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A Good Man Is Hard to Find
A Short Story by Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work, Publication
Themes
Climax
Narration
Foreshadowing
Imagery: Color and Light
Plot Structure as Metaphor
Irony: Dramatic, Situational
Similes
Family's Fate
John Wesley: Mini-Misfit
Pitty Sing: "Prison Escapee"
Apparel of Escapees
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Notes
Author Information
Cummings Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008

Type of Work and Publication Information

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a short story with opening comic episodes that belie and foreshadow a tragic ending. The story contains elements of southern Gothic, a fictional genre that vests its stories with foreboding and grotesquerie and replaces the romanticism of nineteenth century Gothic works with realism. However, southern Gothic retains the disturbing elements of earlier Gothic works, whether in the form of a deranged character, a forbidding forest, or a sense of impending doom. A southern-Gothic story may call up ghosts of the past, as Bailey’s mother does when she apparels herself in the finery of an Old South grande dame and when she persuades her family to visit a Civil War-era plantation with a secret panel. 

The story first appeared in 1953 in Avon Book of Modern Writing, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rahv. It was published again in 1955 in a collection entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories.

Setting

The story begins in Atlanta, Georgia, in the home of a family preparing for a trip to Florida. The action continues the next day as the family travels southeast on a highway and takes a side trip on a dirt road, where the car rolls over and lands in a ditch. The final scene takes place after the accident. The time is the mid-twentieth century. Landscape descriptions and the apparel of the characters indicate that the action occurs during the warmer months. 

Characters

Bailey: Atlanta resident with a wife and three children. He and his family are preparing for a trip to Florida. 
Bailey’s Mother: Main character, a talkative elderly woman unidentified by name who lives with Bailey and his family. She tries to persuade Bailey to go to Tennessee instead of Florida. 
Bailey’s wife: Quiet woman who spends her time feeding or holding her baby. She is unidentified by name. 
John Wesley, June Star: Bailey’s demanding, self-centered children. Their bratty behavior apparently results from a lack parental discipline.
The Baby: Male child of Bailey and his wife. He is unidentified by name.
Red Sammy Butts: Restaurant operator who agrees with Bailey’s mother that the world is in a state of decline.
Red Sammy’s Wife: Waitress in Red Sammy’s restaurant. She observes that not a single person in the world is trustworthy. 
The Misfit: Dangerous escaped prisoner who comes across Bailey and his family on a dirt road.
Hiram, Bobby Lee: Young men who escaped from prison with The Misfit. 
Edgar Atkins Teagarden: Man referred to in a story told by Bailey's mother. He would have been a good man to marry, she says, because he owned Coca-Cola stock and died rich. 
Pitty Sing: Pet cat of Bailey’s mother. 
Gray Monkey: Pet of Red Sammy Butts. The monkey is chained to a chinaberry tree.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
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Bailey’s mother wants to go to Tennessee, not Florida. In an attempt to change her son’s mind, she calls his attention to a newspaper article saying that a dangerous prison escapee called The Misfit is on his way to Florida.

“I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it," she says (paragraph 1).

Besides, she notes while turning to Bailey’s wife, the children have already been to Florida but have never been to east Tennessee. The daughter-in-law, who is feeding the baby, does not respond.
“If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” says John Wesley, eight (paragraph 3). Little June Star adds, “She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day"1 (paragraph 4).
The next day, the old woman sits in the back seat, between John Wesley and June Star, with her black valise. Hidden beneath it is a basket containing her cat, Pitty Sing.2 She does not want to leave the animal home alone for three days. But because Bailey does not like to check into a motel with a cat, she must hide it from him. Bailey’s wife is in the front seat holding the baby as her husband pulls out at 8:45. Although she is wearing slacks, her mother-in-law is dressed elegantly. “In case of an accident,” the narrator says, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (paragraph 12).

After cautioning Bailey against speeding, the old woman calls attention to points of interest along the way. John Wesley then urges his father to "go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at much" (paragraph 14).


"If I were a little boy," his grandmother says,"I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills." 


"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground, and Georgia is a lousy state too," John Wesley says (paragraph 16). June Star agrees.


