The Misfit's Motivation
The Misfit’s Motivation
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead… If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” (374)
This quote offers several clues about the religious views of The Misfit, a character in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” who has a complicated and unclear relationship with God. The Misfit thinks that if Jesus really was the son of God, then the only thing that matters is to follow Him. As a serial murderer, he has clearly not followed the word of God and is thus not a believer. At first The Misfit’s crimes suggest that he embraces the second part of his own philosophy: doing meanness to others for pleasure because God doesn’t exist. However, he does not gain pleasure from killing the grandmother and her family. In fact, after The Misfit kills the grandmother he becomes emotional and appears to regret what he’s done. This reaction puts The Misfit in a kind of middle ground; he lives the life of a faithless, evil person, but he is unsatisfied with this life. Stranger still, as The Misfit kills innocent people and denies God he talks at length about the importance of punishment and justice. He gets no pleasure from his crimes and he thinks they should be punished, yet he still commits them. The Misfit’s actions don’t make sense, unless he actually wants to be punished. The Misfit doubts God because he is unable to believe that God could allow the innocent to be punished while showing mercy on those who deserve retribution, yet his life experiences have shown him that these things happen. The murders The Misfit commits could be his way of testing God. The Misfit wants God to punish him, because if he is punished, then it will prove to him that there is a sense of justice in the world, leaving The Misfit with no reason to doubt his faith.
There are several parts of the story that suggest The Misfit doesn’t actually take pleasure in his crimes. When The Misfit first meets the family he mentions that children make him nervous. He is a strong, armed man; they pose no actual physical threat to him. However, because children are innocents, they could pose a threat to his conscience. The children make him nervous because he knows he will be taking an innocent life. Later, after The Misfit has shot the grandmother, the narrator reveals The Misfit’s response to his actions: “The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless looking” (375). This sentence makes it sound like The Misfit has been crying, or is at least greatly troubled. The phrase “defenseless looking” shows that he is in a vulnerable, emotional state. At the end of the story his accomplice Bobby Lee jokes about the grandmother’s death, but The Misfit doesn’t join in on the fun. He tells Bobby Lee to shut up and says, “It’s no real pleasure in life” (375). This quote shows that The Misfit doesn’t take pleasure in his acts of meanness. The Misfit is not a hardened criminal that doesn’t care about anyone. He shows clear regret and vulnerability, so his actions obviously do matter to him. The Misfit must have another reason for his murders besides pleasure.
The Misfit offers several clues that he is not actually a Godless man but a former believer that is trying to recover his faith. Towards the beginning of the conversation The Misfit gives the grandmother a history of his life, and the first thing he says is that he used to be a gospel singer. Because he started his life singing praises to God, it seems likely that he used to be a man of faith. Later he talks about Jesus raising the dead, and at first he criticizes Jesus by accusing him of throwing everything off balance. However, he soon changes his complaint; instead of blaming Jesus, The Misfit talks about how it’s unfair that he didn’t get to see Jesus do the things he did. He’s upset because he doesn’t have proof of God.
“I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had been I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. (374-375)
This quote strongly suggests that The Misfit wants to believe in God. His voice even becomes high and cracked as he speaks. This is the way a person talks when discussing something emotionally charged, something that hurts to talk about. He says that if he could just know God is real, he wouldn’t be like he is now. He blames God for not giving him proof and for making him doubt by being an unfair and unjust God.
The Misfit feels that God has been unfair by punishing those that don’t deserve it and failing to punish those that do. This comes up when The Misfit talks about his first imprisonment, an imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit and the event that first led him to question his faith. After he tells the grandmother about this unfairness she asks him to pray, but he refuses, saying, “You can do one thing or another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it” (373). The Misfit thinks that no one is protecting the innocent, that even if a person lives a good life he will still find misfortune. The Misfit doesn’t want to pray because his experiences have shown him that the world is unfair, and he is unable to believe in a God that would allow such unfairness. Later, The Misfit not only talks about people receiving unjust punishments, but also about evil people who never get what they deserve: “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?” He is upset because people don’t receive a fair punishment. He includes himself in this group, saying that he can’t make everything he’s done wrong match up with his punishment. This phrase is ambiguous. It could mean that The Misfit feels life has given him a raw deal, or it could mean that the murders he committed after he escaped from his first prison sentence deserve to be punished. Because The Misfit believes so strongly in fairness, it would make sense that he would recognize that his crimes deserve to be punished.
The Misfit wants to believe in God. The only thing that is stopping him is the unfairness of the world. If he could find a way to prove that the world actually is fair after all, he would be able to restore his faith. One way to test the fairness of the world is to do something completely heinous, something no just God could show mercy upon. Murder is this action. If there is a God, The Misfit knows he will eventually be punished. Even if murder is something he regrets, something that tears him up inside, it is, ironically, the only way he can restore his faith in God.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Norton Introduction to Literature.
Short 9th edition. Editor Alison Booth. New York: Norton, 2006: 364-375
Anonymous on February 13, 2015:
Currently doing an essay on the character and this really helps! Great way to explain and great evidence to back it up.
anonymous on October 04, 2010:
this is soooo good! i love it
Bez on May 13, 2010:
Nice analysis, although there is little explicit evidence to suggest that the Misfit is using murder as a means of testing God or Jesus.
anonymous on March 24, 2010:
this is an excellent essay. it really helped me understand this better. Thanks!