Cosmic Justice? - "A Good Man is Hard to Find" Short Story by Flannery O'Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find

This short story opens with a family preparing to take a vacation trip to Florida. There is a young married couple with three kids and the husband's mother. The two older kids are rude and very blunt in the way they act and talk. The son/husband is a bit standoff-ish to his mother, possibly embarrassed of her. His mother is from an older generation in the South, very prim and proper with her manners and thinking. Before they leave, the grandmother reads in the paper about an escaped convict called "The Misfit," who had gotten away in Florida from the authorities. They are leaving from Atlanta to Florida for their trip, and so the grandmother suggests that they go to Tennessee instead. The couple pays no attention to her, and the next day they set off in the car on their trip. The grandmother secretly packed her cat in a basket so it wouldn't be left behind. 

There's certainly a perennial theme in the story of how generations very one another. The grandmother is put off by the children's lack of manners and spoiled comments, as well as by their parent's indifference. At the same time we also see her making questionable comments about black people. Likewise, when they stop at a gas-station/diner to eat they talk with the owner who also laments how people are acting these days, trying to cheat one another. "'You can't win,' he said. 'You can't win,' and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. 'These days you don't know who to trust,' he said. 'Ain't that the truth?'" ... 'A good man is hard to find,' Red Sammy said. 'Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.'" (122) 

They set back on their way to Florida and along the way the grandmother remembered an old plantation house they passed. She wanted to stop and reminisce, but knew her son wouldn't take the time to go off the route for the trip. She made up a lie that there was a secret door in the house which was rumored to have a silver treasure left behind from the Civil war. This works the spoiled kids up so much that they won't leave their parents alone until they stop. So they turn around and head back to the dirt road which the plantation was on. Then when they had driven a ways the grandmother remembered that the plantation house was actually in Tennessee that she was remembering, she actually had no idea where they were going. With that, she got nervous and the cat slipped out of her basket and jumped on her son, causing a car wreck. They flipped and landed in a ditch, everyone hurt but no one killed. There they were stunned and needed help. 

The Misfit's Soliloquy 
A car begins to pull up to them, and three men get out. They have guns. Recognizing the man from the paper, the grandmother shrieks that he is The Misfit. With that, it becomes clear that the men are going to kill them, as they are still on the run and looking for new clothes. The grandmother begins to try to talk their way out of the situation, dialoguing with the Misfit. Eventually the family is led off into the woods and shot. An interesting part of the story, though, is revealed in the discussion between the grandmother and the Misfit. The Misfit reveals the source of his moral contortion. Apparently he was mistakenly put in jail for a crime he knew nothing about. He was only told that "there were papers" that had the information, but he never saw them. He was later told that he killed his own father, but it wasn't true. This punishment corrupted his view of the universe. Things aren't fair, the crime and the punishment are never aligned. 

"'I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do an other, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.'" (130, 131) The grandmother tries to convince the man that he is not a bad man, and to turn to Jesus and pray. This leads him to reply, "'Jesus thown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course,' he said, 'they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,' he said, 'because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.'" (131) 

Continuing ... "'Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.' The Misfit continued, 'and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No please but meanness,' he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. ... 'if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now.'" (132)

Then he puts three bullets in the grandmother's chest, and they drive away. 

Thoughts on Life and Cosmic Justice 
This story brings up, to me at least, the theme of justice. Is there ultimate cosmic justice or not? If there is a Second-Coming of Christ and Judgement day where everyone will receive their just desserts, then injustice on earth can be born with patience and grace. Yet, if there is no divine justice, then life is some Darwinian struggle in which during the meaningless moments of our lives we are in competition to take advantage of others for momentary pleasure. The Misfit's struggle was of not knowing which side to take, and yet he does take a side when injustice is committed against him. When he is wrongly imprisoned he becomes tainted to the world, and as is seen in many people who are hurt or abused, they then continue they abuse in a vicious cycle by hurting others. 

It is only grace and redemption that allows us to overcome to injustices that befall each of us at different points in our life. I think we all can think of examples of people who went through some type of suffering or difficulty and let it destroy them, and yet there are others who went through the same trial and it forged them into a diamond of a person, so to speak. It requires a faith in the ultimate justice of the universe, faith that being/existence is ultimately good rather than evil. Of course, having faith makes this a more clear decision to be made, but it is still never easy. We are faced with a fork in the road, two paths to take, bitterness and a hatred of being or submission, redemption, and transformation trusting that life and God are ultimately good. 
1 - O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, 1971). Pg. 122
2 - 130, 131
3 - 131
4 - 132