A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Themes and Colors
Violence and Grace Theme Icon
Goodness Theme Icon
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Familial Conflict and Familial Love Theme Icon
Moral Decay Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Good Man is Hard to Find, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Goodness Theme Icon

The characters of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” live by a variety of moral codes, and both the story’s title and the Grandmother’s conversation with Red Sam bring up the idea of goodness, and what makes a “good man.” In the end, as the Grandmother still insists that the Misfit—who has just murdered her entire family—is a “good man,” the question lingers: does being “good” depend on one’s internal character or external actions? Or does it depend on something else entirely?

The Grandmother seems to believe that being a good person means being honest, respectful, and polite. She tells Red Sam that he is a “good man,” even though all she has seen of him is that he puts on a show of friendliness and easy nostalgia in order to help his business. The Grandmother also laments that the family can no longer leave their screen door open without fear of theft—as they used to, apparently. She blames, somehow, Europe for her own country’s decay, and criticizes Europeans for spending too much, as frugality seems to be another part of her criteria for decency. Speaking to the Misfit, she repeatedly insists that he would never shoot an old lady. Her sense of goodness is so based on traditional morals (and just tradition) that, even in the face of cold-blooded murder, she thinks that her old age and “respectability” will prevent the Misfit from harming her.

To the Misfit, however, the question of what makes a good man seems utterly irrelevant. He claims to have always known that he was not a good person, that he was always different from his sisters and brothers. He views crime casually—a way to make the most of his limited, pointless time on Earth. Other than when he is talking to the Grandmother, he does not seem to compare himself against any standard of good character—and thus he does not consider himself morally inferior or wicked. Instead, he simply does what he wills.

O’Connor does not attempt to answer what true “goodness” is, but rather adds complexity to the question itself. By presenting different and even ironic models of a “good person”—the Grandmother, Bailey, Red Sammy—she makes the reader feel the difficulty of the question, and the ambiguity of morality itself. Then, cutting through the heart of the issue entirely, she brings in the Misfit, whose very existence threatens the validity of any kind of objective “goodness.” O’Connor’s purpose is not to answer such questions, but to dissolve them: to make us more aware of how verbalized concepts and platitudes cannot touch the true mysteries of existence.

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Goodness ThemeTracker

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Goodness Quotes in A Good Man is Hard to Find

Below you will find the important quotes in A Good Man is Hard to Find related to the theme of Goodness.
A Good Man is Hard to Find Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Grandmother
Related Symbols: The Grandmother’s Hat
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage reveals important things about the grandmother's sense of goodness and propriety. First, her old-fashioned wardrobe choice shows that she wants to be equated with the nostalgic past society that she believes was superior to the present day. She believes that if found dead in these clothes people would know she was a "lady"—in other words, that she was good and respectable. Clearly the content of her character cannot be conveyed by her clothes, but her seeming belief that it can be shows that her sense of goodness and morality is somewhat shallow. 

This also shows the grandmother's flippant attitude about death. She treats it as an abstract occasion that can be meaningfully dressed for, as though once she were dead it would matter what a stranger assumed about her based on her wardrobe. This passage foreshadows the ultimate outcome of the story, in which the grandmother is forced to truly face her own mortality.


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“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” John Wesley said.
“If I were a little boy,” said the grandmother, “I wouldn’t talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills.”
“Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” John Wesley said, “and Georgia is a lousy state too.”

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker), John Wesley (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange further shows the conflict that the entire family is experiencing. The grandmother attempts to instill respect for Georgia on John Wesley, who is openly rude and mocking towards places that she loves. While John Wesley's behavior is not admirable, the grandmother's insistence that the children respect their native state is not based on any particular qualities of the state, but only on the fact that they are from there and so it is proper for them to respect it. This points, again, to how shallow the grandmother's sense of propriety and goodness is—it is not related to the intrinsic goodness of a particular person or thing, but rather the appearance of goodness based on the devoted following of social rules like respecting one's home state. While John Wesley is certainly disrespectful, the moral decay that the grandmother believes to be in evidence based on his disrespect of Georgia is actually not the most startling disrespect in the passage. It seems far more concerning that John Wesley is so rude to his grandmother, but the grandmother barely acknowledges this.

“Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?”

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Just after the grandmother has admonished John Wesley for his disrespect of his home state, she turns around and says something blatantly racist about an African-American child. This further casts doubt on the goodness of the grandmother's morality, since she is far more concerned about preserving abstract respect for Georgia than respecting the particular child she is gawking at. This also illuminates a troubling aspect of the grandmother's nostalgia for the goodness of the past; the past to which the grandmother refers is one in which the South was much more deeply racist and oppressive. This moment of casual racism by the grandmother darkens each following instance of her lamentations about social decay and her regret that the politeness and goodness of the past are fading. This quotation forces us to see that the grandmother's narrative of moral erosion is in direct conflict with the narrative of social progress for African Americans.

The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentleman and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.

Related Characters: The Grandmother
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

This comes in response to the grandmother telling a racist story about a suitor from her youth. While John Wesley liked the story, June Star seems to think that the suitor's gestures of love were inadequate. O'Connor sets this conversation up so that the reader expects the grandmother to either defend his gestures or agree with June Star, but instead the grandmother pivots and tells her granddaughter that marrying this man would have been a good choice because he became wealthy from Coca-Cola stock. This further points to the grandmother's pettiness and materialism by showing that she values a man's money more than his gestures of care and love. The grandmother is seemingly so concerned with goodness and propriety that we would expect her to speak of the quality of her suitor's character, but it seems that all she cares about are material things and the appearance of being proper that can be associated with money. 

“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy said. “Everything is getting terrible. I remembered the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

Related Characters: Red Sam Butts (speaker)
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

Flannery O'Connor takes the title of her story from this statement, which seems almost meaningless in context. Readers already suspect that Red Sam is hypocritical and perhaps cruel based on, among other things, his conduct towards his wife and his having a monkey chained to a tree. The conversation in which this quotation occurs is one full of nostalgic platitudes about the decay of contemporary society. The grandmother and Red Sam make many self-righteous statements about how they themselves are good but everything else is falling apart, giving vague and irrelevant examples like needing to lock screen doors or Europe's lack of frugality. Red Sam's statement that “a good man is hard to find” at first seems to be just as vague and meaningless as the rest of their chatter, but in the world of the story, where everyone is depicted as being somewhat unsavory, it rings uncannily true. Finding a good man is likely harder than even Red Sam and the grandmother suspect. This statement is also made in direct reference to The Misfit, the escaped killer who will murder the whole family at the end of the story. In hindsight, then, this flippant conversation about moral decay seems to disregard the true violence and chaos of society in favor of petty cliches, and points to the grandmother's shallow understanding of good and evil.

“I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker), The Misfit
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

Even though the grandmother is now barreling towards her eventual epiphany, she is still largely beholden to her typical petty logic. This quote is part and parcel with the grandmother's association of goodness and propriety with appearing respectable, rather than with exhibiting actual kind behavior. The grandmother knows that she is speaking with an escaped murderer, someone who would generally be considered the opposite of a "good man." However, because The Misfit looks like he might come from a wealthy or respectable family, she pronounces him to be good, just as she declared Red Sam good just because he told a vague story about giving somebody gas on credit. This quote, then, shows the absurdity of the grandmother's attitude about goodness, and her ineptitude as a judge of character. The quotation is also a bit ironic since the grandmother agreed heartily with Red Sam when he said that "a good man is hard to find." Here, the grandmother has found someone who is not a good man—someone who would seem to support her hypothesis that the social fabric of her youth is eroding—and she cannot even recognize him as such because her sense of morality is so concerned with appearances.

“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s other has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything!’”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

The Misfit says this in response to the grandmother desperately telling him that he is a good man. This seems to follow a modulation in tone for the grandmother, who has just shown her first tinge of "goodness" in calling after Bailey as he is led to the woods to be shot. It appears that the grandmother is beginning to recognize that her behavior and concerns are shallow, and she is beginning to show love for her family. Her character has shifted, which indicates that her declaring The Misfit a "good man" might be different than the delusional instances in which she has said this before. She seems now to be trying to appeal to a goodness that she fears he lacks, rather than identifying a goodness she believes he has. This goodness is a kind of basic human decency, not something based on the appearance of respectability or politeness.

