THE LONG SHADOW: Flannery O’Connor’s Masterful Use of Dread and Foreboding in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

long shadowCopyright © 2014 by Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved.


Scholars and critics have poured over O’Connor’s amazing literary achievement in her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” for decades. The power and inevitability of the narrative, its cohesiveness, compression, its unforgettable and overwhelming credible character development of odd “characters” that are decidedly freakish and superficially “unbelievable” as real people when we first meet them, yet become wholly convincing and full-bodied living breathing human beings as the story develops.

Much of this analysis is available online and there is no point in re-hashing it or reviewing it here.


But as a long time student and reader (and re-reader!) of O’Connor, what strikes me as truly distinctive, the true stroke of artistic genius that propels the story, and keeps the reader in its thrall until its bitter violent end, is the subtle effective way O’Connor employs foreshadowing from the very first sentence in the story to create a mounting sense of dread and horror  in the reader at where these characters are blindly headed, what their inner qualities, prejudices, and “sins” (if you will, definitely sins to O’Connor) are going to do to them.  There is an almost Wagnerian soundtrack playing in the background of the story, unheard but there nonetheless, a kind of “black noise,” barely perceptible, behind the unfolding events of the story, events deriving from the inevitable choices the characters make simply because they are who they are, choices that issue from their inner essential cupidity, narrow mindedness and selfishness. That is, their distance from God and redeeming grace.


They are ignorant, stolidly prejudiced, blind to themselves, lacking in any true introspection or self-knowledge, completely indifferent to the needs of others. They mindlessly reject their responsibility to attend to the needs of others and the world (“Love one another as I have loved you.”) They are self-centered, and aggressively so, they blunder onward, ignoring the warnings their minor failures and disasters provide, they fail to develop insight and so fall further and further away from the possibility of salvation and redeeming grace.


In O’Connor’s worldview, these flaws are hideously self-destructive, and this dooms them from the outset. After leading blinkered lives of casual narcissistic cruelty, their mis-deeds and disastrous decisions mount up to a crescendo or climax and they implode from within and “explode” from without, both physically and spiritually. For they are ironically and literally “blown away” by the guns of the Misfits of the world, wholly evil sorts who, most peculiarly, like Satan himself, have a more intimate understanding of God, salvation and grace, than they do, and who recognize and resent what Christ’s sacrifice has done to the universe:

“’Jesus was the only one who ever raised the dead [the Misfit said] and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If he did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but in meanness.’”


O’Connor bounces this word around and throughout the story, puts it in the mouth of every major character in a variety of situations and circumstances with different interpretations and meanings depending on the depth of depravity and quirks of the character.

She does this slyly but relentlessly, working deftly on the reader’s quickly over-heating subconscious so as to convincingly make it the overriding critical question in human life. Good? Everyone thinks they “know” what “good” is, but no one in the story truly does or appreciates its ultimate significance in human life but the Misfit, a psychopath, devoid of any human feeling for others, a loathsome murderer who alone in the intuitively connects it with God and his redeeming grace.

After shooting her and telling Bobby Lee to “Take her off and throw her where you thrown the others” he says “’She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’”

Only after every member of her family had been taken into the woods and shot and when now confronted with her imminent death did the grandmother realize her essential connection to and responsibility to love others, and this in the annihilating “moment of grace” given to her just seconds before the Misfit pulled the trigger:

“She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my own babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him [italics mine] on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times in the chest.”

Self-centered, trivial, a frivolous chatterbox, wholly superficial and solely intent on getting her own way, the Grandmother engineered the execution of both herself and her family.

“The wages of sin are death,” as scripture says. There is no finer dramatic narrative demonstration of this truth in American Literature than O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It is a strange story, an oddity thematically, in the modern literary canon because it has become an unpopular idea, many regard it as outmoded, “yesterday,” and it’s an idea most people today recoil from as too raw, religious or simple-minded. If we believe it, the change required in our lives will be seismic and will involve us living for others more than for ourselves

But the truth is always simple and unavoidable, regardless of the noise, false busyness and pointless distractions with which we try to use to insulate ourselves in order to avoid it.

This story persists to haunt, needle and goad readers into confronting this truth (according to O’Connor) and thus perhaps be changed by it by virtue of O’Connor’s powerful prose.

The drumbeat of dread beats in all of our hearts. Dread over the uncertainty of unknown threats, dread over the absolute certainty of our own inevitable deaths. Somehow O’Connor accesses that universal dread in all of us, believers or not, and conveys a powerful message, like a maestro wielding, winding and threading dread and foreboding through this story in such a way that it grips us, whatever our stance or convictions on the matters of grace and redemption. It is a dreadfully absorbing story that just won’t go away because it is so “good.”




About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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7 Responses to THE LONG SHADOW: Flannery O’Connor’s Masterful Use of Dread and Foreboding in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

  1. russellboyle says:

    “The drumbeat of dread beats in all of our hearts..”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lahowlett says:

    Great introduction to Flannery O’Connor for anyone who hasn’t read her work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 1WriteWay says:

    Margaret, I really, really enjoyed this essay. It’s been years since I’ve read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but your insight brings back to me the stirring of emotions I felt during my read, particularly, “There is an almost Wagnerian soundtrack playing in the background of the story …”. Indeed, I recall being filled with dread from the first one sentence to the last. I won’t claim to have understood at the time why O’Connor wrote the story as she did, but I understood that she had to.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Similar to Marie above, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this story, but reading your essay here, especially that “no pleasure but in meanness”quote, the chills I got then came back. Such a powerful story, it still rings within. Thank you for this write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

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