A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Analysis

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.
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon

Much of the discussion between the Grandmother and the Misfit concerns ideas of punishment and forgiveness. A vision of the world is presented in the Misfit’s words: “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?” A fundamental question in Flannery O’Connor’s Christian worldview is the problem of evil: why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?

We are given no tidy answers, but O’Connor clearly presents a world in which unjust or at least seemingly-unjust punishment is the norm. The Misfit is unable to remember what he was even first put in prison for—it may have been an unjust punishment, for all we know. The Grandmother, for her own part, ends up causing the death of her entirely family simply by mentioning that she recognizes the Misfit. Even though this is clearly a mistake, the resulting suffering far outweighs the “crime.” Here O’Connor shows the unflinching nature of her worldview—Christian faith and action is all-important, but it is never easy. Even as the Grandmother forgives the Misfit for all his misdeeds, and even for intending to kill her, she gains nothing but a fleeting moment of grace, and she is killed anyway.

At the story’s end, however, we see that that this forgiveness might mean something to the Misfit. Earlier in the conversation he claimed the only reasonable thing to do in an absurd world was to enjoy one’s days causing violence and mayhem, but after The Grandmother reaches out and insists that he still must be a good person, The Misfit chastises his henchman for suggesting that there was “pleasure” in the murders. The Misfit has, in the smallest way, been changed by the redemptive power of her forgiveness. Each character suffers beyond what they may “deserve,” but that does not rob forgiveness of its value and power.

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Punishment and Forgiveness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Punishment and Forgiveness appears in each chapter of A Good Man is Hard to Find. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Punishment and Forgiveness 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 Punishment and Forgiveness.
A Good Man is Hard to Find Quotes

“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner.

Related Characters: The Grandmother (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage the grandmother realizes that she has misremembered the location of the house that she has manipulated the family into taking a detour to go see. It is telling that instead of simply admitting her mistake, she feels humiliated by it and says nothing—clearly the moral thing to do would be to inform her son that he should turn the car around. However, her physical reaction to the embarrassment accidentally upsets her valise where she is keeping the cat that she was instructed not to bring on the trip, and the cat’s escape causes the car to wreck, which sets into motion the violent end to the story. Certainly the grandmother is at fault for the accident; she has manipulated the family into driving down a dangerous road and she brought the cat after being told not to. However, the accident seems to occur as some kind of karmic retribution for the grandmother’s behavior, and this introduces an issue that becomes important at the end of the story. The accident and ensuing violence seem to be a disproportionately harsh retribution for the grandmother’s behavior, and for the remainder of the story O’Connor forces readers to consider the relationship between punishment and crime, and the moral complexities and violence that a skewed relationship between the two can produce.


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The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once.

Related Characters: The Grandmother, Bailey
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

After the accident, the grandmother's selfishness is acutely on display. Instead of worrying about the safety of her family, the grandmother cowers under the dashboard hoping that she has been injured, because she believes that an injury might ease her son's anger that she caused the accident. Her petty self-pity and disregard of others casts serious doubts on the quality of her character, and makes her lamentations about the decline of old morals farcical. 

This scene functions almost as a rehearsal for the dramatic and violent end of the story, in which The Misfit murders the grandmother and her whole family. O'Connor is interested in how violence and trauma affect people, and in particular how violence might open people to religious and moral epiphany. However, after the car accident the grandmother's character doesn't seem to shift; she remains in conflict with her family, she does not take responsibility for her actions, and she craves pity rather than true forgiveness. Because of this, the plot must escalate to truly depraved violence, which seems to be the only thing that allows the grandmother to experience grace.

The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on the top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearse-like automobile.

Related Characters: The Misfit
Related Symbols: The Misfit’s Car
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

While the accident marks the turn in the story, the appearance of the Misfit's car confirms the dark tonal shift that the accident suggests. The family has had an experience of violence (the car accident) and it has left them unmoved, so the black car that looks like a hearse coming around the bend can only mean that things are about to get worse. 

The appearance of a car that looks like a hearse (a peculiarly shaped vehicle designed to carry coffins) can only portend death. In a sense, this is an escalation of the story's theme of unjust punishment. Since the family members are not behaving like kind and moral people and the accident has not shocked them into reconsidering their behavior, the arrival of the hearse foreshadows the ultimate punishment. Certainly this is disproportionate to the "crime" of their petty behavior, but it proves to be adequate to the task of forcing the family members to confront their own failings and mortality.

