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
Moral Decay Quotes in A Good Man is Hard to Find
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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!”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”