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Reading Between the Lines - A Good Man is Hard to Find

Reading Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find proved to be the perfect opportunity for me to test out some of Thomas C. Foster's critical reading techniques.

After reading the story once, I went back and reread it again, pulling out interesting quotes which seemed to have a deeper meaning to me... I summarized some of my thoughts on them below, but first, time for a general response.

[General Response]

I feel that O'Connor's story fits well with her statement about the South being "Christ-haunted." In fact, I feel that the Misfit, whom at first appeared to me to be a ruthless, sadistic murderer, actually ended up being even more of a 'good person' than any of the members of Bailey's family.

[Quotes]

The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.

First off, it is pretty obvious to me that the "silver-white sunlight" is supposed to be imagery the reader associates with Heaven. Beyond that, I feel there are two possible meanings to it as a whole, depending upon how you interpret the meaning of the word "meanest": either they are being portrayed as cruel, or they are being portrayed as average. In the first case, the trees could almost be approximated with the Misfit in the role of Jesus... More on that later. In the second case, the trees could be representative of Bailey's family... More on that later, too.

They passed a large cotton field with five or six graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island.

Six. Count 'em, six graves. It just so happens that the Bailey family has six members: Bailey, his wife, his mother, and his three children. I feel this is an allusion to the fact that they're going to die later on. The bit about the island may also be significant... In the end, they are sort of stranded, trapped, and surrounded on all sides by the Misfit and his men, just like an island is surrounded by water.

The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and ... a very wealthy man.

This little bit is important to note, because it points out one of the grandmother's most crucial flaws: she values money and material comforts over love and relationships. This is also evident in the way that she later proclaims she will give all of her money to Jesus in exchange for salvation (this occurs just before the Misfit shoots her).

... a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby. The monkey sprang back into the tree and got on the highest limb as soon as he saw the children jump out of the car and run toward him.

I looked up this thing called a chinaberry tree... Turns out it is a common yard plant in the South (or was, anyways), and it bears little yellow, 'bead-like' fruits. The fact that there is a monkey in the tree is significant, too, of course. I believe that this whole image is a symbol meant to allude to Eden and the story of Adam and Eve (after all, the children are a boy and a girl). The monkey symbolizes the devil-serpent, who, ironically, no longer has to tempt anyone to come near the tree... The pair of kids eagerly rush right up to meet the weary old creature, which quickly retreats. I'll mention this again in just a little while, as it supports a theory of mine.

They all sat down at a board table next to the nickelodeon ... The children's mother put a dime in the machine ...

Here is a strange little fact: the nickelodeon is, supposedly, a jukebox-like machine that plays songs when you insert a nickel into it. Now, it's kind of strange that the mother puts a dime into it, instead of a nickle... I'm not quite sure what the significance is here, if there is any, but I thought I'd mention it.

"No I certainly wouldn't," June Star said. "I wouldn't live in a broken-down place like this for a minion bucks!"

Once again, the Bailey family's obsession with material wealth becomes apparent... And once again, it is a female character who displays the trait.

His wife brought the orders ... "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody," she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.

Strange that Red Sammy's own wife seems to think he is not trustworthy... It seems that O'Connor wanted to stress this argument about no one being trustworthy, almost to the point of exaggeration.

The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. 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.

This is perhaps my favorite quote of all. I'm pretty sure that this passage is alluding to the journey of life towards death. The grandmother recalls the days when this 'road of life' was not paved (straight and narrow being associated with paved roads, of course), and was a much longer journey... As opposed to the way it is at the time of the story's events. I think she means that 'back in the day', life was much more difficult and much less predictable.

The longer segment about the road the family is actually traveling on, also mimics the journey of life (perhaps as it should be, or as O'Connor thinks it should be)... It has many "sharp curves on dangerous embankments," and it leads the family up onto hilltops, where they can see blue (the sky, Heaven, etc.), then back down again into a "red depression" (Hell), where they can see the "dust-covered trees" (the past, the old ways/road of life I just mentioned) looking down on them.

More and more imagery portraying the family as a damned one.

The grand- mother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. ... Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree.

I thought this was interesting... It seems that each member of the family is equated with a particular animal, the grandmother being equated with a cat... Bailey seems to take out his anger towards the grandmother on the cat after the car accident, and then, later on, the cat simile becomes important when the Misfit shows up, but more on that in a minute...

