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Exploring Symbolism in A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find is a classic book that explores mistrust in relationships. Primarily, mistrust is a central theme in O’Connor’s work, which is especially evident in Red Sammy Butt’s dialogue with the Grandmother. One of the most significant literary elements of the short story is symbolism that is widely used to foreshadow the events that befall various characters. Signs and symbols used in the story help a discerning reader to link what occurs to the Grandmother, the Mother, June Star, Bailey and other characters to their past experiences. For instance, the Grandmother’s encounter with the serial killer, Misfit, was portended by her reading of his escape from prison. Little did she know that her life was to be taken by the very character about whose fame she had read in the newspapers. As a matter of fact, A Good Man is Hard to Find skillfully uses symbolism, since almost every major event is foreshadowed.

The past is glorified in the story largely through the character of the Grandmother. She reminisces with nostalgia about the way things used to be in the past in the South. Without her knowledge, she leads her entire family to their untimely death by trying to trace an old plantation that actually existed in Tennessee rather than Georgia. Ignorantly, the Grandmother makes a costly mistake that she is not willing to admit. Her inability to find the old plantation is symbolic of her inability to protect her family from the brutal death in the hands of Misfit and his accomplices in crime. The Grandmother’s error is so grave that it drives the whole family to an accident that eventually makes them easy targets for murderers.

Moreover, it is evident that the eyes play an important symbolic role in the story as well. They are used to show the mindset of an individual. For instance, the eyes of the Grandmother are described as bright during the times when she paid attention to ‘The Tennesee Waltz’. This communicates a hopeful expectation, since the jukebox reminded her of good old days. In addition, Bailey’s eyes are portrayed as blue. They are pictured in such a way during the moment when he had an argument with Misfit and faced his death. Intensity and blueness of Bailey’s eyes foretell an unspoken fear laced with uncertainty. Furthermore, soon after Bailey and John Wesley have been shot dead deep in the woods, June Star’s and the Grandmother’s eyes were described as “glassy”. Obviously, the two were silently mourning the death of their relatives while, at the same time, they were burdened with fear for their own lives. On the other hand, Misfit’s eyes betray him and reveal that he is not as heartless as he would like to seem. Although he thinks of himself as a mean man, Misfit’s eyes become red-rimmed, pale and defenseless soon after he shot the Grandmother dead. Eyes are the gates to human soul and the defenselessness of Misfit’s eyes symbolizes the effect that Grandmother’s words had on him.

The sky is a critical symbol of the mood of the characters. After the Grandmother had positively identified Misfit, he commented, “Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.” This statement means that the fates of June Stars and the Grandmother have not been decided yet. Hence, with less provocation and calmness, the chances of their survival are still high. However, after Bailey and John Wesley had been killed, the Grandmother noticed that “there was neither a cloud in the sky nor any sun”, symbolizing a state of hopelessness. In essence, it occurred as they were directed to wood where they faced their death. It emphasized the fact that the Grandmother had nobody to turn to for help. The sky is hence an important symbol in O’Connor’s literary work that requires careful interpretation in order to understand the actions of the characters.

Inability to trust other people is the pivot on which A Good Man is Hard to Find turns. In her discussion with Red Sammy Butt when she came for barbequed sandwiches with her family, the Grandmother is told about occurrences when those in need have shortchanged their sympathizers. As a matter of fact, the story about how Red Sammy Butt was deceived when he gave gas on credit foreshadowed the Grandmother’s cruel murder by Misfit to a certain extent. Having learnt how ungrateful people are, it was ironic that the Grandmother expected mercy and compassion from Misfit, a renowned serial killer who even escaped from Federal Penitentiary. Hence, the Grandmother’s discussion with Red Sammy Butt is a symbol of the merciless deaths yet to be experienced. It is the Grandmother’s inability to understand signs that eventually lead to the demise of her entire family.
To conclude, there are several literary devices used by O’Connor in his works. Symbolism is one conspicuous stylistic device that is used to provoke critical thinking of the readers in order to decipher what the author is trying to say. Symbols used in the story are drawn from natural events and regular happenings in life, thereby enabling the reader to make sound judgment and categorization of the literary work. With a help of A Good Man is Hard to Find, O’Connor emphasizes that fact that dependable men are becoming a rarity. Good men are defined by particular traits that are largely lacking in many. Thus, O’Connor’s usage of symbols in his work is a classic show of literary prowess.


O’Connor, F. (1977). A good man is hard to find and other stories. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.