Symbolism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Mary Flannery O’Connor was an influential American writer who was born in 1925, writing two novels, thirty-two short stories and numerous essays and reviews. Her life was complicated by a fifteen-year battle with lupus and she died at the age of thirty-nine. Her philosophy on fiction writing was that it should first and foremost be based in the solidly concrete world (Olson, 42). This is the essence of how she breathed life into her work. She explored symbolism and deeper themes as well, but they came after the concrete details.

Some persistent symbolic themes in her writing include farms, small towns, hallucinations or hallucinations, the south, violence, prejudice, self-discovery, and, her most common theme, religion and the Catholic faith (Irving, 113). O’Connor uses recurring themes and symbolism in all of her stories, none more so that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find. ” These symbols are hidden in the prose and unlocking them adds to the depth, influence and impact of the story.

The prevalent symbolism used pertains to the Catholic faith, Jesus and judgment.

She also uses color and character to tie in the idea of the changing times and society’s disintegration. Everything from the name of the town they are seeking, the forest and the journey itself are used by in this story to represent a deeper truth. They explore the innermost struggle of man and the quest for self-identity and understanding and the need for a person to face their own reality by delving into their character rather than the place they believe they hold in the society and the concrete world.

Get quality help now
Marrie pro writer

Proficient in: Culture

5 (204)

“ She followed all my directions. It was really easy to contact her and respond very fast as well. ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

The characters of the grandmother and the Misfit symbolize different aspects of human self-awareness as well as the idea of Jesus, redemption and hypocrisy. Their depiction as symbols instead of solidly real individuals is evident in their names – they are not given one. Instead they are referred to by the place they hold in society, the “grandmother”, the “Misfit,” which is more important than who they are as people. The grandmother is the sinner, so blinded by her own self-perceived morality and social identity that she is blinded to her own faults and therefore fails to repent.

Her faith is all about appearances rather than sincerity, such as her selection for her attire and the reason for it, “Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor, 118). The Misfit, while the villain of the tale, sits as judge and jury.

He is the only one in the story that contemplates the deeper truth to man’s existence, indicating his contemplative nature and the need for man to question their existence, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . He shouldn’t have done it . . . If He did what He said, then it’s nothing to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left” (O’Connor, 132). While the grandmother fails to recognize her own faults, the Misfit knows not only his own failings but also those of others, indicating the all-seeing eye of Jesus (Bonney, 351).

When she is left alone with the Misfit, after several tries, she manages to say, “Jesus, Jesus,” meaning that the Misfit should pray, yet it came out as a curse. This statement is evidence that she secretly blames God and Christ for her dilemma. The Misfit on the other hand does not believe in a higher power even as he symbolizes one. Additionally, the Misfit originally chose the pseudonym he holds because he believed he was punished excessively for his perceived crime, which he does not remember.

This is similar to how Jesus died for the sins of all mankind, as He did not have any of his own. The grandmother brings up Jesus and prayer because she is trying to find a way out so she hopes to instill grace and regret in the Misfit; she does so to save her own life rather than because she believed: she is a hypocrite. After recognizing the Misfit’s identity, much as one recognizes the presence of God at the time of judgment, the grandmother devotes herself to trying to escape the net she is caught in rather than in the act of prayer.

She even denies Jesus, even calling the Misfit Jesus, in an attempt to stave off her own demise and offers counterfeit affection to the Misfit in order to persuade him to relent, “’Why you’re one of my babies . . . one of my own children! ’ She reached out and touched him” (O’Connor, 132). The Misfit recognized the falseness of her actions and shot her through the chest, much as Jesus knows when a person’s belief is true or if they merely seem faithful. While the grandmother has a greater capacity for grace than the Misfit does, she fails to fulfill it (Bandy, 110).

The family’s journey itself is a symbol of man’s walk of faith. The grandmother does not wish to go to Florida, does not wish to walk the correct path and stay true to her beliefs. When her requests are ignored and she is forced to travel to Florida instead of Tennessee, she dresses it up in artifice rather than sincerity. At the first opportunity, she attempts to detour the family to another road, using persuasion and deception to generate supporters, she steers others away from the path of God as well.

