If you’ve read any Flannery O’Connor, you are aware of her proclivity to take the reader into the darkness of humanity amidst the everyday, mundane life. She shows us that maybe our ordinary is familiar and common, but it is anything but unexceptional. We discover much about ourselves and the condition of our souls from our own sense of ordinary. We find out even more when our ordinary is interrupted. What will we hold on to? O’Connor is willing to face the darkness of human depravity.
In one of her longer short stories, “The Displaced Person,” we see a disturbing, ordinary life on a dairy farm. Mrs. McIntyre is the landowner, a sharp woman in her sixties, widowed once and twice divorced. The story was written in the early 1950’s, which makes it even more uncomfortable for the modern reader to enter into the dysfunctional relationship between this woman and her black and white hired workers. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy the two black dairy workers, Astor and Sulk, know their place and play their prospective roles as dehumanized, lazy Negroes (as they are called in the setting of this story) who were expected to pilfer on the job.
Mr. and Mrs. Shortly seem to be the most descent white help that the landowner has had. And yet, for all the long hours of grueling work that Mr. Shortly put in as the dairyman, he really wasn’t making much progress to show for it. But the Displaced Person interrupts this codependent relationship of the complaining, practical landowner and her underperforming hired hands.
The story opens with a priest bringing a polish family to the farm as a business transaction made between him and Mrs. McIntyre. This hired man had to work. Being displaced from the war, the family had nothing, and Mrs. McIntyre thought they should feel lucky to be here. But no one was expecting Mr. Guizac to be the perfect worker. The Displaced Person displaces everyone in the story.
At first, Mrs. McIntyre is delighted to have an energetic, innovative worker who is going to save her all kinds of money. She is also enjoying how this amazing worker is threatening the places that those “sorry people” hold on the farm. But Mr. Guizac doesn’t only displace the hired help. His quiet perfection even begins to dig at the landowner herself.
The Displaced Person’s mysterious identity displaces everyone’s identity. The Shortly’s are faced with the fact that their own work isn’t good enough. Mrs. Shortly, who was never really religious before, begins to see Mr. Guizac as the devil. Quickly, Mrs. Shortly also recognizes that her own ability to manipulate and put one over Mrs. McIntyre is overshadowed by the practicality of the one who may be taking her place.
The Negroes are challenged to a higher calling. When the Displaced Person arrives, he shakes their hands “like he didn’t know the difference, like he might have been as black as them.” And yet, when he catches Sulk stealing a turkey, he turns him in to the landowner to fess up. Mrs. Shortly sees this as a contradiction, but it is clear that Mr. Guizac treats the Negroes with human dignity. He’s startled and disappointed to find out that even Mrs. McIntyre expects this behavior from them just because they’re black. As she is trying to explain that you can’t depend on a Negro to be honest, the reader notices the blaring character flaws in the unrighteous landowner (who was ironically widowed from a judge).
And indeed, Mrs. McIntyre is faced with her own unrighteousness as the priest continues to visit, dropping the doctrines of the church into much of the conversation (and I’m majorly resisting the temptation to rabbit trail into the significance of the peacock on that matter). The landowner’s identity is displaced when she is confronted with her own moral issues, no matter how practical she tries to be.
An enlightening conversation with the priest reveals the Christ-like significance of the Displaced Person. They are sort of having two different conversations that merge. “He didn’t have to come in the first place,” she says about Mr. Guizac. “He came to redeem us,” the priest replies as he is continuing to talk about the church and marveling how the spread of the peacock’s tail is symbolic of the Transfiguration. Suddenly, the Displaced Person becomes an intense irritation to her, and a threat to the ordinary dysfunction that she realized she loves. “Of all things she resented about him, she resented most that he hadn’t left on his own accord.” Unlike the rest of her dealings, Mrs. McIntyre would have to confront the Displaced Person. Or would she…
As the tale takes and even darker turn, the reader may be left wondering exactly where the redemption was in this story. I don’t want to give away the ending, so I’ll let my readers decide what hope there is for the characters. But I was left thinking how disturbing it is when our own ordinary is interrupted by the gospel.
What does it take for me to discover that I am holding on tightly to my own righteousness, my own spin of my life-story, and even settling too comfortably into the role I think I play. When I am interrupted, when my own darkness is revealed, what am I going to hold onto? Am I so comfortable with my own dysfunction that I am irritated at true righteousness? Am I threatened by the gospel message that tells me my work is like filthy rags apart from the righteousness of Christ? Am I okay with having my identity displaced, all the idols of where I’ve been investing my value and meaning exposed, and receiving Christ to take the place of them all? Is he sufficient for me? What does my ordinary reveal? When he calls me to let go of the things of this world and hold fast to his promises, do I embrace my true hope with joy?
That’s what O’Connor is willing to do–to look the darkness of human depravity square in the eye, and hold fast to her confession of hope.
*Originally published on January 2, 2013.