Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (Essay)

The main storyline in the literary work "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953) by Flannery O'Connor seems to revolve around 'Grandmother', who is never actually given a name throughout the story, but whose character is the one most developed throughout it. Through her obtrusive bickering, her nostalgic flashbacks to "better times", her need to know all, and the way in which she tries to control situations in an almost-but-not-quite-subtle way, one can tell that though Grandmother's character is complicated, it can still be summed up as tenacious and strong willed, but at the same time willing to do what comes naturally, with an appreciation for fineness and the ability to think ahead for herself. In other words, she has a selfish desire to live the way she wants and thinks herself superior enough to do so. With his use of speech and what seems to be some random actions of grandmother, the author creates for us an old-fashioned and proper 'lady' of a bygone era of America. He wants us to realize from this woman character that selfishness will never lead to good. These types of women, or maybe selfish people in general, are possessive, compulsive, and hypocritical, and are also people who will inherently try to do what's best for themselves, which inevitably has an outward appearance of doing what's best for the people they surround themselves with. Grandmother represents all this and more in her representation of change, which is shown in her final acts, as she appears to change from a selfish old lady to one that'd risk her final breaths trying to give some mercy to a confused and evil man, instead of begging him for mercy. Because of this, her otherwise almost clich├ęd character transforms into something with more depth, sincerity and maybe regret. The author, by using grandmother's character in this way, shows us that maybe people can change even in their later years; that selfishness can be overcome even after it has been ingrained in a character for almost an entire lifetime.
Grandmother believes she knows what is best for her children - in this case, her only son and his wife - and grandchildren, just like many other grandmothers in the world. She also needs to know what they're doing, where they're going, and then imposes on them what she thinks should be done, whether they want her opinion or not. This can be seen all throughout the narrative, and from the first sentence, where she has set in her mind that she believed it would be best for herself and her son's family to head to Tennessee instead of Florida. However, the reason she gives herself for wanting to go to Tennessee is different from the one she tells her son. In her mind, she wants to go to visit some "connections" she has there. To her son, she tells him to read a newspaper article about a man called "The Misfit" who'd broken out of jail and was on the run in Florida. Her other argument is directed to the two children (that are old enough to talk); to them she says that they've been to Florida before, and need to see "different parts of the world". But no one in the family really listens to grandmother, and she is often and easily dismissed, as shown when the family heads to Florida despite grandmother's efforts. From this, one can surmise that grandmother has some wishes she wants fulfilled for herself and will try her best in order to get it, which is somewhat selfish since she is trying to drag along an entire family with her. However, if she is unsuccessful in reaching her goal, she will most certainly do the 'next best thing', and make the most of it on her own terms. These two characteristics - the stalwart tenacity she keeps until the end of her fight, and then the quick progression into humoring the 'inevitable' next step in life in her own way - are shown early in the story and seems to give a mild foreshadowing to her ultimate demise. 
Another habit of grandmother's that helps form her personality is her word choices, and the way in which she words her opinions and thoughts on a matter. Again in the first line, she uses the word "connections" instead of friends or acquaintances, and this gives the effect that she is doing some sort of important business in Tennessee, rather than visiting people she knew. In this way she can feel more superior and thus her actions that would lead her to Tennessee will be justified, in that her work is more important than whatever the rest of the family will be doing in Florida. This process of justification shows that she might have a little bit of conscience to begin with, even if she is overall, selfish, because people without a conscience wouldn't need to justify their actions. 
She also calls the African-America child they see on the road a 'pickaninny' (and refers to another one in her story to the children as a 'nigger'), which is often used in a degrading way. However, she describes him as cute and believes that the child standing there looking somewhat destitute would make a wonderful painting. This contributes to the fact that she was probably raised as a young 'lady' who was proper and learnt to paint and be kind hearted to all things, the way a proper woman should be. And yet, because she believes it'd make a nice painting instead of thinking about helping the poor child, the author shows that grandmother most likely shared the same attitude towards African Americans as others in her era - that is, they weren't in the same class as white people, or they weren't in actuality, people at all. This shows how she is still nice only outwardly, and underscores her selfishness as well, because by painting such a sad and 'humane' picture of a poor boy, she would receive the sympathy and praise of others like herself. Her reference to "common blood" as she talks to the Misfit also emphasize her acknowledgement of class systems and that she ranks herself as upper class.
Also, when she is asked by her grandson where the plantation was after passing the graveyard, she replied with "Gone with the Wind" and a laugh. This leads the reader to believe she is either well read, or in tune with the popular culture of her era, which underlines her belief that she ranked high in society because she was a well-to-do woman with a fine upbringing. Her laugh leads the reader to believe she doesn't expect the children to know what she was referring to, thus enhancing her obvious superiority over the younger generation. The author probably made the reference to the book Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell because the location of both the stories are the same (Atlanta, Georgia) and also to refer to the way that the old way of life had disappeared, which is what grandmother often thinks about. 
Grandmother often digresses back to thoughts of "her time" when everything was better. This proves that she believes her time of youth and adventure is, in fact, over, which may be the reason why she so clings to her only son's life. Grandmother also tells her grandchildren a story of her 'maiden' days, when rich gentlemen would court her, and this could be another reason why she feels superior to others. 
Actions during the entirety of the story emphasize more of her character. Wearing 'proper' clothing for a road trip so that if she died, others would know she was a 'lady'. This showed her need to be recognized in society as upper class. Taking the cat when she didn't need to, and when she knew her son, Bailey, wouldn't want it, also showed her need for everything to be her way. When the author shifts the story from a sour road trip to a bad accident, she still thinks about herself instead of wondering whether the others are okay, and this attitude continues to when the Misfit arrives and she doesn't ask him to spare the lives of her family. However, another shift occurs during her discourse with the Misfit, as they talk about Jesus raising the dead. In this moment she goes from trying to plead and talk him out of shooting her to saying: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" which could have a biblical reference, and then she reaches out to touch him before being shot. This sudden change in character could mean that she had finally realized that it had been her own fault that they'd ended up in this predicament and had then tried to be a good Christian lady at the end of her life, to make up for her bad deeds. Or it could have been because she still wanted to live her life and would do anything to achieve that goal. However, the Misfit's words seem to agree with the latter, when he says: "She would of been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." meaning that she had only been a good woman in those last few seconds of her life, just before she got shot. This could then mean that the gesture she'd extended to the Misfit had been one of mercy and compassion, which is what she probably thought Jesus would have done to help the criminal.
In conclusion, the character, Grandmother, is one of egocentricity and one of a will to live and die on her own terms. The author, by creating such a character, argues that although humanity is plagued by evils at different levels -- from a child being rude, to a grandmother being selfish, to three men murdering people -- there is still hope that at some point in life, people can become better, even if it is at the bittersweet gates of death.

1 comment:

  1. You're aware that Flannery O'Conner was a woman, right? You refer to her as "he" in your essay.