Flannery O'Connor, Peacocks, and Displaced People
My previous article introduced Flannery O'Connnor, 20th-century Southern writer of strange and amazing short stories—including her most well-known, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." We'll get to know her better here, through two short selections from her collected prose and one short story, "The Displaced Person." I'll offer commentary and then questions for further reflection or discussion.
'The King of the Birds'
When you're getting to know people, you want to find out how they think and what they're interested in. There's hardly a better way to get to know Flannery O'Connor than by reading the first essay in Mystery and Manners, "The King of the Birds."
It's a great essay simply to enjoy, while you're introduced to O'Connor's voice, and her ear and eye for the voices and concrete details of her world—including her peacocks. (If you've never seen or heard peacocks, this short video might help.) The essay lets you taste O'Connor's liking for the humor to be found in bizarre, unusual creatures—a liking that definitely extends to human beings. O'Connor doesn't ever get sentimental, of course, but you'll catch her awe at the magnificence of such a creature and its ability to let us glimpse something mysterious. My favorite sentence in this essay comes in the passage where O'Connor describes the peacock's cry: "To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade" (M&M, 15).
'The Fiction Writer and His Country'
Here O'Connor explains clearly how she viewed her calling as a writer. This essay originated as a response to a Life magazine editorial that called for happier American novels, ones with redeeming qualities that communicate the joy of the good life we have achieved.
O'Connor's response is shaped at every point by her Christian beliefs. Her true country "covers considerable territory," she says, starting with her own region and stretching not just to her nation but much farther, to "what is eternal and absolute" (M&M, 27). Hailing from such a country, O'Connor sees our good American life with rather different eyes, eyes that involve "moral judgment" as part of the very act of seeing (M&M, 31). O'Connor is talking about a whole moral framework that starts with God's existence, centers in redemption by Jesus Christ, and stretches into eternity. When she says she sees "from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy," O'Connor means she sees everything with Christ-soaked eyes—everything from a peacock to a Georgia dairy farmer.
Here's where the "grotesque" comes in. This essay contains perhaps O'Connor's most quoted words on the subject:
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. . . . The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. (M&M, 33-34)
In a world where we've accustomed our eyes to evil and lost our desperation for redemption, O'Connor believed she was called to write what she truly saw. O'Connor's writing helps us see.
'The Displaced Person'
This is a story that invites us in on many levels. Is it about how we treat immigrants? Is it about the need for racial equality? Is it about the difference between Catholics and Protestants? I'd say no to all those questions, but those questions all connect with the story. We'll begin to "get into" the story with some comments on the setting, the characters, and the shape of the plot.
A Setting to Notice
The story's setting is obviously meant to be noticed, by the reader if not by the two main female characters. By this story's "setting" one must mean not just the dairy farm but also (and perhaps more importantly) the sun in the sky and the peacock reflecting its light. Mrs. Shortley, who appears large and stolid at the start, seems almost defiantly oblivious to the "white afternoon sun which was creeping behind a ragged wall of cloud as if it pretended to be an intruder" (Complete Stories, 194). This seeming "giant wife of the countryside" makes her own mountainous landscape, rather than noticing the one around her. But what's around her is pictured as actively pursuing her, with the sun acting like an intruder—and the peacock, of course . . . the peacock following her in the opening sentence. But Mrs. Shortley's arms are folded, not open, and her eyes end up fixed only on the red clay road.
"The Displaced Person" makes you glad to have read "The King of the Birds"! One way to study this story's development is to follow the peacock through it, tracing the various responses to the mysterious beauty this bird displays. The peacock is pervasively there, in the background, invading this muddy dairy farm with alien mystery. Perhaps that's what this story is ultimately about: an alien invasion, one that would totally dismantle (and yet renew) the poor, unproductive lives we work so hard to defend.
Characters Tell the Story
In the midst of such an invasion, the characters might be grouped according to those who open their arms, those who keep them closed, and the one who stands in the middle to divide. Just a few pages into the story, after Mrs. Shortley has squarely set herself on the side of the closed, her employer Mrs. McIntyre joins her. As the peacock again appears, Mrs. McIntyre sends only a glance its way and says, "Another mouth to feed" (CS, 198). But her comment comes in answer to a character clearly on the other side, the priest, who is stunned by the peacock's beauty: "'So beautiful,' the priest said. 'A tail full of suns,' and he crept forward on tiptoe and looked down on the bird's back where the polished gold and green design began. The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all" (CS, 198).
