Much of the discussion between the Grandmother and the Misfit concerns ideas of punishment and forgiveness. A vision of the world is presented in the Misfit’s words: “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?” A fundamental question in Flannery O’Connor’s Christian worldview is the problem of evil: why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?
We are given no tidy answers, but O’Connor clearly presents a world in which unjust or at least seemingly-unjust punishment is the norm. The Misfit is unable to remember what he was even first put in prison for—it may have been an unjust punishment, for all we know. The Grandmother, for her own part, ends up causing the death of her entirely family simply by mentioning that she recognizes the Misfit. Even though this is clearly a mistake, the resulting suffering far outweighs the “crime.” Here O’Connor shows the unflinching nature of her worldview—Christian faith and action is all-important, but it is never easy. Even as the Grandmother forgives the Misfit for all his misdeeds, and even for intending to kill her, she gains nothing but a fleeting moment of grace, and she is killed anyway.
At the story’s end, however, we see that that this forgiveness might mean something to the Misfit. Earlier in the conversation he claimed the only reasonable thing to do in an absurd world was to enjoy one’s days causing violence and mayhem, but after The Grandmother reaches out and insists that he still must be a good person, The Misfit chastises his henchman for suggesting that there was “pleasure” in the murders. The Misfit has, in the smallest way, been changed by the redemptive power of her forgiveness. Each character suffers beyond what they may “deserve,” but that does not rob forgiveness of its value and power.
Punishment and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Punishment and Forgiveness Quotes in A Good Man is Hard to Find
“It’s not much farther,” the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner.
The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once.
The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on the top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearse-like automobile.
His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.
“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said. “I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet . . . I even seen a woman flogged.”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewhere along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive.”
“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.”
“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.”
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.
She saw the man’s face twisted closer 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. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.