January 30, 2010

The Misfit In “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.

Despite being a cold-blooded killer the Misfit by his own words has contemplated Jesus’ resurrection and power over death. The Misfit has asked the same questions many Christians pose. His curiosity about Jesus and ultimate rejection of Judeo-Christian morality (that rooted in the natural law and the teachings of Christ), mirror the view of religious skeptics and others for whom religion has little value. In his mind, good has not conquered evil as evidenced in this statement to the grandmother:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . 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 everything away 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. . .
The Misfit has not “thrown everything away “ to follow Christ. Quiet the opposite. He is “enjoying the few minutes” he has left by killing and robbing. His words are prophetic. Shortly after uttering them he kills the grandmother and steals the family’s car. Like others, the Misfit sees evil and injustice as repudiating the idea that God is loving and good. Furthermore, the Misfit cannot square his own suffering with Jesus’ redemption of humanity. Christ did not conquer sin and death by rising from the tomb. To the Misfit there is no victory in the cross, no resurrection on Easter Sunday. Being open to grace requires an act of faith – something the Misfit is incapable of.

As the conversation with the grandmother continues, the Misfit reveals more about himself. At one point the grandmother says, “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!" The Misfit replies that God never made a finer woman than his mother and that his father had a heart of gold. While he speaks the grandmother’s family is taken into the woods and shot. The grandmother tries to appeal to the Misfit’s humanity: “’Listen,’ she said, ‘you shouldn't call yourself the Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell.’" To this the Misfit replies, "No, I ain't a good man… but I ain't the worst in the world neither.”

For the Misfit to state,” I ain't a good man… but I ain't the worst in the world neither,” at the same time he is ordering the grandmother’s family members to be killed is remarkable. The Misfit rationalizes his actions, even the murder of innocent children.

Later the Misfit reveals he went to jail for murdering his father. He claims to be innocent of the charge but then indirectly acknowledges his guilt when he reflects:
Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course, they never shown me my papers… I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.
The Misfit feels his incarceration was unjust and that the punishment didn’t fit his crime. His statement: “I call myself “the Misfit” because I can’t make what all I done fit what all I gone through in punishment,” illustrates this. He doesn’t deny committing murder nor does he admit to it. O’Connor offers us a tantalizing clue however. Earlier in the passage he says: “Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except he hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I committed one because they had the papers on me…of course…they never shown me my papers.” First, it is significant that the Misfit identifies himself with Christ. Just as Christ is the source of morality for Christians, the Misfit adheres to a view of right and wrong that is entirely of his own making. Secondly, he acknowledges that like Jesus, he, the Misfit has “thrown everything off balance.” But he quickly adds: “It was the same case with Him as with me except he hadn’t committed any crime.” The Misfit acknowledges Jesus’ innocence while seemly indicating his own guilt.

Finally, O’Connor contrasts the grandmother’s last earthly act and the Misfit’s violent reaction to it. In the climactic scene the grandmother tells the Misfit that he is: “One of my babies…,” and one of “my own children.” When she reaches out in compassion and touches him, the Misfit 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, By rejecting grace and doing unspeakable harm, he perpetuates evil. 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.” Perhaps in her last dying breath she found redemption.

O’Connor uses the Misfit to show how grace and salvation are available to everyone. As human beings we also have free will and are ultimately 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.


Jeff Miller said...

Timely post since I had just read that story this week and you provide some good insights.

Anonymous said...

I'm not Catholic though found your post very interesting.

Tenekah said...

How would you say the grandmother found redemption from being killed by the misfit?