A Good Man is Hard to Find
by Flannery O'Connor
The Mysterious Misfit
The Misfit doesn't get it. He just doesn't understand why he's been punished the way he has for what he did. In his own words, "I call myself The Misfit […] because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment" (129).
Here's the big question: what did The Misfit do? That's not the easiest question to answer.
Was The Misfit "the Wrong Guy"?
The Misfit has just escaped from the federal penitentiary, and apparently he was put in for killing his father. He claims this isn't true:
"It was a head doctor who said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself." (117)
Earlier in the story, The Misfit calls his parents the "finest people in the world," and says his "daddy's heart was pure gold" (89). So is The Misfit lying about killing his dad, or is he innocent? Is he being sarcastic about his parents?
The situation is complicated because The Misfit says he can't remember why he got sent to the penitentiary. He's tried, but he "ain't recalled it to this day" (113). On the other hand, when she asks if it was a mistake, he also tells the grandmother it wasn't. Why couldn't it have been a mistake? The Misfit knows it wasn't a mistake, because "they had the papers on me" (115). Later on, he compares himself to Jesus, who never committed any crime. The difference between The Misfit and Jesus is that "they" could prove he (The Misfit) had committed a crime because they had papers on him:
"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," he said, "they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now." (129)
From the way The Misfit frames it, it's almost as if he doesn't really believe he committed a crime, even though there seems to be evidence that he did. He certainly doesn't seem to feel as if his actions merited the punishment he received:
"I never was a bad boy that I remember of," The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, "but somewhere along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive," and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare." (111)
"Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?" (130)
The Misfit victimizes himself here: he was made to suffer greatly for a reason he doesn't understand. But the tricky thing is, he also never denies committing a crime, and he never denies that the papers are evidence that he committed a crime. In short, he refuses to admit he was put in by mistake. It even sounds from the first of those two passages as if he knows he did something wrong. He just doesn't know what it was, or why he was punished.
A further problem here, though, is that although he claims not to have seen "the papers," he does say that a doctor at the prison told him he'd killed his father. And he does deny doing that.
Does The Misfit Lack A Conscience?
It's hard to believe The Misfit is actually innocent, regardless of whether he killed his father. He kills the grandmother's family in such a casual manner that it seems as if he's used to murder. And toward the end of the story, it becomes easier to believe that he's done a lot of nasty things.
Why? Well, it doesn't seem like an innocent person would say the following:
"[…] 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. No pleasure but meanness," he said, and his voice had become almost a snarl. (134)
Here it sounds as if The Misfit commits crimes a lot. We figure might commits crimes because it is the only thing in his life that gives any pleasure. In light of this, a more likely explanation for what The Misfit says earlier might be that he doesn't think there's anything wrong with killing. It could be that he feels as if he doesn't deserve his punishment because he doesn't think any crime deserves punishment. He feels no guilt, which he'd need to have in order for his punishment to seem right to him. All he knows about punishment is that he doesn't like it, because it makes him miserable.
That might be what The Misfit's "forgetting" means. He can forget what he's done because it doesn't matter to him. And it doesn't matter to him because he doesn't feel it's wrong. The disconnect between punishment and "crime" is clear in something else he says:
"I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." (123)
We think there's a big difference between killing someone and taking his tire, but The Misfit fails to acknowledge that there is a difference between these two acts. It's all the same to him, and punishment is all the same to him, because it's never deserved.
The Misfit as a "Moral Nihilist" with a Dose of Christianity
You know things are getting serious when we whip out phrases like "moral nihilist." What does it mean? Well, strictly speaking, a nihilist is someone who doesn't believe that there can be any basis for judging what is right and what is wrong. A social nihilist might believe that social institutions have no basis for judging right and wrong. That's a little sloppy, but still gets at the point. A nihilist can admit that certain things are "right" and others are "wrong," but he'll mean something different than a person who isn't a nihilist. When one says something's "wrong," one usually means that one should not do it. For a nihilist, something is wrong if other people say you shouldn't do it. The nihilist won't really feel or recognize it to be wrong, and won't be troubled by committing any particular act.
It seems that The Misfit has this view. He admits that he's done things that are obviously wrong by other people's standards, but they don't feel wrong to him. As a result, he resents being punished for his actions. For him, they're just pleasurable. It might also seem strange that he could resent being punished for his acts if he doesn't believe it's wrong to kill someone. Why then is it wrong to lock him up?
Part of the point may be that The Misfit's nihilism is inconsistent. But it also doesn't seem like he is a nihilist through and through. In other words, The Misfit isn't a nihilist at heart. He does wrong things because at a deeper level he knows they're wrong. Why would he do that? Because he's angry at Jesus.
Just before that bit about there being "no pleasure but meanness," The Misfit says something very revealing:
"Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. If He did what He said, then there'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…" (134)
The Misfit thinks that everything in life comes down to an all-or-nothing question about Jesus. The big question for us is the following: why all or nothing? We'll leave that question open to you, but we will put in our two cents. The Misfit thinks that if Jesus was really the son of God (which he'd have to be to raise the dead), then life has a point. The point would be to follow Jesus and his teachings. In that case, it would be clear what you should do. But if Jesus wasn't the son of God, then life is meaningless, and there is no real right and wrong. The Misfit doesn't actually believe in Jesus, so for him life doesn't have a point and there's no real right and wrong. The idea that by following Jesus one arrives at salvation and eternal life might be important to The Misfit. It may be why he speaks of "the few minutes you got left." Without eternal life, life is short, and ends in death, which is part of its pointlessness.
It seems like The Misfit wants to believe. He wants life to have a point; he wants there to be eternal life, and he wants Jesus to be the son of God. But for some reason he can't believe it. And this leads him to his strange, apparently contradictory situation of doing bad things, because he's angry life doesn't have a point. The Misfit may be getting back at Jesus for not being who he said he was. In a curious sort of way, maybe The Misfit believes in Jesus, while also not believing in Jesus.
The Misfit is Misunderstood
And that's why we get this:
"I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." (136)
The Misfit believes that if he had actually seen Jesus, he would know that Jesus is the son of God. And he's angry that he doesn't know. In essence, he's angry because he thinks he would have been a believer if he had been there to witness Jesus firsthand. But it's as a result of believing to some degree, that he's angry for not believing completely. He thinks if he could believe, he wouldn't be the man he is now. So beneath all that anger and despair, he has a conscience after all.
The sadness, anger, and hurt that The Misfit reveals is what moves the grandmother to have sympathy for him. The intensity of his resentment at the world is also why he kills her, even though she's just shown him kindness. If we take seriously what he says at the end of the story, though, that single act of kindness may have struck home.