“A Good Man is Hard to Find”: A Marxist Critique

Through literary theory, art is given an opportunity to take on new meaning. Literary theory challenges the critic to shed personal biases and presuppositions—a deliberate and artistic practice of cultural relativism—while critically examining “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world” through lenses that encourage profound interpretation, impart meaning, inform context, and expand worldviews (Bertens 5). Viewing the same work through alternate forms of literary theory can shed light on the values, patterns, structures, beliefs, and assumptions of any given viewpoint (Bertens 1-2). Rather than taking a piece of art at face value, literary theory encourages the interpreter to ask meaningful questions which uncover historical, social, or cultural context; to search for underlying themes and elements which refer to intentions or motivations in creating the work, whether unconscious or deliberate; and examine structures and elements in the form of the work, lending deeper understanding to what makes a piece of writing “literary”.

Literary theory and literary criticism are two different beasts, though on the surface, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Literary criticism focuses on the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literary works, generally with a focus on thematic elements, narrative, and characterization. Literary theory urges the critic move beyond the basic building blocks of writing and instead consider and interpret the nature, definition, and parameters of literature; the sociopolitical, economical, and cultural influences that inform a work; and the concrete form and structure of literary texts (Bertens 2-3). Where criticism often places the most emphasis on discovering meaning, much of literary theory dismisses meaning as ultimately arbitrary, and instead focuses on context. The nature of this context varies depending on what discipline of literary theory is emphasized by the interpreter. It is also pertinent to note that, like meaning, much of literary theory can also be considered as subjective to the interpreter.

Flannery O’Connor remains a highly respected American writer, particularly within the short story genre. Her work, typically categorized in the “Southern Gothic” style, often features grotesque characters, graphic violence, and dark humor; her writing deals predominantly in themes regarding religious salvation and societal alienation. In this paper, I intend to explore one of O’Connor’s most famous works, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story concerning the violent death of a vacationing family by the hands of a motely crew of social outcasts. Through the lens of Marxist criticism, I intend to explore how both the protagonist (a middle-class grandmother) and the antagonist (an exiled hillbilly) of the narrative are both merely facets within the gem of O’Connor’s total worldview. The grandmother’s salvation at the time of her death is often regarded as the most significant point of the narrative; through the Marxist view, I will argue that O’Connor’s Misfit can be viewed as the most influential character of the story.

The school of thought known today as Marxism began in the mid-19th century, to the credit of German artist, writer, and philosopher Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, his colleague, Frederic Engels. Marxism came about in reaction to the oppressive and autocratic social and economic standards that dominated Germany’s landscape during the Industrial Revolution (Bramann). Political activism was often regarded as a criminal endeavor; despite the risks, after receiving his doctorate, Marx “dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines” (Bramann). Both Marx and Engels—who first introduced Marx to the ideals of socialism and communism—became influential figures within a massive, international labor movement (Bramann). Marx played a significant role in the Revolution of 1848 as a newspaper editor; in the wake of the revolution’s defeat by the ruling monarchists, Marx fled Germany. He spent his remaining years in London, dedicating his life’s work to the study of economy, art, literature, nature, and science (Bramann). 

In the simplest terms, the tenets of Marxist criticism rely on the premise that our social being influences our social consciousness. That is to say, the dominant hegemony—the economic structure and subsequent social hierarchy—of any given historical period aggressively shapes an individual’s personal worldviews (Eagleton 2). Additionally, residual and emergent hegemonies also play a role in social consciousness during periods of radical social change, which Marx argues are necessary for the evolution of society. The “economic base” of any given society consists of the means of production (tools in various forms), commodities, technological innovations, the ways we organize (such as the manager/subordinate relationship), and the proletariat/bourgeoisie dynamic (Eagleton 2). The “ideological superstructure” includes what Marxists would broadly refer to as our “consciousness,” meaning law, education, religion, art, literature, media—the elements which comprise culture (Eagleton 2). Marxism argues that the base largely informs the superstructure—our culture is defined by our market—though the relationship can certainly be regarded as reciprocal in some respects.

