The story opens on the Grandmother (unnamed), whose family is about to take a trip to Florida. Unlike the rest of her family, however, the Grandmother would rather go to Tennessee. She shows a newspaper article to her son Bailey, whose house she lives in. The article tells of an escaped convict known as the Misfit, who has escaped federal prison and is believed to be headed toward Florida. The Grandmother says that she would never take her children near such a dangerous criminal, and that she “couldn’t answer to [her] conscience if [she] did.”
Right from the start, the Misfit’s arrival into the story is foreshadowed by a newspaper article—although at this point he doesn’t seem to belong in the family’s mundane world of the family’s self-absorption and squabble. The story is set in the South, as almost all of O’Connor’s work is, and the Grandmother already starts to appear as one of her more self-righteous, hypocritical characters.
Bailey ignores the Grandmother, so she then turns to Bailey’s wife, an innocent-looking woman holding a baby. The Grandmother insists that the children—her own grandchildren—have already been to Florida, and that going to East Tennessee would be a more broadening experience for them. Bailey’s wife seems not to hear, but her eight-year-old son, John Wesley, who is described as “a stocky child with glasses,” asks the Grandmother why doesn’t she just stay by herself if she doesn’t want to go to Florida. John Wesley and his sister June Star lie on the floor reading the funny papers.
The family argues constantly: nobody listens to the Grandmother, and her grandchildren mock her. Meanwhile the Grandmother tries to use guilt and manipulation to get her way, all while pretending to be selfless. Instead of having a frank discussion about each person’s views, they just bicker and get nowhere.
June Star says that the Grandmother “wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day.” The Grandmother asks her grandchildren what they would do if the Misfit caught them. John Wesley says he would “smack his face.” June Star repeats that the Grandmother would never stay home, out of fear that she’d miss something exciting. The Grandmother suggests that June Star remember that the next time she asks her grandmother to curl her hair.
The grandkids poke fun at the Grandmother’s hypocrisy and small-mindedness—she would insist on going along even somewhere she doesn’t want to go. This is seemingly a valid point, but it’s also presented in a cruel and disrespectful way, so the Grandmother doesn’t even consider it, but instead just keeps bickering.
The next morning, the Grandmother is packed and ready to leave, sitting in the car before anyone else. She has a valise and is hiding a basket with their cat, Pitty Sing, in it. Against her son Bailey’s wishes, the Grandmother has brought the cat out of fear that it would miss her too much or accidentally kill itself.
As June Star and John Wesley predicted, the Grandmother is certainly not going to miss the trip. Her selfishness is reflected in secretly bringing the cat—though she thinks of her act as one of kindness, in somehow protecting the cat from “missing her too much.”
The family leaves in the car, with the Grandmother sitting in the back with John Wesley and June Star. In the front sit Bailey, Bailey’s wife, and their baby. The grandmother records the car’s mileage, thinking that it would be fun to see how many miles they have driven when they get back. In contrast to Bailey’s wife, who is dressed casually in slacks with her hair up, the Grandmother is dressed ornately with a fancy hat, a blue dress, white organdy cuffs and collars, and at her neck cloth violets surrounding a sachet. The Grandmother notes that it is a good day for driving. She reminds Bailey of the speed limit and says that patrolmen might be hiding, waiting to catch speeders.
The Grandmother’s dress reveals much about her character: rather than thinking of comfort, she thinks of how her body might be found if they get in a car accident. She dresses up, hoping that, no matter what, she will be identified as a proper lady. She is so caught up in following social convention that she does not understand that death is truly the end: how she is remembered will no longer affect her. She is very narrow-minded, and can’t yet consider anything like the reality of her own mortality.
The Grandmother comments on the beautiful scenery, but John Wesley suggests that they “go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much.” The Grandmother advises her grandchildren not to talk so negatively about their home state, but both John Wesley and June Star agree that both Georgia and Tennessee are “lousy.” The Grandmother says that in her day people were more respectful of their home state and in general. Then points at a poor black child standing in a doorway, stating that the scene would make a great picture.
To the Grandmother, John Wesley and June Star’s behavior is representative of the moral decay she sees in society. They mock their home state and disrespect their elders. The Grandmother maintains a sense of superiority, but then turns around and shows that her own “old-fashioned morals” include overt racism.
