Flannery O"Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"-Question (The "Misfit")

I remember reading this short story years ago, and I never understood the point the author was making about the highwayman/killer called “The Misfit”. Basically, a lower middle class guy (Bailly), his wife and kids, and mother , are captured by a gang of robbers, headed by a guy who calls himself “the Misfit”.
He explains the name to Bailly “I call myself the misfit because I can’t make things fit”
Anyway, the gang murders them all…what was the motive? Simple robbery?
I also remember one of the gangs passing thoughts about Baiily’s mother “she would have been a good woman-if somebody had shot her every day”
WEird little story…was that your impression?

On the simplest level, the Misfit is a serial killer. He kills the family because they saw him and he didn’t want them to tell the police.

Of course, the story works on far more levels than that. There’s O’Connor’s theme of religious belief, as well as her theme about the perversity of human behavior. And much more.

And don’t ask why the Misfit wears a black hat. :wink:

The Misfit is a Christ figure. Buried alive (in prison) and resurrected, always questioning the status quo, anti-Freudian (the Oedipus complex misunderstanding)… Ultimately, he brings salvation to the grandmother, between the stirrup and the ground, by making her see the commonality of all mankind. O’Connor loves to make protestants like Bailey’s family find Catholic salvation.

The Misfit is a man who sees, as many people in the modern secular era don’t, that in the absence of a loving God, life is pretty much meaningless.

In an effort to save her own life and the lives of her family, the old woman tries to invoke Jesus. This attempt fails because the Misfit has ALREADY spent a great deal of time thinking of Jesus, and has concluded that Jesus’ promises are just too hard to put any stock in. The way the Misfit sees it, if Jesus is really the Son of God, this world and traditional morality make sense. If he isn’t (and there’s no concrete proof one way or the other), then we live in an absurd world and nobody’s life is of any real value. He doesn’t get any real enjoyment from killing, but it doesn’t trouble him much, either.

The old lady herself probably never thought much about Jesus herself, before the last few minutes of her life. It was only in those few minutes that she gave Jesus any thought or showed any real care for her own family. Prior to meeting the Misfit, the old lady seemed to be an unpleasant, whining, self-pitying shrew. THAT’S why the Misfit thinks she might have been a good woman if she’d had to face death more often. Like many of us, she ONLY thought about what’s important when death was imminent; the rest of the time, she was too wrapped up in petty concerns.

A Christ figure? Who offers salvation by killing you?

Very well said. This story, of all of O’Connor’s stories, has always been the most unsettling for me. You managed to state what it is about very clearly. Thanks for that.

Full text of the story. (I’m not sure how UCF gets around that since it’s under copyright and her executors are tough cookies.)

I never considered the Christ figure angle- if anything he’s demonic, but I think more than anything he’s Everyman without Christ. He also parallels to the Bible salesman in Good Country People (who in turn was a contrast to the well educated one legged woman who’d arrived at the same nihilistic conclusion). The way I read it, he kills the grandmother when she troubles his world view by showing him compassion and grace. Admittedly he was probably going to kill her anyway, but that certainly hastened it. At least Pitty Sing lived.

If you ever need some odd entertainment, type “Good Man is Hard to Find” into YouTube. Apparently some high schools assign making a movie of it as a class project and there are several that range in quality to “not bad considering its teenagers with no budget” to “even for teenagers with no budget this is awful” to “this was done by teenaged smartasses with no budget- and is by far the most watchable”.

A story told in Milledgeville is that Flannery was asked once by a lit student why the Misfit wore a black hat. Her answer was “to keep the sun out of his eyes.”

While I couldn’t be further from O’Connor in my religious beliefs (or lack of), I admire the story as brilliant writing. The most disturbing element to me the first time I read it was the old woman hearing the gun shots but completely divorcing them from their meaning, retreating into selective madness rather than acknowledge her family is being shot.

My main problem is that I think the “moral of the story” lines are too blunt in their call for the value of faith without seeing.


