Free Study Guide: A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor - BookNotes|
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A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND: PLOT SUMMARY
It's getting late, and they have to get their train home at six. They get into a fancy suburb, and when they see a fat man walking a dog Mr. Head just breaks down and pleads with the man to help him--they are going to miss their train, they are lost, oh Gawd! The man tells him that the suburban train is only three blocks away--they'll have to get the train there, since they'll miss it downtown. Nelson still won't move near his grandpa--home is nothing to him.
They come up to a house with a statue in the yard, a Negro holding a piece of watermelon. The two of them stand there-- young and old, same posture--and stare. Mr. Head says, Well look at that, an artificial nigger! Nelson says the same, in awe. The Negro statue looks miserable, tilted, unkempt, the paint chipped. Mr. Head wants to say something wise, and exclaims that he guesses they haven't got enough of the real ones around, they must need artificial niggers too in the city. They are in agreement--a great mystery in front of them--and Mr. Head feels the mercy of the moment, Nelson returned to him by this little moment of dual amazement.
Nelson says they best get going home before they get lost again, and Mr. Head moves with him down the street to the train station. The train even stops as arranged at the junction to let them off--if it hadn't they would've jumped--and slips off into the trees and the dark silently. Mr. Head realizes the enormity of his sin, and of the mercy granted to him. He now knows what original sin is, the depths of depravity possible in himself at denying Nelson, and knows that the enormity of God's love, in mercy, has prepared him for paradise right now.
Nelson swatches the train disappear. He says he's glad he went once to the
city, but never again!
This story is a period piece: the language, O'Connor's use of "nigger," would probably not be tolerated much today. Many reader's are offended, and it can be a difficult story to discuss. But it is worth keeping in mind that she is reflecting the thinking of her time, telling a story about two very immature and ignorant characters. She is not, by any means, condoning their views. Some reader's will argue that a story such as this is important to read and discuss: we should not forget that there were many people who practiced this level of bigotry not that long ago--some still do. It is our history, and we should remember that we are not so far removed from it as we would like to think. Bigotry is worth discussing, for only by facing the problem can we work towards change. Fiction is the cultural reflection of social thinking, hopefully helping us to think about what we are made of.
Also, O'Connor herself might argue that the story is more concerned with a sixty-year-old man's view of mercy (see Themes, below). Mr. Head is a man with very limited experience, and snappy grandson on his hands. The story is mostly concerned with the older man's point of view, and works slowly from point to point, as the two characters have a long day of it. The situation becomes more and more dire--but in the end Mr. Head gets exactly what he wants: Nelson does not want to go back to the city, ever.
In typical fashion, this story works towards a terrible climax: Nelson is
scared out of his wits, and the old man is so silly (denying Nelson) that
the boy is on the verge of writing him off forever. The last minute save--their
connection over the surprising statue--is justified: the boy and the man
only have each other, and their combined ignorance and desire. Indeed,
Mr. Head has been granted a moment of grace, the return of his grandson.
The religious themes in this story are sharpest at the end. Mr. Head's vision of his denial of Nelson is so painful--so absolutely and totally terrible and shameful to him--that he can see God's hand in granting a moment for reconnection to Nelson. At the start of the story, Mr. Head believes that it is only long experience that allows the old to guide the young. At the end, he realizes not only that he needs guidance, but that he is capable of terrible things, and that mercy (or God's love) can save a person. Experience is only viable, then, when one sees God's hand in the goings-on, and one learns to appreciate that divine gift.
The realization of mercy is the point of this story. It is surprising that the mercy comes in the form of a sad old statue--the boy and the man do not realize what they are looking at: the manifestation of a whole people's sorrow. They only see something they cannot fathom: an artificial person of such low class that they cannot comprehend why the statue exists. But it makes them feel better: the threat they have felt from these people is removed because the statue cannot do much, say much, or respond to them in any way. They can agree on their reaction to the thing, and they desperately need agreement at the moment. The divine mercy of the story is the coincidence of the statue, of having a moment when they can agree--and go on.
The ignorance of the two characters is nothing new in these stories. It is
sometimes comic, and sometimes sad. It is very realistic. The old man
is about on the same level as the boy: they compete for who is "right,"
who "knows more," and who can control the situation. And the
boy is still a boy, and feels his dependence. The depiction is realistic,
and very thought provoking. Although this story is probably the one least
reprinted--for the reasons explained above--it is probably the one most
worthy of discussion.
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. 09 May 2017