The story was first published in 1953 in the anthology The Avon Book of Modern Writing. In 1960, it was collected in the anthology The House of Fiction, published by Charles Scribner's Sons. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," because of its publication in many anthologies, became the most well known of O'Connor's works.
A man named Bailey intends to take his family from Georgia to Florida for a summer vacation, but his mother, (referred to as "the grandmother" in the story) wants him to drive to East Tennessee, where the grandmother has friends ("connections"). She argues that his children, John Wesley and June Star, have never been to East Tennessee, and she shows him a news article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about an escaped murderer who calls himself The Misfit last seen in Florida. The next day, the grandmother wakes up early to hide her cat, Pitty Sing, in a basket on the floor in the back of the car. She is worried that the cat would die while they were gone. Bailey finds her sitting in the car, dressed in her best clothes and an ostentatious hat; she says that if she should die in an accident along the road, she wants people to see her corpse and know she was refined and "a lady." The Grandmother talks continuously during the trip, trying to engage her two rude grandchildren in games and telling them jokes and a story, about which June Star makes disdainful comments. She recalls her youth in the Old South, reminiscing about her courtships and how much better everything was in her time, when children were respectful and people "did right then." When the family stops at an old diner outside of Timothy for lunch, she talks to the owner, Red Sammy, about The Misfit. He and the grandmother agree that things were much better in the past and that the world at present is degenerate; she concurs with Sammy's remark that "a good man is hard to find."
After the family returns to the road, the grandmother begins telling the children a story about a mysterious house nearby with a secret panel, a house she remembers from her childhood. This catches the children's attention and they want to visit the house, so they harass their father until he reluctantly agrees to allow them just one side trip. As he drives them down a remote dirt road, the grandmother suddenly realizes that the house she was thinking of was actually in Tennessee, not Georgia. That shocking realization makes her involuntarily kick her feet which frightens the cat, causing it to spring from its hidden basket onto Bailey's neck. Bailey then loses control of the car and it flips over, ending up in a ditch below the road, near Toomsboro. Only the children's mother is injured; the children are frantic with excitement, and the grandmother's main concern is dealing with Bailey's anger.
Shaking in the ditch, the family waits for help. When she notices a black hearse coming down the road, the grandmother flags it down until it stops. Three men come out and begin to talk to her. All three have guns. The grandmother says that she recognizes the leader, the quiet man in glasses, as The Misfit, who immediately confirms this, saying it would have been better for them all if she hadn't recognized him, and Bailey curses his mother. The Misfit's men take Bailey and John Wesley into the woods on a pretense and two pistol shots ring out. The Misfit claims that he has no memory of the crime for which he was imprisoned; when he was informed by doctors that he had killed his father, he claimed that his father died in a flu epidemic.
The men then return to take the children's mother, the baby, and June Star to the woods for the same purpose as Bailey and the boy. The grandmother begins pleading for her own life. When The Misfit talks to her about Jesus, he expresses his doubts about His raising Lazarus from the dead. As he speaks, The Misfit becomes agitated and angry. He snarls into the grandmother's face and claims that life has "no pleasure but meanness". In her growing confusion, she thinks that The Misfit is going to cry, so she reaches out and touches his shoulder tenderly, saying "Why you're one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!" His reaction is to jump away "as if a snake had bitten him" and he kills her with three shots through the heart.
When the family has all been murdered, The Misfit takes a moment to clean his glasses and pick up the grandmother's cat; he states that the grandmother would have been a good woman if "it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The story ends with The Misfit chastising one of his sidekicks, Bobby Lee, for making a comment "some fun!" "Shut up, Bobby Lee," he retorts. "It's no real pleasure in life."Bailey
Atlanta resident with a wife and three children and his mother. He crashes their car on a family trip to Florida when he gives in to his mother's and children's wishes to visit an old plantation.
Quiet woman described as having a face that was "as broad and innocent as a cabbage." She is not identified by name, only as "the children's mother."
Bailey's mother, who lives with the family. She is not identified by name.
John Wesley, June Star
Bailey’s children, aged 8 and 7, respectively.
Male child of Bailey and his wife. Not identified by name.
Red Sammy Butts
Restaurant operator who agrees with the Grandmother that the world is in a state of decline.
Red Sammy’s Wife
Waitress in Red Sammy’s restaurant. She observes that not a single person in the world is trustworthy.
Escaped prisoner who comes across Bailey's family after they have crashed.
Hiram, Bobby Lee
Prisoners who escaped with The Misfit.
Edgar Atkins Teagarden
Man referred to in a story told by Bailey's mother. He would have been a good man to marry, she says, because he owned Coca-Cola stock and died rich.
