The Role of Religion in Personal Morality in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

The concepts of good and evil and their major defining “characteristics” used to raise numerous controversies in the spheres of philosophy, ethics, psychology. It is not possible to ignore the religious influence upon human perceptions of good and evil. Each religion offers its explanation of the correlation between good and evil, for example for Buddhists both good and evil is considered to form an antagonistic duality, whereas in Abrahamic religions evil is believed to be the opposite principle of good. Sometimes evil is associated with some supernatural forces, most luckily this is done in order to prove that humans are not able to manage it. Some people are more religious, in comparison to the other, and sometimes they are considered to be good only thanks to their religiosity. Such categorization seems to be rather weak and challenging, as it is really doubtful that religion could make any individual good. Flannery O’Connor is a well-known Southern and Catholic writer of outstanding and remarkable stories. Her stories stand out due to the application of humor, extremely precise categorization and often just shocking plots. No wonder that these stories motive the audience for further investigation of the issues and resonate in their souls and minds. The author once commented that this is her way to reveal her idea – to shock the readers. A Good Man is Hard to Find is one of the greatest stories by Flannery O’Connor and it was written in 1953. The author made the plot shocking and disturbing with the aim to attract attention of the readers towards the sophisticated issues of good and evil, morality and immorality and the connection of these aspects to the sphere of religious faith. Flannery O’Connor is known for the stories with profound religious meaning and open discussion of the degradation of the religious values, taking place in the southern part of the country in the 1950s. The author commented her writing in the following way: “In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” (Harris 2014). Flannery O’Connor in her story A Good Man is Hard to Find underlines that religion does not make a good person, this could be just a way for the individuals to strive for becoming better, as in reality all people have both good and evil sides and none of them could be considered good or bad in the frames of any standards.

The characters of A Good Man is Hard to Find are vitally important for the author’s representation of the real meaning of goodness. The grandmother is a challenging character from the very beginning of the story, when the author describes her outfit for the trip: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” (O’Connor 1993). The grandmother is so much concerned about her appearance that all the other things lose the meaning for her. An accident could really take place at any moment of time, but the primary concerns of the grandmother are not related either to the death of her close relatives, or at least to her own death, rather to perception of the strangers about her.  Appearance for her is the most important characteristic of a good person. The author intended to underline the hypocrisy of the grandmother’s judgments.  Moreover the grandmother pretends to be a deeply religious person, but she does not even think about her soul in case of her accidental death. She is convinced that her soul is “navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim.” (O’Connor 1993). The grandmother has her own approach towards defining of goodness by humans, and it is revealed during her conversation with The Misfit. She starts from asking him not to shoot a lady, comparing a murder just to an issue of etiquette and nothing more. Even The Misfit is ready to acknowledge that he could not be referred to as a good person, although he “ain’t the worst in the world neither.” (O’Connor 1993).

All religious people know a lot of prayers and they use them in critical life situations, as well as when they want to thank the God or to ask about something. In the critical situation the grandmother showed that she could not pray, which means that her religious morality was absolutely superficial. She continued repeating “Jesus, Jesus”, but this had nothing to do either with religion or with goodness. The fact is that the grandmother herself was convinced that she is an example of a good person. The Misfit is constantly compared and contrasted with the grandmother, and finally he seems to be more sincere. He acknowledges that he rejects Jesus, but he seems to be frustrated about the fact of the lack of this faith. He says “I’m doing all right by myself” and “It ain’t right I wasn’t there” (O’Connor 1993). The grandmother faces the most critical situation in her life, when her close people are murdered and she is going to die soon. She tries to flatter and to beg in order to avoid her death; she goes so far that she says to The Misfit “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor 1993). These lines are controversial, as it is not easy to understand the real hidden message of the author, expressed with them. The grandmother seems to understand that there is a strong connection between all humans in this world, as there are not purely good or bad humans, as everybody has good and evil parts inside. The grandmother is not an exception and there is no need to imitate goodness on the basis of religiosity. The author mentions about the grandmother that “her head cleared for an instant.” (O’Connor 1993). This is a hidden hint of the author that the readers should pay special attention exactly to this moment in the story, as they key one. The reaction of The Misfit is also the sign that the grandmother has approached the divine truth. Her body is bloody and twisted, when she is shot by The Misfit, but “her face smiling up at the cloudless sky”, which could be interpreted as the sign of her refusal of her superficial understanding of human goodness.

The Misfit is a unique character in the story and it plays significant role for revealing of the overall message of O’Connor. From the very beginning, the readers did not meet him and could not know that he could turn into something more that just an abstraction, described by the grandmother. She constantly reminds about him, but she does not believe that they are gong to meet him in reality. This is just her usual manner to tell things without putting meaning into them. She does not believe that they will become victims of an accident, although she thinks and speaks about it. Death is seen by her just as the means to underline her belonging to higher category of humans. The characteristic of the grandmother, expressed by The Misfit – “She would have been a good woman […] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” – is very important for the story and its meaning. (O’Connor 1993).O’Connor underlines the real controversy of human nature, consisting of good and evil parts.

The strongest symbol of the story is the grandmother’s hat – “…the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim…” (O’Connor 1993). First of all the hat symbolizes the attitude of the grandmother towards other people, they are interesting for her only as long, as they are ready to acknowledge that she is a real lady. She does not connect any kind of moral code or specific behaviors, which could be used as the characteristic features for the ladies. Instead she wears the “correct” hat and this is enough for her to prove other people that she is good and that her behaviors are morally correct. Her hat is the true sign of her belonging to higher social standards, as an individual, adhered to the highest social values and moral standards. “However, when the actual accident occurs, the brim of the hat is in tatters – much like her self-righteous and judgmental moral code. As she drops the damaged hat, as her deluded self-image falls away, much like the brim of the hat.” (Sarhan 2018). When the accident really takes place, the situation changes, the hat falls apart and symbolizes the beliefs of the grandmother and their complete transformation – “still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.” (O’Connor 1993).

Overall, Flannery O’Connor revealed her talent of using significant symbolism and humor in foreshadowing of the story A Good Man is Hard to Find. The central idea of the author is hidden behind unusual and bright characters and strong and multi-sided symbols, convincing the readers of the connection between good and evil parts of the human nature.  

Works cited:

Flannery O’Connor. Frederick Asals, ed. A good man is hard to find. Rutgers University Press, 1993

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown, 2009

Harris, Abbie C. Jesus Thrown Everything Off Balance: Grace and Redemption in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”,” Papers & Publications: Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Research: Vol. 3, 2014

Sarhan, L. Symbolism and Foreshadowing Analysis of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, 2018

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