Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find": Who's the Real Misfit?

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The Lesson

Introduction

Georgia highway picture

The mood of this 1940’s-50’s Georgia highway picture is a sense of foreboding that reflects the spirit of the Flannery O’Connor story "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make them appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.
— Flannery O'Connor [From the Flannery O'Connor Special Collection, via EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library].

Known as both a Southern and a Catholic writer, Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) wrote stories that are hard to forget. Whether for their humor, brilliant characterization, local color, or shocking plots, Flannery O'Connor's short stories, "in which the voices of displaced persons affirm the grace of God in the grotesqueries of the world," (Georgia Women of Achievement, via Internet Public Library) continue to disturb and resonate. As O'Connor said herself, her stories "make [her] vision apparent by shock."

One of O'Connor's most widely read stories, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (written in 1953), without a doubt is also her most shocking. Yet it is through the story's disturbing ending that O'Connor raises fundamental questions about good and evil, morality and immorality, faith and doubt, and the particularly Southern "binaries" of black and white and Southern history and progress.

In this lesson, students will explore these dichotomies—and challenge them—while closely reading and analyzing "A Good Man is Hard to Find." In the course of studying this particular O'Connor short story, students will learn as well about the 1950s South, including evolving transportation in the U.S.-transportation fueled by the popularity of the family car and the development of the U.S. highway system; the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that helped divide the "Old South" from the "New South"; and the literary genre known as the "Southern Gothic," or "Southern Grotesque."

Guiding Questions

  • How does Flannery O'Connor describe the cultural and physical landscape of the South? What are the characteristics of the literary genre known as "Southern Gothic"?
  • What are the key themes Flannery O'Connor explores in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand the historical and social context of Flannery O'Connor's short stories.
  • Students will be able to define the literary genre known as the "Southern Gothic" or "Southern Grotesque."
  • Students will be able to provide a well-supported, written analysis of a short story.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan, and the student LaunchPad that accompanies it. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Read Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (text available via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia).
  • Teachers should be aware that the story contains racial slurs, and may find it advantageous to forewarn their students. Though not uncommon when O'Connor wrote the story, these terms can certainly be difficult to discuss in the classroom. As the activities below indicate (see Activity 3), students will grapple with this issue within the broader context of a changing South, which allows them to recognize how cultural and racial views (acceptable or not) develop over time.
  • For background information about American southern literature, read the overview of "Humor in Literature" and "Regionalism and Local Color" from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Documenting the American South.
  • Browse the Flannery O'Connor teaching guide, a link accessible from the EDSITEment-reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts website. The discussion of O'Connor's themes and approach to Christianity is a particularly useful aspect of this brief guide.
  • Skim the article "What We Talk about When We Talk about the South," by Edward Ayers, dean and professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory, and Fiction and The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction [via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia's The Literature of the South course syllabus]. Note that Ayers suggests that the South (old and New) has experienced an identity crisis; specifically, he argues that,
    Southern history bespeaks a place that is more complicated than the stories we tell about it. Throughout its history, the South has been a place where poverty and plenty have been thrown together in especially jarring ways, where democracy and oppression, white and black, slavery and freedom, have warred. The very story of the South is a story of unresolved identity, unsettled and restless, unsure and defensive. The South, contrary to so many words written in defense and in attack, was not a fixed, known, and unified place, but rather a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation.[26]
  • The Flannery O'Connor Special Collection, via EDSITEment reviewed Internet Public Library, links to a number of valuable online biographies and critical essays pertaining to O'Connor, including:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Warming Up the Car

Before discussing the text in class, students should read Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", preferably at home (the e-text is available via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia). Ask students to write a one-page response paper after they complete the story. Mention to students that each response paper should be informal; in it, students should comment on their immediate reaction to the story (especially the ending). Ask students to bring their response papers to the class period assigned to this lesson.

