Criticism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, under the spell of the writer's occasional comments, has been unusually susceptible to interpretations based on Christian dogma. None of O'Connor's stories has been more energetically theologized than her most popular, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." O'Connor flatly declared the story to be a parable of grace and redemption, and for the true believer there can be no further discussion. As James Mellard remarks, "O'Connor simply tells her readers--either through narrative interventions or be extra-textual exhortations--how they are to interpret her work" (625). And should not the writer know best what her story is about? A loaded question, to which the best answer may be D. H Lawrence's advice: trust the art, but not the artist.
One cannot deny that the concerns of this story are the basic concerns of Christian belief: faith, death, salvation. And yet, if one reads the story without prejudice, there would seem to be little here to inspire hope for redemption of any of its characters. No wishful search for evidence of grace or for epiphanies of salvation, by author or reader, can soften the harsh truth of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Its message is profoundly pessimistic and in fact subversive to the doctrines of grace and charity, despite heroic efforts to disguise that fact. This vexing little masterpiece cannot be saved from itself. It has a will of its own and a moral of its own.
There are really only two characters in this story: the Grandmother and the Misfit. The rest are wonderfully drawn--hateful little June Star, or whiny Red Sammy--but they do not figure in the central debate. Although the Misfit is not physically present until the final pages, his influence hangs over the story almost from the beginning, when the Grandmother warns her son Bailey of the dangerous criminal "aloose from the Federal Pen" (The Complete Stories 117). Once the family sets off on their vacation trip, the Grandmother seems to forget her feigned concern, for it is only a strategy by which she hopes to force Bailey to take the family in another direction. But the reader has not forgotten. We wonder only when, and where, the inevitable confrontation will take place. At Red Sam's filling station, we suppose. But O'Connor has other plans, which are fulfilled in a chain of events so contrived, so improbable, and so perfectly appropriate to this earful of cartoon characters, that we can only be delighted by the writer's disdain for the niceties of plotting. It is a brilliant stroke: their car rolls over in a field miles from anywhere; and then, as sure as sundown, the Misfit and his crew slowly move toward them. The story rapidly moves to its climax, when the Misfit shoots the Grandmother dead. But what comes just before that killing interests us even more. The Misfit has already directed the execution of the Grandmother's entire family, and it must be obvious to all, including reader and Grandmother, that she is the next to die. But she struggles on. Grasping at any appeal, and hardly aware of what she is saying, the Grandmother declares to the Misfit: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" As she utters these shocking words, "She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest" (132).
Noting that some squeamish readers had found this ending too strong, O'Connor defended the scene in this way: "If I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention" (Mystery and Manners 112). Certainly the scene is crucial to the story, and most readers, I think, grant its dramatic "rightness" as a conclusion. What is arguable is the meaning to the Grandmother's final words to the Misfit, as well as her "gesture," which seemed equally important to O'Connor. One's interpretation depends on one's opinion of the Grandmother. …