Flannery O’Connor’s Moral Compass: The Motley Concept of Good and Evil in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People”
Flannery O’Connor has long been recognized as one of the South’s most accomplished and notable writers. In her short literary career, O’Connor wrote thirty-two short stories, two novels and published several reviews and commentaries. She is known for writing in a Southern Gothic style, which relies heavily on supernatural or mystic elements and takes place entirely in the American South. Her distinctive goal as an American writer of literature was to explore the interpersonal conflicts of Southerners via religious and ethical commentary. When O’Connor was asked to name the fundamental influences in her life, according to Dorothy Walters, she answered: “‘Probably…being a Catholic, and a Southerner, and a writer’” (17).
O’Connor’s profound impact on American literature is primarily a product of her deep religious commitment. According to writers X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, this religious devotion colors her work in such a way that is “unusual among modern American writers in the depth of her Christian vision” (Kennedy 356). O’Connor’s deep assurance in her faith prompted her to write stories reflective of theological themes, and she was very much interested in the concept of good and evil in the physical world. While she applied a justified distinction between good and evil, she also successfully illustrated how the two could merge in contradicting ways. Much of her fiction is concerned with, as Suzanne Morrow Paulson writes, “mankind’s destructive will and limited perceptions regarding physical life” (86). Blatant disregard concerning physical human life is not only apparent in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find;” it is stunning in the brutality of its presentation. The religious perversion and hypocrisy in “Good Country People” convincingly displays O’Connor’s interest in anti-religious behavior, the element of evil, and further provides examples of what she interpreted as the devil’s influence in everyday life. The intensity of her religious beliefs led to the development of a discernible moral code, manifest in the bulk of her work:
O’Connor’s dark view of human will developed from her Catholicism, [which] support[s] [the notion] that man is innately depraved—incapable of virtuous action in a world that by its very nature promotes evil. Depicting the worst in human nature is for O’Connor an act of faith, a repetition of God’s intention to shock us into “grace.” (Paulson 86)
In connection with O’Connor’s conviction that people are naturally sinful and morally lost is her belief that people will come to a clarifying moment of grace at some point in their lives. She held that people would arrive at this defining point through whatever means necessary, including sudden and impending physical destruction. In her essay titled “A Gesture of Grace,” Lila Meeks explains, “Perhaps [O’Connor’s] life and art reflect the truth…that nothing so concentrates the mind as the verdict of death” (18). Her fiction often alludes to vital moments of spiritual refinement where a person is allowed to choose the road leading to salvation or another leading to damnation. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” depicts two main characters in a surprisingly antagonistic relationship reminiscent of the age-old battle of good and evil.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
O’Connor’s 1955 short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” demonstrates the clash of good and evil expressed by her personal confidence that Pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Christian faith, is largely responsible for the demise of human beings. To signify that Pride is the most serious of the sins, O’Connor imbues the story’s main character with subtle but critical attributes. The Grandmother unwittingly parades herself as an arrogant and morally superior person, resulting in a conceit that irritates and eventually dooms her family. Not only is she selfish and egotistical, she also derides humanity’s immoral condition, believing wholeheartedly that “a good man is hard to find.” Writer Miles Orvell describes the Grandmother as “foolish, xenophobic, racially condescending, and self-righteously banal” (130), all of which prove that she is not an ideal candidate for judging the goodness in others. In order to validate her pride, she fabricates a lie about an old house having “a secret panel” (O’Connor 361), inciting her grandchildren to pester their father into taking a detour to see it. Much like a domino effect, her sudden realization that the old house is in Tennessee and not Georgia, leads to the car accident that catapults the family into a vulnerability they cannot escape. By allowing the Grandmother’s self-importance to rob her of her best intentions, O’Connor indicates that she alone is responsible for her family’s death. Although readers are hard pressed to term the grandmother’s behavior “evil,” her conduct is certainly distasteful considering she projects herself as an honorable lady.
