit is obviously very far from Christ. But he is a kind of Everyman, Everyman in need of redemption, and in that sense is "the Man" that Christ embodies perfectly.

  6. Many thanks for sharing your obvious love of Flannery O’Connor, gift of oratory, and insightful commentary! I last read this story 25 years ago in college, atheist as well. It is so shallow, meaningless without the faith! In my reading this time around, I had an appalling feeling of despair and disappointment in being convicted of behaving similar to the grandmother in my own life, and wondering if I’d miss the moment of grace to see the Misfit as son. I want to see the story’s ending in hope that since the Misfit so obviously realizes there is no pleasure in not believing - he’ll repent soon and accept grace. Even the meanest of all can change and respond to grace. It’s so hard to leave the story in hope versus despair at a lack of perfection in being REAL in our faith life. So few are saints though all are called to it. Who wants to have either disfunction - the grandmother’s family or the Misfit. Thank God for the Catholic church and all its sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist. I can see how the shock effect of O’Connor’s story can wake up the lukewarm, pathetic Christian.

    1. How appropriate the gospel for today (Matthew 13:36-43) to this discussion. The weeds and wheat will grow together and though we hope for the conversion of all those weeds it is likely that it will never happen in our life times nor in the entire course of history. Bishop Barron writes in his Gospel reflection, "This sort of coming-together of good and evil is to be expected. The Church will always be a place of saints and sinners, and the sinners will often look like saints. The enemy of the Church, who never rests, ensures it."

  7. I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to further plumb the often times murky
    depths of Flannery O'Connor. A reflection I found several years ago may offer another insight to this great lady. In quoting St Cyril of Jerusalem's instruction that a dragon sits by the side of the road watching those who pass to Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon--O'Connor added, "No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell. and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller."

    1. Excellent quotation, Regina!

      This is from my two-man play on JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis ...

      You can’t tell me dragons are real, that dragons are true.

      JRR: You can’t get through life without meeting more than one dragon, Jack. Without fighting more than one dragon, for that matter.

      CSL: I see. So dragons are real?

      JRR: As is the dragon sickness.

      CSL: The dragon sickness?

      JRR: Hoarding, appropriating, curling one’s tail around a stolen treasure and devouring it in darkness. That sort of sickness is everywhere. And it’s catching.

    2. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, "Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon's lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.”
      Oh, the poor state of education today that refuses to acknowledge sin, cannot distinguish evil from good, and rejects the grace to pull us through.

  8. At first I was extremely sympathic toward the grandmother thinking her to be the most saintly and God-fearing of the bunch. But, on further reflection she is just a broken as the rest of them. She is deceitful when she hides the cat, she outright lies about the secret panel in the old plantation house to draw the children into her scheme, she patronize Red Sammy by calling him a "good man" without really knowing him, and she'd rather save face than seek forgiveness when she realized she made a mistake about the location of the house. But worst of all Jesus only comes to mind when someone was there to shoot her.

    1. The more you look at her, the more twisted her character is. You can blame it on old age and senility, her perception obviously isn't clear, but regardless she is just as awful as the rest of her family. She begged for her own life the entire time, but apart from calling out to Bailey, she never asked him to have mercy on her family. Not her son, not her daughter in law, and certainly not her young grandchildren. To add insult to injury, she even doubts her faith in the face of death, unsure of whether Jesus rose the dead or not.
      If this is a story that shows that even the worst of us have the possibility of redemption through grace, the grandmother and the Misfit cover all of the kinds of evil in the world. It is implied that she is redeemed in the end, so it really goes to show that there is hope for all of us.

    2. Ann & Noelle, the entire family is pretty dreadful, really. But I don't think we can be too hard on the grandmother. As David points out below, "do we need to be shot everyday like the grandmother?" She's very much like most grandmothers I know - busy body, less than honest when it suits her, manipulative. I also don't think we can make too much of her not begging for the lives of her family. I think in such a moment, the fear and awe takes over. In the grandmother's case, it filled her with a "terminal grace" - a grace on the edge of death and made her a kind of prophet, or at least, for a moment, a true Christian. It's these moments of terror that Flannery uses to show us the truth about ourselves and God.

  9. The question is do we need to be shot everyday like the grandmother? Can we see the grace and image of God in all, especially the "misfits" in our lives?

