Individualism in Gimpel the Fool and a Good Man Is Hard to Find

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The Myth of the Sincere or Authentic Individual

In Charles Taylor’s theoretical text, The Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor writes to evaluate the concepts of individualism. He believes that we can, and should, become conscious about what makes us who we are to effectively and sincerely choose which values or qualities to support. Using two short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor and “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, alongside Taylor’s text and the application of his concepts, one can examine if the central characters function as true individuals who act for themselves, or act to fulfill a historically desirable niche in human nature.

Flannery O’Connor’s 1953 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” illustrates the story of a husband and wife, along with the grandmother and two children, who embark on a family road trip from Tennessee to Florida. Plot and character both unravel with the path of the family’s travel, revealing the archetypal characteristics of a traditional American family— annoying quirks and behaviors, back seat arguments between siblings; and the elderly, nitpicky, and proper grandmother. Following the greater part of the journey from Tennessee to Florida, the story ends with a final encounter with an escaped convicted murderer, The Misfit.

The most prominent and perhaps easily scrutinized character from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the grandmother. Being the central protagonist in O’Connor’s short story, she unfolds to be manipulative and self-involved, yet a prim and proper elderly woman. Throughout the text, the grandmother is continuously caught up in comparing her polished southern past to her disappointments of the present. She is entangled in her roots, appearing as a harmless chatterbox, aloof and amusing within her own progression. It is easy to forgive her for so much, including her innate racism— pointing at a “cute little pickaninny” from the car window as well as entertaining the children with a tale of “a nigger boy” (187) who scoffs a watermelon— and her overly sound opinions that she states matter-of-factly. Upon departure for Florida, she dresses herself in her Sunday’s best: dress, hat, and white cotton gloves all for the trip, so “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (186). She is filled with the prejudices and traditions of her class and time.

The grandmother, even when faced with the foreshadowed confrontation with The Misfit, continues to present her historical and deeply rooted “lady-like” façade. Her talk with the Misfit begins as a manipulative attempt to save her own life, employing her refined techniques to persuade her killer. (Certainly, in her world, no decent man would “shoot a lady” (O’Connor 194).) Her desperate attempts continue, trying further to charm The Misfit. “I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!” (O’Connor 192). The grandmother seems confident enough that her southern allure will win over the man as she has with all others; there is no resignation to the death she will soon face.

Following the execution of the whole family, it is apparent to both the reader and the grandmother herself that death is imminent. Upon this realization, the woman experiences a revelation and attains the first unselfish sensibility displayed in the story. She finally ignores her idea of proper southern values in the face of death and reaches out to The Misfit. In an act of true sincerity, she simultaneously denounced her high moral standing and proclaimed acceptance of his character. In this state of disclosure “she murmured ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’” The woman “reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor 195). The Misfit ends the powerful story by commenting...
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