The old woman holds the baby for a while, making faces at him. He reacts with a faint flicker of a smile. After John Wesley and June Star put down the comic books they have been reading, they eat lunch with their grandmother, who dines on a peanut-butter sandwich and an olive. She tells them a story about the time when a young man named Edgar Atkins Teagarden left her a watermelon on her front porch when he was wooing her. He had carved his initials into the rind. But, the old woman says, she never got it “because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials. E.A.T.!” (paragraph 26). She tells June Star that Teagarden would have been a good man to marry because he had good manners, bought Coca-Cola stock, and died rich.


The family stops at the Tower, a restaurant owned by Red Sammy Butts, and orders his specialty, barbecued sandwiches. Red Sammy sits down near them and complains about how untrustworthy people are but notes that he recently allowed two men to charge a gas bill.


“Now why did I do that?” (paragraph 36)


“Because you’re a good man,” the old woman says (paragraph 37). 


The waitress, Red Sammy's wife, brings the food and says, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust.” Looking at her husband, she adds, “And I don’t count nobody out of that . . ." (paragraph 39). 


The old woman asks Red Sammy whether he has heard about The Misfit, and his wife says she wouldn’t be surprised if he “attacked . . . this restaurant right here” (paragraph 41).


“A good man is hard to find,” Red Sammy says. “Everything is getting terrible” (paragraph 43).


The old woman says Europe is to blame for everything because of all the money it gets from the United States. Red Sammy agrees.

When the family is on the road again and approaching Toomsboro,3 the old woman recalls a plantation she visited in the vicinity. She wants to see it again. Realizing that Bailey won’t want to stop, she makes up a story to whet the family’s appetite, saying the house has a secret panel behind which all the family silver was hidden during Sherman’s march through Georgia.4 The story intrigues the children, so she asks Bailey to turn off so they can see the house. He refuses. John Wesley begins kicking the back of the driver’s seat, and June Star complains to her mother. The baby begins crying. Bailey gives in.

Following his mother’s directions, Bailey turns around and drives about a mile to a dirt road and swings onto it. After he goes a considerable distance, a “horrible thought” comes to his mother. It is so unsettling that she jerks upward, moving the valise and uncovering the basket. Pitty Sing jumps out and lands on Bailey’s shoulder. Bailey loses control of the car. His wife falls out her door, hugging the baby close. The children spill onto the floor, and the old woman ends up in the front beneath the dashboard. After turning over but righting itself, the car comes to rest in a deep ditch on the side of the road. Everyone is all right except Bailey’s wife, who has a cut on her face and a broken shoulder. The children are delighted with the idea that they have just been in an accident.


The old woman decides not to tell anyone about the “horrible thought” that precipitated the accident: She had remembered that the plantation she visited was in Tennessee, not Georgia. While they are all sitting in the ditch, she stands up and waves her arms as a black car resembling a hearse approaches. 


After it stops, two young men and an older man, the driver, get out. All are carrying guns. The old woman thinks she recognizes the driver, who is wearing glasses, but can’t place him. He greets them and tells one of the younger fellows, Hiram, to try to start the car. John Wesley asks why he is carrying a gun. The man tells his mother to have the children sit next to her because they “make me nervous.” June Star asks why he is telling them what to do. Then their grandmother remembers who he is.


“You’re The Misfit!” she says (paragraph 82). Apparently, she had seen his picture in the newspaper article about him or on a wanted poster.


He confirms that he is indeed The Misfit, seeming pleased with himself. But he says it would have been better for everyone if she hadn’t remembered his face. Bailey, apparently angry with her for letting on that she recognized him, says something to her that makes her cry. The Misfit tries to calm her down. 


“You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” she says (paragraph 86).


The Misfit says he hopes he won’t have to. The old woman then says he looks like a nice man who comes from a good family. He says his mother and father were among the finest people you could meet. Then he tells the other young man, Bobby Lee, to watch the children, again noting that they make him nervous.


Meanwhile, Hiram reports that it will take a half-hour to repair the car. The Misfit then orders Hiram and Bobby Lee to take Bailey and John Wesley into nearby woods because “the boys want to ask you something” (paragraph 94).


After the boys leave with Bailey and his son, the old lady tells The Misfit, “I just know you’re a good man. You’re not a bit common”  (paragraph 98). The Misfit says he is not a good man; his own father predicted that he would go wrong. He then apologizes for his shabby apparel, saying, “We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better” (paragraph 99).


