Flannery O'Connor Summer Reading Club, Week 4--"The Displaced Person"

DisplacedTractor
DisplacedTractor

In the summer of 1953, Flannery O'Connor's mother Regina hired a new farm laborer named Matysiak. He and his family moved into one of the houses at Andalusia, the O'Connor's dairy farm. Originally from Poland, the Matysiaks were among the millions of Europeans who were left homeless at the end of World War II. Thousands of these "Displaced Persons" ended up in the United States, and a few of them made their way to Middle Georgia. The Matysiaks seemed to work out well enough at Andalusia; there were no catastrophes comparable to those of "The Displaced Person," the story that O'Connor wrote in the fall of 1953, just after the Matysiaks moved in. Nevertheless, there were cultural barriers to overcome. In one of her letters, O'Connor depicted a scene in which Regina and her dairyman's wife (identified as Mrs. P. in The Habit of Being) were making curtains out of chicken feed sacks for the Displaced Persons' house:

Regina was complaining that the green sacks wouldn’t look so good in the same room where the pink ones were and Mrs. P. (who has no teeth on one side of her mouth) says in a very superior voice, “Do you think they’ll know what colors even is?

While "The Displaced Person" is by no means autobiographical, Flannery O'Connor draws from her immediate surroundings in ways that we haven't yet seen in the stories we have read together. The dairy farm where the story is set is clearly a version of Andalusia, right down to the peacocks. More important than the physical setting are the social dynamics of the place. The efficient, energetic, no-nonsense Mrs. McIntyre is a version of Regina O'Connor, who ran her dairy farm as a mostly benevolent dictator, complaining constantly about the help and the peacocks. We will see various iterations of this character throughout the stories we read this summer (she makes her first appearance in "A Circle in the Fire," a story that we skipped). The Shortleys are an amalgam of the white families who came and went (and sometimes came back) every few years at Andalusia. And Astor and Sulk, the two black dairy workers, are lifted straight from the letters in which O'Connor describes the black families who were a fixture at Andalusia.

The white landowner, the itinerant white help, and the black help, who have no choice but to stay, form a triangle that is dysfunctional, inefficient, unjust, but surprisingly stable. Everybody knows his or her place, everybody complains about his or her place, but everybody depends on everybody else. By introducing the Displaced Person into the dynamic, Mrs. McIntyre disrupts the equilibrium and sets the story in motion.

Mr. Guizac, the Displaced Person, displaces every other person in the story. In his fundamental decency, nothing has prepared him to navigate the social complexities of the world he now finds himself in. Consider Mrs. Shortley's assessment of Mr. Guizac's interaction with Sulk and Astor:

When Gobblehook first come here, you recollect how he shook their hands, like he didn't know the difference, like he might have been as black as them, but when it come to finding out Sulk was taking turkeys, he gone on and told her. I known he was taking turkeys. I could have told her myself.

Mr. Guizac shook Sulk's hand for the same reason he ratted him out: he viewed his black co-workers as human beings, worthy of a handshake and also accountable for their actions. The other whites in the story don't do Sulk the dignity of expecting honesty from him--a state of affairs that confuses Guizac:

Mrs. McIntyre told [Sulk] to go put the turkey back and then she was a long time explaining to the Pole that all Negroes will steal. She finally had to call Rudolph and tell him in English and have him tell his father in Polish, and Mr. Guizac had gone off with a startled disappointed face.

It is the Shortleys who are the most conscious of the threat presented by the Displaced Person. If indeed there are "ten million billion" people ready to come and do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, there will be no place for the Shortleys. No wonder Mrs. Shortley begins to view Mr. Guizac as evil incarnate. In his smile she sees Europe stretched out, "mysterious and evil, the devil's experiment station." The black workers, for their part, don't feel especially threatened. As Astor tells Sulk, "your place too low for anybody to dispute with you for it."

Mrs. McIntyre, on the other hand, is at first delighted with the idea of the equilibrium being upset. She understands how much the sorriness of her workers, white and black, is costing her. Within the class structure as it has existed in her world, Mrs. McIntyre has had few options. She is too tight with money to pay her workers well, so she has paid instead in other ways--the instability of white workers coming and going, or the occasional stolen turkey. Mr. Guizac represents a whole new way of doing things. He is smart, energetic, and thrifty, and he works for cheap. To Mrs. McIntyre's way of thinking, the Displaced Person's displacing of the Shortleys and their ilk is the best thing that could happen. She is a pragmatist, not an idealist.

