The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. . . . “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. . . . “Just you read it. I wouldn’t like to take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it.”
At the beginning of the story, the grandmother uses a newspaper story of an escaped convict heading to Florida to try to convince her son, Bailey, to go to Tennessee. Whether she uses fear or guilt, her main goal stands as getting to Tennessee. However, when Bailey refuses to budge on altering the trip’s course, she willingly goes along, revealing that she never truly feared they’d run into the criminal known as The Misfit.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days[.]
The narrator reveals that despite her insistence the night before that she preferred not to go to Florida, the grandmother enthusiastically joins the trip. She sneaks her cat, Pitty Sing, into the car because she knows her son, Bailey, does not want her to bring the pet along. Bailey’s objections seem reasonable as the motel won’t like them bringing a pet, but the grandmother ignores both motel policy and her son’s preferences, deeming the cat’s needs, but really her own, more important.
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children’s mother still had on slacks, but . . . the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print.
The narrator describes the grandmother’s attire for the trip. Unlike the rest of the family members, who are wearing casual, comfortable clothing, she is dressed up. She wants anyone who sees her to recognize instantly that she, for one, is “a lady.” To her, being a lady requires outward signifiers such as gloves, a hat, and a sachet. Whether the grandmother actually is a lady and what that term truly means remains irrelevant and unclear. However, clearly the grandmother assumes that being seen as a lady will garner others’ respect.
“Wouldn’t that make a picture now?” she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved. . . .
“If I could paint, I’d paint that picture,” she said.
The grandmother admires the view of a small black boy standing half-naked in the doorway of a shack. She enjoys the image as a whole as an evocation of a bygone era, one that she looks back on fondly. She seems to fail to comprehend the reality of what she sees. Far from being angered by the injustice or sadness of the boy’s condition, she doesn’t even seem to think of the boy as human; she merely views him as a component of a landscape that pleases her.
The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.
The narrator reveals the grandmother’s first thoughts after the car accident. Prior to the accident, the family was taking a side trip on the grandmother’s insistence to visit a plantation she remembered. In fact, she lied about certain details of the house to get the children so interested in visiting that they pressured their father to go against his judgment. When the grandmother suddenly remembered that the plantation was located in a completely different state, she made a sound that startled her cat. She knows she played a role in causing the accident, but rather than confessing her mistake, her first thoughts focus on wanting to avoid blame.
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. “You’re The Misfit!” she said. “I recognized you at once!”
After their car accident, the family is approached by a car containing three men. One of them looks very familiar to the grandmother, but at first she doesn’t know why. Here, she blurts out her understanding the moment she recognizes one of the men to be The Misfit. Even though she knows exactly what he is capable of, she seems to believe that to name him will be to shame him, as she has tried to shame her granddaughter for being rude.
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.
Here, the grandmother tries to talk The Misfit out of whatever he plans to do to her and her family. His thinness inspires her initial thought to mention prayer. Perhaps his physical appearance provides her with a brief glimpse of The Misfit as a real person, a fellow child of god. Although this connection does not last, in the moment before her death, her understanding of The Misfit returns to her more strongly.
“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.
The Misfit feels unsure whether Jesus truly raised the dead, and he explains that this not knowing allows, even requires, that he behave the way he does. The grandmother could at this moment assert her faith in Jesus’s divinity and thus convince The Misfit to accept the possibility of salvation. Such a strong statement might even save her life. However, faced with The Misfit’s doubts, her own faith, clearly never strong, is called into question, seemingly just in order to please The Misfit.
His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She 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.
In the last moment of her life, the grandmother suddenly recognizes The Misfit as a fellow human being and child of god. She pities him and wants to comfort him. That this revelation comes to her at such a time allows her to die with peace in her heart. Ironically, The Misfit, while behaving like a monster, creates a situation in which the grandmother experiences one moment of true selflessness before she dies.