His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

Related Characters: The Grandmother, The Misfit
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation has multiple meanings in the context of the story. Throughout the story, the grandmother has shown her flippant attitude towards death (recall her dressing like a lady so that people would know she was respectable if she died on the highway). When she sees The Misfit, whose association with the hearse makes readers think of him as a bringer of death, she thinks his face is familiar, but she cannot place it. This directly echoes her attitude towards death, which she recognizes as a vague possibility, but does not understand exactly the profundity and significance of it. 

This quote also has added significance in the context of the end of the story. While at this point it is suggested that the grandmother recognizes his face since she read the newspaper article about The Misfit, right before the grandmother is killed she seems to recognize The Misfit anew, and declares that he is one of her children. This is the climax of the story, the grandmother's moment of grace in which she experiences love and forgiveness for the man who has killed her whole family and is about to kill her. In this context, her initial uneasy recognition of The Misfit seems to mark the beginning of the grandmother's transformation. This moment can be seen as the stirrings of the true goodness within her that has laid dormant so long that she barely can recognize it. 

“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet . . . I even seen a woman flogged.”

Related Characters: The Misfit (speaker), The Grandmother
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

The Misfit says this after two pistol shots are heard coming from the woods—there is no doubt now in the mind of the reader or the grandmother that the family is in the process of being murdered. The grandmother asks The Misfit if he ever prays, and in response he casually lists his various occupations, placing the sacred (gospel singer) on the same level as the violent (the army) or the morbid (undertaker). He also lists violences he has experienced ("seen a man burnt alive oncet" and "seen a woman flogged") in the same sentence, without giving context or any emotional reaction to them. This suggests that The Misfit's world gives the same importance to religion as violence, and that he reserves no special reverence or fear for violence in the world. From this quotation, O'Connor makes us understand that The Misfit lives in a chaotic world where actions and consequences are disconnected, and violence occurs without reason. That The Misfit treats violence so casually is chilling, since it seems there is nothing the grandmother can say to dissuade him from the murders in progress.

“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. 

“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.

There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.

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

This moment, in which the grandmother expresses love for her son and seems on the verge of heartbreak, is the beginning of the grandmother's moment of grace. In a moment of extreme violence she is realizing what is important to her and allowing herself to be deeply affected by it. The story's preoccupation with the relationship between crime and punishment makes it impossible to ignore the disproportionate nature of the grandmother's family being murdered in retribution for, in a literal sense, her recognition of The Misfit, and, in a metaphorical sense, her petty and shallow behavior. However, this connection drives home that, even though the consequences for her actions seem extreme, it was nothing less than this level of violence that could lead her to epiphany. 

This moment also marks a turn in the family relationship. Throughout the story all family members have treated each other rudely and unkindly, and the grandmother's moment of grace ushers in this quotation, which is the first sign that she deeply cares for her son. The world O'Connor depicts is a dark one, however, and this moment of transformation does not alter the trajectory of the violence in progress. The grandmother's experience of grace benefits her in that it allows her to experience something good and genuine before she dies, but it cannot redeem or change the fate of her family. 

She saw the man’s face twisted closer 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.

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

This is the grandmother's moment of grace at its height. She knows she is going to die and she is no longer trying to change The Misfit's mind about it. Instead of simply being afraid, though, this moment of crisis brings her to a display of compassion her previous behavior did not make her seem capable of. When she sees that The Misfit seems to be about to cry, she reaches for him and tells him he is one of her children. This is such an emotionally powerful moment because it does so many things. It is, for one, the grandmother's forgiveness of a man who has done something unspeakably horrible to her family and is about to kill her, too. It is also an enlargement of her prior display of love for Bailey, which now extends to her declaring The Misfit to be a part of her family. This gives readers a sense of her newly realized love for her family, and her ability to spread that love beyond its biological confines—to see the truth about life and acknowledge the common humanity in all people. Last, this moment is tragic in that, even though the grandmother has experienced a moment of pure Christian love and goodness, she still must die. From this, we receive the message that love and goodness are essential to the human experience, but their power is personal and cannot necessarily subvert the trajectory of someone else's violence. Being moral, then, is important for the personal rewards it brings, but it does not erase or redeem all the tragedy in the world. Injustice and  morality coexist—one does not cancel the other.