In her final story, "Judgement Day," O'Connor returned for part of her material to her earliest published story, "The Geranium," which first appeared in 1946. Manuscript evidence indicates that O'Connor reworked the material and entitled it "An Exile in the East" before she finally settled on the present version and title. Both the first and final versions of the story have a displaced Georgian (each of whom has been brought to New York by his daughter) as the protagonist. Both protagonists find the city intolerable and spend a considerable amount of time reminiscing about their old life with a particular black companion whom they had grown close to, and both long to return home. For old Dudley, the protagonist of "The Geranium," there is little explicit hope. His story ends with his observation of the geranium, which had, as he observed it in a neighbor's window, become a kind of symbol of his life. Now, the geranium lies smashed in an alley, six floors below his daughter's apartment.
The action of "Judgement Day" covers the final hours of Tanner's life, with flashbacks being utilized to provide additional information about the old man. The story appears to lack the precision of detail which is present in most of O'Connor's other stories, but this minor flaw is probably due to the fact that there was little opportunity for O'Connor to polish the story before her death. It is, however, sufficiently well constructed to convey the author's intent.
Briefly told, the story opens with old Tanner; he is suffering from a stroke which was caused by an earlier encounter with a sour-tempered northern black person. Tanner is now plotting to escape the city and return home, and he made this decision because two days earlier he heard his daughter and son-in-law decide to ignore their promise to return him to Corinth, Georgia, for burial. As he waits for his daughter to leave the house, his mind wanders back over scenes from his past life. When she leaves the apartment, Tanner makes his way out of the apartment, and he succeeds in getting to the stairs before a second stroke paralyzes his legs and causes him to tumble down the first flight of steps to the landing below.
Tanner is found by the same black person who slugged him earlier. He asks this person, whom he mistakes for his old black friend, Coleman, to help him up, but, instead, the black person stuffs Tanner's head and legs between the spokes of the banister and leaves him there, where he is found dead by his daughter when she returns home. The final paragraph of the story details his daughter's decision to have the old man's body dug up and shipped to Georgia, after which she is again able to sleep nights.
Any understanding of this story must be based not upon the sketchy outline presented above, but on the flashbacks which constitute the bulk of the story. After Tanner overhears his daughter and her husband decide to break their promise to return him to Georgia for burial, he chastises her for planning to break her promise, and he lays a curse upon her: "Bury me here and burn in hell!" As she attempts to reason with him and to respond to his curse ("And don't throw hell at me. I don't believe in it. That's a lot of hardshell Baptist hooey"), Tanner's thoughts drift back over the events which brought him to New York.
His daughter found him living in a shack, on land he did not own, with Coleman Parrum, a black companion of thirty years. Tanner had become friends with Coleman because of an experience they had years earlier. At that time, Tanner had prided himself particularly on his ability to handle black workmen by threatening them with a sharp penknife. When he first saw Coleman, however, he realized that his usual technique would not work. Instead of threatening Coleman, he handed him a pair of wooden glasses, which he had absent-mindedly whittled, and he asked the man to put them on. Coleman did so, and when he looked at Tanner and grinned, Tanner had "an instant's sensation of seeing before him a negative image of himself as if clownishness and captivity had been their common lot. The vision failed him before he could decipher it." The result of this epiphanal moment was the establishment of a relationship with Coleman which came to be based on mutual respect and admiration even though the two men preserved the "appearance" of having established the traditional black-white relationship between them.
Consequently, Tanner comes to the defense of Coleman when Tanner's daughter suggests that duty demands that he move out of the shack that he is sharing with the black man. He tells his daughter that the shack they live in was built by "him and me." He refuses to return to New York with her.
Tanner's plan to stay in Georgia is shattered, however, when a half-breed entrepreneur, Dr. Foley, confronts him on the afternoon of the same day that Tanner has the confrontation with his daughter. Dr. Foley has purchased the land upon which Tanner and Coleman are squatting, and he informs Tanner that he can stay on the land only if he will operate a still for him. Indignant, Tanner refuses to accept those conditions, and he goes to live in New York with his daughter.
