This intensely ironic story investigates with horrifying effect what happens when one of the worst anxieties of modern life, the threat of sudden violence at the hands of an unknown assailant, becomes a reality. Because such occurrences are relatively rare, the characters and the reader are lulled into a false security that such a thing will never happen to them. In addition, by voicing anxiety about encountering a psychopathic killer, the grandmother makes such an encounter seem all the more unlikely.
From Flannery O’Connor’s point of view, the grandmother’s encounter with The Misfit presents her with the supreme test and the supreme opportunity that every human being must face: the moment of death. Her death, moreover, comes through the agency of an apparently gratuitous and incomprehensible evil. Her ability to accept such a death is therefore the supreme test of her faith. That the grandmother at the moment of death truly embraces the Christian mystery is her great triumph. Although, in Christian terms, such a moment is always a gift, it is one for which the recipient has prepared throughout her life. The grandmother’s most essential attribute is therefore not her meddlesomeness or her smugness, of which there has been considerable evidence throughout the story, but her maternal compassion and concern, and it is through this maternal love that she has her moment of revelation. As O’Connor once described it, “she realizes . . . that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far.” The action of grace is not confined altogether to the grandmother but begins to undermine The Misfit’s own egotism and sadism. Insisting on the possibility of redemption for even this most evil of her characters, O’Connor expressed the hope that “the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.” In O’Connor’s own words, this story, like all of her fiction, “takes its character from a reasonable use of the unreasonable, though the reasonableness of my use of it may not always be apparent. . . . Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate.”