May 5, 2009

The Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

Flannery O'Connor

In Flannery O’ Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Misfit is the embodiment of evil. His chance encounter with a Georgia family culminates in the execution of the grandmother after she reaches out to touch him. O’Connor uses the Misfit to show how grace and salvation are available to both saint and sinner alike. Whether we accept these is another matter. The Misfit exercises his free will to do evil. Instead of sparing an old woman, he brutally murders her. Rejecting the grandmother’s kindness, he chooses violence over virtue – symbolizing our fallen humanity.

O’Connor contrasts the grandmother’s last earthly act with the Misfit’s violent reaction to it. In the climactic scene, the grandmother tells the Misfit he is: “One of my babies” and one of “my own children.” When she reaches to touch him, he springs back from her: "as if a snake had bitten him.” The fact the Misfit would react as if she were a snake is itself telling. The snake has long been associated with evil as in the Garden of Eden.

According to Catholic theology, to sin against the Holy Spirit is to know that a thing is good and to hate it for its goodness. The Misfit is at once afraid, repulsed and startled by the grandmother’s desperate and ultimately futile act of charity. He “shot her three times through the chest,“ then removes his glasses to clean them. The Misfit is evil, He rejects grace and does unspeakable harm. For the grandmother it is an occasion of grace. She dies in a pool of blood: “her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” In her last dying breath she finds redemption.

O’Connor uses the Misfit to show how grace and salvation are available to all. As human beings we have free will and are responsible for our choices and actions. We can be open to and cooperate with grace. But we are just as capable of doing evil. No one is without sin in this story. But one senses no one is beyond redemption either.

For a more in depth treatment of the Misfit go here.

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