But as it turns out, Mrs. McIntyre's pragmatism is no match for her racism. When she finds out that Mr. Guizac plans to marry his cousin off to Sulk, all bets are off. Her tacit racism flares into an especially ugly speech. "Mr. Guizac! You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to an half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of a monster are you!" And suddenly she does see him as a monster, just as Mrs. Shortley had. She sees his very face as a patched-together, monstrous thing. She goes on to explain to Mr. Guizac that even if a black man can marry a white woman in Europe, it can't be done in the American South. That was a legal fact, by the way. Miscegenation laws forbade interracial marriage in many states (including Georgia) until they were struck down by the Supreme court in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.

Now, for the first time, the pragmatic Mrs. McIntyre begins to speak of her situation in moral and religious terms.

"I cannot understand how a man who calls himself a Christian," she said, "could bring a poor innocent girl over here and marry her to something like that. I cannot understand it. I cannot!"

Mr. Guizac, still not comprehending the mores of the society he has been dropped into, takes a much more humane view of his cousin's situation. "'She no care he black,' he said. 'She in camp three year.'"

In Part III of the story, Mrs. McIntyre's struggle is more overtly religious than economic or social. I love the cross-threaded conversation she has with the priest after finding out about Mr. Guizac's scheme. She is trying to explain her actions in practical terms, but the priest insists on seeing it in moral and theological terms. Ultimately he is so entranced by the peacock, that symbol of transcendence, that he scarcely hears what Mrs. McIntyre is saying to him.

"He has nowhere to go," he said. Then he said, "Dear lady, I know you well enough to know you wouldn't turn him out for a trifle!" And without waiting for an answer he raised his hand and gave her his blessing in a rumbling voice.

She smiled angrily and said, "I didn't create this situation, of course."

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tears of small pregnant suns floated in a green golden haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. "Christ will come like that," he said in a loud gay voice and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre's face assumed a set puritanical expression and she reddened. Christ in the conversation embarrassed her the way sex had her mother. "It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go," she said. "I do not find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world."

The old man did not seem to hear her. His attention was fixed on the cock, who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. "The transfiguration," he murmured.

She had no idea what he was talking about. "Mr. Guizac didn't have to come here in the first place," she said, giving him a hard look.

The cock lowered his tail and began to pick grass.

"He didn't have to come in the first place," she repeated, emphasizing each word.

The old man smiled absently. "He came to redeem us," he said and blandly reached for her hand and shook it and said he must go.

For the remainder of the story, Mrs. McIntyre struggles mightily with her conscience. It is to her credit that she struggles rather than ignoring the priest altogether, as much as she would like to. "She felt she had been tricked by the old priest. He had said that there was no legal obligation for her to keep the Displaced Person if he was not satisfactory, but then he had brought up the moral one." In her next conversation with the priest, Mrs. McIntyre finally identifies what exactly is at stake in her opposition to the D.P. Mr. Guizac. "As far as I'm concerned," she said and glared at him fiercely, "Christ was just another D.P."

Jesus, like Mr. Guizac, disturbs the equilibrium of a world that has learned to live with its own brokenness. As the Misfit said, "He thrown everything off balance."

Mrs. McIntyre would appear to have two options: she can receive the Displaced Person and accept a new equilibrium, or she can reject him and go back to the old dysfunction. In the end, she chooses to reject the Displace Person, conspiring with Mr. Shortley and Sulk to murder the man who had upset the old balance. "[Mrs. McIntyre] had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion forever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone." With the D.P. out of the way, the old triad of landowner, white dairyman, and black laborer, it appears, should be able to pick up where it left off.

However, the death of the Displaced Person does not make it possible for everyone to resume his or her place in the old order. Everyone is displaced, including the landowner herself. Mr. Guizac "thrown everything off balance."

As I have remarked before, grace is extended in all of O'Connor's stories. I read this story as one of the ones in which that proffered grace is rejected. However, I could be convinced otherwise. It could be that being displaced from the farm is exactly what Mrs. McIntyre needed. The picture of the old priest faithfully coming by and teaching her the doctrines of the church is hopeful. What do you think?

"The Displaced Person" is a long and complex story, and I scarcely touched on some of the most important parts--Mrs. Shortley's stroke, at the end of Part I, for instance, or her prophetic utterances, or the satanic imagery around Mr. Shortley in Part III, or O'Connor's portrayal of the black characters, or the peacocks. I'm hoping to touch on some of these questions later in the week, but feel free to address any of them in the comments below.