The misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has a very different view of crime and punishment. He believes that Jesus put everything “off-balance” as he put it. He thinks that Jesus was innocent and punished anyway, so there is no justice because the punishment never fits the crime. He believes that he did something to get into prison, but he cannot remember what it was, so he thinks that his punishment may not fit his crime either. More than anything else, the story is filled with hints that he was severely punished as a child, while his abusive father was never punished, and that would really convince him that there is no justice. So he thinks that he should just do whatever he feels like doing because he will be punished anyway, even if he’s good.
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The Misfit does not believe Jesus brings justice. He believes he would be different if he had lived and seen Jesus, ‘I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” the Misfit says. ‘I wish I had been there… It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had been there I would have known. Listen, lady… if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now” (152). (Desmond) In some way he is blaming Jesus.
He thinks that if he had seen Jesus do miracles he would know what to do. He cannot believe, because he did not see it. “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.” The Misfit admits Jesus raised the dead but says He destroyed the balance in the world by doing that because it became necessary to embrace or reject Him. “Even though believing, The Misfit has rejected Him. His polite veneer begins to crack as he says in anger that he should have been an eyewitness to the miracles of Christ so that he could have followed Him.” (Friedman and Lawson 175)
Browning (56, 1974) says he is delusional in his ideas about injustice, that “That the world itself might be awry, that injustice might be a permanent and irreducible component of human existence” In this kind of frame of mind, doesn’t matter what he does, so he does whatever necessary to get what he wants or believes he needs.
I was amazed that in all the resources I consulted, nobody mentioned what seemed rather obvious to me. The Misfit probably was an abused child and killed his father or step-father. However, he does not remember doing it. We get a hint when he says that his daddy is buried in Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard. Baptists were very strict, and it is possible that the Misfit was abuse as a child to make him pure for Jesus. He may even have suffered punishment which was way out of proportion to his “crimes” as a child and decided that Jesus made things unfair. By the time of this story, he has it all twisted up. There is also a possibility that the man The Misfit killed was not his father, but his step-father.
At one point he quotes his “daddy” as saying he was different from his brothers and sisters. “My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters.” This may actually have been literal. I know at least one person who grew up believing that an abusive stepmother was his mother until a therapist uncovered early images of his birth mother, and the young man asked his father and found out the truth.
It can be very confusing the hate your father, who is supposed to make you safe. There is no other reason that I can see that the date of his father’s burial would be mentioned. The date of the flu epidemic seems very early for the death of his father, especially since the speed limit in this story is 55. It seems to me that this speed limit did not come into force until the 1940s or later.
Further evidence that this character is the twisted result of a childhood filled with abuse is the way he reacts to the grandmother and the fact that Flannery O’Conner says that he looks like he is about to cry. “She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry.” When the grandmother thinks he is her son, because he is wearing the man’s shirt, he jumps back at her touch and shoots her. This seems to be the reaction of a badly abused child, and it may be that he has repeated his crime of shooting her. He knows she is not his relative, but the very thought of a relative touching him seems to be what he reacts to in shooting her.
He did not shoot the others himself but sent the other two to do it. He takes no pleasure in shooting her are watching her die, but reacts to Bobby Lee’s remark, “Some fun!” with, “Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
So he does not take any pleasure in these things. In fact, there is no evidence that he takes pleasure in anything, even though he says earlier that you have to “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 meanness,” “The Misfit does not enjoy his meanness—these scenes are admirable because they assert that if we can understand the horror involved, and the comic inversions, we have not yielded to narcissism. We see truths and lies. We thus affirm our humanity.” (Friedman and Lawson 122)
One very telling phrase is what he says after the grandmother says that Jesus will help him. “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?” He sees himself as “punished a heap” and his daddy as “ain’t punished at all”. He mentioned earlier that his daddy.” never got in trouble with the Authorities though. Just had the knack of handling them.” That seems to hint that the “authorities” were at the home more than once, possibly for reports of a disturbance. Since the mother is only mentioned once, it is also quite possible that The Misfit shot his father defending his mother.
