An Assessment of the Grandmother from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
The grandmother who remains unnamed all throughout in the story is the protagonist and the central character of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is hard to Find, a tragic story of a family who decided to go on vacation but got killed randomly on the road by a criminal on the loose named “The Misfit”. She is endowed with a joyful spirit, a passion in life in spite of her age. She is a non-stereotypical woman whose old fashion clothing and beliefs contradict her strong, manipulative mind, an opposite trait of a passive and complacent woman in her time.
The Grandmother is a smart woman who knows how to assert herself by trying to use all the available resources around her and manipulating them by appealing to their morality. From this information we say that the grandmother is a round and dynamic character as her character changes from being a manipulative mother to her son Bailey, to a quirky, playful grandmother who ignite her grandchildren’s imagination by her stories, and finally, to a humble human being who experiences “awakening” and acceptance of defeat in her moral battle and failed manipulation scheme with The Misfit.
Right from the beginning of the story, we are introduced to a powerful trait of the grandmother—her strong and manipulative character. She did not want to go to Florida, as her son Bailey has planned for the family. Instead she wanted to go to Tennessee to visit her old friends and “she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind” (356). She would use everything around her to complete her scheme and set things her way.
She picks up a newspaper and shows him the news about a criminal on the loose from the Federal Penitentiary who is headed towards Florida, and attacks his conscience and morals by saying, ”I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that a loose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did” (356). When her first attempt gets no response, she uses her grandchildren and hopes to convince Bailey’s mind this time by saying that the “children need to see the other parts of the world and be broad” (356).
Finally, when she realizes defeat, the grandmother is the first one all set to go the next morning, an indication of the dynamism and flexibility of her character. This same manipulative character is so important in the development of the plot that it will set fire and conflict of the story. The grandmother persuades her son Bailey to make a detour and let the family see an old house off road. When Bailey says no, she again uses her grandchildren by telling them lies about the secret panel in the house where the old family that used to stay in that house hid their silver.
The grandmother knows she ignites the children’s imagination and senses winning this time. This sends the children to a frantic tantrum and ultimately changes Bailey’s mind. The detour causes them an accident and their encounter with The Misfit. In her encounter with The Misfit, still high with power over her ability to changer her son’s mind, she does the same tactic to The Misfit, and hopes not to get killed by persuading The Misfit to change his ways. She evangelizes on his morality and flatters him by constantly telling him he is a good man and that he comes from a nice people (364).
Her desperation is overwhelming as she desperately tries to reach out with The Misfit by calling him “one of her children” and touching him on his shoulders. This desperate action brings her to her death in the hands of The Misfit. Apparently, her manipulative scheme does not work with The Misfit, instead gets him more irritated and angry as he states, “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (368). Another indication of the grandmother’s unique personality is her clothing and style.
The author presents her to us as being a prim and proper lady dressed in a navy blue suit with a matching navy blue sailor hat and white cotton gloves. What makes her clothing and style peculiar and interesting is its inappropriateness to the humid condition of her surroundings. The grandmother seems unmindful about it instead she focuses on her aristocratic and old-fashion views in life. She states, “In case of accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (357).
Instead of viewing the grandmother as hypocrite and superficial, we could look at her as a lost spirit in a lost time frame and space. Her old-fashioned clothing, ways and thinking indicate her imprisonment and nostalgia for the old days. This is shown through her constant recalling of the past, her yearning to reconnect with her old friends in Tennessee, and her nostalgia with the old house in the hill. These are important indications of a suppressed spirit trapped in the pain and joys of unresolved past.
Tragically, this constant yearning of the past will take her and her family to doom and death. Compared to the other characters in the story, the grandmother’s character is the most dynamic and vibrant just like how her choice of clothing stands out. Her son, Bailey, is a cold-hearted and self-absorbed individual whose character is just as boring as his yellow parrot shirt. He consciously defies his mother’s control and hates her sunny disposition,” The children’s mother put a dime in the machine and played ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, and the grandmother said that tune always made her want to dance.
She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her”. Bailey’s wife on the other hand, is a passive character whose only obsession is to hold her baby day and night. To illustrate it more graphically, “the grandmother is a giant red rose in the midst of weathered weeds in a field”. It becomes more vibrant in her encounter with the antagonist of the story, The Misfit. The grandmother’s and The Misfit’s characters are both strong and contrast with each other and it is reflected in their opposing choice of clothing and differing views on morality.
Reading between them is like watching the Battle of Endor in Star Wars-Return of the Jedi where the “good”—Luke Skywalker battles with the “evil”—Darth Vader. The encounter brings us to a hopeful anticipation whether the good will prevail evil and hopes that the grandmother will persuade The Misfit to spare her life and change his ways. But to no avail. The grandmother will be shot three times on her chest. The death of the grandmother in the hands of The Misfit will evoke us differing reactions.
At first instance, we may feel vindictive for the grandmother, and that she only got what she deserved as payback for her selfishness and manipulative character. At the same time, we are also saddened of the evil’s triumph over goodness, a brush of reality that at times or most of the time, “guns are still mightier than words or even religion”. The story concludes with a life lesson that a man’s character and morality are so embedded in the individual that it cannot be changed overnight nor by the mere mention of God or religion.
It has to be noted though that when the grandmother dies, the author describes her as “half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky (368), as if full of peace and divine grace. This demonstrates O’Connor’s conviction on salvation through religion that everyone has the chance to be saved no matter how deceitful the individual’s actions may have been in the past. All throughout the story, our relationship with the grandmother fluctuates from hatred to love, anger to sadness.
We love her for her playfulness, her sunny disposition, and nostalgia for the past, yet we hate her for resembling with our own grandmothers or mothers who never shut up at our homes and who seem to know everything in the world constantly asserting their power and dominance over us. This ability to evoke an ambivalent feeling and familiarity with reality is what makes this story worth reading all over again.
- O’ Connor, F. (1955). A Good Man Is Hard to Find. In G. Giola, & J. Kennedy (Ed. ), Backpack Literature (pp. 355-368). USA: Pearson