This explanation in no way exhausts the vast scope of Marxist philosophy. For the purpose of this critique, there is one particular tenant of Marxism that must be examined in further detail: Marx’s Theory of Alienation. In a precapitalistic society, the laboring class held some measure of autonomy: they made/forged/grew their own products, dictated their working conditions, set their own hours, bartered and sold directly, and so on (Bramann). Under capitalist rule, workers are alienated from their labor, with little or no influence over the means, process, product, and relations of production (Bramann). Ultimately, Marx argues, this separation from work fosters separation from our entire lives, as more and more of what the laboring class does is dictated by forces other than our own will. Put succinctly, the depersonalization of mass production works to estrange humans from their instinctively creative and productive nature. The Marxist view necessitates the abolishment of capitalism in order for society to actualize human autonomy.

In order to understand how Marx’s concept of alienation applies to O’Connor’s work, the historical context of O’Connor’s life must be examined. After all, it is the overarching economical constructs which, Marx argues, directly influence our culture, including literary work. O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, at a time of massive industrial change in America. Soldiers returned en masse to the labor force at the end of World War II; economic growth soared; mass production boomed; suburbs sprawled; populations grew; television became the dominant media force in American households (Beckman). Religious devotion, as well, saw an unprecedented rise in the post-war era. Amongst the burgeoning suburbs, highways, and shopping centers, couples were married, babies were christened, and religious—namely Christian—worship became an unquestioned standard of middle-class life (Beckman).

O’Connor was an only child, born into a prominent and devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. Writing was still considered an unorthodox profession for a woman in that time; O’Connor’s university scholarship and post-graduation acceptance into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a testament to her talent in this regard (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor’s father died from complications of lupus when O’Connor was thirteen, and after being awarded an MFA from University of Iowa, O’Connor’s inheritance of the same disease saw her life relocated to a small farm in Milledgeville, Georgia (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor lived modestly, continuing to write as she raised peafowl with her mother—and occasionally travelling to lecture or speak at seminars—until her untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor never married, nor had children, which were particularly stark social deviations for a young woman in the throes of the post-war baby boom.

Small farming was one of the few industries that saw massive decline in the post-war economic boom. As the middle-class grew and demand for food production exponentially increased, corporations began aggressively shaping agricultural consolidation throughout the United States, leaving family farmers to either be bought out or try their best to compete against the overwhelming forces of cheap, mass-produced livestock and crops (University of Groningen, 2012). This consolidation left many farmers displaced from an industry which traditionally was passed down through generations; perhaps O’Connor perceived herself as alienated to some extent from her true “creative” self because of the economic demands of her “laboring” self, brought about by the loss of the typically-breadwinning patriarchal family figure. This is one of many possible demonstrations of Marx’ alienation at work, similar to the social and economic alienation so often featured in O’Connor’s writing, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. An alternate viewpoint might be that O’Connor’s return to the farmstead was instead a fulfillment of human autonomy; through separation from the ruling class, O’Connor had gained complete freedom to dictate the means, conditions, relations, and products of her labor, both in her writing and in her farming.

O’Connor’s educational success and literary accolades could not counteract the economic depression she and her mother were pigeonholed into after her father’s death; it is likely their small peafowl farm struggled to some extent, like most others, under the corporation monopolization of farming practices. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that O’Connor expressed some measure of her social displacement through her writing: a prestigious, devout, and yet socially rebellious woman, riddled with talent and illness alike; a woman who came from a once-prominent family and who had achieved a high level of education, eventually reduced to a bed-ridden, working-class farm life (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In a Marxist examination of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characterization of both the grandmother and the Misfit would suggest two conflicting and alternating worldviews that O’Connor attempted to reconcile through her craft.

O’Connor remained pious throughout the entirety of her life, her personal journals often concerning themselves obsessively with channeling her Catholic religion through her writing (O’Connor). Marx famously argued that religion was merely another man-made ideology—“ideology” specifically in the Marxist sense, encompassing all the various elements which inform our culture—dictated by the hegemonic forces of any given society, meant only to impart a false sense of purpose and moral sanction in an increasingly purposeless regime: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx). It is obvious from O’Connor’s journals that she felt endlessly compelled to bring her faith to the forefront of her life’s work, which suggests, at some level, there existed an internal struggle against her religion. I believe this struggle is documented in the character of the Misfit, as well as in the other violent, grotesque, cynical, and faithless characters featured in her body of work.