The Grandmother holds Bailey’s youngest child, the baby. As they pass a graveyard, the Grandmother notes that it used to be part of “the plantation,” which is now “Gone With the Wind.” In the backseat, she and the grandchildren eat lunch. The Grandmother does not allow them to throw their trash out the window, though they want to. John Wesley and June Star begin to fight, and the Grandmother asks if telling them a story would stop their fighting.
O’Connor portrays more mundane family conflicts, painting a picture of the family members as each selfish and small-minded in their own way. The Grandmother sees her grandchildren as disrespectful and ignorant of what it means to be “good.” Meanwhile her own fixation on the plantation from her past shows how nostalgia colors her entire worldview, and her reference to “Gone With the Wind” suggests that the more “moral” past she misses was an ideal that never existed in the first place, and was in fact based on racism and even slavery.
The Grandmother describes herself being courted, when she was younger, by Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden, who was a “good-looking man and a gentleman.” Each Saturday, he brought her a watermelon with his initials carved into it: “E. A. T.” One Saturday, the Grandmother explains, she never got the watermelon, because it had been found by a black boy who saw the letters “E. A. T.” on it and ate it. John Wesley laughs at the story, but June Star is not amused: she says that she wouldn’t have married a man just because he brought her watermelons. The Grandmother laments that marrying him would have been a good decision, because he bought Coca-Cola stock early on and had only recently died a rich man.
The Grandmother’s story also shows her nostalgia for what she sees as a simpler and better time. Her reflection—that she should have married the man who died rich off Coca-Cola stock—makes it clear that worldly concerns are more important to her than spiritual ones (or even ideas of romantic love). The Grandmother once again shows the racism inherent in her worldview and longing for the “Old South,” as she portrays the black “boy” in the story as just a simple and comic figure.
The family stops at The Tower, a filling station and dance hall, for barbecued sandwiches. The owner of the store is Red Sammy Butts, whose name was written on signs along the highway advertising his sandwiches and the fact that he is a veteran. Red Sam is lying on the ground under a truck when the family drives up. A monkey, chained to a nearby tree, scurries away and up the tree at their approach.
Though Red Sam later laments the same moral decay that the Grandmother sees in the world, he cruelly keeps a monkey chained to a tree. It quickly becomes apparent that everything Red Sam does—whether it’s keeping a monkey at his gas station or advertising himself as a wholesome, virtuous veteran—is just a gimmick to get more money and customers.
The family enters The Tower, and Red Sam’s wife takes their orders. Bailey’s wife puts music on the jukebox, and the Grandmother asks Bailey if he wants to dance, but he ignores her. Bailey’s wife puts on something faster, and June Star steps onto the dance floor and dances. Red Sam’s wife asks jokingly if June Star would like to come be her daughter. June Star says she “wouldn’t live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!” Red Sam’s wife smiles politely and only says “Ain’t she cute?” but the Grandmother asks June Star, “Aren’t you ashamed?”
June Star’s response—laughing at the idea of living in The Tower and vocally criticizing it to Red Sam’s wife—is representative of the disrespectful attitude that the Grandmother sees in a younger generation. The Grandmother is hypocritical and “sinful” in her own way, but as we see here it’s also true that her grandchildren are rude and spoiled.
Red Sam comes in and tells his wife to hurry up and fill their order. He sits down at a table near the family and says, “You can’t win,” wiping his sweaty face, and then says, “These days you don’t know who to trust.” The Grandmother agrees: “People are certainly not nice like they used to be.” Red Sam tells her that the week before, two guys came in with a beat-up car and said they worked at the mill, and Red Sam let them charge the gas to the mill. The Grandmother says he is a “good man” for doing so. Red Sam’s wife comes over, delivers the food, and agrees that nobody can be trusted these days.
Like The Grandmother, Red Sam is clearly a hypocrite: he chastises his wife for not working hard enough, and then takes a seat himself. He and the Grandmother agree on all kinds of cliché sayings about how times have changed. Red Sam tells a story clearly intending to make himself seem virtuous, and the Grandmother eagerly leaps to the conclusion that Red Sam is a “good man.” This is an important aspect of O’Connor’s theme of “goodness” in the story—just what makes a “good man?” At this point, the Grandmother thinks “goodness” means being polite, nice, respectful, and agreeing with her views on things. Red Sam meets all these criteria—at least around the Grandmother herself, as it seems that he’s mostly just trying to butter up his customers.
