Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story she called A Good Man is Hard to Find. It’s the story about a not so good grandmother who was so persnickety that she purposely over-dressed for a long car ride ‘in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.’ One is lead to question whether or not if she failed to over-dress if the mistake might be made as to her sexual identity. Given her personality in the story, I think that is exactly the conclusion one might come to.
As the story goes on, more of her overbearing personality is revealed to the reader. She likes to have her way and has this uncanny way of needling people until she gets her way. She has an opinion about everything and everyone. “The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now.” Of course there is no way to tell whether or not such a statement is true, but that’s not the point. She is right; there is no discussion.
Her ways eventually cost the family dearly. The car is wrecked. Much suffering ensues. The grandmother finally finds herself completely alone and at the mercy of The Misfit who is carrying on a rather theological conversation with her as he holds her at gunpoint. (The grandmother, of course, finds herself completely undone at this point and is barely coherent.) She had been, for several minutes, carrying on this conversation in a vain attempt to avoid the inevitable death she was staring at in the Misfit’s gun. She was reduced to begging for her life, offering money, and praying to someone. The final commentary on her life is spoken by The Misfit himself and reminds us just how pathetic the grandmother was, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
What troubled me about this story is not what you and I might call ‘senseless’ violence, but rather the senseless ignorance of the grandmother. She was manipulative, a liar, conniving, self-centered, judgmental, and concerned with very little but herself. Even her grandchildren didn’t seem to care for her. When she tries to persuade the family to go to Tennessee instead of Florida, her grandson, John Wesley remarks, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” to which her granddaughter, June Star wryly responds, “She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day…She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks. Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.” Meddling. Annoying. Nosy. And it is all done with an innocence that sickens the reader.
It wasn’t until she was facing inevitable death, staring down the very loaded barrel of a gun, that she finally has an epiphany and realizes what she is or what she had become.
What irritated me about this story is not that I know anyone like The Misfit. Frankly, I think it is altogether too easy to identify The Misfit or Misfits; although, to be sure, he has a far more theological sense about him than most. Everyone in the world makes sport of identifying The Misfit. Who can’t find one? What irritated me is that I know someone like the grandmother and it is much more difficult to spot her character-so subtle, so ‘innocent’: “Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady.” No. Insidious, reckless evil (or ‘bad’) is not always so clearly defined and easy to spot. Sometimes it wears purple flowers that dangle off the neckline trimmed with lace. And yet, I see this person every single time I stare down the barrel of Calvary.
And I don’t want to find the grandmother. Grandmothers aren’t The Misfit. Misfits are The Misfit. This is why identifying bad is so difficult, so risky, and so unavoidably other-oriented. Who wants to see that in the self? And yet I am that grandmother. I know it, which is why I appreciate God’s grace more and more and more with each passing moment.
“What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 7:24-25)