23 February, 2000
Human attitudes toward each other reflect a deeper level of consciousness toward God. In her short story, “The Displaced Person,” Flannery O’Connor shows how self-righteousness and prejudices are within the characters while subtly allowing the reader to recognize those same attitudes in himself. The text has the feeling that there is great significance in the words that hold a sense of power. Still, the story retains the smooth rhythm that keeps the attention of the reader with a natural ease. O’Connor uses a limited omniscient point of view to give the reader a sense of being alongside the ever-observerant Mrs. Shortley in the fields, barns, and conversations as she sees, hears, and takes note of all that occurs until the author carries on the story without her. The symbolism O’Connor creates in this story is beautifully mysterious, strangely prophetic, and subtly vibrant. Despite the seriousness of the ending, the displacement of characters en masse keeps the reader acutely aware of the irony of misconceptions, biased attitudes and disregard for Christ.
O’Connor writes her story with purpose–the purpose of jarring the reader into recognition of the reality of attitudes in his own life (“Novelist” 205). She tries to “state as little as possible” while the reader makes a connection between the symbols and realities within himself and those in the story (“Theme” 314). In “The Displaced Person,” O’Connor reveals the disregard for, denial of, and ultimate displacement of Christ by the characters and the reader too. She uses her writing to speak “of the Church, even when the Church is absent; of Christ, even when Christ is not recognized” (“Novelist” 202). As Claire Kahane points out, O’Connor “creates a fiction in which a character attempts…to define himself and his values, only to be jarred back to…the recognition of helplessness…and the need for absolute submission to the power of Christ.” (316). “The Displaced Person” does this very thing by revealing the attitude people have toward Christ as paralleled by the attitude of each toward the symbolic peacock and Mr. Guizac. O’Connor wrote “The Displaced Person” not to comment on attitudes toward immigrants but to show, through her characters, the attitudes, biases, and disdain held for Christ–attitudes that lead to displacement of the very ones who hold these attitudes. O’Connor shows the reader that the vice attitudes in him, despite holy aspirations, cause, not only the hurt of himself and others, but the very denial of Christ’s place in his life.
In the short story, O’Connor uses symbolism to draw the reader into the deeper meaning of the story by tugging at the readers curiosity to solve the meaning of the symbols. The symbolism O’Connor creates is beautifully mysterious in the aloof peacock about which everyone has an opinion, insightful in the strange piercing eyes and prophetic visions of Mrs. Shortley, and subtly vibrant in the emblematic Christ–Mr. Guizac. The peacock is ignored in the same way that the things of God are by most of the characters. To Mrs. Shortley it is just a tagalong peachicken–something nice to have around when there is a use for it but not necessary for most of her purposes. In the same way, Mrs. Shortley makes use of the Bible. She finds it useful to her own end by pulling out prophecies and Apocalyptic terms which she uses against the immigrants. She even goes so far as to refer to the Poles as the source of the “Whore of Babylon” (209). To Mrs. McIntyre the peacock is “just another mouth to feed” (199). Just as the things of Christ are another thing that she would have to keep organized in her weary mind. Mrs. McIntyre is letting the peacocks die off and sees them as unnecessary parts of the farm she is trying to run. She treats the farm hands in the same way: “We can get along without them. We’ve seen them come and seen them go…,” she says (214). All are dispensable to Mrs. McIntyre. Just as she lets the peacocks die off, she can’t bring herself to fire anyone but merely lets them know they are unwanted and hopes they will leave: “She had never discharged anyone before; they had all left her.” (231). The very one she had held in such high regard was resented when he didn’t leave: “…she resented most that he hadn’t left on his own accord.” (234). The peacock represents something she tolerates but doesn’t consider to be a serious part of life. In the same way, neither does she take seriously her need for Christ. When the priest is explaining about the redemption of mankind, Mrs. McIntyre gives proof that she is willing to tolerate things of faith for a while, but her priorities lie elsewhere. She stops the priest to talk about something “serious”–her hired hands (229). It is when the priest sees the peacock that the reader is informed that the peacock is like a “vision for them all” from a place of glory (198). To the priest the peacock is revelation of the glory of God. He is the only one in the story who enjoys the peacock for what it is and the beauty he sees in it. He doesn’t use faith in God merely as a tool or treat the peacock as common as Mrs. Shortley does, nor does he only value the things in life that are useful for the moment as does Mrs. McIntyre.