Give a brief overview of O'Connor's life, using key points from the following links via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Be sure to mention that O'Connor often is described as Southern and Catholic, and that her recurring themes raise religious questions and concerns. Note: Teachers might consider introducing this information the day before students read the short story.

Once students have read and responded to the story at home, begin by asking students to describe their immediate reaction to "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Write down on the blackboard/whiteboard some of the responses to the story. Next mention to students that this lesson on "A Good Man is Hard to Find" will send them on a journey along with Bailey and his family.

After dividing students into small groups with access to a computer workstation, ask student groups to "pack their bags" to join you on a Flannery O'Connor-inspired journey. Focus their attention on the grandmother, who offers occasional observations about the story's setting, characters, and events.

Note: This activity is best conducted in a classroom with 4-5 computer workstations. Assign small groups of students to each workstation. You can adjust the activity, however, according to your classroom configuration (e.g., single computer and projector).

The EDSITEment LaunchPad, Flannery O'Connor: Journey through the South, Old and New, contains links to the many websites that students will be visiting during the course of this lesson, as well as similar instructions listed under the "Interactive Student Journey" sections below. Students wishing to access the links and questions after this class can return to the LaunchPad at any time.

Activity 2. The Southern Highway

Note: This section corresponds to section 1 of the student LaunchPad.

Point out to students that with today's developed highway and interstate system, getting from point A to B in the U.S. makes for a fairly easy and fun "road trip" (that is, if you leave at the right time to avoid traffic!). Mention to students that in the 1950s, by contrast, the U.S.'s highway system was just beginning to take shape, and family sedans were just beginning to reach a middle class market. As a result, family road-trip vacations soon followed. You might also mention that the railroad system was in decline for domestic travel, and air travel was still too expensive for most.

Inspire students to jump into a 1950 Buick Sedan, adjust the radio, and join Bailey and his family for their road trip from Atlanta to Florida [Buick images from the EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History's virtual exhibition "America on the Move."]

Ask students to keep in mind the following passage from the story as they navigate country roads and 1950s interstates:

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother had gone back to sleep.
Interactive Student Journey

Today's starting point? Atlanta. Destination? Florida. Although the family in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" lives in Atlanta, their journey to Florida takes them along the relatively new highways of the 1950s, including rural country roads.

The following images of Georgia highways and rural roads can give you a better idea of highway and country road travel. Though these images are from the 1930s and 1940s, the highways and rural roads would have been similar to those described in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." At the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory website's Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection, examine the following images (found by searching keywords: "Georgia highways"):

Now view the following images (found by searching "rural roads Georgia"):

Next turn to the EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History's virtual exhibition "America on the Move." Explore in particular the following sections of the exhibition:

Teacher "Pit Stop":

Ask students the following questions:

  • Although the 1950s highways are not what they are today, how are they different from the 1930s/1940s rural roads in Georgia?
  • What other technological, economic, and social changes did the U.S. highway system enable in the 1950s?

Now point out the following passage, which opens the story:

THE GRANDMOTHER didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. "The children have been to Florida before," the old lady said. "You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee."

Ask students the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the grandmother?
  • The grandmother thinks that taking the Georgia-based family to east Tennessee would make them "broad" by "see[ing] different parts of the world." Based on what you know from your own Web-based road trip so far, what do you think of this passage? What is O'Connor's tone here in her characterization of the grandmother?
  • How does O'Connor's humor come through in this passage?
Activity 3. The 1950s South

Note: this section corresponds to section 2 of the student LaunchPad.

Teacher "Pit Stop":

Point out to students that Flannery O'Connor is identified as a Southern writer. Mention to students that this segment of their journey will prompt them to think about the Old and New South as O'Connor presents "The South" at large throughout "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Ask student groups to jot down key adjectives to describe the South in their notebooks.

Now refer students to the following passage from the story:

"In my time," said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. 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.
Interactive Student Journey

You are looking out the window of the sedan when the grandmother points out "the cute little pickaninny!" This is an offensive, slang term to describe an African-American child. Additionally, the grandmother uses the offensive, racist term "niggers."