The old woman tells him he could live an upright life if he really wanted to and nobody would be “chasing you all the time” (paragraph 104). Her words make him reflect. Two pistol shots ring out from the forest. 


“Bailey Boy!” the old woman says. 


The Misfit says he has done almost everything in his life. He was a gospel singer, a soldier, a husband (twice), an undertaker, a railroad worker, and a farmer. Moreover, he says, “[I] been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet, [and] even seen a woman flogged”  (paragraph 109). The old woman repeatedly tells him to pray, although he had already told her that he doesn’t pray. He says he can’t remember why he went to prison but acknowledges that a prison therapist had told him that he killed his father. "[B]ut I known that for a lie," the Misfit says, claiming that his father died of the flu in 1919 (paragraph 117). 


Hiram and Bobby Lee return from the woods. Hiram has Bailey’s shirt, which displays imprints of bright blue parrots. The Misfit puts the shirt on, then sends June Star, her mother, and the baby off to the woods with the boys. The Misfit and the old woman are now the only ones at the crash site. When she tells him that Christ will help him, he compares himself to Christ, saying he was wrongfully punished. He calls himself The Misfit, he says, because what he was supposed to have done wrong does not fit the severity of the punishment he received.


There is another pistol shot, and the old woman begs for her life, saying she’ll give The Misfit all her money. Two more pistol shots ring out. 

“Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” the woman cries (paragraph 133).

Christ raised the dead, The Misfit says. But He shouldn’t have done so, he says, because “He thown [thrown] everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow [throw] everything away 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 canby killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him” (paragraph 134).


The Misfit says he wishes he knew for certain whether Christ did or did not raise the dead. If he knew, he says, “I wouldn’t be like I am now.” He looks as if he is about to cry, and the old woman reaches out and touches him. The Misfit pulls back and shoots her in the chest three times. When Hiram and Bobby Lee return, they look down at the woman’s face, which is smiling. The Misfit tells them to dispose of her body in the woods, where the other bodies are lying. He picks up Pitty Sing.


“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee says. 


“She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” The Misfit says.


“Some fun!” Bobby Lee says.


The Misfit says, “Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life” (paragraphs 139-142).



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Themes

Salvation Through Faith

Anyone can become righteous and gain redemption, no matter the gravity of his or her wrongdoing, by humbly accepting Christ and placing faith in Him. When the old woman reaches out and touches The Misfit—calling him one of her own children—she achieves forgiveness for her sins—including her self-centered ways, her racism, and her lying—inasmuch as her selfless act signals her own contrite acceptance of Christ. Having received the grace of God, she becomes the “good man” who is hard to find. 

The Misfit, on the other hand, continues to reject Christ. However, the old woman’s insights and attempts to fire his faith have loosened the hold of his unbelief, thereby casting in doubt the validity of his raison d’Ítre—to kill for pleasure. As a result, he tells Bobby Lee at the end of the story, there’s “no real pleasure in life.”

Breakdown in Values

The behavior of the characters suggests that the values of the world are breaking down. John Wesley and June Star are hellions with sassy tongues, but their parents show no inclination to discipline them. Although Bailey’s mother realizes that the world has gone astray—“People are certainly not nice like they used to be” (paragraph 35)—she is ignorant of her own shortcomings: She nags, she lies, she primps herself excessively, and she uses offensive racist terms such as “nigger” and “pickaninny." Moreover, she observes that Edgar Atkins Teagarden would have been a good man to marry simply because he held Coca-Cola stock, and she begrudges the money America sends to Europe in the aftermath of World War II. 

On the latter point, Red Sammy, owner of the Tower restaurant, agrees with the old woman even though his appearance indicates that he can well afford to sacrifice for those in need: “His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal under his shirt” (paragraph 34). It is interesting to note that the nickelodeon in his restaurant requires a dime to play a song, not a nickel. (A nickelodeon, which played phonograph records on a turntable, was so named because it cost a nickel to play a song.) 

Red Sammy’s wife agrees with the old woman's observation that people aren't the way they used to be. In fact, she says, the world is so bad that everyone is false and faithless: 

"It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust,” she [Red Sammy's wife] said. “And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.” (paragraph 39)
The Misfit, of course, thinks the only worthwhile thing to do in life is to “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” (paragraph 134). His two young companions, who act as his cat’s paws, apparently believe as he does. 

