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 so vast and contains all of the different, complicated people living in it, with a variety of experiences that define mankind’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 to dig deeper in order 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’s only known strife and pain. But literary theory is a tool, a bridge that spans the distance between strangers with different perspectives and life experience. In order to know ourselves, we must know others. Literary theory makes that possible. In this paper, the Deconstructionist theory and Marxist theory will be utilized in order to dig deeper, to better able understand the text so that perhaps, we can 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 take the meaning away but multiplies it. Lois Tyson so aptly observes, “Change the lens and you change both the view and the viewer. This principal 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 the way in which 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 you mix white and black. These are two binaries with underlying binaries, good and bad. Symbolically speaking the handkerchief represents the mixture of good and bad 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 proceeds to recount a story about two men who stopped to get gas. They seemed like good enough men to Red Sammy and 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 that can be found throughout the story. From a deconstructionist view, every decision is the equivalent of taking a leap of faith because there is no certainty to how the decision will unfold (IEP). For Red Sammy, he made the decision 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 in order to be hospitable, the host must also have some kind of control over the people who are being hosted. This is because if the guests take over a house through force, then 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 in fact 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 replies emphatically it is because Red Sammy is a good man. Red Sammy says that 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. But Red Sammy is still pronouncing 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 bad more generally is a reference 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. 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 next passage where the idea of “good” is explored is when the family careens off the road into a gulch. The Misfit, who is an escaped and dangerous murderer, comes upon the stranded family with his gang in tow. Upon realizing that the man she is seeing is indeed the Misfit, the grandmother pronounces emphatically that he is a good man. 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 she could possibly see goodness in the violence and murder the Misfit takes part in, is but another contradiction. Kindness and evil cannot both denote goodness. Or can it?
The signifier “good” has somehow shifted in its 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). One explanation of the grandmother’s aporia is explained by Lois Tyson, “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 final scene of the story, we see the grandmother’s tout autre, or responsibility to the other occur. 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 makes a decision 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 regards 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, etc.), and yet we are also always referred to our responsibility towards others generally and to what we share with them (IEP). The grandmother, in reaching out, has found the common bond between herself and the other (the Misfit) and in doing so has revealed that to him. In claiming their oneness in her last words and in 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.” And so the final aporia of the story is that perhaps goodness does spring from many different meanings and that it was only through 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 socio-economic system is laid bare for all to read. But it’s important to understand, as Lois Tyson states, “the socio-economic system in which we lives 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, one 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 certainly true people of low socio-economic status are not the only ones to commit crimes worthy of prison, in general status does play a part. Though the family has not crossed paths with The Misfit, the contrast between the two classes are 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 and 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 suggest that 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 major 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 didn’t 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 seen in which The Misfit murders the family is a perfect illustration of 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 had 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 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 obvious that The Misfit, while mannerly, is not a nice guy regardless of the fact that the grandmother insists he’s a good man. And in fact, the grandmother at one point 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 isn’t 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 in the family members as well. The moral, according to a Marxist Theory, 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 offers the reader the possibility to explore the unknown, and what might have seen unfamiliar at the outset will be perhaps a reflection of their 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 principal 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.