For those doing all right by themselves like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Christ’s Resurrection from the dead throws everything off balance because it introduces something entirely new. To believe the testimony of the Gospels opens avenues to happiness that are entirely discomfiting to the complacency of mere identity.
Flannery O’Connor had a way of compressing whole complexes of modern thought into single characters, one of the most memorable of whom was The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” This escapee from the penitentiary in Georgia finds the family of the Grandmother next to their overturned car on an isolated country road and murders them all. Before he shoots the Grandmother, The Misfit has a memorable theological exchange with her as she bargains with him for her life:
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked, trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no hep,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.”
It’s wonderfully funny in its grim way, like so much of O’Connor’s writing. “I’m doing all right by myself.” The modern world in its technological and medical prowess stands firmly behind The Misfit. If we don’t need help, then the idea of “salvation” becomes a cultural curiosity—an atavistic mindset one might still find in religious cults, but certainly not something at the very root of human existence.
For his part, The Misfit has a keener spiritual attunement than most: he knows that he could pray and be helped, but he balks at the obvious insult to his self-sufficiency. One thing torments him, however. He knows that “doing all right” does not include dominion over death. Sophocles’ chorus in Antigone (which our students read as freshmen) makes the same essential point in the celebrated “Ode to Man.” The chorus praises all the accomplishments of human beings, with one caveat: “from every wind / [Man] has made himself secure—from all but one: / In the late wind of death he cannot stand.”
In his conversation with the Grandmother, The Misfit loses his equanimity on the question of whether Jesus raised the dead. Why? Because he sees—again, more keenly than most—that such power would change everything.
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead.” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. 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,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
The Misfit cannot gain access to Jesus’ power over death without giving up his stance of self-sufficiency. He resents having to take somebody else’s word for Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter, but most of all for Easter itself: “’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 of been there I would’ve known. Listen, lady,’ he said in a high voice, ‘if I had of been there I would’ve known, and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’”
The Misfit’s essential problem appears to echo Thomas’s in John 20—that is, having to see for himself. Christ appears to Thomas, who cries, “My Lord and my God!” He does not appear to The Misfit, but he leaves him a clear message: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Yet this is precisely the belief The Misfit will not grant. In order to believe a report that he could not personally verify, he would have to loosen his own intellectual grip and open his hand to the gift. He should have been there to see for himself, because then he would have had empirical evidence instead of having to trust somebody else. Not being there robs him in the most intimate way, he thinks, of the greatest good, of immortality. His absence cuts him off from the resurrection of the dead. Incapable of simple faith, he acts instead from a motive of metaphysical vengeance by wielding upon others the death and misery that he considers to have been inflicted upon him. “No pleasure but meanness,” he says, echoing what Milton’s Satan says: “Evil, be thou my good.”
Graham Greene, an older contemporary of O’Connor’s, has an insight into the dynamics of selfhood and salvation that The Misfit would recognize. In The End of the Affair, Greene’s narrator writes that “In misery, we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism; this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” Yes and no, we want to say. Yes, we hang on to misery because it is ours, but do we really “lose our identity” in happiness, especially paradisal joy?
The Misfit would certainly say so. He would say that miserable or not, selfhood exists in a balance of cause and effect. For those doing all right by themselves, Christ’s Resurrection from the dead throws everything off balance because it introduces something entirely new. Yes, and with continuing acuity, The Misfit sees that he has been the unwilling agent of the Grandmother’s salvation: “‘She would have been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” He knows that she will see the Resurrection, the miracle of miracles that overturns—suspends, remakes—the laws of causation and the powers of the earth and cancels their hold.
To believe the testimony of the Gospels opens avenues to happiness that are entirely discomfiting to the complacency of mere identity. In these days of Easter, there is something compelling in what The Misfit so clearly sees, both for himself and for us: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him.”
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “The Resurrection” (1459) by Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.