However, the grandmother's appeal is in vain, as The Misfit is not operating within the moral and social frameworks that the grandmother believes in. In this quotation he confirms that he is from a "good" family, but says he has always been different from them, and he doesn't offer a reason why. This defies the logic that has structured the grandmother's world, in which being from a good family means a person should be good. This, in a sense, mirrors the grandmother's own family. While the grandmother believes herself to be a good, respectable "lady," her son and grandchildren behave in petty, shallow, and even mean ways that do not reflect well on their upbringing.

“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewhere along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive.”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation comes in stark contrast to the grandmother's idea that a person's character depends on his or her station in life rather than his or her actions. It also contradicts the grandmother's idea that a person's character is fixed as good or bad, that a person can, in his or her essence, be "a good man." The Misfit seems to think his own character has shifted senselessly, without him having much to do with it. He wasn't a bad boy, he states, but he did something wrong and was dramatically punished for it. While here he appears to admit to having done something wrong, soon after he denies that he has done the thing he was punished for. This confusion of motive, morals, and even actual events further points to The Misfit's chaotic and violent worldview in which his own violent actions seem to just be random events happening to him.

It is also significant that in this quotation The Misfit places much more emphasis on the punishment than the action that caused him to be punished, suggesting that he has not taken responsibility for whatever he did wrong. When he says that the punishment buried him alive, it suggests that he has experienced some kind of rebirth or transformation. Fitting with O'Connor's interest in how violence changes people, The Misfit suggests that his punishment was a violence done to him that has transformed him into someone for whom morals are no longer relevant. 

“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.

“I don’t want no hep,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker), The Misfit (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

If readers have not yet understood that the logic of The Misfit's world is distinct from the logic of the grandmother's, this quotation erases all doubt. The grandmother informs The Misfit that if he prayed then Jesus would help him, and he agrees with her. When she then asks him why doesn't he pray, it seems that she thinks she has found a way to change The Misfit's mind about killing her, since she believes that being good and moral is something everybody wants. The Misfit, however, sees this kind of salvation as pointless. He believes that faith can't help him, since there is no point in being good, as violence and punishment will follow him whether or not he behaves. He is not concerned with morality, nor with the appearance of it. In fact, his statement that he is "doing all right by [himself]" shows that, for him, his behavior is correct. It is at this point that the grandmother loses courage and becomes very afraid.

“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.”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

At the time that The Misfit says this it seems perverse and menacing. Because The Misfit has experienced such violence (in the form of his disproportionate punishments) that he no longer believes in traditional morals, it seems that, for him, the only reprieve from violence is to enjoy it. This seems, too, to validate the grandmother's concern that society is eroding; it lends a certain logic to that claim to think that violence begets more violence and less concern for others, as The Misfit's statement suggests.

However, The Misfit's response to his murder of the grandmother casts this statement in a different light. When Bobby Lee calls the murder "fun," The Misfit seems to retract this quote by telling Bobby Lee to shut up because "it's no real pleasure in life," seemingly referring to violence. The Misfit, then, seems to have had his own moment of grace. Transformed by his own act of violence against the grandmother, The Misfit does not express regret or even cast judgment on himself, but he does seem to recognize that the murder did not bring him pleasure. This implies that he is capable of feeling a certain concern and empathy for others, after all. 

“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

In a sense, this is an explanation of O'Connor's ideas about the connection between violence and grace. The events of the story have shown that it took extraordinary violence to bring this petty and mean family to a point of showing true love and compassion. Violence, then, was what enabled the family to experience goodness by offering them grace (their moment of realization and transformation). What killed them was also, in a sense, what saved them.

What The Misfit is saying here is that he recognizes this; he saw the shift in the grandmother's behavior as she moved closer to death. When The Misfit first started talking to her she was selfish, manipulative, and shallow, but as she began to truly confront the violence she was experiencing she turned into a "good woman" for the first time. The extremity of the Misfit's statement is skewed by his own violent worldview, but he is recognizing here that if the grandmother lived every moment of her life with the same compassion that she experienced when she was about to be shot, then she would have been a truly good person.