The character of the grandmother deals predominantly with issues of social affirmation, wealth, and status; these would suggest concerns of the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. For example, the grandmother disparages the casual dress of her son’s wife, opting to clad herself in stately attire for a long road trip to Florida: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor). Even at the thought of her own fragile mortality, the grandmother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances of social hierarchy. Though putting forth all the surface appeal of a “good Christian woman,” the grandmother is generally selfish, vapid, and petulant in her actions and dialogue; she lies, panders, and has little regard for anyone but herself (Leonard 52). Even as her entire family is systemically murdered before her, the grandmother continues to plea with the Misfit only for her own life: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (O’Connor). O’Connor’s subversive criticism of American religious culture through the grandmother character suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with the generally shallow religious discipline of the middle-class; perhaps, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the content of her personal journals, it also suggests a dissatisfaction in the depth of her own faith: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are” (O’Connor).

The grandmother’s supposed salvation comes moments before she is shot dead by the Misfit; after a moment of religious doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) the grandmother is possessed by the spirit of Christ (O’Connor). In a stereotypically Catholic “moment of grace,” she recognizes the Misfit as simply another child of her god, and thus by her possession, a child of her own: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor). The grandmother attempts to usher the fervor of her faith—perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively—upon the Misfit, who “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor). O’Connor spent much of her time defending this violent end to critics and readers alike, arguing that the murder of the grandmother was necessary to her spiritual realization: “The devil accomplishes a great deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective” (Leonard 52). The grandmother’s last pious exclamations and her contented post-mortem expression both offer religious affirmation and reinforcement of hegemonically-dictated roles: she finds joy in death in the recognition of her “child,” affirming her matriarchal status; she achieves deliverance from the mortal realm by the hands of a male (the Misfit) into the hands of a male (God), affirming patriarchal positions of power.

In stark contrast to the character of the grandmother, the Misfit is not in any way concerned with appearances or adherence to social norms, starting with deviations as minor as appearing to the family without a shirt on, ending with the mass-murder of the group under little to no pretense (O’Connor). Where the grandmother has wholly conceded herself to the dominant hegemony of 1950s America, the Misfit lives beyond it: working when, where, and how he pleases; living as a nomad; rejecting religion for his own moral code; learning independently; collaborating only with those he chooses; and yes, even murdering, the starkest of social deviations. The grandmother, in comparison, adheres to appearances; places upmost value on wealth and status; clings to superficial religious ideals without explicitly practicing them; and is hopelessly self-centered (Leonard 52-3). The Misfit recognizes the grandmother’s supposed spiritual awakening for what it is: “only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (Marx). The Misfit vehemently rejects the grandmother’s imposed salvation upon him, recognizing that her personal ideals only materialized in the ultimately selfish moment of her demise: “’She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (O’Connor).

The alienation of the Misfit in the narrative is different than alienation in the Marxist sense; however, I argue that O’Connor’s own (Marxist) alienation from her true “creative” self—through labor, through patriarchal rule, through illness—spurs the need to endlessly negotiate these barriers in the body of her work. I also argue that, through a Marxist lens, it is the Misfit who serves as the grotesque antihero of the narrative; a man who has achieved as much human autonomy as can be afforded under a ruling capitalist regime. The grandmother and her family have bowed under the weight of the dominant hegemony, and the end result is death; the protagonist is ultimately afforded nothing more than her precious “opium,” while the Misfit continues on with life as he sees fit. In a microscopic example of the societal cycle Marx predicts, the governing class is overthrown by the revolutionists. The Misfit holds no false preconceptions about the man he is, and makes little in the way of moral judgments for what he does; he allows himself simply to exist, and to exist in ultimate freedom, living closer to Marx’s ideal of “true self” than any other character of the narrative. O’Connor’s endless flirtation with the binaries of faithlessness/salvation, inclusion/alienation, and domination/subordination could all be considered as reflections of an internal struggle against her “true” self and the imposed societal standards and structures of post-war, capitalist America.

Works Cited

Beckman, Joanne. “Religion in Post-World War II America”. Duke University, 2000, retrieved from nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/trelww2.htm

Bramann, Jorn K. Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Nightsun Books, 2009, retrieved from faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Taylor & Francis Group, 2014, ProQuest Ebook Central, retrieved from ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/snhu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180126

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Flannery O’Connor”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2019, retrieved from britannica.com/biography/Flannery-OConnor

Leonard, Douglas N. “Experiencing Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’”. Interpretations, 1983, retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/23241513?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. 1953, retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html

O’Connor, Flannery. “My Dear God”. New Yorker, 2013, retrieved from newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/16/my-dear-god

Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, retrieved from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm, accessed 11 February 2019. University of Groningen. “The Post-War Economy: 1945-1960”. GMW, 2012, retrieved from let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/postwar-america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.

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