A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Violence and Grace 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.
Violence and Grace Theme Icon

At the story’s end, the Misfit says of the Grandmother, “She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Flannery O’Connor may not necessarily believe that being exposed to violence makes us better people, but the message is clear: violence changes us.

As Flannery O’Connor said when delivering remarks on the story, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Up until the very end, each member of the family, most of all the Grandmother, acts almost exclusively out of self-interest. They do not consider questions of right and wrong, religion and grace, or even how to take into account the needs of others. They simply act on their petty instincts without much reflection or moral thought. But when she is subject to violence and forced to confront her own impending death, The Grandmother is suddenly capable of a more authentic and spiritual experience. The Grandmother’s everyday considerations are likely the most petty and banal of anyone in her family, but when she is faced with her own mortality she encounters an unexpected moment of “grace”—she feels as if the Misfit were her own son, and reaches out, physically, hoping to save or comfort him. In Christian tradition (and O’Connor was a Catholic) “grace” means the unearned favor of God, but in many of O’Connor’s stories, it more specifically signifies a moment of beauty and truth that is divine in nature—an epiphany that can pierce through the harshness or pettiness of life.

In the end, however, the Grandmother’s “moment of grace” only results in her death. O’Connor’s world is a harsh one, and grace does not come easily. Instead, it is often accompanied by suffering, violence, and death. For someone like the Grandmother, who is so caught up in everyday banality and her own self-interest—someone so insensitive to real life—only the harsh awakening delivered by violence can cause her to open her eyes and experience something on a different, more spiritual plane.

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Violence and Grace ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Violence and Grace 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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Violence and Grace 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 Violence and Grace.
A Good Man is Hard to Find Quotes

“I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

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

This quotation sets up a central contradiction in the grandmother's character. She is constantly talking about goodness and politeness and she seems beholden to proper morals, but she is actually very petty and selfish. In this statement, the grandmother appears to be proclaiming that she would never endanger her family because her conscience wouldn't be able to bear it, but in reality she is trying to manipulate her family into vacationing in Tennessee instead of Florida. This statement, then, is a selfish one in the guise of being a helpful and loving grandmother. 

This also sets up a deep irony of the plot. The grandmother will later manipulate the family into taking a detour through a back road, and on that back road they will encounter the criminal to which she refers in this quote. In this way, she has done precisely what she says at the beginning of the story that she would not be able to bear to do, and we get to see exactly how her conscience responds. 


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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.

“Listen,” Bailey began, “we’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is,” and his voice cracked. His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still.

Related Characters: Bailey (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Grandmother’s Hat
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation marks the beginning of the characters' visible transformations. Bailey, in this quote, is the first to truly recognize what is about to happen to the family, but he never articulates it outright. Immediately afterwards, the grandmother adjusts her hat brim and it breaks. This is a moment of intense symbolism that resonates with the moment of Bailey's realization shown in the quote. The hat, which the grandmother put on so that she would appear to be a "lady" (in other words, so that she would appear respectable and good) breaks, and once her superficial signifier of respectability is gone, she is able to begin to see the situation, as Bailey has, for what it is. These are two moments in which O'Connor suggests that violence and the threat of violence have a unique capacity for bringing people towards truth and goodness. Once the characters recognize the violence that surrounds them, their behavior shifts for the better—or at least towards truth.

“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.

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. 

“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 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.

“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.