Grace as an Experience of the Sublime in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

A brief note about the essay:

Flannery O’Connor is arguably the most important American author of the 20th century, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is certainly her most widely anthologized and popular story. Part of the power of O’Connor’s fiction is her ability to embed single moments of grace in the midst of Southern Gothic settings, among grotesque characters. In this story, the moment is pervasively obvious, and as I argue here, is a moment of sublimity, crashing into the life of one of the characters.

O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic, was deeply concerned with “waking up” Christians just like me–a seminary student raised in a Christian home. She despised sentimentality. She believed that Christian living was extreme, on the fringe of impossible. It is with that in mind that I set out to explain how grace in the story enters in as a moment of awe-filled terror, which is exactly how O’Connor thought it should be perceived.

* * *

            Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” finds its thrust in character—particularly the grandmother and The Misfit—set against an atmosphere and plot both ominous and tragically fatalistic. The grandmother’s character reaches its fullest point of development at the climax of the story, right before her death as she is finally able to experience and extend grace to The Misfit—her only genuinely positive act in the story. This moment is cast in sharp relief by The Misfit’s misunderstanding and rejection of the grandmother’s gesture. Grace is etched out within a negative space in the story: it emerges under the atmosphere of fatalism, and it is lacking in the grandmother and her family as well as in The Misfit’s rejection of the grandmother’s extension of grace. This paper will demonstrate that in that final climactic moment, grace finally appears as presence rather than absence—a transcendence that cuts into the story, breaking through the darkness that pervades it. That it is rejected and is the final cause of the grandmother’s death does not point to the destruction of grace, but rather to its sublime[1] and divine power. The awe-filled terror of grace is its radical power to utterly transform one’s life.

From the beginning of the story, grace is encountered as a lack in the characters. No member of the family makes any attempt to try and understand one another. They are spiteful toward each other. Characters outside of the family, such as Red Sammy and The Misfit, are similarly lacking grace. No character interaction shows any amount of grace until the grandmother’s extension of it to The Misfit at the climax of the story.[2]

The pervasive atmosphere of fatalism is established in the story through foreshadowing and almost obviously fatalistic plot points made through the grandmother’s own selfish choices, reminiscent of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.[3] Furthermore, the encounter with The Misfit is foreshadowed from the very first page when the grandmother points out that he is reportedly headed to Florida, just like the family, thus bringing the ominous presence of The Misfit into the atmosphere of the story. Once the climax looms on the horizon, the reader is left to wonder if it were ever possible to avoid what happens to the family—that perhaps a moment of grace that could have rescued the family from their fate was never possible.

When grace does enter the story, at the climax, it is quite pronounced due to its juxtaposition to the extreme moments of absence that pervade the rest of the narrative, particularly the moment of the reaction against grace on the part of The Misfit. The grandmother selfishly and inanely babbles to The Misfit about what a good person she knows he is in order to save herself, bizarrely unconcerned with the systematic murder of the rest of her family (15). She speaks to him about prayer, yet is unable to mutter a single meaningful word of prayer, instead using the name of Jesus as a curse (18-20). She even doubts Jesus’ divinity and power (22). Yet, as her conversation with The Misfit brings him to the height of an emotional pitch, somehow she is able to truly see past the horror of who he really is as opposed to merely searching for what she thinks he wants to hear (telling him he is a good person, etc.) She reaches out to touch him and says, “ ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ ” (22). It is a moment of clarity, according to the narrator. Rather than being concerned for her own life, the grandmother is genuinely concerned for The Misfit. As soon as she touches The Misfit, however, he recoils in terror, “as if a snake had bitten him” (22) and instantly shoots the grandmother. It is this precise moment that the power of grace is revealed. The Misfit experiences grace as the terror of the sublime.