Disbelief Breeds Wrongdoing

The Misfit rejects Christ as God because he lacks empirical evidence of His divinity and because he lacks faith in the testimony of the bible. If there is no God, The Misfit reasons, there is no moral order. Consequently, he believes that he may do whatever he pleases even commit murder. 

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Climax

The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" occurs when the old woman blurts out that she recognizes the driver of the black car as The Misfit. According to second definition, the climax occurs when the old woman reaches out and touches The Misfit, who then shoots her three times.

Narration

Flannery O'Connor presents the story in third-person point of view. Most of the time, the narrator reports the actions and conversations of the characters but not their thoughts. Such a narrative approach is called limited third-person point of view. However, in a few instances, she also reveals the characters' thoughts. This approach is called omniscient (all-knowing) third-person point of view. Here are examples of the latter:

She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone for three days . . . (paragraph 10). 
The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they ...........got back  (paragraph 11). 
She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house . . . (paragraph 45).

Foreshadowing

The author sneaks into the story words and passages that foreshadow the tragic developments on the dirt road. Consider, for example, the reference to The Misfit by Bailey's mother in paragraph 1. It raises the possibility, however remote, that Bailey and his family will encounter The Misfit. Bailey's mother again foreshadows later developments when she dresses for the trip in her finest clothes so that "in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady" (paragraph 12). 

When the family is on the highway, Bailey's mother calls attention to a cemetery in a cotton field "with five or six graves" (paragraph 22). There are, of course, six people in the car. When the old woman observes at the Tower restaurant that people aren't as nice they once were, the owner's wife (a waitress) says she thinks the world is so bad that everyone is false and faithless: "It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust” (paragraph 39). (After the accident, the old woman flags down a black car, unaware that The Misfit is the driver. She trusts him to come to their aid.) 


After the travelers leave the restaurant and drive off, the author clues the reader that the trip is about to go wrong by noting that they are approaching the town of Toomsboro. When they turn off to see the plantation with the secret panel, they encounter a dusty dirt road that snakes this way and that, as well as dark forests—all signs that they are headed toward misfortune. 

Imagery: Color and Light

For the trip to Florida, the old woman dresses in finery that reflects her image of herself as a lady. Of particular interest are her white gloves, the white violets on her blue straw hat, the white dot in the print on her navy blue dress, and her white organdy collar and cuffs. These appear to symbolize her opinion of herself as a righteous and principled woman with a sunny disposition. Nature mimics heror does it mock her?with its lustrous attire. As the car travels out of the Atlanta area, she calls attention to 

the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. (paragraph 13)
After The Misfit arrives and orders his cohorts to take her son and grandson into the woods, the old woman begins to reject her selfish image of herself, symbolized by her hat: "The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him [Bailey] but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground" (paragraph 96). When Hiram and Bobby Lee take Bailey's wife, the baby, and June Star to the woods, all of the brightness disappears from the old woman's  surroundings: "Alone with the misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods" (paragraph 128).

The old woman then realizes that The Misfit's dark soul is similar to her own. She may not have committed heinous crimes, but she is a sinner nonetheless. When she reaches out and touches The Misfit, she completes the transition from selfish old woman to selfless old woman. The misfit shoots her. But she dies with a smile on her face, knowing that a genuinely bright future awaits her.
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Plot Structure as a Metaphor

The plot structure seems to be a metaphor for life. One might label the parts of the plot as follows:

1. Birth and Childhood (Atlanta): The family discusses and prepares for the trip. 
2. Adulthood (the Highway): The family travels southeast on a main route to Florida. 
3. Old Age and Death (the Dirt Road): The family trundles over an unpaved road, the car overturns, and the family dies at the ....hands of the The Misfit and his cohorts. 
Irony: Dramatic and Situational

Dramatic irony occurs when a character in a literary work fails to perceive what is obvious to the reader (or, in the case of a play, the audience). The most famous example of dramatic irony in literature occurs in Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex, when he fails to realize what is clear to the audience: that a traveler he kills on a road is his own father and that a woman he marries is his own mother. 

