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.
Moral Decay Theme Icon

The story’s title itself refers to the apparent moral decline witnessed by the Grandmother and others. There was a time, the Grandmother believes, when it was not so difficult to find good men, though we might wonder if that was ever actually true. To the Grandmother, though, the story’s action supports this belief. When stranded after a car crash, the family is not tended to by friendly neighbors, but by a killer and his henchmen. Just as the Grandmother laments early on that they could no longer leave their screen door open without fear of theft, so the past kindness of strangers, in her mind, has been replaced with brutal violence.

Throughout the story there is a tension between this modern nihilism and a more traditional sense of morality. The Grandmother chastises her grandchildren for not respecting their home state and their elders. Red Sam, whose name has become an icon of the area, agrees that things just aren’t the way they used to be. The Grandmother has to prevent her grandchildren from throwing their trash out the car window, and she chastises them constantly. And, even with a gun practically in her face, she yearns for and insists upon the existence of good, old-fashioned morals and respect. It is as if she cannot even acknowledge that a different kind of morality, or absence of morality, exists in the world.

The Misfit comes to almost personify this nihilism that the Grandmother so fears. He not only disobeys conventional morals, but views himself as completely outside of them. For example, he does not deny that praying to Jesus might lead to his salvation, but he states that he does not need salvation. The Misfit claims to not only accept the immorality of his crimes, but to forget his crimes entirely. Thus he is outside the scope of an old-fashioned view of right and wrong. The Grandmother and Red Sam Butts may cling to a conventional view of an objective morality, but the Misfit simply does not. In his own view, The Misfit is not actually “immoral.” He simply acts how he chooses, without regard for (what he perceives as) the Grandmother’s imagined morals. Ultimately, this apathy toward social conventions and morals is what makes him a true “misfit,” someone who in their own eyes is not a villain, but simply refuses to go along with what everyone else believes is right.

Moral Decay ThemeTracker

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Moral Decay 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 Moral Decay.
A Good Man is Hard to Find Quotes

“You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to East Tennessee.”

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker), Bailey, Bailey’s Wife (the Mother), John Wesley, June Star
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

The grandmother is again using manipulation to goad the family into doing what she wants, which is to vacation in Tennessee. She frames this as being good for the children, since it would broaden their horizons and show them a new part of the country. However, this seems disingenuous since nobody, including the children, wants to go to Tennessee except her, and the narrator indicates that she is mostly just interested in visiting her "personal connections" in Tennessee. This suggests that the trip is motivated more by personal nostalgia than a real commitment to enriching the grandchildren.

The grandmother is also consumed by her belief that the goodness and propriety of society is eroding. Here she appears to appeal to that notion, stating that the grandchildren should be broadly traveled in order to be good, proper citizens. However, her self-serving motivations cast doubt on the sincerity of this seemingly deeply-held belief. 


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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.

“Ain’t she cute?” Red Sam’s wife said, leaning over the counter. “Would you like to come be my little girl?”
“No I certainly wouldn’t,” June Star said. “I wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!”

Related Characters: June Star (speaker), Red Sam’s Wife (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Connor has created a grandmother whose character is thoroughly revolting, but she does not present readers with a contrasting character who is moral and good. This has the disorienting effect of forcing readers to confront each character's failings rather than identifying with one who is "good" and reviling the others. This exchange further confirms that in addition to the grandmother being hypocritical and selfish, the children are likewise disrespectful and even unkind. June Star's willingness to insult a stranger who is serving her food is disturbing, particularly since the woman is actively trying to be nice to her. As the story advances, it becomes more and more clear that the family depicted is dysfunctional. It doesn't seem that anybody has been raised to be respectful and kind, and in this exchange in particular readers are forced to ask if June Star has inherited some of her grandmother's classism, as the reason she gives for not wanting to stay there is that the place is "broken-down." 

“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.

“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. 

“It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it.”

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

This is a confusing quotation, as it establishes The Misfit's unreliability and, perhaps, his mental illness. More important, it gives a sense of why he is dangerous. The Misfit's experiences in jail have led him to literally believe that punishments are arbitrary and are not only given in a way disproportionate to the crimes that caused them, but are also sometimes given without a crime having been committed at all, or for the wrong crime entirely. While the reader is left uncertain as to whether The Misfit is accurately reporting his experiences (doubt has been cast on his sanity, honesty, and memory), this quote allows the reader to understand that, by the logic of The Misfit's own belief, it would not be excessive or unjust to murder a whole family simply because one of them recognized him. In addition, because for The Misfit there is not a logical thread connecting violence to retribution and punishment, there seems to be no way to convince him to change his mind about murdering the family.

The ambiguous charge that The Misfit has murdered his own father also touches on the family conflict that has pervaded the story. Whether or not The Misfit actually did kill his father, the quote points to the possibility that it was familial strife that has led to his doom. For the grandmother and her family, it is similarly family conflict that has ultimately resulted in their deaths. This parallel forces readers to consider what exactly separates the behavior and character of the family and The Misfit. 

“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.

“I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Until this moment, the name "The Misfit" seems to imply The Misfit's separation from society, either that he is different from other people, or that at least that he believes he is. However, in this quotation we learn that the name does not have to do with his assessment of his own place in society at all; he calls himself "The Misfit" because he feels he has been excessively wronged by others, to an extent that he can never reconcile his punishment with the things he knows he did wrong. Not only does The Misfit's name not imply that he is separate from society, he actually believes that he is similar to Christ, because Christ, he argues just before this quotation, was also punished excessively for a crime he didn't commit. This turns our original assumption, that the name references The Misfit's inability to fit into society, on its head; Christ is the moral center of the world that the grandmother inhabits, which implies that The Misfit sees himself to be at the center of some kind of social truth. This pronouncement also makes the case that The Misfit feels that his life of senseless violence is not only morally justified, but constitutes, like Christ's teachings, its own moral framework.

“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.