Secular Meaning in 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'

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Author: Stanley Renner
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,725 words

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[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Renner suggests a secular interpretation of the conclusion of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."]

Just as literature illuminates life, life illuminates literature, sometimes causing a shock of recognition that simultaneously verifies the author's imaginative vision and advances our comprehension of both the vision and the means employed to reveal it. A recent account in a Southern newspaper of developments in a murder trial casts such light on Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a story that has proved particularly troublesome because O'Connor's statements about her intention in its violent climax enjoins an interpretation that does not appear to be supported by the logic of its own content. I refer to O'Connor's representation that at the moment of the grandmother's death at the hands of an escaped killer, when she sees him as one of her own children, she enjoys a sudden accession to divine grace, a "special kind of triumph" that seems beyond the capacity of the character as we know her in the story.1 O'Connor's reading of the climax seems to demand a doctrinaire approach that some readers are unable to bring to the story.2 The design of the story itself, moreover, suggests that its meaning is wider than that indicated by the author's own interpretation. The newspaper account referred to invites a reading of the grandmother's last words in terms of a causal relationship with broad cultural implications and overtones of universality.

The newspaper piece, featured by a large metropolitan daily, reports on the murder trial of a young man accused of the sexual-molestation slaying of an eight-year-old girl. Arrested a few days after the crime, the young man admitted his guilt; and it was the playing of his tape-recorded confession that provided the news peg for the article. The confession includes a revelation that bears a remarkable similarity to the climax of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," as may be seen in the following excerpt from the article:

[The accused] began crying as he told the investigators that he decided to kill the girl because "she said that God loves me." Investigators returned to the comment later.The taped conversation revealed:Q--Do you know, Robert, why you killed her?A--I don't know ... I don't know. She just said that and I just ...Q--When she told you that Jesus loves you?A--Yeah.Q--You killed her? Why did that particular thing make you want to kill her?A--Cause it ain't true.Q--Why do you believe that?A--God just wouldn't let things happen that happen, you know, so he don't care.3

In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," for comparison, the grandmother, obviously terrified by the prospect of death, tries to disarm the Misfit's murderous intention by reminding him of the love and goodness of Jesus. Ironically, as in the story from life, she only activates his frustration and rage, which builds to such an intensity that when she leans toward him and claims him as one of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420048656