A Good Man is Hard to Find: Theme & Symbolism

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  • 0:00 All Have Sinned: Theme…
  • 2:39 Symbolizing Sin: Loss…
  • 3:25 Symbolizing Sin: Seven…
  • 4:33 Symbolizing Sin: Pride…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Sure, everybody makes mistakes, but what does it take to learn from them? Find out what lengths one proud grandma has to go to when we explore the theme and symbols in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find.'

All Have Sinned: Theme in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'

We've all probably heard the saying 'everybody makes mistakes.' While we might find this phrase reassuring in situations like misfiling a report or a making a minor traffic violation, it makes a much more disturbing observation in the case of offenses like theft or murder. Of course, Flannery O'Connor isn't claiming that everyone's guilty of homicide; however, her short story 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' makes it clear that everybody's guilty of something.

Writer Flannery O'Connor - a diligent Catholic and life-long Georgia resident - often relied on her religious beliefs and regional experiences as sources of inspiration for her work. This is particularly true in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' one of the masterpieces of Southern Gothic literature, a group of works written and set in the American South (many during the early to mid-20th century) involving typically morbid, disturbing, or fantastic characters and circumstances.

This dark tale of a pretentious and self-centered grandmother's vacation with her family is steeped in connections to Christian theology, such as Flannery's thematic emphasis that 'All have sinned,' especially the elderly protagonist. To begin with, she doesn't want to go to Florida and tries to convince her son Bailey that they should go to Tennessee instead, using the story of an escaped convict in the area to push the issue. Nevertheless, the next morning she's first in the car, stowing her cat in the backseat despite knowing how angry it will make Bailey. But this isn't even the worst of what she does on the trip, nor is she the only one to mess up along the way.

While their mother and baby brother ride quietly up front, the grandchildren, John Wesley and June Star, prove just how awful travelling with two bratty kids can be - screaming and kicking the seats to get their way. Others, such as Red Sammy, the owner of a service station the family stops at, and his wife, have their own vices, but Red and the grandmother have no trouble pointing out those of others.

In the end, the problem in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' isn't that everybody's guilty of something, but that few will admit it. This is especially true for the grandmother, who doesn't see the error of her ways until she's staring death in the face at the hands of The Misfit (the Floridian convict) and his crew. Even then, it has to be her own death, since she seemed unconcerned with those of the rest of her family, all of which she could've prevented if she'd only owned-up to her own shortcomings. Let's look at these and other lethal shortcomings in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' and see how O'Connor symbolizes them.

Symbolizing Sin: Loss of Innocence

Suspects in an investigation are usually considered innocent until proven guilty, but The Misfit sees it the other way around. And he seems to be able to prove that everyone's guilty. Of all the characters in 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' the children's quiet mother and her infant are the most innocent - neither one really seems capable of saying or doing anything to be guilty of. Nevertheless, they're subjected to the same 'punishment' The Misfit gives the others, meaning he must find them at fault in some way. Their loss of innocence in the convict's eyes parallel's that of Jesus, who, he explains, 'hadn't committed any crime,' except perhaps putting 'everything off balance.' This, though, is what The Misfit also says he's guilty of, but his sin is a little more lethal than that.

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