  10. Thank you Kevin, Ann, Noelle, and David for "seeing" what I couldn't see. You are good detectives and I appreciate your explanations which have made sense of this story in the only interpretation that works for me.
    I heard a speculation that when Jesus was writing on the ground at the adulterer's stoning, He was writing the sins of the elder's which was what caused them to see their own fault and turn away. Do you think Flannery is making the point here that the misfit isn't the only sinner? I know it's a detail but why a circle? Perhaps the layers of hell? Do you think the grandmother ever recognized her own faults?

    1. I think it's important to keep in mind that stories, like life, are not codes to break.

      There is a general spirit of a story which may be difficult to envision. But once seen, it's not necessary to read all of the details as clues.

      Frankly, no one knows why Our Lord was doodling in the sand during the episode of the Woman taken in Adultery. Chesterton thought it was a stunningly human detail that proved the authenticity of the Gospel. There is no reason for John to include that detail in that event - unless he really saw it and it struck him as a passing but very human thing to notice. It's not essential to the story - except for mood and for an illustration of the character of Jesus and for the fact that it helps us see the simple everyday reality of such a stunning event.
      Perhaps Jesus was writing the sins of the elders, but probably not. There is no indication in the text that He was, but it's not the kind of detail that would make or break the overall point of the story. Jesus condemns the men with stones by appealing to their consciences overtly, whether or not He did secretly in sand.

      In a similar way, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is not a systematic set of coded symbols that tells you who or who is not saved. It's a story about a mystery - the mystery of Everyman the Sinner, who is the Misfit, but who is also every member of that family. It's a story about a vision of grace in a moment of stark terror - which the Misfit and the grandmother both have; it's about how God looks at the edge of reality.

      Now, keeping this in mind, you then gain the perspective to see that the Misfit is obviously not a Christ figure (though Christ is an Everyman and is, in a sense, a Misfit), and that musing on who is or who is not saved is beside the point. We are all busybody manipulative old women. We are all annoying and bratty kids. We are all ineffectual husbands and fathers. We are all Misfits who only really see God when we are forced to; we typically push back violently against His grace, and yet we are miserable without it.

  11. I had never read Flannery O’Connor until yesterday (blatant plug: on my way back from the American Chesterton Society, which I highly recommend to go - Kevin and David were amazing). After that tangent:

    As I was reading, based on what I’ve heard about O’Connor, I had an “inkling” that they were going to run into “The Misfit”. I listened to half of Kevin’s description and found his analogy to the Simpson’s spot on. I was thinking how the father seems to have been “neutered” in one regard. No one listens to him. He seems to be defeated and doesn’t care. The whole dysfunction of the family, it’s breakdown, leads to rashness and no love for the other. Kids are spoiled, the grandmother who puts her nose into everything, the Misfit who was wrongfully sentenced and in turn deemed to take revenge. Did the story show how we as a people create “Misfits”? I believe Kevin mentioned we are all “Misfits”?

    Unless this point is in Kevin’s other half of his talk, I don’t hear much about the mother other than the description of her face. She doesn’t seem to be happy being a mother. Why would Flannery specifically mention she was wearing slacks? Is this to point out that women were trying to be like men?

    It’s a short story but show’s the failures of everyday life. Calling people names, having no patience, looking for yourself and not the other. No courage in the face of not only evil but in lies.

    This idea popped into my head about prudence. If the grandmother wasn’t so rash with her thoughts, this mess could of been prevented. Instead of overreacting to her mistake and causing the cat to jump on her son, the car wouldn’t have flipped over. (If he would of prevented the cat from coming in the first place ...)0. If she would have not yelled out the fact that the man was “The Misfit” maybe the conclusion wouldn’t have happened which was alluded when he did it would of been better if she didn’t say that. I’m sure Bailey probably said something to the fact that “why can’t you keep quiet” in not so nice terms. After all, the grandma is constantly what it seems to be gossiping.

    What does it say about the boy and girl by delighting in the fact they’ve had an accident? No concern for their mother, father, grandmother or even their baby sibling. How narcissistic do kids have to be to think this way? It’s interesting that John Wesley didn’t smack “The Misfit” in the face like he said he would.

    Why would the mother say “yes, thank you” to join her husband after he was shot?

    Sorry for being all over the place but as I read it over again and think about it, the grandmother calls Red Sam a good man but his wife gives him the look after she says there is not one soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust.

    In the end, I believe the meaning of the story teaches that everything we do impacts the attitudes and lives of others. How we treat people is reflected back. “The nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree”. How we act matters. It is just not on faith alone. If you loved me, you would keep my commandments.

