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The Misfit

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a family is murdered by a well-known killer self-styled “The Misfit.”

As members of the family are marched off in two’s and three’s to be murdered in the woods by The Misfit’s henchmen, the Grandmother, whose selfish, manipulative and hypocritical behavior the reader has already observed, tries her best to wheedle The Misfit into letting her live.

However, The Misfit, much more intelligent than she, has already pondered the nature of good and evil, the existence of God, and the reality of Christ’s miracles upon which the Grandmother is basing her arguments.  Her words do not convince him, and, although her arguments move him, he kills her anyway.

O’Connor’s powerful story of death and salvation has elicited strong reactions in many readers.  Strangely, however, her depiction of the despairing Mifit has gained him admirers.  In her comments, delivered at Hollins College iin 1963, she describes a teacher who “tells his students that, morally, The Misfit was several cuts above the Grandmother.”  This teacher isn’t alone in preferring The Misfit to the Grandmother.

There is, of course, a slight problem with these preferences.  How can any rational person make the claim that The Misfit, who murders children, who, it is claimed, has murdered his father, be the moral superior to the hypocritical, superficial, conventional, selfish and manipulative old lady?  What kind of mind could rationalize that The Misfit’s murders are not as heinous as the Grandmother’s spiritual weaknesses?  This is the epitome of irrational thinking, based on nothing more than this foolish teacher’s sentiment for someone who, while intelligent, sensitive, perceptive, and deep, has lived a great deal of his life thinking that there is “no pleasure but meanness” and committing acts of violence and evil against others.

In many ways, Richard III is The Misfit.  As the fictional character in Shakespeare’s regrettable play, he is larger than life.  And, because he is larger than life in Shakespeare’s play, his adoring fans are just as inclined to consider him the center of the 15th century universe, all out of proportion to logic and reality.  In O’Connor’s story, The Misfit is larger than life, certainly a deeper and more interesting character than the shallow Grandmother and her limited perceptions.  However, his intelligence and his presence in this story do not make him an admirable character, unless the reader is inclined to disregard his actions in light of his own prejudices.

Richard III, as bad as he was, was probably not the equal of The Misfit when it came to evil.  His actions were not motivated by a belief that there is “no pleasure but meanness,” but by self-interest and self-preservation.  Nonetheless, he was hated in his time, and by his contemporaries.  The scarce words of praise that we have for him are not discounted, but they pale in the light of the forces that disliked him enough to remove him from power.

How do Richard’s admirers react to the fact that most contemporary sources are anti-Ricardian?  By rationalizing that something must be wrong with the sources.  It doesn’t matter that anti-Ricardian sentiment would have been as unwelcome to Richard’s administration as pro-Ricardian sentiment is perceived to be unwelcome to Henry Tudor’s administration.  Some Ricardians can’t admit that Richard was capable of censoring his opponents’ communications when he was King.  Nor can some admit that much of the anti-Ricardian propaganda surfacing in 1486 might have been due to the fact that it had been suppressed during Richard’s reign.  No, only Henry Tudor is the master propagandist, having nothing better to do during the early months of his reign than recruit writers to blacken Richard’s name.  This becomes the rationalization for rejecting contemporary sources, while Richard’s modern admirers might wonder about the nature of the anti-Ricardian propaganda that his opponents circulated when he was King.  (No, they don’t think that it existed, because everyone loved Richard, right?)  It’s just due to the treachery of certain people that he lost at Bosworth and not the fact that his actions during his Protectorship and as King might have earned him enemies.  Furthermore, the treatment of his dead body at Bosworth was just another act of villainy by Henry Tudor and his allies and not, as is more likely, an expression of outrage by the Yorkist loyalists whom he had betrayed and who then fought beside Tudor at Bosworth.  And certainly, there was anti-Ricardian propaganda circulated when Richard was King, because he himself said so.

The lack of positive contemporary sources for Richard have caused Ricardians to make up the slack by determining that his modern admirers know him better than his contemporaries did.  Why else would they go out of their way to hero-worship him and denigrate his victims?

Like The Misfit, Richard is compelling.  His admirers don’t consider that his despair might have been of his own making.  Like The Misfit, Richard is considered more sinned against than sinning.  It is easy, then, to overlook his usurpation and his murders.  It is just enough that he has suffered, and it is just enough that he has, like The Misfit, suffered the calumny of almost everyone.  Surely, somewhere, there must be a small voice in his favor.  The Ricardians, like the misguided teacher, must be that small voice.  That their devotion is based more on sentiment that diminishes his wrongdoings than on reason does not enter into their argument, because they see themselves on a mission, a romantic crusade to defend someone whom all too few were interested in defending.  And somehow, this surmounts all the wrongs he is accused of doing.

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