A Good Man Is Hard to Find

by: Flannery O’Connor

The Misfit

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 those people.

The grandmother uses news of a criminal called The Misfit’s escape from prison and intended destination to discourage her family from traveling to Florida. While readers do not learn what The Misfit did—the crime is literally unspeakable, at least by a lady like the grandmother—readers understand that there were multiple victims. In this scene, readers also learn that the criminal named himself The Misfit, implying that he clearly understands part of what drives him to a life of violent crime.

He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun.

The narrator describes the three men who approach the family after the car accident. The driver’s appearance seems unusual. Moments later readers learn that this odd-looking man is none other than The Misfit, the very criminal the grandmother named in her attempts to manipulate Bailey to take a side trip. The Misfit’s appearance certainly reflects his nickname’s meaning: He doesn’t appear to fit in with how other men his age should look.

The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

The narrator reveals the grandmother’s thoughts and feelings as she looks at the driver, allowing the reader to realize who he is before the grandmother does: The Misfit. Although the fact is never directly stated and never described, the reader realizes that the grandmother must have seen a picture of The Misfit in the newspaper. The reader’s understanding creates an immediate sense of apprehension. Readers know the family is in danger, especially if she reveals that she recognizes him.

“Lady,” the man said to the children’s mother, “would you mind telling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous.”

While the identity of the driver has not yet been revealed, readers learn that he does not like children. He may have spent little time around children, and he may prefer life to be quiet and orderly and children can be loud and unpredictable. Or perhaps children bring out feelings in him that make him uncomfortable, such as nostalgia, guilt, or unpleasant childhood memories. Whatever his reasons, openly disliking children marks the man as notably different from most people.

“Lady,” he said, “don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”

The Misfit attempts to comfort the grandmother after Bailey swears at her for openly identifying The Misfit and putting them all in danger. The Misfit feels bad for the grandmother. In fact, he understands that the entire family is under strain and that he is causing that strain. Although The Misfit intends to murder the family to protect himself, he seems to take no pleasure in his role, as though the job was imposed upon him and he has no choice.

When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold,” he said.

The grandmother repeatedly insists that The Misfit must be a “good man” because he comes from “nice people.” Whether she truly believes her own words remains unclear: She could simply be attempting to flatter him, or she may truly be trying to connect him to some kernel of inner goodness. The Misfit readily agrees that his parents were lovely people, and he appears to think of them fondly. However, he understands a fact that the grandmother does not: His parentage had no effect on whether he is a good person.

“Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. 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!’”

The Misfit recalls that his father understood that, unlike most people, The Misfit would want to understand life, to “know why it is.” The father seemed to have an inkling that such curiosity could be problematic for his son. As readers learn later, needing to understand life and by extension death and whether an afterlife exists provoked in The Misfit a spiritual crisis, which, in turn, inspired his criminal behavior.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a shirt on before you ladies,” he said, hunching his shoulders slightly. “We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better. We borrowed these from some folks we met,” he explained.

Even after his minions take Bailey and John Wesley away, The Misfit continues to behave politely toward the remaining family members. While apologizing for his appearance, he probably uses met as a euphemism for murdered in order not to upset the women further. The Misfit’s heinous acts, past, present, and future, seem completely separate in his consciousness from everyday polite behavior, suggesting his murderous impulses come from someplace other than hatred or lack of self-control.

“Turn to the right, it was a wall . . . Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling. Look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. . . . It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary 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.”

The Misfit describes how he felt in prison. He claims that he was originally imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit—his father’s murder. However, instead of just understanding his experience as a mistake made by people, he later reveals that he believes the injustice was god’s fault. He was being punished for something but unfairly. Obviously losing his freedom was a particularly horrible experience for The Misfit, and he seems to blame his later crimes on this injustice.

“[T]hey never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”

The Misfit explains that when he was first imprisoned, he believes his crime was never explained to him in a way that convinced him of his guilt. He continues to feel that his punishments have never fit his crimes, hence his self-chosen nickname. In hopes of making sure the punishment ultimately fits the crimes, The Misfit now “signs” his crimes—perhaps by publicly claiming them. In claiming to be a victim of injustice, he reveals his delusion.