Good Man Cover

Good Man Cover

Flannery O’Connor once referred to the Misfit as “a prophet gone wrong” (Mystery and Manners, 101). She made it clear in her speeches and letters that the Misfit is indeed a wicked man and neither a Christ figure as some readers suggested nor the grandmother’s moral superior as other readers suggested. Nevertheless, it is the Misfit who speaks the truth regarding Jesus. That moment of truth is a turning point for the grandmother, who has carefully insulated herself from the hard truths of the gospel. But it is also, as O’Connor herself suggested, a key moment for all of her fiction. She wrote to her friend Cecil Dawkins, “As the Misfit said, ‘He thrown everything off balance and it’s nothing for you to do but follow Him or find some meanness.’ That is the fulcrum that lifts my particular stories.”
The Misfit chose nihilism, but at least he understood the choice. And by making the choice clear to the grandmother, he made it possible for her to choose as well. A commenter on a previous post was troubled by the fact that the Misfit is so lacking in moral authority, and yet he says things that O’Connor expects us to take seriously. Well, sure. It’s the great irony of the story, that this satanic figure, this murderer, is the one who makes grace accessible to the Bible Belt grandmother. It is a comic turn, entirely unexpected, even impossible, like the moron Dogberry saving the day in “Much Ado,” or the beaten-down Mr. Micawber bringing Uriah Heep to justice in David Copperfield, or Aslan defeating death by dying himself. O’Connor spoke of her stories as comedies; the devil would seem to carry the day, but the joke ends up being on him. She once wrote to a friend, “In general the Devil can always be a subject for my kind of comedy one way or another. I suppose this is because he is always accomplishing ends other than his own” (The Habit of Being, 367).

Bonus O’Connor quotation: I have always thought of the Misfit as being not a “real” character so much as a symbol or stand-in for the devil himself. I was surprised, therefore, when I ran across this statement from O’Connor, which demonstrates how wrong my view of the Misfit had been:

I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story. (Mystery and Manners, 112-113)

  • Amy L
    11:28 AM, 7 June 2012

    Thanks for that “bonus” quote.  If this Misfit were the devil, then in that last chunk of the story, which Rebecca just parsed through so nicely, he wouldn’t show any kind of realization or remorse.  If he’s “a prophet gone wrong,” then there’s a sense of hope for him, slim though it may be. 
    He chose nihilism and tried to follow it as fully as he could.  In the moment with the grandmother, he realized that he might have made the wrong choice. 

  • Rebecca Reynolds
    1:32 PM, 7 June 2012

    Wow. I missed this yesterday. ‘Such a clarifying post.

  • Caleb
    1:26 AM, 8 June 2012

    Nihilism is what I think of with the Misfit. He’s taken things to their logical conclusions. The murders are meaningless, as is any apparent pleasure in them. He’s simply doing what he has to do at this point.
    I can remember what I thought of the first time I read this story. I didn’t connect the grandmother’s final scene with her finally coming to terms with truth. I actually thought her reaching out for the Misfit was simply a final act of manipulation, one that didn’t work. I never grasped (till now) that she was in reality coming to terms with life and truth. I never realized it was a deathbed conversion moment, so thanks for that. Makes sense.

    I read all the stories consecutively a few years ago. I didn’t “get” them fully and I knew that then. I also knew, in some strange and unexplainable way, that they were important and that I hoped to understand them more fully someday.

  • thankful
    1:47 PM, 8 June 2012

    To label the Misfit as Satanic is misleading; he is fallen humanity, not fallen angelic being. Both the Misfit and the Grandmother represent each of us. We are all either the Prodigal Son (Misfit) or the Elder Brother (Grandmother) in Jesus’ parable at different points in our journey – that is the tendency of Fallen Humankind (as described so beautifully by Paul in Romans 7). Neither character is a good “man”. They are both called by the Father to come home – based on His goodness and the merits of Christ, not their own goodness or merits. I thank the Lord that grace comes to such as us – Misfits and Grandmothers alike.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      7:36 PM, 8 June 2012

      Point taken, thankful. I think I could still make a case for the adjective “satanic,” but either way your observations re: his humanness and lostness–his Prodigal Son-ness–are extremely relevant and interesting and helpful.

  • Loren Warnemuende
    7:29 PM, 8 June 2012

     I never would have thought of the Misfit as a personification of evil; he really is human. But without the grandmother’s realization, “You’re one of my own children!” and his reaction, that wouldn’t be evident. Her realization was humbling to me, and I love how Christ’s love suddenly shines through her. It’s so easy to see nasty people and only focus on how far I can get away from them, rather than seeing them as Christ does–lost, alone, miserable. Even if my touch results in a snake bite or worse, isn’t it worth letting Christ reach out through me? I don’t know if I could do that. But the grandmother’s touch is not premeditated, which strikes me as even more evidence of her conversion. It’s like times when I know the Holy Spirit has been working in me and I’m not doing something in my own strength.
    And the Misfit is struck, and who knows what the long-term effect will be.

  • Luke W
    4:01 AM, 9 June 2012

    As I’ve thought about this story, particularly the grandmother vs. the Misfit, I see that I personally struggle against both tendencies. I grew up in the grandmother’s system and became judgmental. As I’ve worked to shed that stuff, I’ve gravitated toward the Misfit’s philosophy of cynicism. Clearly, the story isn’t presenting an either/or choice between the grandmother’s approach or the Misfit’s — both have avoided grace. And I can see that it’s ridiculous to ask, “well, should I be more like the grandmother or the Misfit?” But I fight to find the path between “Pharisee who knows the truth and shuns the unrepentant” and “Realist who’s too smart to drink the koolaid on Jesus.”

  • yankeegospelgirl
    9:01 PM, 12 June 2012

    Mr. Micawber??? Oh come on. Mr. Micawber is beaten-down to be sure, but he’s a decent bloke we’re cheering for all the way. My favorite character in the whole novel. Hardly an unexpected victory for the devil.
    Your quotes from O’Connor are interesting and confirm what I’ve always felt, that at heart she was really a satirist. Her work is blackly funny, and I think your comparison to the Coen Brothers is apt. But that’s why I have difficulty finding much that’s redemptive in her work—it’s done well for what it is, which is satire. But… it’s still satire.

    • yankeegospelgirl
      9:07 PM, 12 June 2012

       I guess your point was mainly just to name examples of unexpected twists. But then that category is so broad that there doesn’t seem much point to make comparisons. You could end up comparing the Misfit to Aslan or something… oh wait…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get a Quote