The misery of living in the city destroys at least part of Tanner's pride, for he has decided to return "to squat on the doctor's land and to take orders from a nigger who chewed ten-cent cigars. And to think less about it than formerly."
Tanner's last vestiges of pride are destroyed when he fails to deal properly with a black man who moves into the apartment house in which Tanner's daughter lives. Motivated, at least partly, by a desire to speak to someone from the South, Tanner thinks to himself, "The nigger would like to talk to someone who understood him." He falls, however, on his first attempt to communicate with the man.
For the remainder of the day, Tanner "sat in his chair and debated whether he would have one more try at making friends with him." His further attempt to make friends with the man, albeit a somewhat falsely motivated one, sets Tanner somewhat above his daughter, whose plan for getting on with people is to "keep away from them." That afternoon, Tanner makes his second attempt to befriend the black man — only to be told, "I don't take no crap . . . off no wool-hat, redneck, son-of-a-bitch, peckerwood old bastard like you." When Tanner attempts to pursue the matter further, the man knocks him through the door of his daughter's apartment, where he falls "reeling into the living-room."
The stroke which results from that encounter destroys Tanner's plan to leave when his government check comes. When he is able to talk again, he learns that his daughter has used the check for his doctor bills. Denied the option of going to Georgia, Tanner gets his daughter to promise that she will return his corpse to Georgia in a refrigerated car so that he will "keep" on the trip. He then rests peacefully, dreaming of his arrival at the station, where he envisions a red-eyed Coleman and Hooten, the station master, waiting for him. In his dream, he imagines that he springs from the coffin and shouts at the two men, "Judgement Day! Judgement Day! . . . Don't you two fools know it's Judgement Day?"
After he hears his daughter's plan to bury him in New York, Tanner begins to plan his escape. He writes a note directing anyone who finds him dead to ship his body express and collect to Coleman, and then he waits for his opportunity to leave the city, which he describes to Coleman in a letter as "NO KIND OF PLACE." When his daughter leaves the apartment to go to the store, Tanner begins his trip home.
Crippled by the stroke he has had, Tanner finds himself barely able to move. When he stands up, "his body felt like a great heavy bell whose clapper swung from side to side but made no noise." Terrified from fear that he will not be able to make it, he hesitates for a moment. When he finds that he can move without falling over, his confidence returns and he moves — mumbling lines from the 23rd Psalm — toward the sofa, "where he would have support." Although O'Connor uses only the first lines from the 23rd Psalm in the story, the content of the entire psalm is implied, including its conclusion: "and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come." The reader can assume that O'Connor sees Tanner dwelling "in the house of the Lord for years to come."
Laboriously, Tanner makes his way into the hall and starts for the stairs only to be struck down by another stroke — which causes him to fall down the steps to the first landing. As he lies on the landing, the vision which came to him in his dream appears to him again, and as he regains consciousness, he cries out to the black form leaning over him, "Judgement Day! Judgement Day! You idiots didn't know it was Judgement Day, did you?" For a moment, he becomes rational enough to recognize that the black man bending over him is not Coleman, that it is the black actor whom Tanner tried earlier to befriend. His final words, "Hep me up, Preacher. I'm on my way home," anger the black man, and he leaves Tanner stuffed through the spokes of the stair banister to be found by Tanner's daughter.
Tanner's daughter first buries him in New York, but, because she is troubled by guilt, she finally has his remains sent home to Georgia. Tanner's resurrection appears to be analogically indicated within the story. His dream of being shipped home in his coffin to Corinth, his final words, and the implied final line from the 23rd Psalm make it appear that O'Connor saw Tanner as one of the elect. Thus, Tanner joins the other two characters in O'Connor's final trilogy who are apparently given assurance that their salvation has occurred.