It was a big black battered hearse-like automobile. ... It came to a stop just over them and for some minutes, the driver looked down with a steady expressionless gaze to where they were sitting, and didn't speak.

This passage is riddled with descriptions meant to portray the Misfit and his band as the 'bringers of death,' or maybe even Death itself, personified. The car they arrive in is called "hearse-like"... Hearse meaning an automobile used in a funeral for carrying corpses. More death allusions. The fact that the driver (later revealed as the Misfit) is "expressionless" and looking down upon them also puts him back into the roles of both death (which is often portrayed as a black-hooded figure with no face; expressionless) and perhaps even God Himself (looking down upon them, the damned, in judgement).

The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

Once again, the Misfit is given qualities that make him seem easily equated with God and Jesus.

The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again.

Digging a hole in the ground, covering it back up again... Yep, sounds like a burial. More death allusion.

He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn't move.

Bailey is ready to rush headlong into death's awaiting arms in order to try to save his family... Perhaps making him the most 'good' character in the family, as he is prepared to act as some sort of martyr... A Jesus-like quality. However, he doesn't actually move, perhaps proving that he is ultimately selfish and, of course, a sinful human, who puts his own safety before that of his family. He fails the test.

Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

It seems that the grandmother is displaying spite for Jesus, God, and maybe the Misfit, as well. She's 'taking the name in vain', so-to-speak, putting her further into the category of the damned.

His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

It seems that his parallels that story where Jesus (the Misfit) was tempted by the Devil (the grandmother... notice the snake reference), and managed to resist. Shooting her three times, too... Probably meant as a reference to the Holy Trinity, or some other obscure thing I can't recall right now.

"Take her off and thow her where you shown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

Ah, again, we come back to the cat (who, if you remember, is compared to the grandmother, or rather, vice-versa)... It is rubbing up against the Misfit's leg, in an almost tempting, soothing fashion, just as the grandmother had been trying to calm down and 'tempt' the Misfit herself a few minutes prior. Oh, and by the way, this is the same cat that the grandmother had been so worried about leaving at home, fearing it would suffocate. There are probably more takes there, but I can't think of any at the moment.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." "Some fun!" Bobby Lee said. "Shut up, Bobby Lee" The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."

Finally, the conclusion of the story, and it wraps up my theory pretty well: The Misfit is given the role of Jesus, or (perhaps more appropriately) God... He passes judgement on people who are well on their way to Hell, thanks to their selfish, materialistic ways... And in the end, even though he murders them all, he is very solemn about it, and at one point even mentioned that he'd prefer not to kill anyone if he didn't have to. I think it makes sense, considering that his last line leaves me with the impression that he took "no real pleasure" in what he did.

Anyways, that wraps up most of my thoughts on this story. Please feel free to support or oppose me, I'd like to hear what you think.

Dr. Jerz' Intro. to Literature Weblog - Here's the page where this assigned reading is posted and explained.

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Comments

Thanks (to both author and commenters) for posting this! I -entirely- missed most of the religious symbolism in this story. Thank you for pointing it out. =)

"The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on 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. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady."

Isn't that a hint that tells us the grandmother is going to have such an accident and ultimately will die?

Anyway, I have to say, great analysis.
Keep on Chris.

To answer your final question, Udoka, apes and monkeys were often used as symbols for Satan's mockery of God in religious literature, especially Christian folklore, and the Devil himself was sometimes portrayed as a monkey (as well as other animals, like the ever-popular snake). O'Connor probably wanted to avoid the cliché.

It's been a while since I read this story and posted my thoughts here, so I can't remember enough to argue my other points to full effect, but I'll try.

If you believe the Misfit is meant to bring the grandmother closer to God, how do you explain his reaction when she tries to reach out and touch him? He jumps back "as if a snake had bitten him," and then shoots her. Sure, killing her might bring her closer to God in the spiritual sense because her soul could go to Heaven, and in that case your argument might have some weight, but do you really think the grandmother (or any of these characters) are depicted as people worthy of that fate?

As far as the grandmother being the Devil, it's not a literal affirmation, just a figurative suggestion. Look carefully at the passages where the grandmother is speaking to the Misfit--it sounds to me like she's trying to use trickery to tempt him into sparing her life (though he doesn't fall for it). Check out the similes and metaphors that make her seem snake-like. There's a lot of evidence there (I only wish I still had my copy of the story handy so I could point out some more).