It is probable that his daddy was abusive to his mother or him or both. Mainly The Misfit’s view is that there is a lack of justice in that the punishment never fits the crime. The Misfit says that his name signifies his awareness of the disproportion between his actions and their punishment (151). On the one hand, this disproportion confounds him. But on the other hand, he uses it to claim his difference from the general run of society. (Desmond)
When the Grandmother tries once again to save her own life just after she realizes that her grandchildren are also being shot, he says, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,… and He shouldn’t have done it.” He seems to believe that if Jesus were this powerful and if He really rose from the dead Himself, then He has abandoned the Misfit. He seems not to believe in any afterlife at all, so has decided to take all his pleasure here whenever he wants. “The Misfit, in his frustrating search for some assurance of the reality and permanence of good, turns to evil as a not-very-satisfactory but a logical alternative to the wholly specious “good” offered him by contemporary society and exemplified in the selfish, self-indulgent, easy-conscienced grandmother.” (Browning 58)
The Misfit may also have been a little claustrophobic since he takes pains to mention how he felt buried alive in prison. He does not just say this, but he gives an almost poetic description of what it felt like and how it trapped him everywhere he looked. “Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor.” Part of his dilemma is that he cannot conceive of any crime terrible enough to be worth this kind of punishment. The punishment seems more terrible to him even than killing one’s parents, though he is certain he did not kill his father in any case.
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The fact that he cannot remember his crime seems to point to trauma. I start to think how terrible it would be to a person even a little claustrophobic to be imprisoned in a small cell after defending himself or his mother from his step-father, and this makes terrific sense to me that he would become the twisted grotesque we see in the story. I cannot identify with him, as he is an unreliable character, but I can imagine his past and his current state of mind seems actually to be preferable, while incarcerated, to the state he must have been in at first. I have never had a phobia, but those are things that frighten me, and I can imagine that fear expanded beyond all reason, and I think that is exactly what would happen to my mind, it would go beyond reason.
The Misfit has created his own reasonable response to the world, and he lives by his own rules, having decided that the world’s rules are neither fair nor useful. His rules seem quite practical: do whatever you feel like and don’t worry about consequences, since they will not be in proportion to the crime. He is right in many ways. The trauma he must have suffered as a child is all out of proportion to the consequences his father suffered, even if The Misfit killed him. Living with that kind of fear is like living in a snake pit when one is afraid of snakes.
The injustice which The Misfit sees in the world is real. There is no justice in simply executing a man who preyed upon and murdered children. He can never pay enough because the crime’s aftereffects cannot be fixed. If we look around there is injustice everywhere. Those of us who believe in an afterlife and a balance of some kind, whether based upon religion or some other belief, use this to help us to accept the injustice we see. In many ways, most of us need to believe in some form of spiritual justice in order to accept life with the injustices of this life. I cannot remember who said it, but I believe it is true that if there were no God we would have to invent Him.
The Misfit has adjusted to the idea that there is no justice by not looking for it, and not expecting it. He does what he likes, believing that it makes no difference. His mental state seems almost numb, though he appears to be near to tears while talking with the grandmother. I think most of the time he is rather numb and says he needs to enjoy being mean because meanness is all there is. He does not really enjoy anything.
Bandy (1996) says that “O’Connor flatly declared the story to be a parable of grace and redemption, and for the true believer there can be no further discussion. As James Mellard remarks, “O’Connor simply tells her readers–either through narrative interventions or be extra-textual exhortations–how they are to interpret her work” (625).” Yet Bandy does not believe, in this case, that we should trust the artist, but quotes D.H. Lawrence that we should. “trust the art” Bandy sees little in the story “to inspire hope for redemption of any of its characters.” Too many critics have analyzed according to the artist’s words, making the supreme error of analyzing the motivation of the writer instead of the story.
However, even Bandy concentrates upon the grandmother, focusing upon her character and whether or not she finds redemption in her final moments. To my mind, it is The Misfit who finds redemption. Yes, he is still a psychopath and he will kill again in all probability. But he is finally redeemed by this final proof of his innocence by reason of insanity.