Consider the following questions, keeping in mind the historical context of O'Connor's story:

  • What does the grandmother's use of these words suggest about the racial views she holds?
  • What does the grandmother mean when she says, "In my time" at the beginning of this passage?
  • How does the grandmother represent the South's earlier times by using this word?
Teacher Pit Stop:

Now is a good time to discuss the fact that the grandmother and her views are outdated, but reflective of the racial tensions during the time the story was written. Note that the grandmother wants the family to visit a plantation house along their journey, but that the plantation house is not where she remembered it to be. Ask students the following questions:

  • "How does O'Connor use the grandmother to distinguish between the "Old" and "New South"?
  • What is symbolic about the fact that the "phantom" plantation is just a figment of the grandmother's bad memory?

Point out to students that the 1950s South experienced a major turning point in African-American history. Note that 1954 marked both O'Connor's writing of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision to end racial segregation (practices known collectively as "Jim Crow Laws") supported by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution." Browse through the EDSITEment-reviewed Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History's virtual exhibition "Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education." Point out the "White Only: Jim Crow in America" section of the exhibit, calling attention to the advertising cards. Ask students to discuss the changes between the "Old South" and the "New South." Remind them that historical change is a process, and that radical, immediate change is rare. How does the family in O'Connor's story reflect this idea?

Interactive Student Journey

While the grandmother's racial views seem outdated and racist to us now, O'Connor's story reflects the complex and difficult relationships of the 1950s South. Change was afoot not only in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, as roles for and stereotypes of women are evolving at this time as well.

Go to the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project and examine the following images:

Teacher Pit Stop:

Compare the two images (both from Atlanta) of the women in the American Memory posters.

Now refer students to the following passage from the story:

The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

Ask students the following questions:

  • How do these images compare to O'Connor's descriptions of the mother and the grandmother?
  • What does the grandmother think of the "modern woman"? What are some differences between the grandmother and the mother?
    • Students might mention the differences in the way they are dressed (for example, slacks v. dress/hat/gloves) or their values or behavior.
  • What are some additional changes the grandmother observes?
  • Though the story is told from the grandmother's point-of-view, does the story reveal praise and/or criticism for both the mother and the grandmother? How?

For a more extended overview of the 1950s in general, you can have students browse the 1950s Timeline, via American Crossroads Project, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia).

Activity 4. Saved along the Highway

Note: this section corresponds to section 3 of the student LaunchPad.

Teacher Pit Stop:

Mention to students that FlanneryO'Connor once said that, "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is mostcertainly Christ-haunted" [Via American Studies Web.] (44). Ask students the following questions:

  • What might O'Connor mean when she says "Christ-haunted"? Why "Christ-haunted" instead of "Christ-centered"?
  • What passages of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" support O'Connor's claim about the South?
Interactive Student Journey

Let's continue our journey through the "Christ-haunted" South. The plot of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" ultimately is about being saved, literally and figuratively, along a rural Southern road. Let's explore images of "Christ-haunted" Georgia from the era between the Depression and WWII. Visit the EDSITEment-reviewed Library of Congress American Memory's "America from the Great Depression to WWII" Collection and browse these images (found by searching the following keywords in one search: religious highway signs Georgia):

[Note to teachers: extra images are listed so that if students are in groups, different images may be assigned to each group]:

Teacher "Pit Stop":

Reminding students of the many religious signs along Georgia's highways and country roads, point out that the story's title suggests a journey or quest to "find" a "good man." Mention that the "quest" ends with the grandmother trying to save herself by trying to "save" the Misfit. Now ask students the following questions:

  • Bailey's family literally sets out on a journey, the family vacation. How does the road trip function as a metaphor or symbol of this journey?
  • What might the road trip (and the specific images of the country road) symbolize based on what you have learned from the story at large? [Note: the road trip can symbolize many things, including the breakdown of Bailey's family (consider the kids and their behavior), the passing of time from the Old South to the New South, the journey for confirmation of Christ and Christian living, the Misfit's failed journey of redemption, etc.]

