In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a tortured nobleman fails to recognize his own guilt in the aftermath of the gruesome murder he has committed. Similarly, a haughty Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor possesses an inflated sense of pride that prevents her from seeing the bitter truth about herself. However, only one of these achingly human characters are prepared for redemption at the denouement of the tales. Both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” examine flawed characters who journey toward redemption. Poe’s miserable Montresor struggles to rationalize away his sins and ends up suffering wretchedly. In contrast, O’Connor’s vain Grandmother recognizes her own shortcomings, and, consequently, navigates to grace.
O’Connor defines grace in the context of Catholicism: we are all sinners and in need of the grace of God in order to receive forgiveness. In other words, grace is to give someone something they may not deserve on the basis of forgiveness. But first, the person must admit to making human mistakes. Montresor, the first person narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” most definitely fulfills the first part of O’Connor’s definition of grace: he has sinned terribly. At the beginning of his tale, Montresor reveals his tendency to exaggerate by claiming that he has been inflicted by “The thousand of injuries of Fortunato” (402). Montresor rationalizes he has been harmed an innumerable amount of times by a man “to be respected and even feared” that he ironically calls his “friend” (402). The reader can identify how his jealousy toward Fortunato is a subset of his own pride. Montresor’s confession is suspicious even as it spills out. Moreover, he is lying to himself about the severity of his actions. Montresor’s nervous chatter reveals his attempts to rationalize or even escape the situation: “Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—” (405). These revealing words evoke a feeling of unease. Montresor is battling his conscience as he carefully manipulates Fortunato into a state of vulnerable drunkenness. Will he continue to carry out his plan or turn back? Waving away his uncertainty, Montresor praises Fortunato: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved [...]” and continues to shower Fortunato with empty flattery as he leads him to his inevitable death (404). At this point, Montresor is not a worthy candidate for grace as defined by O’Connor. He spins lies to lure Fortunato toward his death, and is in fierce denial of how what he is doing and what he has done are wrong.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the reader is placed in Grandmother’s shoes as she leads her family astray on a road trip gone bad. Like Montresor, she is in dire need of grace but maintains fatal flaws centered around hubris. She is obsessed with being a “lady” and wears “a navy blue straw sailor hat” to prove it (375). In addition, the not-so-innocent Grandmother spins lies and manipulates her family into getting her way: “‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing she were” (380). This seemingly harmless attempt at getting them off track snowballs into the eventual death of the Grandmother and the five passengers. In other words, Grandmother initiates the chaos that ensues. Throughout the tale, Grandmother uses both flattery and exaggeration to distort the truth. Her deceptive techniques are similar to Montresor’s; Grandmother lies to herself. Moreover, she promotes herself as a lady, though a lady does not deceive small children to get her way. For instance, she promises the family “‘It would be very educational for them [the children]’” when trying to convince the family to go off route (381). In reality, she simply wants to revisit an old house. In addition, Grandmother lies to the Misfit after the shocking accident which left their truck in a ditch, claiming, “‘We turned over twice!’” when they had turned only once (383). The Grandmother embellishes her account of the accident before the Misfit while hiding her role in causing the crash. She flatters the Misfit relentlessly, attempting to convince herself and him that “‘You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?’” (384). The Grandmother creates a disaster—her family has been murdered and she begs that the Misfit not shoot her simply on account that she is a lady. Her flawed thinking and obsession with class has not prepared her for grace quite yet.
This kind of misguided thinking leads to Montresor's ultimate downfall as well. As Montresor lures Fortunato deeper into the ominous catacombs, Poe provides a possible motive for Montresor’s revenge. When Fortunato makes a “gesticulation I [Montresor] did not understand,” Fortunato replies “‘Then you are not of the brotherhood’” (405). Fortunato is of the secret society of Freemasons, while Montresor pridefully claims he is a stonemason (a person who builds using stones). He uses this title ironically, as a retort for Fortunato’s skepticism of him being a mason at all. Perhaps the “Thousand injuries” Fortunato is guilty of inflicting relate to him not inviting Montresor into the Freemason society. This would certainly hurt Montresor’s pride, and may even make him jealous enough to seek revenge! In addition, Poe inserts symbolic action in his story as ironic foreshadowing after Fortunato exclaims “‘You? Impossible! A [free] mason?’” (405). Montresor responds indignantly by “producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire ” (406). Montresor’s trowel will soon gain great significance as the weapon used to kill Fortunato. Ironically, he is using the trowel to identify himself as a mason when it will also mark him as a killer. Though Montresor carried out his petty revenge, building his victim into a wall and leaving him to die, Montresor did not ultimately triumph. In fact, he had a brief moment of clarity during which his “heart grew sick—” (408). With this small admission, Montresor reveals his own self-hatred and guilt over Fortunato’s murder. He is finally acknowledging that his actions were extreme, and he is overcome with regret. However, he denies his own remorse, indicated by a “—”, by blaming his sick-feeling heart “on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (408). If Montresor had admitted his guilt, he may have achieved a different reality, one in which his suffering is replaced with forgiveness. Montresor fails to accept his sins—his deep jealousy, lying, and killing—and therefore is not looked upon kindly by the heavens. Though Montresor claims to “punish with impunity,” he receives personal punishment for his actions (402). Montresor has agonized over the murder for 50 years, the ironic opposite of a killer who claims to have impunity.
While Montresor was punished by his repressed conscience, the Grandmother in O’Connor’s story still has a chance at redemption. O’Connor urges the reader to look further than the bloody result of Grandmother’s mistake by revealing her humanity. Furthermore, O’Connor describes grace as being given to “the imperfect, purely human and even hypocritical” (374). Is Grandmother not a perfect example of a flawed human being? She exaggerates, she’s deceitful, and she is stuck in her own arrogance. After they encounter the Misfit, “The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim [...] but it came off in her hand” (385). This symbolic action indicates that her idea of her being a lady is shattered. Her ego, represented by her hat, begins to fall apart as she pleads for mercy before the Misfit. Moreover, moments before she is shot by the Misfit, the Grandmother has an epiphany: her “head cleared for an instant [...] “‘Why, you’re [the Misfit) one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’” (389). The reader has felt antagonistic toward Grandmother this whole time, mainly because she thinks she is a saint. However, when she names the Misfit as one of her own children, she recognizes that she may be on the same level as he is, a known murderer. Finally, she sees herself truthfully, and in her death, “her face is smiling up at the cloudless sky” (390). The cloudless sky is symbolic of a clear path for her to heaven, indicating that she is redeemable through acknowledging that she is not a impeccable lady. While Montresor pushes away this realization and exists in his own personal hell, the Grandmother is worthy of grace in the end.
In these two short stories, the main characters have deep flaws that prevent them from reaching personal redemption. Montresor of “The Cask of Amontillado” rationalizes away his sins and faces 50 years of punishment. In contrast, the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” recognizes that she is not the lady she claims to be, and is therefore redeemable and a candidate for grace. Both tales explain how the difference between accepting and denying one’s flaws can determine whether a person is destined for heaven or for hell. As a contemporary reader, we notice how each story emphasizes the importance of being honest rather than jealous or prideful. Both authors leave us with a sense of urgency: in life, aim for self-redemption rather than revenge. The fates of these two characters present cautionary guidance on being truthful in our daily lives as grace only comes to those who admit their faults.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 374-390.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Seagull Reader: Stories. 4th ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. 401-408.