The Misfit’s view of crime and punishment is the only one he can hold because it is the only one that fits the facts that he can prove by his own observation. He says that if he would have seen Jesus raise the dead he would have to follow Him, but that he is as he is because he was not an observer of this miracle. In other words, he can only believe what he experiences directly. I make this judgment because of the state of the grandmother’s mind when most of the critics think she is redeemed. She may have been. She was in the eyes of the Misfit, as he states at the end. However, she is also insane by this time, even thinking that he is her son.
She is delusional and her mind has simply broken under the stress of facing the murder of her son and his family and her guilt in causing it. There is no question that they would have been perfectly safe if she had not brought the cat and if she had not insisted on going to that house. She was even deceitful in saying there was a secret door with treasure, just to excite the children so she would get her way. So facing this and the thought of dying simply breaks her mind and she is no longer responsible since she is insane. She is beyond being able to earn redemption and beyond being able to understand what has happened. In this way, she is just like The Misfit, not responsible for her actions, by reason of insanity.
For The Misfit, she redeems herself in touching him with tenderness, but it is that touch to which he reacts by shooting her three times. Once is enough to kill her, but he needs to express his own fear, the deep-seated fear of an abused child. A child who is beaten enough reacts to any movement of approach or touch, usually cringing, but often lashing out once he or she is capable of defense. This last reaction to the grandmother’s touch is what convinces me that there is more in this story than gothic symbols of sin and redemption.
This character is drawn so carefully that I believe we must pay attention to the clues all through the story. If Flannery O’Connor did not put them there to tell us something, then why are they there? Why bother with little hints about the abusive father or about the father not being the real father of The Misfit. I cannot believe it is a mere chance because there are too many and they all fit the hypothesis which I developed that The Misfit was an abused child driven to kill his parent and then traumatized beyond being able to explain, or even remember, the incident.
Once in prison, The Misfit, already emotionally disabled, could have reacted to claustrophobia and simply gone completely nuts, finally arriving at a state in which he could survive, emotionless practicality, and total disregard for rules made by others, proof shown him by others (as in the proof of his guilt) and an amoral state in which he simply does what is necessary to ensure his survival. He is not particularly cruel in the way he orders the execution of the family, or even in how he kills the grandmother.
What I see as most important in analyzing The Misfit, is that I took this story in isolation from the other connected stories. Taken on its own, my analysis fits very well. I have not read the other stories, so I cannot say how well they would fit in that context. It is the same with using O’Connor’s own words and judgments to influence my analysis. I am simply analyzing this story and this character’s belief system alone.
The Misfit believes in nothing he does not experience, including the redemption offered by Jesus. He certainly does not believe in injustice. This is probably based on a highly abusive childhood which drove him to kill his father or step-father. The evidence of abuse is all through the story in little hints I have listed, including that his father “had a way with the authorities and so was never punished for what he did to The Misfit. The odd date of his father’s burial makes it likely that his “daddy” was his step-father. The trauma likely made him unable to explain his actions at the time, as evidence by the fact that he does not remember what he did to be sent to prison.
He reacted to prison like a claustrophobic, driving him the rest of the way into insanity. He has become a totally practical amoral fugitive from justice and he will do whatever is necessary to maintain his freedom and not go back to being buried alive. He even says he is sorry that the grandmother recognized him, and this hints that he would not have had the family killed if she had kept quiet. The fact that the news before they left reported he was heading for Florida hints that there were encounters where he did not kill people. While his view of crime and punishment is probably more right than wrong, we live by different rules. He is simply living by his own set of rules created to allow him to survive in an incomprehensible world.
Bandy, Stephen C. “”One of My Babies”: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (1996): 107+. Questia. Web.
Browning, Preston M. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. Questia. Web.
Desmond, John. “Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit and the Mystery of Evil.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 56.2 (2004): 129+. Questia. Web.
Friedman, Melvin J., and Lewis A. Lawson, eds. The Added Dimension The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Fordham University Press, 1977. Questia.Web.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1969. 117-33.