‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ tells the story of a man, Bailey, attempting to raise children on his own, at the same time as attempting to care for live with his elderly mother. It is a story which is fundamentally concerned with the nature of morality and behaviour. In particular it is concerned with showing the difference between the domestic and the public spheres and with demonstrating the fact that failings which are acceptable in the domestic sphere may prove deadly in the wider world. The narrative covers a family who, against the advice of their oldest member, decide to take trip to Florida and, as the result of a car accident, have a fateful encounter with a criminal who kills them after he is recognised by Bailey’s mother. This essay will show how several elements in the story contribute towards an understanding of its discourse on the domestic and public sphere. In particular it will pay attention to the key characters in the family and will show how their relationships function. It will argue that these elements can be seen to focus on the presentation of the nuclear family as it encounters change and arbitrary danger.
It is clear from the beginning of the story that the domestic setting is one which serves to define each person in the family involved. The character of Bailey is presented at the start of the novel as being in a position of tension with regard to his mother. This tension can be seen to operate around the close confines of his own domestic environment. The opening lines of the story read: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee” (3). It is clear that the home is a tense one and that characters do not adequately communicate with each other. The relationship between Bailey and his mother is characterised in this way early in the story as O’Connor writes that, after hearing about the Misfit; “Bailey did not look up from his reading so she [the grandmother] wheeled round then and faced the children’s mother” (3). This mother is then described as “a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears” (3). The people in this setting are clearly defined by tradition family roles, however they nonetheless are clearly not able to fulfil themselves effectively within them and the general impression of the family home is one of boredom and docility, as show most of all by the somewhat lifeless description of the mother of Bailey’s children.
It is clear that the family home is one in which communication is difficult and that Bailey’s relationship with his mother is mediated by this difficulty. The domestic sphere is presented as one which is mediated by the fact the people within it often mis-communicate their intentions. The story begins as Bailey overrides his mother’s desire to go to Tennessee, a decision that will prove fatal. However, it is the grandmother’s decision to attempt to find a house from her childhood which leads the family into the car crash that leads to them meeting the criminal, named the Misfit who will kill them. Indeed it could be argued that the passages leading up to this encounter serve to generate an overall sense of confusion and disharmony amongst the characters in the family.
This failure to communicate it is shown to have real and clear physical consequences when the family the Misfit, who stops to aid them after their car accident. Initially it is not clear that the Misfit knows that he has been recognised. O’Connor writes however that; “The grandmother shrieked, she scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re the Misfit!” she said” (13). However, it is Bailey’s mother’s involuntary words of recognition which effectively seal the fate of the family. In response to this, Bailey says that he will handle the situation, although it is made perfectly clear that he does not have the ability to do so and that he will be over powered. What is dramatized in this event is the powerlessness that domestic relations and their own kind of morality face when brought up against the real danger of the world which functions according to dangerous self-interest. When facing the Misfit he is rendered powerless by the same habits that his mother employs in a home setting. In this way it could be argued that Bailey’s fate can be used an example of how dangerous the world can be and how useless domestic morality is in the face of this danger.
This different between private and public can be seen to be the motivating factor in the story’s plot. It is as a result of the change of setting that the family encounter the Misfit. By ending in a ditch by the side of a road, the story ends a narrative arc in which the family attempt to leave a safe domestic setting that they find stultifying, encounter momentary freedom and then, as a result of their inability to drive well, end in a position of objective entrapment. The changing settings of the story’s complement this sense of entrapment and are therefore vitally important for understanding the story’s varying focus on either the domestic or the public areas of life. Once geographically removed from their setting within the family home, the domestic relationships form the focus for the story are shown to be powerless and to lead to real disaster.
The use of symbolism can once again be shown to show the difference between familiar settings and meanings and the dangers which exist in reality. Bailey’s mother informs the Misfit that he must be a good man as a result of the way in which he dresses and even suggests that he may like a new shirt. On one level this is an example of a domestic view attempting to take control of dangerous situation. However, earlier in the passage O’Connor utilises symbolism to show just how hopeless the family’s situation has become. He writes that, as he begins to realise that Misfit will kill him, Bailey’s eyes “were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still” (14). This directly recalls the imagery of drudgery and ‘innocence’ mentioned at the start of the novel, however does so from the a perspective which now shows that Bailey is trapped in domestic reality up until the point of death. The description of Bailey’s eyes serves to generate the sense that, when faced with immanent danger he is trapped in his own identity as a domestic husband and as the person who wears that specific shirt.
With this description and the focus on his eyes being commensurate with his shirt, Bailey’s life ends as he taken into the woods by the side of the road to be killed by the Misfit’s companions. Not only does this show the general hostility of the world towards the domestic family unit but it also shows how membership of the unit, and its specific emphasis on domesticity can come to completely define a person even as they attempt to break away from it. Ultimately, this is the meaning that studying the characters in the story is able to show. It is a story which takes place in a world in which even the apparent reality of domestic life is shown to be unable to face up to the real and arbitrary danger of the world outside of it.
- O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find: Stories. London: Women’s Press Ltd, 1988.