In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Bailey's mother views herself as a proper southern ladygenteel, upright, wise. But to the reader, her actions reveal her as another person. She primps excessively, lies, uses racist language, begrudges America's goodwill contributions to postwar Europe, and foolishly blurts out that she recognizes The Misfit. Not until the story takes a tragic turn does she begin to realize that she is not who she thinks she is.


Situational irony occurs when a development in a story is the opposite of what the reader expects. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," this type of irony occurs when an evil man, The Misfit, causes Bailey's mother to see herself for what she is, a sinner. Her enlightenment allows her to redeem herself by casting off her selfishness and reaching out to the deranged killer. When he shoots her, she dies with a smile on her face, happy that she had become a good woman before it was too late. In effect, The Misfit's evildoing leads to the old woman's redemption. 




Similes

Flannery O'Connor makes every word contribute to the overall effect of a story. When she uses figures of speech, they are not mere dressing to demonstrate technical skill but integral parts of the story, as in the following highlighted simile describing the children's mother: "[She was] a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and as innocent as a cabbage. . . (paragraph 2). This simile, together with the words before it, stresses the mother's guilelessness and callowness, making it easy for others in her family to manipulate her. In Red Sammy's restaurant, she plays "The Tennessee Waltz" on the jukebox, perhaps suggesting that she wanted to go to Tennessee too but was afraid to speak up. 
Other effective similes in the story include the following:

His [Bailey's] jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe (paragraph 49).
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth (paragraph 80).
His [Bailey's] eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt (paragraph 95).
[T]he grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen . . . (paragraph 133).
The Family's Fate

Like his mother, Bailey has an opportunity to redeem himself, an opportunity presented when he is "squatting in the position of a runner about to spring forward . . ." (paragraph 91). Apparently, he is considering rushing The Misfit to save his mother and family. But he remains fixed in that position; he fails to act. A moment later, when he and John Wesley are about to enter the woods with Hiram and Bobby Lee, he turns and shouts, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma,5 wait on me” (paragraph 96). Here, no doubt realizing that he is going to his death, his last thought is of his mother. He is attempting to hearten and console her. And, for the only time in the story, he addresses her with an endearing name rather than ignoring her or growling at her. But is this behavior enough to redeem him? After all, he addresses only his mother and ignores his wife. Moreover, he does not include John Wesley in his statement; he says "I'll be back" instead of "we'll be back." 

As for Bailey's wife, she acquits herself honorably, it seems. First, she saves her baby when she falls out the door, suffering a broken left shoulder as she clings to the infant. When her turn to die comes, she sits dangling her left arm at her side while holding the baby with the other arm. The Misfit says, "Lady, would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?" Her astonishing response is, "Yes, thank you" (paragraph 124). Her response and her behavior during and after the accident arouse the sympathy. 


And what of John Wesley and June Star? Because they are so young, one may conclude that God does not turn them away. However, one may also conclude that He keeps them at a distance. 

John Wesley: Misfit in the Making

The narrator hints that John Wesley and The Misfit have more in common than the eyeglasses they wear. Consider that the boy embodies the sadistic philosophy of The Misfit: There is “no pleasure but meanness” (paragraph 134). John Wesley is certainly mean: He insults his grandmother, disrespects his parents, and resorts to violencekicking the back of his father’s seat (paragraph 50) and fighting with his sister (paragraph 25)to vent his wrath. Moreover, he maintains a hostile attitude toward the world: “Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground,” he says, “and Georgia is a lousy state too” (paragraph 16).

Consider too that both The Misfit and John Wesley want to look beyond the pale of their mundane existence: The Misfit wishes he could have seen Christ and learned what was behind the resurrection story. John Wesley wants to see the secret panel in the plantation house and discover what is behind it. Oddly, The Misfit was a gospel singer who became a killer. John Wesley bears the name of a gospel preacher, John Wesley (1703-1791), and a killer, gunslinger John Wesley Hardin (1853-1895), who shot to death more than twenty men.