Aside from the grandmother, the only other vital force in the story is the troubled homicidal maniac dubbed The Misfit. In assigning him the role of serial killer and escaped prisoner, O’Connor ensures his representation of pure evil. While readers overlook much of the grandmother’s behavior as simply ignorant and resulting from character flaws, readers do not mistake The Misfit’s actions for anything beyond the realm of immorality. After all, he has famously killed others, been incarcerated for the offenses, and shows no sign of remorse for the lives he and his sidekicks have taken. O’Connor’s Misfit is so representative of the Christian Devil, that he unashamedly tells the grandmother a minute before he shoots her:
He [Jesus] thown everything off balance. If He did what He said [rose the dead], then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness. (368)
After The Misfit orders Bailey and John Wesley’s death, readers grasp that he and his co-conspirators are trooping the family to their deaths in twos, and that the Grandmother will significantly be the last to go. After the annihilation of the daughter-in-law and her children, the old woman suddenly scrambles to escape death by attempting to find common ground with her would-be executioner. As her family is being put to death, she tries to appeal to what she believes is the “good side” of the very bad Misfit. She vainly tries to inflate his self-worth by reminding him that he must be “a good man” and “must come from nice people” (364), denying the burdensome fact that she has no way of verifying a stranger’s morality. Readers might assume that if an honorable, lady-like woman were put in such a terrifying situation, she would be so overwhelmed with emotion that she would plead for the survival of her loved ones as opposed to her own. However, instead of grieving for her family, she is busy trying to persuade The Misfit of her own worthiness to live. Her ultimately selfish and futile attempts collapse during the final moments of her life, when she is mercilessly shot “three times through the chest” (O’Connor 368) by The Misfit.
Much analysis can result from reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” A reasonable interpretation might imply that people aren’t simply “good” or “evil,” but rather products of pure moral contradiction. Readers must agree that, although the Grandmother perceives herself as worthy and generally “good,” she lacks many qualities that would more adequately represent such a person. She honestly thinks she is doing the family a favor by suggesting they interrupt their trip to see the old house. However, she lies about the secret panel to vainly fool and impress her grandchildren—whom she cares nothing about—all the while covertly masking the presence of her troublesome cat, whose escape from the basket leads to the car accident. Her deep racial insensitivity toward the little black child is most noticeable when she develops a rapport with the slovenly Red Sammy, whom earns her respect not by necessarily being a “good” man, but by being white. The grandmother’s character essentially deteriorates, leading readers to consider her a creature of observable contradictions. She has basically become a much less convincing saint.
The Misfit’s behavior exhibits clear contradictions as well, and several examples of the merging of good and evil elements. Deviant that he is, he shows hints of propriety when he apologizes for his shirtless state “before you ladies” (365) and makes charming remarks about his parents. One could argue that he ultimately considered the grandmother’s feelings by killing her family members in the woods, out of her sight. He declares “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” (365) thereby removing the grandmother’s burden of insisting that he is so. He somehow reveals a less monstrous and almost introspective side of himself as he calmly rejects the grandmother’s pleas for conversion to the Christian life, indicating that he has contemplated the reality of his depravity and ultimately found it justified. Although O’Connor does not allow readers to forget that The Misfit is a malicious creature, she does permit him some semblance of civility. After he kills the grandmother, he admits that “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (368), indicating that the old woman’s only liability was her tendency to “shoot” her mouth off, or talk too much. O’Connor instills paradoxes in both the grandmother and The Misfit, uniting them by exposing their differences as well as their similarities. To further prove this point, Stephen Bandy writes that the grandmother’s “lack of values is his lack as well,” and that “The Misfit is simply a more completely evolved form of the Grandmother.” (116)
“Good Country People”
Also published in 1955, the story “Good Country People” further showcases O’Connor’s tendency to introduce ethically conflicting characters, only to later reveal their true inclinations. “Good Country People” advances the case that good and evil are not only two sides of the same coin, but also combine in complicated ways to form an individual. This story follows the same format as the first one, exposing the interactions between two main characters, one whom readers initially view as lacking in morality, the other seemingly an advocate of Christian virtue. Joy/Hulga Hopewell is a childish, nonbelieving woman of thirty-two whose atheism and self-importance pervades almost her entire personality. While O’Connor does not portray Joy/Hulga in a strictly immoral manner, readers do not highly regard her or trust that she is particularly redeemable. In line with her personal conviction that Pride is the worst of the sins, she provides Joy/Hulga with an arrogance that appears to be her only strength. Joy/Hulga is much like the Grandmother of the previous story, in that both women are portrayed as having a pride and naiveté that begins as an asset and ends in liability. An academic woman of science, she finds her philosophy of disbelief well justified and fitting of her personality. She makes no amends to adjust her personality for anyone, least of all her mother, whom she greatly dislikes. Joy/Hulga has an unhealthy aversion to all things in life, and displays an extreme indifference to almost everyone she encounters. She has a selfish, temperamental personality, condemns others if they do not conform to her philosophy, and exhibits a physical unattractiveness that only amplifies the ugliness within. She scorns the idea of “good country people” and basically believes they do not exist.
