When Bailey crashes the car, the family finds themselves on a dirt road surrounded by woods. This setting, which serves as the location of their shocking deaths as well as the grandmother’s epiphany, symbolizes the unknown and the disorder that it invites. The woods are a place where the structure and values of the family’s world in Atlanta do not exist, making it an apt place for the major shifts in the story to occur. O’Connor emphasizes the inherent lawlessness of the unfamiliar location through both the grandmother’s inability to impose her belief system onto The Misfit and his brutal murder of all six family members. This symbolic lack of order invites the possibility for change, and in the end, the grandmother and The Misfit do find their worldviews altered by their chance meeting in the woods.
At the same time that the woods represent a freedom from the structure of every day life, the darkness of this setting highlights the severe consequences that accompany such disorder. O’Connor first describes the woods surrounding the family as “tall and dark and deep” before later explaining that “the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” The negative connotations of these lines highlight the frightening nature of the unknown and the dark deeds that must occur there in order for change to be possible. By drawing on the symbolism of this setting, O’Connor can foreshadow the way in which the shocking murder of her family brings the grandmother to a moment of epiphany.
The Grandmother’s Hat
The grandmother’s hat, which she wears for the sole purpose of showing that she is a lady, represents her misguided moral code. When the grandmother prepares for the car trip with the family, she dresses up to be prepared for a car accident so that anyone seeing her dead body would know that she’d been a lady. The grandmother seems to be entirely unconcerned with the fact that she’s dead in this scenario and oblivious to the fact that other people—including her three grandchildren—would have probably died as well. For the grandmother, the only thing that matters is her standing as a lady, a ridiculous concern that reveals her selfishness and flimsy moral conviction. When the grandmother does become involved in a car accident, the hat—like her moral convictions—falls apart. After she is thrown from the car and the family is facing the Misfit, the brim of the hat falls off. She drops the broken hat as her self-conception as a lady dissolves.