Many praise Flannery O’ Connor’s work for her use of religious symbolism and often violent depictions of life.
While these elements are definitely present in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I also took notice of the subtle foreshadowing O’Connor used with her words; specifically in regards to colors, names, phrases, and the event of death.
The beginning of the story starts off with the Grandmother trying to persuade her family not to take the road trip to Florida. She brings up the release of the Misfit, a serial killer, saying “I couldn’t answer to my conscience” if the family came across him.
This is the first and only instance where the Grandmother should have listened to her gut instinct; whether you believe this or not, listening to one’s first instinct is considered to be a wise notion in most cases. From here, every decision or thought made by the Grandmother steers her wrong, almost as a consequence for ignoring this first instinct.
The grandmother’s son and daughter-in-law ignore her pleas not to go, which is prevalent throughout the story. Her grandson, John Wesley, suggests maybe she should stay home, while her granddaughter, June Star, shrewdly says that the grandmother wouldn’t stay home “for a million bucks”; this is the first of three instances where June uses this phrase to describe her detest for something.
As the story goes on, we see just how mean June Star is, and while John Wesley isn’t exactly a good role model, I felt the grandkids both represented the grandma’s conscience; the angel and the devil on her shoulders. Furthermore, we hear almost nothing from the daughter-in-law throughout the entire story; it seems O’Connor wanted to make the impression that the mother-figure spoke too little and June Star, the daughter, spoke too much. In the same light, it is her son Bailey, reflecting John Wesley’s earlier words, who attempts to divert the family from going up the dirt road that leads to their death. Bailey and John Wesley essentially are reflections of each other as well.
But back to the Grandmother. After she decides to avoid her first instinct, it seems that the universe throws her curve balls; trying to warn her still of her fate, although she keeps inching towards, and not away from it.
The Grandmother is first in the car, ready to go. She dresses like a lady “just incase” something may happen to her. Her attire consists of white violets, which typically represent purity, innocence, and in some cases, death.
On the drive, they pass a large cotton field “with five or six graves in it.” The Grandmother points it out to her family. This reflects the fate of the family later on.
She then tells the children a story about a Mr. Teagarden, whom she could have married, but who was dead now; this is symbolic of the ‘what ifs’ that often cross a person’s mind around their time of death.
The children play a guessing game with clouds, and the two guesses are a cow and an automobile. The family than pulls up to a restaurant called ‘The Tower,’ finding the owner, Red Sammy, under the hood of a car; presumably the family ate barbeque consisting of red meat.
I found this point in the story to be the most interesting. While the color red often represents death or warning, it also represents liberation. I felt ‘Red Sammy’ represented a type of prophet in the story, speaking to the Grandmother directly about how trust was becoming dissolute, using the example of the two men in the Chrysler. He was the family’s ‘red flag.’ Also, the Tower is described as being a long dark room, which immediately conjured images in my head of the Last Supper; this was the last meal the family would eat.
Lastly, there was a grey monkey chained to the tree; I felt this was symbolic of Adam, Eve and original sin. Essentially, eating from the tree supposedly doomed the rest of humanity for eternity, keeping us in chains. ‘Towers’ are also frequently used in biblical literature to describe a place that can reach the heavens, or give one access to God. Therefore, the monkey in chains is symbolic of humanity being so close to receiving heaven in all its splendor, but failing miserably- we are still chained to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and later in the story the family will know what evil looks like.
Also, the Grandmother was enjoying “the Tennessee Waltz” when the daughter-in-law seems to abruptly turn it off to put something faster on, as if she was speeding up the family’s course of fate. Of course, the family never made it to Tennessee, and although I don’t believe the song was out at the time, I couldn’t help but think “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” would fit perfectly here.
The Grandmother later awakes outside of “Toombsboro”; I’m guessing O’Connor added a “b” to the original town’s name for emphasis on death (“tomb”). This is where the family’s fate takes its horrid turn, causing them to backtrack up a dirt road despite the son’s attempts at avoiding it.
The Grandmother goes back to her memory of visiting the plantation: “All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.” Notice O’Connor’s use of the words “red depression” and “dust-coated trees.” Soon, the family would literally be covered red with blood, while dust has always been symbolic of death.
Of course, the Grandmother is the one to flag down the murderers (driving in a hearse) to come to their rescue, right after June Star disappointedly remarks, “but nobody’s killed.” Eventually, June Star refuses to take one of the killer’s hands, calling him a pig; ironic that she said this just before she was slaughtered.
Earlier in the story, O’Connor says: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” This suggests that even evil can have a mystical, or angelic-type quality to it. Furthermore, O’Connor’s use of color I felt was no accident. She clearly makes note of the difference between silver and gray, among other colors. Red Sammy’s handkerchief was gray, as well as the monkey, the “gray-striped” cat, the “gray naked pine trunk” Bailey supported himself with, a gray hat worn by one of the killers, and The Misfit’s gray hair.
Moreover, the description of the killers themselves was especially telling. The Misfit wore silver-rimmed glasses while one killer had a shirt with a silver stallion on it; the Misfit had thin red ankles while the one killer had a red sweat shirt on; the Misfit wore a black hat while one of the killers wore black trousers; the Misfit wore blue jeans while one killer wore a blue-striped coat; the Misfit had tan shoes while one killer wore khakis; as mentioned previously, one killer had a gray hat and the Misfit’s hair was gray.
When the Grandmother says, “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” she wipes her eyes with a “clean” handkerchief, suggesting her soul is purer than the rest of the characters mentioned. Also, there is clear mentions of the number 3, from the 3 killers, to the 3 days the grandmother was going to be away from home, to the grandmother being shot three times; three could be symbolic of the days it took Christ to resurrect, or the Trinity itself. There’s also mention of the number 8, which also has significance in religion, from John Wesley being 8 years old, to leaving the home at 8:45, with a car mileage of 55890.
“I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.” This quote from the Misfit further examines the idea mentioned previously about humans being punished by God for original sin. Moreover, if we think in biblical terms, essentially the entire human race is doomed and will be punished in some form because of this error.
In the end, the Misfit says that if Jesus really did raise people from the dead, then he would not be killing people and committing acts of meanness for pleasure. When the grandmother reaches out, saying “You’re one of my own children!” the Misfit withdraws “as if a snake had bitten him,” and shoots her three times.
Then the Misfit says one of the most famous lines in the short story: “She would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The irony in this statement is the Misfit saying that in the midst of death, everyone has a change of heart and acts with kind words because their life is on the line. While we don’t know the grandmother’s life story, we can tell that compared to her family, she was a good woman and did live by the word of God. She spoke to the children about respecting their parents and their native land, as well as treating the land with care and overall acting in peace vs. conflict.
The Misfit recoils because the Grandmother touched a nerve within him, making him realize there’s “no real pleasure” in killing. Interestingly, the entire family is killed, but there is no mention of what happened to the baby.