Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In remarks prefatory to a public reading of this story, O’Connor stated that “what makes a story work . . . is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.” This action, which is “both totally right and totally unexpected,” must operate “on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.” O’Connor, anticipating a non-Catholic audience essentially hostile to her religious and philosophical position, manages to dramatize her views within the story: She shows a human being change and creates an effective scene in which God’s grace intervenes in the natural world. Thus, O’Connor makes it possible for the reader to focus on what she sees as crucial: “In this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.”

A balance for the seriousness, even sublimity, of this moment of grace is the black humor of the dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother, which precedes the grandmother’s gesture. Much of this humor derives from the regional particularities of southern speech, which O’Connor’s sharp ear accurately registers. When the grandmother urges The Misfit to seek God’s help, he replies, “I don’t want no hep, I’m doing all right by myself.” Another source of humor is the bizarre logic of The Misfit’s outlook on the world: “I call myself The Misfit . . . because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Finally, there is the sardonic understatement of The Misfit himself, who declines the grandmother’s offer of money, noting, “Lady, . . . there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.”

A brilliant mixture of horror and humor, compassion and tough-mindedness, this story epitomizes O’Connor’s greatest powers as a writer. Her bedrock of belief in the Roman Catholic faith made it possible for O’Connor to view that most horrifying representative of humankind, the serial killer, with sympathy and hope. Her tough, critical intelligence made her sensitive to the petty hypocrisy and smugness that sometimes accompany religious faith, but she was also able to see that these are at worst venial sins. It was this clear perspective that enabled O’Connor to note “that the old lady lacked comprehension, but that she had a good heart.” Thus, the reader may observe about O’Connor what O’Connor observed about the southerner: She “is usually tolerant of those weaknesses that proceed from innocence, and . . . knows that a taste for self-preservation can be readily combined with the missionary spirit.”