This story appears to have been inspired by an article and a picture which appeared in the Milledgeville Union Recorder in August of 1951. The story deals with the appearance of General William J. Bush at a graduation ceremony at Georgia College. At that time, he was more than one hundred years old and was quoted as saying, "I'm getting younger every day. My hair is just now fixing to turn black." The General lived to be one hundred and seven years old before he died at his home in Fitzgerald, Georgia.
O'Connor uses the first portion of her story to describe the characters and to establish the basic irony of their situations. Both old George Poker Sash (based presumably on General Bush) and his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, are individuals who live for the gratification of their own desires. Sally Poker Sash, who is sixty-two years old, has prayed that her grandfather, who is a hundred and four years old, will live until she is able to graduate from college with a B.S. degree in education. She has attended summer school each year for the past twenty years, and she fears that she "might be cheated out of her triumph because she so often was." Her goal is to have her grandfather on stage when she receives her degree in order to show "what all was behind her and not behind them" (a reference to "all the upstarts who had . . . unsettled the ways of decent living"). Similarly, old George Poker Sash is willing "to sit on stage in his uniform so that they could see him." At heart, however, he is bored by all processions (including graduation processions); he would much rather be the center of attention at a parade.
As you read through this story, you should pay special attention to O'Connor's repeated use of images which function to tie the elements of the story together and to foreshadow the ending. In particular, note O'Connor's reference in the first paragraph of the story to the River Styx (in Greek mythology, this is the river across which dead souls were ferried to the Underworld by the boatman Charon). O'Connor's frequent use of the phrase "black procession" in this story suggests the approach of death and all those things associated with it, and Sally Poker Sash's dream of having her grandfather silently revered and honored in the hearts of the graduation audience foreshadows a major disappointment in her life.
For both Sally Poker Sash and old George Poker Sash, the most memorable event in both their lives was a premiere which they attended twelve years earlier in Atlanta. It was then that "General Tennessee Flintrock Sash of the Confederacy" had been created by the Hollywood publicity agents. We are told that, in reality, Sally's grandfather was probably no more than a foot soldier during the Civil War even though Sally claims that he was a Major.
The memory of this false, artificial reality has become a focal point in the lives of both old "General" George Poker Sash and Sally. For the General, it was a moment of triumph, and he constantly relives that experience — at the risk of being made aware of the real nature of his life. For Sally Poker, the moment of triumph in Atlanta turned to tragedy, however, for she went on stage without changing from her brown "Girl Scout oxfords" into the silver slippers which she had purchased to compliment her long, glamorous black crepe gown. That careless mistake, she believes, will finally be redeemed by the presence of her famous grandfather on stage for her graduation.
On the day of Sally's graduation, everything goes well — until she discovers that her nephew, John Wesley, did not take her grandfather onto the stage as she directed him to do. Instead, he allowed the old man to sit in the hot sun while he himself stopped to drink a Coca-Cola. At this point, the old General felt "as if there were a little hole beginning to widen in the top of his head." This "hole," of course, is a precursor of his death. Remember that earlier, we were told that he could not possibly conceive of death — "living had got to be such a habit with him."
Finally, as the old General sits on the stage, he attempts to ignore the speakers; however, he is unable to do so because of the ever-widening "hole" that he feels in his head. The comments of one of the speakers, you should note, are of importance because they echo one of O'Connor's major themes in this story: "if we forget our past . . . we won't remember our future and it will be as well for we won't have one."
From O'Connor's point of view, the events of a person's lifetime are properly understood only when one sees them against the background of the Divine scheme — a scheme which extends from the time of Creation to the Last Judgment. By remembering his Fall from Eden and God's promise of a future opportunity for redemption, man can be led to remember the promise of salvation which is made available through the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 1:2). The old General, having forgotten his real past, which includes his family, as well as his wartime experiences, attempts to recall his finest moment of glory: "He tried to see himself and the horse mounted in the middle of a float full of beautiful girls, being driven slowly through downtown Atlanta." He is unable to conjure up this "vision," however, because he is too distracted by the speaker's words.
The General's moment of epiphany and his death occur as the graduates move forward to receive their diplomas. In his final moments, during his moment of epiphany, his recognition of his true past comes flooding in on him, "as if the past were the only future now and he had to endure it." The "black procession," now an image of his impending death, appears to be almost upon him, and he recognizes it because "it had been dogging all his days." He dies while trying desperately to "see over" the black procession in order to "find out what comes after the past."
The General's epiphany appears to serve two purposes in the story. First, it reinforces the commencement speaker's view that the ability to "remember the future" is conditioned by one's ability to remember the past. The General has chosen to remember a false, culturally created past, and he dies before the memory of his true past can lead him to a knowledge of the future. From O'Connor's point of view, those who accept a false past as true and then attempt to make its preservation the focus of their lives have little chance of finding a spiritually satisfying afterlife.
The second purpose of the General's epiphanal moment stresses the mortality of all things. As it must come to all men, death comes to the General, who has forgotten its inevitability. In the orthodox religious view, life must be a preparation for death; to live while attempting only to preserve the great moments of the past is to abandon all hope for the future. Thus, one ends one's life by trying vainly, as did the General, "to find out what comes after the past."
Although Sally Poker Sash does not experience an epiphany in the story, O'Connor arranges the details in such a way that it appears impossible for her to avoid one. When she realizes that her moment of triumph (receiving her scroll at graduation) occurs after her grandfather dies (symbolically, a dead past which she refuses to relinquish), her nightmare comes true. The consequent destruction of her pride may, then, be viewed as a necessary step which will turn her attention from her old concerns; indeed, it may well be the beginning of a new realization of the purpose for her existence.
The story ends with a twist reminiscent of some of O. Henry's best short stories. After the graduation ceremony, the Boy Scout nephew who was in charge of General Sash "bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down a flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine." This final tableau leaves one with an image of a dead past juxtaposed with a representative of the new generation — a generation which is caught up in the rush to satisfy its physical/material needs from one of O'Connor's archetypal, despised images of modern culture, a Coca-Cola machine. Given her tendency to deal with anagogical meanings, one might see this vision as O'Connor's way of rejecting both the old and the new (neither of which provides an answer to the General's final question) as bastions behind which man might hide himself.