Why literary theory? Flannery O’Connor sums it up best in her short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when she writes, “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latter’s” (42). The world is vast and contains all of the different, complicated people living in it, with various experiences that define humanity’s very nature. “In order to understand some things clearly we must restrict our focus in a way that highlights certain elements and ignore others…to remind ourselves that multiple viewpoints are important if we are to see the whole picture” (Tyson 3). Literary theory helps man dig deeper to discover what might not have been discoverable before. A suburban grandmother who has known nothing but watermelon and Sunday Church service might not be able to comprehend a murderer who has only known strife and pain. However, literary theory is a tool, a bridge that spans the distance between strangers with different perspectives and life experiences. In order to know ourselves, we must know others. Literary theory makes that possible. In this paper, deconstructionist and Marxist theories will be utilized to dig deeper and understand the text better to better understand ourselves.
There are multiple ways to experience life as there are multiple ways to experience literature. We each, individually, experience both in our own unique way, with our own ideologies guiding us and looking through the lenses of our own subjectivity. This is deconstruction; it does not remove the meaning but multiplies it. Lois Tyson so aptly observes, “Change the lens and you change both the view and the viewer. This principle is what makes knowledge at once so frightening and so liberating, so painful and so utterly, utterly joyful” (9). So it is with Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As O’Connor herself once noted, “There are perhaps other ways than my own in which [“A Good Man is Hard to Find”] could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.” While the author wrote the story, guided by her own subjectivity and looking through her own lens, she acknowledges that her readers may, and some most definitely, will read it through a different lens. In this paper, three tenets of deconstruction will be used to analyze “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: Derrida’s idea of impossible aporias or internal contradictions, undecidability, and how that erodes any sense of concrete binaries, namely good versus evil, and the concept of tout autre or responsibility to the other.
What is a good man? The question is first posed when the family makes a stop during their road trip to Florida at Red Sammy’s, an old dance hall/barbeque shack. Red Sammy bemoans the fact that you just can’t trust people anymore while wiping his forehead on a grey handkerchief. The color grey comes when white and black are mixed. These are two binaries with underlying binaries, good and bad. Symbolically speaking, the handkerchief represents the mixture of good and evil and how the two are becoming hard to differentiate between. According to deconstruction theory, there is no one good or bad. The binaries do not take their meaning from each other only, but from other traces left behind by other binaries, likened to a long chain and resulting in a chain reaction.
Red Sammy then recounts a story about two men who stopped to get gas. They seemed like good enough men to Red Sammy, so he let them charge the gas with the expectation that they would return and pay him. This is one example of undecidability in the form of decisions found throughout the story. From a deconstructionist view, every decision is the equivalent of taking a leap of faith because there is no certainty as to how the decision will unfold (IEP). For Red Sammy, he decided to let the men charge the gas with the faith that they would return to pay for it.
According to Derrida, the idea of hospitality is one such impossible aporia. “His point is relatively simple here; to be hospitable, it is first necessary that one must have the power to host. Hospitality hence makes claims to property ownership and it also partakes in the desire to establish a form of self-identity. Secondly, there is the further point that to be hospitable, the host must also have some control over the people being hosted. This is because if the guests take over a house through force, the host is no longer being hospitable towards them precisely because they are no longer in control of the situation” (IEP).
Initially, Red Sammy has the power to host because he is the owner of the gas station. While Red Sammy does have the power to let the men charge the gas, he lacks control over them which is determined when the men do not return to pay for the gas they charged. When the men do not return, Red Sammy’s act of hospitality no longer has a fixed meaning and can be seen as something other than hospitality. “Often to show how those meanings cannot settle into a stable structure, we would seek out internal contradictions or internal differences that frustrate any interpretations of the text as holding a single, stable meaning” (Parker 93).
They never returned, and Red Sammy despairingly asks, “Now why did I do a thing like that?” The grandmother emphatically replies that it is because Red Sammy is a good man. Red Sammy says things are getting terrible, and a good man is hard to find. The grandmother had just pronounced Red Sammy a good man because of the kindness or “hospitality” he showed the two men by letting them charge the gas. However, Red Sammy still pronounces that a good man is hard to find. So what exactly is a good man?
It is interesting to note that the conversation between Red Sammy specifically and the idea of good and evil more generally refers to the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, a Jewish man is beaten, stripped of clothing, and left in a ditch to die. A priest comes by but crosses the road to bypass him. Then a Levite passes by without helping. Finally, the Samaritan, who is the despised enemy of the Jews, comes by and takes him to an inn where he pays for the beaten Jew to be cared for (NIV, Luke 10:29-37). This act of mercy and grace by the perceived enemy is the contradiction that will resurface throughout the story.
The following passage explores the idea of “good” when the family careens off the road into a gulch. The Misfit, an escaped and dangerous murderer, comes upon the stranded family with his gang in tow. Upon realizing that the man she sees is the Misfit, the grandmother emphatically pronounces that he is a good man. However, one is left to wonder, if the “hospitality” and kindness Red Sammy showed the men was what determined him to be a good man in the opinion of the grandmother, how could she possibly see goodness in the violence and murder the Misfit takes part in? This is but another contradiction. Kindness and evil cannot both denote goodness. Or can it?
The signifier “good” has somehow shifted in meaning for the grandmother. As Jack Reynolds states, “the meaning of the term changes depending upon the particular context in which it is being employed” (IEP). Lois Tyson explains the grandmother’s aporia: “Every signifier consists of and produces more signifiers in a never-ending deferral, or postponement, of meaning” (239). The grandmother is relying on other traces of signifiers denoting good such as ethnicity, perhaps. In her desperation in the current situation, to rely on the meaning of the signifier “good” as relating strictly to the kindness displayed by Red Sammy would leave her no hope in her current situation that the Misfit might also be good. Therefore she seeks out other meanings of the signifier “good” which she can rely on to convince herself and the Misfit that he is a good man and, as such, would never shoot her.