Pet cat of the Grandmother. Bailey flings it against a tree after the accident. It is last seen rubbing against The Misfit's leg. ("Pitty Sing" is a character in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado
Pet of Red Sammy Butts. The monkey is chained to a chinaberry tree.
There are varying opinions of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Most of this discrepancy centers on the grandmother's act of touching The Misfit.
The dominant opinion is that the grandmother's final act was one of grace and charity, which implies that "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was written to show a transformation in the grandmother as the story progresses. In the beginning, she was more concerned about looking like a respectable person than being one. This is shown by her selfish desire to go to Tennessee instead of Florida and, more importantly, by her attempts to save her own life, even as her family continued to die around her (made worse by the fact that if she had kept her mouth shut, none of them would have been killed). In the end, she realizes she has not led a good life and reaches out to touch her killer, The Misfit, in a final act of grace and charity. This "epiphany" resembles the grandmother's newly found redemption. Even though she fails, her attempt is not lost on The Misfit, who remarks that through enduring a constant infliction of violence, she would have been a good woman.
A second opinion on the issue is that the grandmother's final act was not an act of charity and that she is yet again trying to save herself from being murdered. Some say that Flannery O'Connor uses the excuse as the grandmother's final "moment of grace" to save the story from the bloodshed and violence. Frederick Asals argues that "one can easily pass over her [O’Connor’s] hope that the grandmother’s final gesture to The Misfit might have begun a process which would 'turn him into the prophet he was meant to become'; that, as she firmly says, is another story, and it would be a reckless piety indeed which would see it even suggested by the one we have". It is also pointed out that by the time the grandmother touches the Misfit, proclaiming he is her son, he is wearing Bailey's shirt. Other opinions include that it is contradictory of her character or that she was simply again trying to save herself and that her selfishness was never overcome throughout the story.
A third opinion is that the grandmother has many faults but unlike the rest of the family she tries to be a good person and treats her family with respect even when they ignore her. Even when she manipulates the children so they will want to go see the house she wanted to see it is stated that "She said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were". The grandmother feels that to get anything she has to manipulate her family to get it, which is something she doesn't want to do. Additionally, the grandmother is the only one to provide both entertainment and discipline for the children while their parents simply ignore them.
Not every interpretation hinges on a moral judgment of the grandmother, though. For example, Alex Link considers how, until the family encounters the Misfit, the South is mainly something to ignore, forget, package in a movie or a monument, or remember with distorted nostalgia, such that the Misfit comes to stand for the persistence of what can't be bought, sold, or wholly understood, such as death, grace, and "the South."
It was O'Connor's method to use the dark and morose to reveal beauty and grace; in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", violence reveals divine grace. Divine grace, or God's unmerited favor, is a concept fundamental to man's salvation in Christian theology. Christians believe the imperfect can be made perfect, i.e. people can be saved by the grace through believing in Jesus Christ. The grandmother in the story accepts grace by acknowledging that she helped to create The Misfit and that they are bound by kinship. She reaches out to him as if he were her own. Christian themes are common in O’Connor’s work. Related concepts include: Sola gratia, actual grace, and prevenient grace.
O'Connor explained that in her stories "violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace." In the case of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor explained in a reflection piece "A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable," published in 1969, that violence is her way to make her hard-headed characters, such as the grandmother, accept their time of grace.
At the end of the story, after The Misfit shoots the grandmother, he says to Bobby Lee, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." This quote is showing The Misfit's enlightenment to what the grandmother had experienced right before he killed her. He is saying that he noticed that she was trying to preach the gospel to him, but that it only happened because she was threatened by death. According to The Misfit, if the grandmother had lived her life held up at gunpoint, she might have lived a more righteous life.
A film adaptation of the short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," entitled Black Hearts Bleed Red, was made in 1992 by New York filmmaker Jeri Cain Rossi. The film stars noted New York artist Joe Coleman but according to most reviewers the film does not depict the story or its characters well.
An original modern chamber opera based on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was completed in 2003 by David Volk, a University of Georgia music doctoral student, as part of his dissertation requirements in composition. The chamber opera was performed at the Seney-Stovall Chapel in Athens, Georgia with grant funding from the University's Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE). Later that same year, the work was performed at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, and in Milledgeville, Georgia, at "Flannery O'Connor: the Visionary and the Vernacular," an interdisciplinary conference sponsored by Georgia College and State University (and home of the Flannery O'Connor Library). In 2007, the work was performed at the University of Virginia's College at Wise where Dr. Volk teaches as Assistant Professor of Music.
The American folk musician Sufjan Stevens adapted the story into a song going by the same title. It appears on his 2004 album Seven Swans. The song is written in the first person from the point of view of The Misfit.