“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates
When reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one is struck by its multiple uses of animal imagery. The mother’s kerchief looks “like a rabbit’s ears,” the grandmother’s valise looks “like the head of a hippopotamus,” her touch on the Misfit’s shoulder caused him to spring back “as if a snake had bitten him.” There is reference to a monkey, a cat, a stallion, a parrot, a caterpillar, a turkey, a pig, and clouds of cows. It is easy to dwell too much on minor details, especially in short stories, and risk forcing them to bear more than their share of symbolism. O’Connor herself pointed this out when, after a reading at a university, a teacher asked what the significance of the Misfit’s hat was. “Its significance is to cover his head” she replied. Never-the-less, O’Connor is an image-crafter, and while these images certainly have a merit peculiar to moment they are used, there is no reason not to extrapolate when we can. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor uses images of creatures to draw attention to the animalistic traits of her characters.
Like animals, these characters do not reflect. The grandmother is saturated with the past. But, though we hear her reminisce on past courtships, values, and sentiments, she never ventures to the morally troublesome elements of her early life. The grandmother comes from a Southern family that either owned plantations or revolved in the same social hemisphere as plantation owners. Descending from slave owners bears a certain moral weight to be addressed, but the grandmother looks only as far as sentimentality can protect her. She remembers where you sit with your suitor after “a stroll in the garden.” She loses herself in rapture when she hears the cloying, sugary “Tennessee Waltz” played on the jukebox, saying “the tune always made her want to dance.” The fatal side trip is instigated because the grandmother wanted to stop by an old plantation house she once visited “and see if the little twin arbors were still standing.” Her past is troubling, and her sentimentality protects her from facing uncomfortable realities.
“Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
“He didn’t have any britches on,” June Star said.
“He probably didn’t have any,” the grandmother explained. “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do. If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
The past can be frightening because it often brings an obligation to change, and the grandmother chooses not to engage with the past in a meaningful way, but rather treats her moral baggage as the monkey at Red Sammy Butts’ Restaurant treated his fleas, “biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.”
The actions of our characters are also animalistic in that they do not bear in mind the principles and meanings of their actions. The father wears a shirt with the helpful image of a parrot. A parrot can imitate the form of words, but has no concept of meaning. Despite being identical in form with the real thing, it makes empty statements because it has no understanding of underlying meaning, just a formal likeness. Likewise, our characters act with no intellectual or moral principal, only the animalistic tendency towards immediate pleasure. When the father refuses to turn the car around and see the old house, the son kicks the back of his seat so hard “that the father could feel the blows in his kidney.” So he agrees to the detour, because it will be more pleasant than avoiding it. He does not consider the proper relation of a son to a father, because he does not have the end cause of raising a decent young man in mind. Though their actions seem human, the powers of intellect are not engaged, and they are actions based on immediate irritability with no understanding of end cause.
This accounts for the family’s remarkable in-ability to operate when knocked off the normal track. After their wreck, they sit and wait for help. The father doesn’t try starting the car; the mother with her broken shoulder is left unattended, and she does not ask someone else to hold the baby nor does anyone offer. When the Misfit’s gang arrives, the family members allow themselves to be led off to the slaughter one by one with nightmarish passivity. This is because when an organism is hard wired to do this or that action in certain circumstances, such as the caterpillar Pine Processionary of Fabre, its inflexibility makes no provision for the unexpected. When one acts with the principle in mind to achieve an end, it is not the actions in themselves which matter, but the actions in regard to the given end. This gives a certain level of plasticity to the actions themselves. For example, if you are taught to eat well, you will do so until it is no longer possible, then you will stop. But if you are taught to eat well for the sake of health, then when good food is not available you will seek health in some other way, such as exercise. The family is like a laying hen whose eggs have been replaced with golf balls. She will continue to lay on them because she does not see the end cause of hatching the eggs. She is simply programmed by instinct to sit on objects of such-and-such a size and color. This automatic, slavish mode brings a certain comfort, because, like a baby wrapped in a papoose, it removes the anxiety caused by knowing one must make choices. But it also leads the family by-the-nose to a brutish death.
On the flip side of this preyish instinct is a predatory abandonment to appetite. If the family represents animals tamed by civil contracts like a parrot in a cage, the Gang of the Misfit is the animal unbroken by civility. The Fat Boy wears a red sweatshirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front. Unbridled, undisciplined, with fear of neither God nor man, the Gang’s pursuit of pleasure breaks the political confines that keep the rest of us from eating each other. They show the second of the two options man has when he denies that he has the divine spark of an eternal soul; either live like a sheep or live like a wolf. Both groups live by the same basic rule: serve the appetite; but the Gang is driven to follow this rule to its undomesticated conclusion. Neither group answers to themselves, but the Gang will also not answer to society. This is not simply because they are evil, but because society has failed them. “’That’s why I call myself the Misfit,’ he said, ‘because I can’t make what all I done fit with all I’ve gone through in punishment.’” If society is the greatest good, then when the veil is pulled back and the dubious nature of human justice is revealed to the Misfit, he is right to reject society like a false idol and serve the only remaining god a secular world acknowledges: himself. For an animal, it is a more honest way to live.
Flannery O’Connor writes about a fallen world where men are beasts until they find divinity within them; then they become either men or monsters. We have two moments of this discovery at the end of the story and two reactions. For the grandmother, there is a moment of true empathy, perhaps the first she has ever felt in her life. For the Misfit: the startled, snarling reaction of a dog that finds itself acted upon in a way it doesn’t understand. The last image we see of the Misfit is him wearing the father’s parrot shirt and picking up a cat, visually placing him in the conflicted world of beasts. The last we read of the grandmother is perhaps the only flattering simile in the whole story, “her legs crossed under her like a child and her face smiling up at the sky.” In world of brutes, domesticated and wild, a man is hard to find.