O’Connor also creates symbolism through the references to vision and eyes. The all-observant, eyes of Mrs. Shortley are the source of information for the reader for the first half of the story. At the beginning of the story Mrs. Shortley’s eyes are described as “two icy blue points of light that pierced forward” (194). At that point she is looking outside of herself and not considering her own attitudes but only evaluating those around her. Despite the fact that her eyes see so much going on around, Mrs. Shortley is blind to the value of others and need for Christ because of her own biases. It is not until she dies that she finally sees herself as she is. She seems to be astonished at the reality of her own self and as the narrator notes “seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.” (214). O’Connor uses symbols to further her purpose of showing the bias and blindness of those who walk in a false sense of righteousness while startling the reader into realization of these aspects within himself.
Irony is masterfully woven into the text when Mrs. Shortley finds out that her husband is to be fired and she is to be displaced although she expects the Negroes to be the first to go. O’Connor adds a touch of humor with descriptions of the forceful wife ordering Mr. Shortley about and the family rushing to pile their goods atop the car then cramming themselves inside (212). The irony that only the reader seems to realize is tremendous in the double conversation held between the priest and Mrs. McIntyre as he speaks of Christ and she speaks of the displaced person. “He didn’t have to come in the first place,” she said of Mr. Guizac, yet, somehow, also expresses her feelings toward Christ (227). The greatest irony of all is that all the characters, except the priest, become displaced in some way. Faced with this irony, the reader realizes how he too is displaced from the ideal reality–a reality that is only found when in heaven with Christ.
The plot of “The Displaced Person” draws the reader along as a willing seeker of the conclusion–a conclusion that makes the reader look at himself and see himself in Mrs. Shortley, Mrs. McIntyre, and in the vengeful Mr. Shortley. This story has two climaxes: one when Mrs. Shortley meets her demise at the height of their departure as the reader sees her prophecy come true. Mrs. Shortley’s will collides against the displaced person and builds to the crisis of her own displacement. The climax occurs when her prophecies come true and she catches a revelation of her own self as she dies of a stroke. One binding factor in the plot is the suspense of what Mr. Guizac’s fault is. The narrator leaves the reader straining to hear as Mrs. Shortley whispers to Mr. Shortley the only fault she is able to find with Mr. Guizac (208). The suspense builds when Mrs. McIntyre talks with Astor, the old Negro, and challenges him to report the fault of Mr. Guizac. Again the narrator denies information for the reader. Astor’s reply: “It warn’t like it was what he should ought or oughtn’t, it was like what nobody else don’t do.” (216). This is reminiscent of what some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time must have thought about Him when He healed on the Sabbath and proposed love rather than hate for their enemies. The reader is so caught up in the story by this point that merely finding out the displaced person’s fault of trying to free a relative from a camp is not enough because the second rising action carries the reader toward the finale as Mrs. McIntyre tries to get rid of him. The plot comes to the second climax when time seems to slow to a crawl and the observers go dumb as the tractor kills Mr. Guizac. The following two paragraphs quickly bring a falling action resolution in the form of tragic displacement of almost all the characters–displacement both physical and spiritual.
Few people like to look into a mirror that shows them their faults, yet in this story O’Connor causes the reader to see for himself the faults and attitudes that the reader does not want to admit are within him. The irony adds some relief to the seriousness of the story but doesn’t let the reader or characters off the hook of responsibility for the truths revealed to them. She uses the plot to keep the reader’s attention so he will hear her whole message and not get away with only a glimpse of himself. If O’Connor had removed one of the techniques of symbolism, irony, or the catching plot, the picture the reader sees would blur and be recognized by only a few. She combines these techniques to form a complete vision for those who take the time to gaze at the characteristics in the story that are also within them. The symbolism that she uses gradually reveals to the reader a true picture of himself. And by the end of the story the reader faces a portrait of his own life. He must set the pages down as he considers the reflection of truth about himself.
Epperson, William, et al., eds. Encounters: Connecting, Creating, Composing.
Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1994.
Kahane, Claire. “The Function of Violence in O’Connor’s Fiction.” Meyer. 315-316.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature.
3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1994.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Displaced Person.” The Complete Short Stories.
New York:Farvar, Straus, Giroux, 1971 194-235
—. “The Novelist and Believer.” Epperson 201-208.
—. “O’Connor on Theme and Symbol.” Meyer 313-314.