Study Guide

A Good Man is Hard to Find Religion

By Flannery O'Connor

Religion

"A Good Man is Hard to Find"
The Misfit

"I wisht I had of been there," [The Misfit] 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." His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. (136)

Here it really does sound as if The Misfit does want help – he wishes he'd "been there" with Jesus. In other words, he wishes he had real faith, because he doesn't want to be the way he is. That said, the question is whether The Misfit, as he says this, actually has the beginnings of faith, or whether this is just a wish. The Misfit also looks uniquely vulnerable at this moment, and it's here that the grandmother's head clears, presumably because she sees that vulnerability.

[The Misfit:] "My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!"' (99)

Here we have an important insight into The Misfit's personality: he's curious. He's the kind of guy who asks The Big Questions. It's the first suggestion we get that The Misfit may act the way he does because he's thought about things. Viewed in this light, he's not just a thoughtless killer. What he's thought about, rather seriously as we'll see, is religion.

"I was a gospel singer for a while," The Misfit said. "I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet…" (109)

That The Misfit was a gospel singer gives some background to his past relationship to religion. He'll also mention that his father was a member of a Baptist Church. Perhaps more important, though, is all the other things The Misfit has been. This seems to show a deep restlessness on his part. It's as if he's found nothing to be satisfied with, and is either still looking for something or has given up looking altogether.

"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. 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. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. (134)

The Misfit has done a lot of thinking about Jesus, and in his own way, seems to take Jesus much more seriously than the grandmother does. Everything for The Misfit boils down to whether or not Jesus was really God. If he was, then The Misfit thinks it's obvious what one should do with one's life (i.e., follow Jesus). If Jesus wasn't God, there's no point to life at all. According to The Misfit, there is nothing to do in that case, except take pleasure in destruction. The Misfit has chosen the latter option, because he doesn't actually believe in God. Though it almost sounds as if he wants to believe, and is acting out of anger because he can't do so.

The Grandmother

[The grandmother] saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. (136)

The grandmother's "moment of grace" and The Misfit's response. We've got a lot to say about this elsewhere (check out "What's Up with the Ending") because it's the central moment of the story. Is this an actual transformation in the grandmother, a product of delusion, or a last attempt at manipulation? How you see it will also influence how you see The Misfit's reaction. Any reading, though, has to make sense of the violence of the reaction. It's as if at this moment he's encountered something very threatening, completely alien to himself, as in the "snake bite" image. What's either revealing or ironic about that image is that the snake to which the grandmother is compared is a creature often associated with evil or with being an "enemy of man" (as it is in the Bible story of Adam and Eve). Perhaps that's the way genuine good appears to genuine evil.

The grandmother noticed how thin his shoulder blades were just behind his hat because she was standing up looking down on him. "Do you ever pray?" she asked.
[The Misfit] shook his head. All she saw was the black hat wiggle between his shoulder blades. "Nome," he said. (106-107)

The grandmother is the first person who turns the conversation to religious territory. This transition seems a bit out of nowhere – it's the first time religion's come up in the story – and is the first inkling we get of religion on the grandmother's part. This random introduction to religion makes the grandmother's later suggestions to pray seem superficial. Nothing else in the story has led us to think that religion is an important part of her life, and her own values have more to do with being "decent" by society's standards than with religion. It's also interesting that the grandmother is standing above The Misfit and looking down on him when she begins this conversation. It's as if she's "speaking down" to him from the perspective of her own self-righteousness.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky. (137)

This last description of the grandmother does seem strangely hopeful. She's smiling, and though she's lying in a bloody heap on the ground, her legs are described as "like a child's," as if in this last moment she's regained the innocence of a child (although the two actual children in the book didn't exactly have a whole lot of that). This could suggest that the moment of grace is in fact real; the grandmother has, in some way, "resolved" her life happily. Though if you don't buy that, you could also say that she died with a faked smile on her lips.

There was nothing around her but woods. [The grandmother] wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing. (128)

The grandmother appears to be in a state of shock at this point, which is understandable. She has, after all, already lost her son and grandson, her daughter-in-law, June Star, and the baby. Why does she bring up the question of Jesus? Does she use religion to get The Misfit to spare her? Or is she calling to Jesus in shock, or perhaps cursing him for letting all of this happen? That "it sounded as if she might be cursing" suggests there's something inauthentic about her words, either because it's just a ploy, or because she doesn't believe what she's saying.

"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her. (135)

The grandmother is humbled here. She both sinks down – remember that before she was standing above The Misfit – and appears to lose her own confidence in Jesus. Is this wholly because of the trauma what's just happened to her, as in "How could God let this happen?" Or does it maybe also indicate that her faith was never that strong to begin with? At this point, ironically, The Misfit seems to have more faith than she does.

"If you would pray," the old lady said, "Jesus would help you."

"That's right," The Misfit said.

"Well then, why don't you pray?" she asked trembling with delight suddenly.

"I don't want no hep," he said. "I'm doing all right by myself." (120-121)

The grandmother attempts to convince The Misfit to pray, presumably in the hopes that he'll spare her. She probably "trembles with delight" because his apparent agreement that Jesus would help him gives her hope that she can win out in the end. The Misfit doesn't pray, because he doesn't want any help. What's interesting about this claim is that it goes against many of the other things he says. At moments The Misfit seems to be content with his life of "meanness." At others, however, it seems like he wants something else, or is genuinely dissatisfied with his life and with the way he is.