Pitty Sing and The Misfit: Dangerous Escapees

Like The Misfit, Bailey's mother's cat, Pitty Sing, is a dangerous escapee. After the old woman enters the family car in Atlanta, she hides Pitty Sing in a basket covered with a newspaper (probably the same one with the article about The Misfit), then places her valise on top, "imprisoning" him. Later, when the old woman discovers her mistake about the location of the plantation, she jerks upward, knocking over the valise. "The instant the valise moved," the narrator says, "the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder," causing Bailey to lose control of the car. It ends up in a ditch. The narrator uses the word snarl one other time in the story, in paragraph 134 to characterize the sound of The Misfit's voice. After The Misfit and his cohorts commit the murders, the cat nuzzles against The Misfit, who then picks it up. Is Pitty Sing an agent of evil?.

Escapees' Apparel Raises Questions

While on the lam, The Misfit, Hiram, and Bobby Lee bury their prison uniforms after obtaining other clothes. One can imagine that they killed the wearers of the apparel, as well as the owner of the "hearselike" car. When they exit the car at the accident scene, The Misfit is wearing tight jeans and tan and white shoes but no shirt or socks. He is carrying a black hat. Hiram is wearing black pants and a red sweat shirt. Bobby Lee is wearing khaki pants, a striped coat, and a gray hat. The apparel raises the following questions:
  • Did Bobby Lee get his khaki pants from Red Sammy Butts, who is described in paragraph 34 as wearing "khaki trousers"? If so, did the trio kill Red Sammy and his wife? Keep in mind that Red Sammy's wife had earlier told Bailey's.mother, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attack this place right here." This statement could have implied that Red Sammy's wife had knowledge that The Misfit was on the loose in their vicinity. ....
  • Did Hiram, who is described as fat, get his red sweat shirt from Red Sammy Butts, who is also fat? The narrator says in paragraph 34 that Red Sammy is wearing a shirt but does not mention the color.
  • Where did the Misfit's black hat, Hiram's black trousers, and the black hearselike car come from? In the first paragraph of the story, when Bailey's mother reads the newspaper article about The Misfit, she says, "[Y]ou read here what it says he did to these people." Were "these people" an undertaker and his family?
  • When The Misfit and his cohorts pull up at the accident scene, The Misfit studies the accident victims for several minutes, speaks to the other two before they get out of the car (paragraph 71). Is It possible that what he told his cohorts in the car was to kill Bailey, his wife, and their children and to retrieve Bailey's shirt? Consider that after The Misfit and  the other two leave the car, Hiram and Bobby Lee know exactly what to do when The Misfit tells them to take the family.members into the woods. It is as if everything is prearranged.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

If the old woman had kept her mouth shut, not revealing that she recognized The Misfit, would Bailey, his mother, his wife, and the children be alive at the end of the story? Or did The Misfit intend to kill all the family members when he pulled up alongside their wrecked car? Keep in mind that he and his companions exited their car with guns. 
Does The Misfit’s conversation with Bailey’s mother alter his viewpoints in any way? 
The Misfit says he kills for pleasure. Does he also kill to get even for what he perceives as society’s unjust treatment of him? 
Is The Misfit sane?
Write an essay that analyzes the psyche of Bailey's mother or The Misfit. 
In paragraph 131, Bailey's mother says, "I know you wouldn't shoot a lady." The Misfit replies, "Lady, there never was a body that give ....the undertaker a tip?" Does lady have the same meaning in both instances? 
Is Red Sammy's wife a good person?
What is the role of chance or fate in the story?

Notes

  1. queen for a day: Radio program inaugurated in 1945 in which women competed for prizes with hard-luck stories. The woman who earned the most audience applause became "queen for a day" and received an array of gifts, including expensive appliances and restaurant dinners. The program later became a hit TV show.
  2. Pitty Sing: This pet cat is named after Pitti-Sing, a character in an 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Mikado. It may be that Bailey's mother—who fancies herself a cultured lady—enjoys opera and decided to give the cat a highbrow name. 
  3. Toomsboro: A real town east of Macon. Modern maps of Georgia locate it at the junction of Routes 57 and 112.
  4. Sherman's . . . Georgia: After capturing Atlanta during the U.S. Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) led a force of more than 60,000 men on a march southeast to Savannah, destroying Confederate railroads and supplies along the way. 
  5. Mamma: The primary dictionary definition of this word is "gland for secreting milk, present in the female of all mammals" (Webster's New World Dictionary & Thesaurus. Version 2.0. Accent Software International. Macmillan Publishers, 1998.) Mamma can also be a term of endearment for a mother, although in this sense it is usually spelled with one m after the first a.

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