This is their undoing as it places them directly in the way of tragedy. Here too, the Misfit symbolizes Jesus. As Jesus knows when a person is unfaithful, the Misfit judges and punishes the family for their lack of faith (Bandy, 111). At the beginning of the story, the children play the game of identifying shapes in the clouds. This ties into the use of symbols to represent the grandmother’s superficial faith. Clouds are ever changing decorations of the sky, much as she ‘decorates’ herself in lady like apparel in order to portray an image that she does not feel.

The clouds present an appearance of one thing but are in fact quite different. After the family’s accident, the Misfit comments that the sky is without sun or clouds: the artifice has been stripped away as well as the guide for the grandmother to follow – the sun, which is always present in the day, is identified as absent here. The Misfit sees the truth of the grandmother’s character and does not allow her to hide behind false pretenses or recover her lost path; she is to be punished for her crime. Here, the Misfit is the vengeful God and the sinner is not so innocent.

Rather that symbolizing innocence, as children often do in works of fiction, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” they represent the aspects of life that one cannot control and the truth that those events hold. In the beginning of the story, as the grandmother attempts to dissuade the family from going to Florida and to go instead to Tennessee, John Wesley asks the grandmother why she does not just stay home. June Star replies “She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day. ” Only June Star recognizes this aspect of her grandmother’s personality and is forthright enough to mention.

Throughout the story, June Star speaks her truth honestly and openly, though her opinions are high-minded and prejudicial. The Misfit mentions his unease with children, saying that they make him nervous. He recognizes their capacity for unpredictable behavior, as the road of life is unpredictable, and asks his companions to rein them in. There are many symbols of death through the story, particularly toward the end of the family’s journey. The name of the town the grandmother is seeking is called Toombsboro, clearly calling to mind the image of a tomb.

She is inadvertently seeking death. The dark and heavy forest near where the family has their accident is a symbol of death as well, with its shadows, hidden threats and unknowable reality. Indeed, five members of the family find their end in these woods. The car driven by the Misfit and his two companions is described as “hearse-like;” a very blatant symbol of death and one’s journey to what waits beyond. Another symbol used throughout the story is the color red, used to represent the fact that society is changing.

Red is the most used color in the work, creating a link for each character and event to follow. The grandmother and Red Sammy, the restaurant owner, reminisce together on better times, revealing their own prejudice on how things have changed. This identifies Red Sammy as a symbol of those changing times. When she later remembers that the plantation is in another state, she goes “red. ” This ties her embarrassment to Red Sammy – red and Red – and their discussion of the good old days. She had failed to recall them correctly and she was deeply embarrassed.

Later, when the men get out of the car, it is revealed that one of the occupants was wearing a red sweatshirt, another tie to red. The third man’s ankles were also described as red as he was climbing down the embankment and the Misfit’s eyes are described as “red-rimmed. ” It also symbolizes anger as the grandmother is angered by the fact that the times had changed. These images further symbolize the way society had altered as these men represent those changes. This color symbolism ties each of these aspects of the story together in a united theme.

The symbolism used in this story instills in the reader a deeper sense of appreciation as well as a desire to look into themselves in order to discover their own truth. The united themes and symbolism tie the story together and without them, the depiction created would be hollow, without a soul or any real meaning. O’Connor centers her stories around the concrete world; yet, it is the depth she weaves into her fiction that makes it so valuable. The Christian faith is clearly her resounding symbol in this story, yet other aspects of it stand forth as well.

The grandmother and the Misfit are not people; they are representations of the flaws and frailties in all human beings, the ones that define man as a sinner and make mankind run from itself. By penning these startling tributes to self-discovery and truth, O’Connor is able to grasp the very real and necessary desire for society to examine itself neutrally rather than with rose-colored glasses.

Works Cited

Bandy, Stephen. “`One of My Babies’: The misfit and the grandmother. ” Studies in Short Fiction; Winter96, Vol. 33 Issue 1. 107-118. Bonney, William.

“The Moral Structure of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. ” Studies in Short Fiction; Summer 90, Vol. 27 Issue 3, 347-356. Irving, Malin. “Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque. ” In the Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor. Melvin Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson, eds. New York: Fordham University Press, 1966. 113-114. O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find. ” The Complete Stories. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. 117-133. Olson, Steven. “Tarwater’s Hats. ” Studies in the Literary Imagination; Fall 1987, Vol. 20, Issue 2, 37-49.

Cite this page

Symbolism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. (2017, Apr 30). Retrieved from

Symbolism in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7