Point out that today's interactive journey is coming to a close. To wrap up the general discussion on the South, review the following excerpt from the assigned reading "What We Talk about When We Talk about the South" by Edward Ayers, dean and professor of history at the University of Virginia and author of The Oxford Book of the American South: Testimony, Memory, and Fiction and The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction:

Southern history bespeaks a place that is more complicated than the stories we tell about it. Throughout its history, the South has been a place where poverty and plenty have been thrown together in especially jarring ways, where democracy and oppression, white and black, slavery and freedom, have warred. The very story of the South is a story of unresolved identity, unsettled and restless, unsure and defensive. The South, contrary to so many words written in defense and in attack, was not a fixed, known, and unified place, but rather a place of constant movement, struggle, and negotiation.[26]
[From American Studies at the University of Virginia].

Observe that historian Ayers describes the South using "binaries," or contrasting terms such as "democracy and oppression" and "white and black." Lead a class discussion on "binaries," asking students to identify some "binaries" of the South she presents in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Begin to prepare a list, which might include the following:

  • Good/Evil
  • Black/White
  • Moral/Immoral
  • Humor/Shocking
  • "Saved"/Sinful

Note: "binaries" can be useful tools for discussion, but remember that they often lack nuance. You even can ask students to describe the shortcomings of the example "binaries." O'Connor's skill in presenting nuanced characters is expansive, so while using binaries as a starting point is a useful exercise, work with students to see how O'Connor's text both establishes and challenges those binaries.

Activity 5. Humor v. "The Grotesque"

Mention to students that Flannery O'Connor's fiction often is labeled as "Southern Gothic" or "Southern Grotesque." Responding to this genre designation, O'Connor's once said that, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic" (40).

Point out that O'Connor also is considered a humorous writer. Literary critic Mark Steadman of Clemson University (SC) notes that, "Southern humor, like much of the best southern writing in general, has been boisterous and physical, often grotesque, and generally realistic." (From EDSITEment-reviewed Documenting the American South's "Humor in Literature.") Leading a discussion on the "binary," or convergence, of O'Connor's humor v. "the grotesque, ask students the following questions:

  • How would you define the words "gothic" and "grotesque"?
  • What does O'Connor mean by "grotesque"?
  • What elements of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would you describe as "grotesque"?
  • What elements of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" would you describe as humorous?
  • What are the effects of O'Connor's being both humorous and grotesque in "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

Assessment

Option One: Who's the Real 'Misfit'?
The grandmother is a crucial character in the story. She is the one who wishes to tour the plantation; she wants to bring the cat on the trip; and she upsets the suitcase, which, in turn, frightens the cat, which causes the accident on the dirt road. Though the family encounters the criminal "Misfit" and his cohorts, one could argue that the grandmother herself is a "misfit"-both out of time and out of place. Have students write a typed, three-page paper on the following question, "How is the grandmother herself a misfit in the story?" Students should support their argument with concrete, specific details from the story itself; they also may use properly cited resources reviewed during class discussion.

Option Two: A Symbolic Family Road Trip?
Assign a typed, two- to three-page writing assignment in which students answer the question, "What might the thwarted family road trip symbolize in O'Connor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find?" Remind students to use evidence from the story to support their argument. They also may use properly cited resources reviewed during class discussion.

Option Three: Unfazed or shocked?
Collect the response papers at the end of class to review. Ask students to write a formal, two-page journal entry on the question, "Did 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' shock you, or were you unfazed by the ending?" Students should elaborate why or why not.

Option Four: The Cultural Landscape of the South
Ask students to submit a paper examining the significance of the Southern setting in O'Connor's story. Encourage them to use the primary source material explored in this lesson to detail O'Connor's portrayal of the South.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Student Resources
Media