In the story’s final scene, we see the grandmother’s tout autre, or responsibility to the other. Her entire family has been shot to death one by one, and she is now left alone, facing the man responsible for their murders. As the Misfit kneels in front of the grandmother, his face close to hers, she gains a moment of clarity and says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children.” She then decides without knowing the results of that decision but for once, not even caring to calculate the results. For one moment in her life, the grandmother demonstrates what is so incredibly hard to do in this world. She reaches out to touch the Misfit and by doing that offers him unconditional forgiveness. Forgiveness, according to Derrida, is one of those aporias because the notion of absolute forgiveness “…requires a radically singular confrontation between self and other” (IEP). The grandmother, who has acted irresponsibly throughout the story in regard to her manipulation, is finally accepting the responsibility. “For Derrida, the paradox of responsible behaviour means that there is always a question of being responsible before a singular other (eg. a loved one, God), and yet we are also always referred to our responsibility towards others generally and to what we share with them (IEP). By reaching out, the grandmother has found a common bond between herself and the other (the Misfit). Moreover, by doing so, she has revealed that to him. In claiming their oneness in her last words and reaching out in a moment of grace, the grandmother has become the Good Samaritan.
The Misfit shoots the grandmother dead, and as he looks down on her, he says, “She would of been a good woman…had it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Thus, the final aporia of the story is that perhaps goodness does spring from many different meanings and that it was only through the evil that the grandmother was able to become a good woman.
To further understand the text and the multiple meanings it conveys, a Marxist theory will be employed. Written in the Deep South in 1953 and on the eve of desegregation, the socioeconomic system is laid bare for all to read. However, it is essential to understand, as Lois Tyson states, “the socioeconomic system in which we live does much more than determine who has the most power. It also determines, among other things, how we are educated, and it influences our religious beliefs, which together control to a great degree how we perceive ourselves and our world” (112). Examining the characters of “A Good man is Hard to Find” allows a clear view into Marxist theory and, as a result, into the very nature of ourselves.
As the story begins, the reader is instantly given the image of a middle-class All-American family that could be said to be living the All-American Dream. Contrasted with that image is one of an escaped convict called The Misfit. While it is true that people of low socioeconomic status are not the only ones to commit crimes worthy of prison, status does play a part in general. Though the family has not crossed paths with The Misfit, the contrast between the two classes is evident. The feeling of superiority, which Marxists argue Capitalism breeds, is seen in John Wesley’s comments, as the family heads off on their road trip, about Tennessee being a “hillbilly dumping ground.”
To further illustrate how disconnected the idea of the All American Dream in the grandmother’s mind is from reality, as they pass a poor Negro child without shoes or pants, the grandmother smiles fondly. She says that if she could paint a picture, she would paint that. While the idea of the All-American Dream would seem to be noble in that it suggests America is the land of opportunity for those who work hard enough and long enough, Marxists would hold that idea to be false and misleading because, “a vast number of people have not had and do not have equal opportunity in education, employment, or housing due to such facts as, for example, their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status” (Tyson 115).
Competition is a central theme of the capitalist society. While the idea is that competition will naturally bring the best and the brightest to the top, creating a strong society, Marxists point out that more often than not, “unrestrained competition is oppressive because it tends to ensure that the most selfish, unethical people will rise to the top as they’re the ones willing to do whatever it takes to win” (Tyson 115). The unhealthy competition is played out between John Wesley and June Star. “When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he did not play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother.” John Wesley is willing to lie to win, illustrating the selfish and unethical qualities the capitalist society is creating in him.
Commodification is one of the saddest aspects of a capitalist society. “Because capitalism defines everything in terms of its monetary worth, it encourages commodification” (Tyson 114). The final scene in which The Misfit murders the family perfectly illustrates commodification and how inhumane it is. The family is worth no more than a car, Bailey’s yellow shirt, and whatever bit of money he has in his wallet. The Misfit also represents the idea of the rugged individualist. The positive capitalist spin on this is a person who is a loner, taking the initiative and seeking out his fortune regardless of the obstacles. Marxists have a different view. As Lois Tyson notes, “the rugged individualist has been romanticized by American folklore, while, in reality, rugged individualism generally requires putting self-interest above the needs of the community and the commitment to the belief that ‘nice guys finish last'” (115). It is evident that The Misfit, while mannerly, is not a nice guy, even though the grandmother insists he is a good man. Moreover, the grandmother attempts to sell the Misfit the idea of the American Dream, “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life” (O’Connor), but the Misfit is not buying what she has to sell.
In the end, all of the negative aspects of the great capitalist society emerge to bring about the tragic end to a family. The real tragedy, however, is that the negative aspects did not just emerge in The Misfit but also in the family members. According to Marxist theory, the moral is that there is no “good” guy in the end or a good man is hard to find in a capitalist society.
These are just two ways of many that the story can be looked at, and with each new theory employed comes a new and deeper understanding of not only the text but of humanity itself. Understanding literature through different views allows the reader to explore the unknown. What might have seen unfamiliar at the outset will be perhaps a reflection of the inner self they had not known was there. As Lois Tyson so eloquently explains, “For knowledge isn’t something we acquire; it’s something we are or something we hope to be. Knowledge is what constitutes our relationship to ourselves and our world, for it is the lens through which we view ourselves and our world. Change the lens, and you change both the view and the viewer. This principle is what makes knowledge at once so frightening and so liberating, so painful and so utterly, utterly joyful” (9).
Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford, 2015. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Reynolds, Jack. “Jacques Derrida (1930—2004).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
Flannery O’Connor, “On Her Own Work,” in her Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, pp. 107-18.
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