If the vivid description Flannery O’Connor pays to the character indicates importance, then the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the most important character in the story. Perhaps because she is the most vivid, she is the one chosen by the author to bring a certain tone, that of the Old South, to the story. The Old South elements the Grandmother brings to the story are fundamental to moving the story along, and they play a significant role in its resolution, being played out until the very end.
The most obvious Old South elements appear in O’Connor’s description of the Grandmother’s attention to her appearance, the idea that she wants to be perceived as a lady, and her actual comments. But under the surface, the reader can discover some of the Grandmother’s motivations for her behavior, as well as her attitudes toward blacks, young people, and crime, with the former two having shifted profoundly since the Old South gave way a New Southern outlook. Bailey’s family unit, in fact, represents this “new” attitude. The Grandmother laments the differences in these Old South ways and the ways of the younger generation throughout the story.
The Grandmother is very proud to have lived a long time, and she feels she should have more control, more of a “say” in things because of this. She doesn’t want to accept that the world has changed. She seems to expect deference to her wisdom and knowledge. She is the
central character in the story; she has the most dialogue, the final “showdown” is between her and the Misfit, and ultimately, she lives longer than the rest of her family, but throughout the story you can tell she is desperately trying to find someone to acknowledge her longing for the “better days” of her youth, in the Old South. One is also left with the impression that she just wants someone to like her.
There is no small amount of an aristocratic sense in the Grandmother. She’s dressed up for the trip with a pretty dress, fancy hat, white gloves, and a “valise.” That she would be concerned with how her corpse might look, after an accident, like that of “a lady,” as suggested in the story, speaks to her concern for appearances (307). She has great civic pride, as she admonishes John Wesley for speaking badly of “his home state,” and reminisces about a time when “people did right.” This is followed immediately by her pointing out a “pickaninny” and judging that the child probably didn’t own a pair of britches, revealing a somewhat judgmental side that’s likely a result of her more refined Southern upbringing (308).
As she points out sights along the way, she talks about a cemetery that belongs to the “plantation,” and makes reference to “Gone with the Wind” (309). While the story most likely take place in the 1950s (a heyday for family trips in the station wagon), all these details sprinkled in her dialogue contribute to the presence of an Old South mentality that predates World War II (presumably the time of the Grandmother’s youth). O’Connor places the responsibility for setting this tone with the Grandmother throughout the story. This element is essential to the story, because only the Old South could have produced these particular characters and this set of circumstances.
Nowhere in the story is this more evident than their lunch stop at The Tower. Outside her exchange under duress with the Misfit, her conversation with Red Sammy and his wife is the only other one of length in the story. Finally the Grandmother has someone with whom to talk about better days gone by. With “The Tennessee Waltz” playing, the Grandmother sways her head and chair-dances, and we are given a glimpse of the young playful girl the Grandmother might have once been, but the obnoxious June Star insists on performing a tap routine, the music changes, and that brief spell is broken (310).
Back in the car after lunch, and with the…