The Misfit, from Flannery O'Connor's short story titled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, seems to me to be a very realistic character. Although the reader's first impression of him is very much a stereotype, O'Connor causes his character to be the only rounded one among a group of flat, one-dimensional people. His reality is paradoxically heightened further by the predictable plot she puts him into. This definitely reflects on the symbolism that O'Connor is using within the story.
The story begins with a family packing for a trip to Florida. O'Connor quickly reveals each of the members of this family as flat and almost comedic: the two children, June Star and John Wesley, are spoiled brats. Bailey is the typical father of a slightly dysfunctional family -- he has no real power, as all of his decisions are forced by the other members of the family. Bailey's wife, always with their baby, is so flat and irrelevant that she is never given a name. The grandmother is slightly more rounded than the other characters, but even she boils down to a nagging old woman who uses manipulation instead of affection to influence her family.
The plot of the story is quickly revealed through heavy foreshadowing. Within the first paragraph, the grandmother -- who wants to go to Tennessee -- warns against going to Florida. "'Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people,'" she berates Bailey. "'Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it.'" (O'Connor 328) Partway into the trip, the grandmother brings up the Misfit again while at a small diner, making it obvious through repetition that some type of encounter is going to occur with the Misfit.
Soon after the family leaves the diner, the grandmother remembers a house she once visited which she believes to be in the area. She fails to persuade Bailey to visit the house, so she mentions a "secret panel" to the children, who whine and complain until Bailey gives in. He turns onto a rarely traveled dirt road according to the grandmother's directions, heightening the expectation of an encounter with the Misfit.
The story so far could have been taken from a script of The Simpsons, and the next plot twist is no different. The grandmother realizes that she has remembered wrong and the house she is reminiscing about exists in Tennessee, not Georgia. In surprise, she raises her feet, allowing her stowed-away cat to escape from its basket. The cat attacks Bailey, who swerves off the road and into a ditch. The car flips several times, causing people to be thrown out onto the ground and shaken up, but -- miraculously -- no one is badly hurt. As they sit by the side of the unused dirt road, an old car pulls up with none other than the Misfit and his cronies, Bobby Lee and Hiram.
By this point in the reading, I was deeply disappointed about the story. Everything had occurred predictably, boringly, and improbably. I was confused as to why this short story had been assigned in a college-level English class -- the characters were shallow and the plot was even more so. But as I finished the story, I realized why O'Connor had written it in such a way. As she herself writes, "I have to make the reader feel . . . that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal." (O'Connor 356) She is using this formulaic scenario -- this predictable, distorted exaggeration -- as a foil for the only true character within the story: the Misfit.
The Misfit isn't a stereotypical escaped serial killer. He's middle-aged, and his hair is graying; he's soft-spoken, polite, and philosophical. There is no mistaking, though, that he IS a killer -- as he and the grandmother debate goodness and culpability, his thugs lead off the rest of the family to be killed. When the grandmother finally breaks through his emotional shield, and her own pettiness, he pulls away and murders her. This combination of diverse ideas within the character of the Misfit causes him to be rounded, unlike any other in the story.
O'Connor intends A Good Man Is Hard to Find to be the study of a deeply conflicted character. The Misfit wants on one level to be good, or to be known as good, but he can't rationalize away or separate himself from his actions. At the same time as he's executing a family, he's trying to explain why he's only doing what is necessary. He also seems to feel some type of connection with the grandmother, as if they're both basically of the same substance, however dissimilar their lives have been.
After reading through the short story a few times, I realized that the Misfit is meant to symbolize Satan. His characterization as a misfit, murderer, deceiver and escaped convict are just the most obvious similarities between the two beings. Both his revelations about himself and his obsession with Jesus Christ bear out this comparison,.
Just about everything the Misfit says takes on an eerie double meaning if a background in traditional ideas about the Devil is known: he talks about how he was a "different breed of dog" from his siblings. (O'Connor 336) While talking about his past, he says "'I was a gospel singer for a while . . . I been most everything. Been in the arm service . . . been an undertaker . . . been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet . . . I even seen a woman flogged.'" (O'Connor 336) He talks about how he was put into solitary confinement for something to which he won't admit. When pressured by the grandmother to pray, he says, "I don't want no hep . . . I'm doing all right by myself."
After realizing that the Misfit is symbolic of Satan, his speeches about Jesus take on greater significance. The Misfit attempts to set himself as equivalent to Jesus, but his comparison fails, both within the context of the story and without: "It was the same with [Jesus] 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." (O'Connor 338) He also says multiple times that "Jesus thown everything off balance." (O'Connor 338) His oversimplification of possible reactions to Christ reminds me somewhat of the serpent's deceit in the garden of Eden: "If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you've got left the best way you can -- by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him." (O'Connor 338)
This connection between the Misfit and the grandmother also takes on new meaning, if we extend the symbolism somewhat and apply the role of all humanity to the dysfunctional family. We are meant to see that no matter how we hold ourselves -- no matter how we lie or rationalize or ignore our true actions -- in some basic quality there is no difference between Satan and ourselves other than degree of actions. The grandmother may be no murderer or convict, but her pettiness and manipulation prove she is, inherently, the Misfit. And, O'Connor says, the same goes for all of us.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.
O'Connor, Flannery. "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Meyer 328-339.
O'Connor, Flannery. "O'Connor on the Use of Exaggeration and Distortion (From 'Writing Short Stories')". Meyer 356.