  12. I thought the part about the monkey was interesting. When we first encounter Red Sam's store, there is a grey monkey climbing, chained, in a chinaberry tree. I don't think pet monkeys are common in Georgia, so it doesn't seem to me an irrelevant detail. Red Sam's wife points out that he is untrustworthy after he'd convinced himself that he was a rare good man in a world full of sinners. After the grandmother and Sam chat about better times, we see the monkey picking fleas off of himself and eating them one by one "as if it were a delicacy." It's a difficult image to interpret - at first I thought the monkey was a reminder of the slaves. But I think we are to see the Grandmother and Red Sam as chained to and delighting in their conceit. What do you all think about the monkey?

  13. Jordan and Darren, these are good comments - though Jordan deleted a longer one that was quite interesting.

    To respond to a few things you both said.

    Yes, Darren, the father is certainly neutered, or ineffectual. And the family is pretty dreadful. But I don't think we can assume the Misfit was imprisoned unfairly. He just doesn't remember what he did. He's clearly guilty, guilty like all of us, of an original sin too old to recall. But I don't think you can assume he's just trying to get revenge for a false imprisonment. Maybe his daddy died from influenza, or maybe he didn't. Either way, if anyone deserves punishment, the Misfit does ... all we Misfits do.

    The mother and her slacks are non-descript. The mother is a kind of zero, like the father. "Yes, thank you" is as inept and insipid a reply as the father, standing as if to fight, frozen in place and never being able to.

    But part of what I think is happening in the woods is Flannery is bringing us to a crisis of existential proportions. The horror of impending death shows us who these characters really are - they are all (except the grandmother) helpless, inept, unable to resist or fight for their lives. They are almost "nothings". They are "nones" - to use a term that's come along since Flannery. To be a "none" means you have no religious affiliation, which means you don't really have a stake in life. The reaction of the family members in the face of doom shows them to be the "nones" they are.

    Red Sam may or may not be a good man, but he's not keeping his monkey up, is he? (That's a phrase I'm going to start using, "Hey, Red Sam! Keep your monkey up!") and he's rather dismissive and bossy to his servant of a wife.

    And yet, once the threshold is crossed and they're all on the verge of the transcendent (in the woods), the grandmother's concern about class and status is shown to be pointless and empty. She tries to use it to her advantage in flattering the Misfit, but it doesn't work because he's immune to anything that superficial.

    And, Jordan, the monkey may indeed be a reminder of the racism and slavery of the Old South. We already know the grandma's patronizing racism regarding the poor black boy without trousers, and the monkey is similarly neglected, covered with fleas and left to be tormented by the children. I do think this is echoed in Red Sam's rather rude treatment of his wife.

    All in all, I think Flannery is showing us ourselves at our most superficial - the parts of us that are unformed by anything noble or good, with goodness a mere matter of dress or social status or geographic location or race. There are no virtues on display anywhere in this story ... though there is something about the shyness of the Misfit that implies a kind of undeveloped courtesy, and finally (as Jordan pointed out in the comment she deleted) the grandmother finds the truth about herself and about life when she finds her virtue - the virtue of a mother who loves even her own Misfit children.

    1. These are really interesting points!
      I think I mentioned before how empty the word "good" is when the grandmother applies it to Red Sammy, whose behavior doesn't paint him as overly good or kind to his wife or the monkey, and then to the Misfit who kills the whole family.
      It makes me wonder whether the old "southern civility" with false senses of good and right is any better than the relativism of today which denies there is good or evil. Both of them show that the only true sense of what is right and wrong comes from the truth of God, especially shown to us by the Church.
      Thank you, Darren and Jordan!

    2. Very good, Noelle! I think you're quite right about "Southern civility" vs. true goodness.

      FWIW, here's my "Top Ten List of the Eleven Secret Herbs and Spices" in the Colonel's Fried Chicken (from my play "Gone with the Passing of the Wind") ...

      10. Grease
      9. Salt
      8. Southern Hospitality
      7. More Grease
      6. Methyl-hydrogenated polysorbate butane
      5. Original Recipe Glutimate
      4. Artificial Flavor
      3. Imitation Artificial Flavor
      2. Imitation Artificial Southern Hospitality.

      (To find out what the number one ingredient is, you'll have to come see the show!)

      Anyway, having lived on the border of the South all my life, having spent quite some time in the South, and having known and loved a good many Southerners, "Imitation Artificial Southern Hospitality" is indeed a real thing! Bless their hearts.

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