In the middle stands the character who acts out the invasion, the literal alien who brings the challenge of his foreign ways into this quite local-feeling dairy farm. The Displaced Person is a Polish refugee named Mr. Guizac, whom the priest has brought over from a European refugee camp (with his wife and children) to work on Mrs. McIntyre's farm. Much of the story's early dialogue will make us laugh, as the women chatter on in complacent ignorance but certain judgment of anything from as far away as Europe. "They can't talk," Mrs. Shortley says. "You reckon they'll know what colors even is?" (CS, 196). Mr. Guizac doesn't talk much, but he turns out to be a skilled, hard-working man who offers not only a better way of running a farm but even more a whole new way of thinking about human beings. The blind, self-righteous women cannot imagine welcoming such alien ways. Each in her own way refuses to open her arms. Each comes to a violent, death-filled moment of seeing.
Following the Plot to the Ends
The story's plot develops in two matching parts, one for each woman. In the first half of the story we share Mrs. Shortley's perspective—a perspective developed not through seeing anything right in front of her, but through her own wild imaginings concerning the evil of anybody not like her or not part of her world. Mrs. Shortley is an unlikely prophet, but she begins to read the Bible and eventually has a visionary experience inspired by a combination of heart palpitations, verses from Ezekiel, and vivid recollections of a World War II newsreel showing a grotesque heap of tangled dead naked bodies. She prophesies the butchering of "children of wicked nations," but not until the moment of her own death, as she enacts her own prophecy, does she appear to understand that her vision applies to herself. It is a strange moment of seeing. Being finally "displaced in the world from all that belonged to her," Mrs. Shortley "seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country" (CS, 214).
Mrs. McIntyre, whose perspective we share in the second half, is much more practical and just as closed, rejecting the advances of both peacock and priest mainly because she's looking for something "serious," something that will benefit her farm. She at first views the hard-working Mr. Guizac as her "salvation" (CS, 213) but finally is unable to embrace the alien kind of salvation embodied by this dangerous little man from another world. In conspiring to destroy him Mrs. McIntyre destroys her own life. Seeing Mr. Guizac carried away dead, "she felt she was in some foreign country" (CS, 235). We cannot follow her there; we lose her in the end to a sightless, voiceless, bedridden existence on a deserted farm.
Is there hope? It is important to recall that, as we read, the narrator gives us the chance to notice the white sun. Through the story's words we get to see the magnificence of the peacock. During one earlier dialogue between the priest and Mrs. McIntyre, the peacock appears in all its glory, the priest begins talking about Christ, and oblivious Mrs. McIntyre is talking about Mr. Guizac. "He didn't have to come in the first place," she says. "He came to redeem us," says the priest (CS, 226). The sentences wind around each other in that scene, leading us to see more and more of what this story is about.
The story in the end leaves the priest and the peacock there with Mrs. McIntyre—leaving also, I think, a thread of hope that in the foreign country where Mrs. McIntyre finally finds herself displaced and poor, she might perhaps be able to see the way home.
Further Reflection and Discussion
1. If someone asked you why Flannery O'Connor liked peacocks so much, what would you say? To what passages might you point?
2. Some view Christian writers as ones who tack on or teach a moral in their literature. By contrast, how does O'Connor view the relationship between faith and writing? How might you support your answer both from her non-fiction and her fiction?
3. Violence and evil in books and movies are controversial today in our world full of violence. How might O'Connor's writing help us evaluate when and how violence and evil might or might not be justifiable to portray in works of art?
4. O'Connor's style is terse and compact; she shows rather than tells. In "The Displaced Person," what details of descriptions or dialogues stand out to you, making the story vivid and alive?
5. Discuss the ways this story is infused with Christian truth. Consider also the ways it has been possible for such literature to be embraced by many people who are not Christians.
6. This is not a happy story. What light do you find in it, if any? What hope do you think it leaves the reader in the end?
In the final article, we'll consider the short story "Good Country People," as well as the prose selection "Novelist and Believer" from Mystery and Manners.