Okay, I haven't read all of the comments, but I did read all of your post. I am a bit confused. It has been everyone in my classes' interpretation that the misfit is bring the grandma closer to God. And it made sense with your thing about the trees glowing, the meanest of them all (The misfit, being a selfproclaimed "mean" guy who must show "meanness"), glows the brightest, meaning that The Mistfit will bring you closer to heaven.

I don't know... this whole idea of the GM being the devil is strange to me. I think its interesting that she feels she has known the misfit all her life and in the end she calls him her own child.

I don't remember The Misfit's child hood. I think I can remember it not having anything to do with the GM, but maybe I overlooked something.

I also don't understand how he can be Jesus and wish he had 'been there" when Jesus performed his magics.

And I dislike the adam and eve allusion you have there. A monkey in a tree in the South? That makes no sense to me. Why didn't she use a snake if she wanted to make that allusion. Why a gray monkey?

I agree to extent of what you say. I believe that the misfit is a fallen angel, like lucifer but not the devil himself. He knows the gospel and he unstands it but goes against it. wouldnt that show that he is might have once been in God's hands but wa cast out because perfection was not acheived by him?

If jesus done screwed it all up as the Misfit suggests, and everything hangs on wither or not he rose from the dead, then if he didn't, all there is then is pleasure in life according to him. But later the Misfit says there is no real pleasure in life after he kills the grandmother, so what else can he be meaning other than he belives in the gosple and understands it, but he just isn't capable of accepting it? Is this what has twisted him as he says? It seems as though O'Conner has left us to decide wither or not there is any real pleasure or not in this world and hence, she forces us to decide wither or not we beleive the gosple is true. I think Miss O'Conner has held a gun up you heads... so to speak.

"The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments."
I agree that this journey may be mimicking life with the hills being heaven and the lows being hell. In addition to your interpretation of this passage I would like to add that the Bible quotes that the road to heaven is strait and narrow. The road to hell long, twisted and treacherous. Could Baily's family be in fact on the road to hell. Throughout the story we learned that they are all sinners. I found the misfit to be not Jesus himself, but in-fact the antichrist. Had he lured the grandmother down this road and the children with the temptation of a beautiful house with hidden rooms. Grandma entices the children with a promise of silver in hidden rooms.

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i can totally agree with these interpretations, but i would also like to point out that the argument could be made that the misfit, rather than representing christ himself, represents the anti-christ. he keeps saying how jesus messed every thing up by what he did, so isnt he trying to bring back the balance? thats just how i saw it. also, you could say the misfit is testing the grandmother instead of her testing him. note the colors of the hat, violet and white, the colors of lent, which is the time when jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert. i see her as questioning her faith, and interpret her removing her hat as giving into temption, showing the weakness of mankind. just a few things that i read differently but your views could be argued just as effectively. the beauty of literature's versatility

man... this website is very helpful. I have to write a freshman composition paper on the motif's of o' connor and this is nice.
did you notice that she was concerned with social status, but when she appeared in front of the Misfit all of her clothes that she dilingently put on started to come off

I was really confused by that part where Bailey curses... I thought that he was cursing at his wife and the children, rather than his mother (the grandmother), but now that you mentioned it, I went back and looked it up... You were right.

I guess that's just one more display of Bailey's failure as the head of his family... Rather than cursing out his mother, you'd think he would have been worried about getting her away from the Misfit and protecting them all.

Oh, and don't feel too bad, Vanessa, I had a real stickler of an english teacher my senior year, she made us analyze stories like this until we were blue in the face. :P

Loved this story. Hated the grandmother.

Wow... that's a tremendous annotation of some important religous themes. I'm glad you noticed the grandmother's association with snakes.

It was the grandmother's realization that she was in the wrong state that "let the cat out of the bag" (literally), and it was the cat that caused the accident. Bailey throws the cat against a tree, which could be taken as a displaced act of violence against his mother.

When the grandmother identifies the misfit, Bailey curses her... even the Misfit seems shocked by that, and he tries to make peace between mother and son -- this, even though he has already apparently discussed with his accomplices what they are supposed to do. It may have been that he had already decided to kill them all, so perhaps he felt the disharmony amongst the family in their final moments was unnecessary. That's one of the things that makes The Misfit so intriguing.

Excellent analysis, Chris.

You definitly got something out of "How to Read Literature Like a Professor". You pulled out things I would have otherwise overlooked. I don't think I'm cut out for this "critical analysis" stuff.

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