Yet it’s her imminent death that leads her to that compassion and grace for the first time in her life. And it’s the Misfit who shows her Truth. The parallels aren’t exact, but there are enough there to make the link.

O’Connor has said herself that The Misfit was never intended to be a Christ figure, and that instead, he was a channel for Catholic grace, which makes a great deal of sense if you’ve read many of her other stories. Of course, that doesn’t mean your interpretation is wrong. I think you could make the argument that there are a lot of similarities there.

All that I remember of Flannery O’Connor is white peacocks, the Rat Colored Car, and “If you steal this chiffarobe, I will track you down and kill you! -Hazel Motes”

I propose a somewhat different interpretation…the “Misfit” represents random evil.
The family was going to Florida, for some inane family reunion…while the old grandmother wanted to go to Tennessee.
Quite simply, her idiot son (Bailey) seals the familie’s doom by deciding on Florida.
The grandmother also compounds the mess-by talking to the Misfit, and letting him know she recognizes him-it is then that the Misfit decides that the family has to die.
So, had the family stayed home, and the old woman kept her mouth shut, they would be alive.
The stuff about Jesus raising the dead is confusing-it seems to make no sense to me.

I am surprised that one can safely do this–looks like the internet has finally cleaned up its act and is now a harmless place where small children and little old ladies can boldly go.

O’Connor isn’t trustworthy regarding what she says about her stories, any more than any other author is–the fallacy of Authorial Intent, if you will. Also, O’Connor was more likely than most to take umbrage at any interpretation of her work, and often had some other “intent” that she’d make known. While O’Connor tried to make us think that she was writing simple, superficial stories, the depth of the texts belies her words.

I have read all of her other works, in a graduate seminar taught by Keen Butterworth, and taught a few of them. It isn’t my interpretation, it’s a fairly common one that I got through Butterworth’s class.

As with many authors, it’s not her best story; just the most utilitarian for the purpose of high school literature classes.

(exempting the overrated John Updike, who was pretty much at the top of his game with A&P)

Like Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge the shocking ending is what gets high school student’s attention. (Note: I’m not comparing the endings- one is a twist ending and the other just unexpectedly violent for a story that begins as a cranky old lady going on a trip with her family.)

I don’t think O’Connor ever tried to fool people into thinking she was writing “simple, superficial stories,” and I think the only people laboring under that kind of interpretation are those deceived by the unalloyed straight-forwardness of her writing and plotting. But like I suggested, I’m familiar enough with intentional fallacy to disavow the idea that her understanding of the story should trump a reader’s own interpretation.

However, I thought it was note-worthy because the interpretation of The Misfit as a Christ-like figure, while popular among literary critics, isn’t nearly pat enough for me to find satisfactory. I think it’s a mistake to call The Misfit a Christ-like figure – a mistake that arises from a mistaken understanding of Christ as a figure solely of salvation. It’s easy to generalize that Christ = Savior, therefore The Misfit = Savior = Christ. But to make that leap is an oversimplification of Christ and his teachings and his role in Christianity (and Catholicism specifically). And for me, it diminishes The Misfit’s personal struggle with Christ’s involvement in his personal salvation, which is clearly essential to the moral and religious dilemma of the story. It’s more appropriate to call The Misfit a redemptive figure. Calling him a Christ-figure is tempting but it attaches to him a ton of unnecessary baggage, and for me, it’s indefensible in the context of the story, unless you’re willing to stretch the meaning of “Christ-figure” and over-interpret his interaction with the grandmother.

Is this a trick question? God, of course, as explained in the whole storyline of the Christ figure.

Intentional fallacy.

I don’t think ralph was asking, “Who offers salvation?” I think it was a rhetorical question - try reading it as one sentence: “A Christ figure who offers salvation by killing you!?”

For my part, I’m just happy to know that, somewhere out there, there’s a person named Keen Butterworth.