By DR. DAVID KING, Ph.D | Published March 19, 2020
A friend and I were at lunch a few weeks ago, discussing as we often do the state of the world and literature’s relevance to it, when my friend brought up Flannery O’Connor.
“You know,” he said, “if you were to take all of O’Connor’s stories, and compare them side by side, you would find that the constant recurring theme is that of ‘The Displaced Person.’”
I thought for a moment, and agreed that he was right. We had great fun recalling all of O’Connor’s unforgettable characters who are indeed displaced.
I might not have recalled my friend’s insight were it not for the global pandemic of COVID-19 that has at last taken firm hold of the United States. Two miles away, cruise ship passengers are quarantined. Five miles away, an elementary school is closed. In my own home, my 9-year-old son tries to understand why his Little League season has been suspended. My parish, my university are each trying to implement contingency plans in the likely event we have to cancel programming. All over Atlanta, people are anxious and afraid. All over Atlanta, people feel displaced.
Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person” is her longest short story; in fact, it might more accurately be called a novella. The story first appeared in the fall 1954 issue of The Sewanee Review, but O’Connor greatly enlarged the story for publication in her first collection of stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
Our true country
The story is about a family of Polish refugees—displaced persons—whose exodus from the European aftermath of World War II has been arranged by a Catholic priest in rural Georgia. The priest has secured employment and residence for the Guizac family on a small farm operated by a widow named Ms. McIntyre. Other residents on the farm, all of whom become important, include the tenant farmer family the Shortleys, and two African American employees named Astor and Sulk. The priest, as well as the specter of the deceased Mr. McIntyre are equally important, as is a peacock, who stands as a symbol of both the Transfiguration and the church.
All of these different people are displaced. The Guizacs, whom the xenophobic and ignorant Ms. Shortley terms “the Gobblehooks” and likens to “rats with typhoid fleas,” are literally displaced, uprooted from their homes and escaped as though from a newsreel piled with millions of dead bodies.
The Shortleys are displaced, the sad victims of a cruel and impoverished Southern sharecropping system that consigns them to debt and constant transience. Mr. Shortley refers to himself as “a dead man.”
Astor and Sulk are displaced by the cruelty of segregation; Ms. McIntyre is displaced as a widow and a neurotic, and even the priest is displaced, a religious minority in a region that views his Catholicism as “not advanced since none of the foolishness had been reformed out of it.”
All of these characters, along with the peacock, are situated in a setting that is one of the most autobiographical in O’Connor’s fiction. The farm is certainly based upon O’Connor’s own Andalusia dairy farm in Milledgeville. Astor and Sulk are reminiscent of the workers who lived on the farm. The O’Connor family at one time actually had displaced persons working at Andalusia. Because the story takes place deep in the heart of O’Connor’s “True Country,” a landscape that unites the regional with the spiritual to bring universal significance out of a distinctive locale, all of them are open to the possibility of an epiphany that may lead to either grace or destruction.
Perhaps surprisingly, O’Connor believed the story to be a failure; in fact, “The Displaced Person” represents one of the few times she expressed regret about her work. Writing to her close friend Betty Hester, “A” in the correspondence collected in The Habit of Being, O’Connor said, “The displaced person did accomplish a kind of redemption in that he destroyed the place, which was evil, and set Mrs. McIntyre on the road to a new kind of suffering [like] Purgatory. None of this was adequately shown and to make the story complete it would have had to be—so I did fail myself.”
Explaining herself further, O’Connor lamented that she did not make clear that the peacock symbolizes both the Transfiguration and the eyes of the church. The priest understands this, but O’Connor feared it was lost upon the reader. “I missed making this clear,” she said, “but how are you going to make such things clear to people who don’t believe in God, much less in Purgatory?”
Yet as with all her work, O’Connor inserted a profound religious mystery into the story that is better understood if we further consider the context in which the story was written. In another letter to Betty Hester, O’Connor explained that she had purposely included in “The Displaced Person” a reference to a prayer to St. Raphael the Archangel that “asks [him] to guide us to the province of joy so that may we not be ignorant of the concerns of our true country.”
There are multiple versions of the prayer, in varying lengths, but the most familiar version is this abridged prayer: “O Raphael, angel of happy meetings, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us. May all our movements be guided by your light and transfigured with your joy. … Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.”
The true heart of things
Because “The Displaced Person” is so long, and because it includes a number of unexpected twists, I have been careful not to “spoil” anything for those of you who will wish to read it. I will share with you a key passage: “But at last I’m saved! Mrs. McIntyre said. … That man there, and she pointed where the Displaced Person had disappeared—he has to work! He wants to work! That man is my salvation!”
Mrs. McIntyre’s developing recognition of her redemption—not through Mr. Guizac, but through Christ who he symbolizes—is crucial to the story, as O’Connor knew. “As far as I’m concerned,” Mrs. McIntyre says, “Christ was just another Displaced Person.”
Mrs. McIntyre doesn’t immediately recognize the revelation she has been given, but her growing awareness is a crucial reminder that in the displacement of our neighbor, and in the displacement of ourselves, we have the opportunity to see, like Raphael, into the true heart of things.
As I’ve been writing, my phone has been abuzz with notices of postponements, cancellations, closures. It looks as though a lot of us will have a lot of time in isolation over the next few weeks. We’ll be displaced, but we might also gain insight.
If you choose to read the story during this crisis, I also recommend that you see Glenn Jordan’s 1976 film adaptation of “The Displaced Person.” The movie was actually made at Andalusia, and it features both John Houseman and a young Samuel L. Jackson in one of his early roles.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.