In deep and striking contrast to the depressing Joy/Hulga Hopewell is the hopefully cunning Manley Pointer, self-dubbed a “real simple…country boy” (179) who profits from parading and selling the Holy Word. When Pointer initially enters the story as a “tall gaunt hatless youth,” (O’Connor 177) readers trust that he is exactly who he appears to be: an infallible proponent of true Christian principles. Unfortunately, he is only an element of religious perversion and hypocrisy, aided by a put-upon simplemindedness which serves his scheming cause. Although Pointer does not entice Mrs. Hopewell to buy the Good Book, he succeeds in advancing his plot by remarking “people like you don’t like to fool with country people like me!” inciting her insistence that “good country people are the salt of the earth!” (179) He further progresses his “Devil’s work” by commenting that “he [might] not live long” (180), and obtains Mrs. Hopewell’s sympathy through the lie. With her realization that this young man shares a heart condition with her daughter, Mrs. Hopewell invites Pointer for dinner, giving him the upper hand in “seducing” and eventually “duping” the emotionally lifeless Joy/Hulga.
As with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the elements of good and evil are not initially evident in “Good Country People.” The evidence necessary to declare Manley Pointer and Joy/Hulga Hopewell “good” or “evil” becomes distorted when the innocently weak Pointer is exposed as a cruel manipulator and the strong but “mechanical” (173) Joy/Hulga to be yet another of his victims. At first readers believe Joy/Hulga to be the worst of the characters, a beast of pure hatred and disdain for everything and everyone. However, O’Connor steadily discloses Joy/Hulga’s true sensitivity by immobilizing her with a deep insecurity that she is eternally unlovable. O’Connor validates Joy/Hulga’s desire for true compatibility with another in allowing Pointer to remove her artificial leg. This hesitant but necessary action frees Joy/Hulga from her intellectual prison and shows that her emotional aloofness is not absolute. By allowing the atheist monster a deep emotional vulnerability, O’Connor ensures that her character exemplifies both good and evil to various degrees. She effectively humanizes Joy/Hulga during the seduction scene with Pointer, altering the assumption that the childish woman is a strictly foul character.
Manley Pointer, however saintly he may appear when he enters the story, wholeheartedly personifies what O’Connor termed the Devil’s influence in human form. Pointer’s character represents an obvious corruption of spirit, and serves to re-instate O’Connor’s belief that “pure evil persists in the world in all its vulgar attributes, whether we know it or not” (Walters 67). Pointer’s forged charm and appeal prompts readers to remember that one can never judge a book by its cover and that the Christian Devil takes many forms and avenues. O’Connor articulates that Pointer is indeed a hypocrite and a proponent of religious perversion, but she makes clear that he is not and has never been a good country person and/or a Christian:
I hope you don’t think…that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going! (O’Connor 194-195).
Ultimately, Pointer proves to be the only character truly at ease with himself and satisfied with his convictions. While Joy/Hulga does not believe that “good country people” exist, she is nonetheless taken with Pointer’s allure and somehow permits that he just might be that one good country person. Although Joy/Hulga’s personality tolerates no hope or concern for humanity, she falls prey to contradiction by expectantly asking Pointer “Aren’t you just good country people?” (O’Connor 194). Pointer destroys any optimism she may have had by taking advantage of her physical weakness, laying her emotions bare and quickly jet-setting as soon as he obtained the “interesting thing” he had pursued from the beginning.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” both successfully present Flannery O’Connor’s “moral perspective from which she consistently views her subjects” (Walters 18). Her fiction is heavily concerned with the longstanding issues of sin, salvation, and the evils of human pride, as O’Connor herself admitted to “a certain preoccupation with belief and with death and grace and the devil” (19). Her personal convictions thoroughly design her fiction, and her “preoccupation” with certain moral tenets cannot be overstated. As Dorothy Walters concludes:
The everyday, middle-class majority who dominate O’Connor’s world…[are] people, neither flagrant sinners no striking saints, [who] drift along in the blithe assumption that they represent the “good” aspects of mankind. Their “sins” remain undiscovered by themselves and the world until a major trauma effects exposure, ruin, or salvation. (31)
O’Connor infuses her characters with a healthy dose of good and evil, ensuring that readers remain in a state of unspoiled indecision as they anticipate a redemptive or damning conclusion.
Bandy, Stephen C. “`One of My Babies’: The misfit and the grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (1996): 116. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 Apr. 2011.
Meeks, Lila N. “Flannery O’Connor’s Art: A Gesture of Grace.” Flannery O’Connor’s Radical Reality. Ed. Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. 18. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2010. 356-368. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955. 169-196. Print.
Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972. 130. Print.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988. 86. Print.
Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1973. 17-19. 31. 67. Print.