Speaking about the setting, it is important to mention that it by genre it can be referred to the so-called road story, which presupposes travel from one place to another – on the special level. But there is always a hidden message behind, which constitutes the figurative level of the narration. We know perfectly that a road is a popular metaphor of life and naturally a person who is moving along this road undergoes a kind of mental and spiritual change. The same is true about Flannery O’Connor’s piece of writing. The journey is from Georgia to Florida with a background of beautiful scenery: “Stone Mountain; 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”. A family of the Grandmother, her son Bailey with his wife and children make a trip by car a picturesque nature, paying no attention at it at all. The only person who is interested is the elderly lady but for some specific reasons – nostalgia about “the things as they used to be” and because travel can be educational for kids. Is it the road to heaven or to hell? I will try to answer this question further on.
The plot, which forms the external texture of the story seems to be a case of fatal misfortune. The family goes travelling, get into a road accident in a remote area and are caught by a band of serial killer the Misfit who kills the whole family. Therefore, the external movement is from life to death. Internally, however, the direction is the opposite one, from death to life. This implication is embodied first of all in the character of the Grandmother, who has no name in the story. This fact of namelessness proves her to be a typical product of the contemporary society, deprived of any significant individuality.
She is selfish, manipulative and full of herself as we meet her first. She is devoted to the past believing that "People are certainly not nice like they used to be”, the phrase which is not only her life credo but also reflects her attitude to herself.
She considers herself to be good and right and does not notice that her values are false. Meeting with the Misfit, feeling herself at the brink of death causes dramatic change within the old woman. There is an irony in the fat that revelation to her is brought in such an unconventional way - through a religious talk with serial killer. But at the same time this is done by the author deliberately to signify some higher wisdom.
The Misfit is a peculiar character, his name symbolizing all people’s loneliness and loss and emptiness. They don’t belong to the world God created for them, they mis-fit. And the problem is not like the Grandmother considered that people are not as nice as they used to be. The world we live in is our own reflection. As a matter of fact, the killer and the decent elderly woman who dresses up neatly because she wants to look like a lady in case of being killed in an accident, are not so far away from each other as they might seem to be.
They were both brought up in the atmosphere devoid of spirituality and both of them have no God in their soul. The difference is that the Misfit recognizes the fact but the Grandmother doesn’t. She hides herself behind the conventional stereotypes of religion, which lies in habitual going to the church, praying on a regular basis, stealing nothing from the respectable citizens and so on.
In a tough situation she first tries to appeal to the religious feelings of the killer but she fails because she is herself being superficial in her faith. That’s why when she tries to pray to Jesus, asking for help, her words come out differently: “Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing”. At this point she realizes that her faith was fake and at this very moment a new opportunity is given to her.
Surprisingly, it is the Misfit who opened her eyes and her soul. He himself recognizes he doesn’t believe in God, the only thing which is definite is death. That’s why he thinks that Jesus broke balance when he raised the death. There would have been nothing certain left in the world, even death, if it were true. The misfit expresses an idea, which is very important: without spirituality one might as well "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.” He means that if you are not willing to accept God’s love, the sin remains the same whether you are doing it small crimes or in big ones.
The lives of the Misfit and the Grandmother were equally empty because they rejected salvation, which is possible through love. These seconds are so vitally important and enlightening for the woman that her soul gets completely transformed. She is suddenly filled with that divine love. Looking at the criminal who has killed her family and is going to kill herself, she exclaims: “"Why, you're one of my babies!" She realizes that her son and her grandchildren are so empty because she didn’t give them the love she had to, that’s why she realizes that the Misfit is her child in this sense.
At the end, when the Misfit kills the old lady, he makes an interesting conclusion, which reveals the idea of the whole story: "She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The sentence raises an important issue: is it necessary for a person to be on the brink of life and death to realize what was wrong in his or her life? Do the true values reveal themselves from delusions only when you are about to die? Aren’t we too much involved in day-by-day repetition of events to stop and see the truth? Probably we are just too afraid to be nobody, to feel the emptiness? These important questions arise after reading the story.
So, is it the road to heaven or to hell? Who knows. Many people believe that a person who has no moral laws inside is free in what he does and feels no remorse about he deeds. At the example of the Misfit we see that the truth is more complex than that. Probably he doesn’t feel remorse, as he has no faith and no God to lean on but the problem is he feels nothing at all. His crimes were intended to be a kind of rebellion against God whom he never had in his life but it is a bitter rebellion. At the end of the story we find out that he feels no fun and no pride challenging God. "There is no real pleasure in life," he says.