The Misfit’s reaction seems to be informed by the complete absence and rejection of grace in his own life experience as well as in his understanding of Jesus’ life and sacrifice as a part of the construction of his own internally consistent code of conduct. He tells the grandmother that he does not remember why he was imprisoned—that he did not do anything wrong, yet his imprisonment could not have been a mistake because “They had papers” (19) on him. He sees this as analogous to Christ, yet he claims Jesus had it even worse since there were no papers on him. The free grace given through Christ is not considered at all; rather, The Misfit sees Christ’s execution as yet another instance of the force of law subsuming an individual and rather unfairly by The Misfit’s understanding of law. It is because of this that The Misfit believes there is no sense in obeying the law since “they” will get him anyway, regardless of the crime committed or if any crime was committed at all. Furthermore, The Misfit is far more concerned with the reality of Jesus’ miracles, particularly the raising of Lazarus from the dead, than any potential implications or Jesus’ own resurrection and its implications. It is not by grace’s saving power through faith but by eyewitness and empirical certainty that The Misfit considers he could be saved—a mere lip service paid to that possibility since he cannot go back to witness those events. Paradoxically, however, The Misfit does seem to recognize some form of grace. When the grandmother suggests he should pray because Jesus will help him, he agrees that Jesus would. However, he then says, “ ‘I don’t want no hep [sic] [. . .] I’m doing all right by myself’ ” (19) indicating a rejection of grace rather than an ignorance of its existence or the feeling that it has been denied him against his will.

The Misfit rejects the help of Jesus because grace has no part of his code. He needs to see the absence of grace in the law in order to justify his behavior. This foreign character of grace in The Misfit’s mind is what causes his encounter with grace to be experienced as a moment of transcendent, terrifying sublimity. The Misfit shoots the grandmother in reaction to the sheer terror of the possibility that her grace would collapse the internally consistent moral code he had built. It cuts right through it. It would have the ability to utterly change him, if he would only become like a child again. The sheer immensity and power of such a thing is terrifying—that something such as grace, which The Misfit holds as unnecessary and even detrimental could actually completely transform him and take away what he holds most dear. Ultimately, The Misfit is able to retain his code. He sees the grandmother as having been a horrible person, saying after he shoots her that “ ‘She would of been a good woman [. . .] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’ ” (23). In this, he is able to explain away her extension of grace—it came only as a result of trying to save herself and thus was not actual.

The terror of the sublime comes as a result of experiencing something so much more immense and powerful than oneself, where one is at once overcome with an awe-filled terror. Such experiences are terrifying particularly because one is so strongly confronted with the possibility of death—the most radical transformation of all—that the reality one is confronted with could so easily crush the viewer.[4] It is this possibility that confronts The Misfit in the form of grace. The Misfit is terrified because he cannot fathom the possibility of having his code collapse around him. Yet in this moment, the reader can see across that horizon. For a split second, the reader’s vision aligns with the grandmother’s, seeing The Misfit as a child of God, potentially leaving his life of crime behind, accepting the free gift of grace offered him. His terrified reaction reveals the transcendent power that God’s grace has. The climax gives the reader a brief glimpse into the reality of grace. The Misfit was looking for a human kind of reality—empirical proof, enclosed systems of conduct. The reality of grace is that it can come crashing into our lives, disrupting everything, bringing us to our knees in awe-filled terror of infinite possibilities—new and utterly transformative, but unknown.

by Joel Harrison

Work Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Orlando: Harcourt Press, 1955. 1-23.

[1] I use the sublime in a specific, technical sense throughout the paper referring to an effect of both terror and awe produced by the sheer immensity of an experience, as defined by Edmund Burke (1756),  i.e. the first hand viewing of extreme natural phenomena (standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, coming face to face with a ten-foot wave, etc.) See Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

[2] Some examples include the grandchildren caring nothing for anyone but themselves and being rude and disrespectful toward the grandmother; Red Sammy treats his wife as an employee and both he and the grandmother resent anyone who does not meet their criteria of “good.”

[3] The grandmother brings her cat against Bailey’s wishes; she manipulates the children into forcing Bailey to visit a plantation she mistakenly thinks is in Georgia, but is in Tennessee; upon realizing the mistake she has made, she starts, causing the cat to jump on Bailey which in turn causes the car accident; she foolishly blurts out the identity of The Misfit when he and his accomplices come upon the family.

[4] Death in this sense is not simply ceasing to breath, but a complete and total destruction of the body, like an ant being smashed by a finger—a death that points immediately to the infinitesimal smallness of ones existence.


One thought on “Grace as an Experience of the Sublime in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

  1. […] Grace as an Experience of the Sublime in Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard t… […]

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