The Grandmother asks if Red Sam and his wife have read about the Misfit. Red Sam’s wife says that she wouldn’t be surprised if the Misfit attacked their restaurant, but Red Sam silences her by saying, “That’ll do,” and he tells his wife to go get the family their drinks. “A good man is hard to find,” says Red Sam. He laments that you could no longer leave your screen door unlocked. He and the Grandmother discuss how things used to be better, and the Grandmother explains that Europe was to blame—“the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money.” Red Sam says that she is exactly right and that there’s no point talking about it.
The family drives off. The Grandmother tells the others about a plantation nearby that she had visited once when she was younger. The house was lavish and ornate, and she remembers how to get there. Knowing that Bailey will not want to visit, the Grandmother lies, saying there was a secret panel somewhere in the house with silver hidden behind it. John Wesley and June Star, excited by the idea of the hidden panel, say eagerly that they want to see it. The Grandmother insists that it’s nearby, but Bailey says, simply, “No.” The kids throw a tantrum, kicking and shouting until Bailey says that they can go, though he insists that this is the one and only time they will do something like this. The Grandmother says they have to turn around and get on a dirt road about a mile back. Bailey groans.
Again, The Grandmother tries to manipulate her family into changing their plans. She openly lies here, but doesn’t seem to even admit it to herself, instead assuming that what she is doing is for the good of everyone else. The family does not discuss things open-mindedly, but shouts and argues until someone gives in. Bailey isn’t given much character in the story, but in general he seems weary and irritable, worn down by his mother’s nagging and his children’s rudeness. And yet he is also clearly not a very good son or father himself.
Bailey swerves when the cat attacks him, and the car crashes. The grandchildren are knocked to the floor, Bailey’s wife is thrown out the door clutching her baby, and the Grandmother is thrown into the front seat, her fancy hat partially destroyed. The car has rotated a full 360 degrees on its side, and now rests upright in a “gulch off the side of a road.” The grandchildren shout that they have had an accident. The Grandmother hopes that she is injured so that Bailey will not be so angry with her. The horrible thought that made her jump, we learn, was that the house she had been describing was actually in Tennessee, hundreds of miles away, not Georgia.
Importantly, it is the Grandmother’s petty self-centeredness that causes the crash: without manipulating the family into visiting the house she wanted to see, and without sneaking her cat into the car, there would have been no crash (and even if they had otherwise crashed, it wouldn’t have been on a deserted back road). Even after the crash, all the Grandmother can think of is herself: she does not take the possibility of injury or death seriously, instead hoping that she is injured in order to get sympathy.
June Star is disappointed that nobody has been killed. The Grandmother clutches her side, lying when she says, “I believe I have injured an organ.” Nobody responds. They are ten feet below the road, and behind the ditch are only woods. A few minutes later, they spot a car. The Grandmother waves her arms. The car, a “big black battered hearse-like automobile,” approaches. The car comes to a stop above the family on the road. The driver looks down and watches for several minutes, then mutters something to the other two men in the car and they all get out.
June Star’s reaction, too, reveals how un-seriously she treats the prospect of death or hardship. Clearly, the family does not appreciate that they could well have died. The Grandmother, becoming somehow even pettier in the face of danger, not only hopes that she is injured, but lies, saying that she is. It’s clear that the accident is the Grandmother’s “fault,” but this is also an example of the story’s theme of punishment and forgiveness, in which punishment often outweighs the crime—the Grandmother was hypocritical and manipulative, but a life-threatening car accident seems like too harsh of a “punishment” dealt to her by fate. The sudden appearance of the “hearse-like” car signals the dramatic shift in the story’s tone, as it becomes much darker. A hearse is a vehicle for carrying a coffin to a funeral, and here it clearly represents death entering the story in a very real way.
One of the men is very young and fat, and he stands on one side of the family gawking and grinning. The other has khakis on, a coat, and a hat. He stands on the other side of the family. The driver then gets out of the car. He is older and “wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look.” He isn’t wearing a shirt, and is holding a hat and a gun. The other two men also have guns. The grandchildren scream, “We’ve had an ACCIDENT.”
Everything suddenly gets more sinister with the arrival of the armed men, but the children are still totally self-absorbed and oblivious. The second half of the story now starts to mark the conflict between the petty, selfish world of the family and the harsh, meaningless reality of chaos and death.
