Empathy in A Good Man is Hard to Find

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a short story concerned with Christian themes of empathy and redemption, particularly as experienced through the narrative arc of the grandmother character whose presence structures not only the story’s plot but also its most compelling themes. The grandmother’s narrative arc begins with her distaste at the idea of traveling to Florida where she does not believe anyone could take their children in good faith considering the rumored presence of a dangerous fugitive in the area.

This demonstrates the grandmother’s “fallen” state where her motivations are grounded in social propriety and utility. For example, her reasoning for wearing such elaborate clothing on a car trip is rooted in a desire to distinguish herself as a “lady” even in death should they experience a fatal accident on the route south.

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This tendency to want to separate herself within society becomes even more evident when they pass a black child on the road whose pant-less state she attributes to a difference between black people in the country and people like those in her family: “Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do” (Flannery). Furthermore, she explains that the entire reason she noticed the black boy to begin with was because she thought he would be an ideal subject for a painting. And, while she doesn’t elaborate why this is a particularly picturesque scene, we can infer that it is because the boy is a confirmation of her privileged status as an elderly white woman with a well-to-do son who can afford to take his family on vacation.

In fact, the grandmother’s brief encounter with the boy has a tourist-like quality: she experiences the boy only in quick passing but is seemingly able to extrapolate a great deal about his entire socio-economic status. Her analysis reads thus: the boy lacks pants because black people in the country are not only different from her family but different socio-economically. The fact that she wants to capture the experience in a painting is akin to wanting a souvenir to bring home from a vacation to an exotic land where people live in situations entirely different from their own.

Additionally, like a tourist, she takes note of seemingly unimportant details like the number showing on the odometer in order to convert the information into a story about the distance traveled on their road trip that can be shared with others upon their return. Her desire to “paint” the black boy could also be read as a desire to experience the world through its mere token appearance (souvenir). These are indicative of the grandmother’s “fallen” state: she attributes greater significance to the formal appearance of the world around her than to its substance, a dialectical tension that she traverses over the course of the story.

The family car crash could then be read as the result of the internal clash between the grandmother’s tourist fantasy about the world and its actual existence. The impetus for the cat jumping on Bailey’s shoulder (which in turn causes him to veer the family car into the ditch) is a literal cognitive reconciliation of the grandmother’s dissonance about the supposed location of the mysterious house which she at first believed was in Georgia but realized was actually in Tennessee. Thus the crash also symbolizes the grandmother leaving her fallen state; the rest of the story involves her coming to terms with the nature of the Misfit and the cruelty he and his band of miscreants exhibit.

Throughout the family’s ordeal with the Misfit, the grandmother frantically tries to appeal to the “good nature” of the gang who eventually murder them. She argues that the men must lack “common blood” and, as a result, be a type of people who would never resort to killing other human beings. The basis for this argument is purely her intuition: “you shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell”, she explains. But as her pleading proves futile, she experiences a profound change and her appeals to the Misfit take on the quality of a recognition.

She sees the twisted visage of the Misfit and instead of recoiling at the horror occurring around her as her family is murdered she sees within him a great suffering and identifies him as one of her own children. In this, her moment of clarity, the grandmother reaches out and touches the Misfit in a gesture of pure Christ-like empathy wherein she sees the cruel man as her own child just as Jesus of Nazareth saw even those who murdered him as fellow children of the same Heavenly Father.

And, just as Jesus died because of the blasphemous nature of his empathy, so too is the grandmother killed as the Misfit shoots her three times in response to her simple touch. The grandmother’s death is where she has finally exited her fallen state and embraced Christ’s most enduring quality: a capacity for infinite empathy and love.

The grandmother began the story as a tourist, experiencing the world in only its superficial qualities but through the harrowing experience with the Misfit, she is able to see things for what they really are. While we are never able to verify the Misfit’s account of what “punishments” were inflicted upon him, the grandmother’s Christ-like empathy is sufficiently evident in that she sees him as the result of circumstance and not heredity. Through the sheer horror of the situation, the grandmother is able to see past the social convention that blinded her and achieve redemption by seeing the good inside even the most cruel and potentially evil man she had ever encountered.

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