A Feminist Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find”
In his book The ion of Women, John Stuart Mill notes the subordination of women to patriarchal authority arose from a woman’s inferior strength, her value established by men, resulting in a state of virtual bondage. As policy and laws are established from pre-existing social code, the blind continuation of this standard is all too often sanctioned. By questioning this social imbalance, Mill observes, violators were “guilty of … the worst of all crimes, deserving the most cruel chastisement…”. Constrained by such disapproval, feminist critique of society must be approached subtly, stealthily, and raise questions on an almost subconscious level. Flannery O’Connor does just that in her short story “A Goon Man is Hard to Find”.
In choosing the main character, O’Connor’s use of a grandmother implies an archetypal figure of historic ramifications, representing not just a single individual, but the cumulative experience of a single sex over generations. Through this representation, the grandmother falls into stereotypical parameters: she is weak and dependent, reliant upon the family presence and her son especially for support and security. As young June Star points out, “She has to go everywhere we go.” This dependency subjugates the grandmother’s desires and actions. She cannot go to Tennessee alone and must therefore go with the family to Florida, reinforcing her acquiescence to her son‘s authority. The family structure is revealed more vividly after the accident, when the grandmother actually hopes that she is injured “so that Bailey’s (her son) wrath would not come down on her all at once.” Whatever part the grandmother has played in the incident, she has no doubt who will bear the full brunt of retribution.
The Misfit represents a challenge to the established social order and is portrayed as dualistic in nature. He, like women, is held subject to the law, and has been deemed a criminal, despite having forgotten what (or if) he has done anything wrong. Through the slow removal of the family, O’Connor symbolically stresses the need of women to free themselves from traditional constraints. Women themselves are ‘misfits’, as the roles dictated to them often negate any possibility of individuality or personal freedom. The role of tradition has slowly evolved through the years; it therefore has been forcibly taken away and women have been forced to re-evaluate their position in society. The next logical step is to broach the legal standards constructed from these presumptuous injustices, to, like the Misfit, step outside accepted jurisdictions.
When the grandmother claims the Misfit has ‘good blood’ and ‘come(s) from nice people,’ O’Connor acknowledges the original values and purposes from which social standards have arisen. Likewise, the grandmother recognizes the suffering and price this transformation will cost: by calling the Misfit “…one of my own children!” the grandmother recognizes in the criminal not only herself, but the future for all of the women to come after her. O’Connor then uses the duality of the Misfit to both reverse that connection and to comment on the grandmother’s demise at the hands of a powerful male. This event might justify Mill’s observation that women would likely never collectively rebel against men, due to natural and social precedents; just as the grandmother “would have been a good woman,” by social norms, if somebody had been there to remind her of her place at all times. O’Connor’s Misfit, representational of women, may appear ‘defenseless-looking,’ yet is fully capable of fulfilling authoritarian roles in the power structure. O’Connor meditates that this next evolutionary step, while possible, even probable, is not likely to be pleasurable in the process. A good man may be hard to find; perhaps a woman will have to fulfill the role.
Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. Ed. Paula Gaber. 1993. www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/jsmill-women.html.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. Ed. Raymond Soulard, Jr. and Kassandra Kramer. Burning Man Books 2004, 31. Seattle: Scriptor Press 2004.