The Grandmother has an odd sense that she has met the man with glasses before. His face seems familiar. The man carefully steps down from the road and says, “Good afternoon . . . I see you all had a little spill.” The Grandmother claims they turned over twice, but the man corrects her that it was only once. He says they saw it happen. The man with glasses instructs one of his men, Hiram, to see if the car will run. John Wesley asks what he has a gun for, and the man with glasses asks Bailey’s wife to collect and calm her children. “What are you telling US what to do for?” June Star demands.
Again, with the strangers, the Grandmother naturally lies to get sympathy, saying that the car flipped over twice. The man correcting her signifies the first small instance of the harsh truth cutting into her narrow world. The children’s rudeness suddenly becomes more dangerous and foolish, as they treat these sinister, armed men as if they were harmless figures like Red Sam.
As Bailey attempts to explain their situation, the Grandmother interrupts, shouting, “You’re the Misfit!” The man in glasses says that he is the Misfit, but that it would have been better if she had not recognized him. Bailey says something to the Grandmother that shocks everybody (but we never learn what). The Grandmother begins to cry. The Misfit’s face turns red, and he says “Don’t you get upset . . . I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you that away.” The Grandmother asks the Misfit if he would ever shoot an old lady. The Misfit says, “I would hate to have to.”
The Grandmother insists that she knows The Misfit is a “good man” and that she knows he comes from “nice people.” He agrees, saying that “God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold.” The Misfit tells the fat man, Bobby Lee, to keep an eye on the children. The Misfit comments on the nice weather, and the Grandmother agrees. The Grandmother says he should not call himself “the Misfit” because he must be good at heart. “Hush,” Bailey demands, saying that he will handle it. Hiram says that the car will take half an hour to fix.
The Misfit, known to be a violent criminal, claims to come from a family of “good” people, making us consider again: where does goodness, or badness, come from? The Grandmother’s cliché idea that good parents will raise good children is clearly wrong—or perhaps her idea of “goodness” isn’t really goodness at all (it seems she didn’t do a very good job of raising her children or grandchildren either). We do not know what made the Misfit the way he is.
The Misfit instructs Hiram and Bobby Lee to take Bailey and John Wesley over to the woods, telling Bailey that his men need to ask him something. Bailey says, “We’re in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is.” The Grandmother tries to adjust her hat but it comes apart in her hands and falls to the ground. Hiram and Bobby Lee then lead Bailey and John Wesley toward the woods. As they reach the edge of the forest, Bailey says, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me.” The Grandmother insists that he come back right then, but they disappear into the woods. The Grandmother desperately calls “Bailey Boy!” after him, and then repeats to the Misfit that she knows he must be a good man.
Only Bailey, who seems to be the most “normal” character in the family, although a totally ineffectual one, realizes the reality of the situation. The rest of the family members are still stuck in their everyday attitudes, which only violence will take them out of. Only when the Grandmother realizes that her son is about to be murdered does she cry out “Bailey Boy,” which is the first indication of any affection for her family. It’s also telling that first she tries to fix her hat—the symbol of her commitment to appearances and “respectability”—and it’s only when it literally falls apart that she starts to see the harsh reality of her situation.
“I ain’t a good man,” the Misfit says, “but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.” He explains that he was always different than his brothers and sisters: whereas they could live their lives without ever questioning anything, he, the Misfit, always had to know why everything was the way it was. He apologizes for not having a shirt on in front of the women, explaining that the men buried the prison clothes they had on when they escaped and “borrowed these from some folks we met.” The Grandmother offers an extra shirt from Bailey’s suitcase.
The Misfit keeps talking about his parents, explaining that his father had a bit of an edge, but never got in trouble with the authorities. “You could be honest too if you’d only try,” the Grandmother states, “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” The Misfit agrees, saying that “somebody is always after you.” The Grandmother asks if he prays. The Misfit says no.
The Grandmother keeps assuring the Misfit that he could be a good man, not realizing that he does not want to be “good.” The Grandmother’s ideals of convention, respectability, and politeness have no appeal to him—he is only interested in pursuing what he wants to do. The Misfit is essentially a nihilist figure of chaos (nihilists believe life has no meaning), but one still steeped in the tradition of the South, explaining his concerns about politeness and Christianity.