O'Connor's Short Stories By Flannery O'Connor Summary and Analysis "The Artificial Nigger"

On more than one occasion, O'Connor wrote to friends that her favorite story, among those she had written, was "The Artificial Nigger" and that it was "probably the best thing I'll ever write." Although she wrote to another friend, "My disposition is a combination of Nelson's and Hulga's" (the protagonist of "Good Country People"), her satisfaction with the story appears not to have stemmed from her likeness to one of the characters in the story but from her conviction that it was one story in which she had successfully and plainly shown the action of grace bringing about a definite change of attitude in one of her characters.

Since O'Connor reported that she took two or three months to write "The Artificial Nigger" (as opposed to about four days for "Good Country People"), you should expect to find it particularly rich in imagery and allusion. Although we cannot examine in detail all of those possible references in this short account, your reading should be done with the knowledge that a careful study of the story will reveal depths of meaning not available to the casual reader.

Knowledge of O'Connor's careful reading of Dante's Divine Comedy (an annotated edition exists in the O'Connor collection at Georgia College) and her extensive reading in Joseph Conrad and Henry James (in letters to friends, she confessed to reading most of the works of these two writers) can provide you with one way of getting into the story.

You might also wish to note that the story is built around several motifs (a conventional situation or incident employed in folklore, drama, or fiction) which have been part of the stock of writers since the beginning of recorded literature. The most obvious of these motifs include the "descent" or "initiation" story, the journey motif, and the contrast between the rural (good) and the urban (evil) environments.

Told from a generally omniscient point-of-view, the story opens with a picture of moonlight flooding the bedroom of Mr. Head and his grandson, Nelson. Seen in the dreamlike light of the moon, the room appears to be the domain of a very important person; the floorboards appear to be made of silver, the pillow ticking seems to be made of brocade, and the straight chair upon which Mr. Head has thrown his trousers seems to be an attentive servant awaiting the orders of a great man. The only dark spot in the room is the pallet upon which Nelson lies sleeping.

Within the first five paragraphs of the story, O'Connor is busy laying down a framework which will explain the details of the remainder of the story. Continuing with a modified omniscient narration, she combines the thoughts of Mr. Head (note that he is not called "Mr. Heart") concerning his moral mission for the coming day with authorial comments designed to lead the reader to the point which she ultimately wishes to make.

While you might reasonably expect to find Mr. Head viewing himself as especially qualified to teach Nelson about the world because "only with years does a man enter into the calm understanding of life that makes him a suitable guide for the young," you would hardly expect him, as a backwoods Georgian, to be familiar with the works of Dante or with the Apocryphal books of the Bible (those Old Testament books which are an integral part of the Catholic Bible but which are not considered to be a part of the Scriptures by many Protestants). By suggesting that Mr. Head is a Vergil "summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael awakened by a blast of God's light to fly to the side of Tobias," O'Connor prepares the reader to draw parallels to two literary sources. The first of these is Dante's Divine Comedy. Vergil, a virtuous pagan, can lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory, but because he was never baptized, he is unable to lead Dante through Paradise. That task is reserved for Beatrice, a properly redeemed Christian. Raphael is an angel of God who is sent to guide Tobias (the name means "God is good") through a series of tasks which include freeing his future wife from the threat of a devil and, more importantly, restoring the eyesight of his blind father. Although Mr. Head does help Nelson gain insight into the evils of the city, it is he, ironically, who benefits most from their experience. Raphael returns to Paradise after helping Tobias, but Mr. Head only returns to his rural Eden. This is, perhaps, O'Connor's way of suggesting that most people are not angels.

Mr. Head has awakened at two in the morning, and although his alarm clock does not work, he is not worried that he will fail to reawaken at four, so he goes back to sleep. A proud man, his confidence is based on a feeling that "sixty years had not dulled his responses, his physical reactions, like his moral ones were guided by his will and strong character." He is determined to get up before Nelson because the "boy was always irked when Mr. Head was the first up." Head's desire to arise before Nelson is a strong example of the multitude of petty conflicts which exist between these two people. Even the trip to town has been planned by Mr. Head in order to teach Nelson a lesson.

Although Mr. Head has been to Atlanta only three times in his life, he attempts to use his prior experiences to intimidate Nelson. Nelson was born in Atlanta, but despite the fact that he was left at age one with his grandfather, he insists that this trip will be his second trip to the city, "and I ain't but ten."

Nelson even suggests that his grandfather may not be able to find his way about, not having been to Atlanta in fifteen years. Mr. Head's response, "Have you ever . . . seen me lost?" leads Nelson (described as a child "never satisfied until he had given an impudent answer") to respond, "It's nowhere around here to get lost at." This reference to being lost will take on new meaning at the end of the story when Mr. Head admits that he is indeed lost — not only in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense also.

Much of the conflict between these two characters arises because they are so much like one another. In fact, O'Connor may well have intended Nelson to function as a Doppelgänger in the story. If you have read Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer," you may recall that Legatt, the murderer who is pulled from the sea by the captain, functions as a Doppelgänger in that story (simply stated, a Doppelgänger is a character designed to act as a reflection of some aspect of the main character's personality or mind). In "The Artificial Nigger," Nelson's personality is a reflection of his grandfather's, and O'Connor is careful to point out this parallel at several places in the story. At one point, for example, she suggests that "they looked enough alike to be brothers and brothers not too far apart in age."

Mr. Head, awakened at 3:30 A.M. by the smell of frying fatback, rushes out to the kitchen to find Nelson already dressed and waiting on him. This "minor disaster," coupled with the image of Nelson in darkness at the beginning of the story, serves to function as a kind of foreshadowing which should signal the alert reader to suspect that Mr. Head's scheme to break Nelson's prideful nature may not be as successful as he had hoped. Attempting to save as much face as possible, Mr. Head tells Nelson, "It's no hurry. . . . You'll be there soon enough and it's no guarantee you'll like it when you do neither" because, as Mr. Head suggests, "It'll be full of niggers," a comment designed to undercut Nelson's self-confidence and to foreshadow the traumatic experiences which the two will undergo in the wicked city.

As they wait for the train to arrive, a "coarse-looking orange-colored sun" (orange, as a color symbol, is indicative of pride and ambition) begins to rise, slowly eclipsing the moon, by whose illusion-creating light Mr. Head was capable of seeing himself as Nelson's moral mentor. Mr. Head, plagued by thoughts that the train may not stop for them (thus causing him to lose face before Nelson), almost decides to return home when the train, "one yellow front light shining," stops for them. You may recall that the color yellow has been used by O'Connor to indicate betrayal in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."

During the train ride to the city, Mr. Head is successful in intimidating Nelson, and O'Connor uses three distinct scenes to show us Mr. Head's success. The first scene involves Nelson's failure to recognize three black people who walk through the car as "niggers." Nelson responds by suggesting that Mr. Head was the one really at fault for Nelson's not recognizing them as "niggers": "You said they were black. . . . You never said they were tan. How do you expect me to know anything when you don't tell me right?" Nelson, believing that the blacks purposely walked through the car to make a fool of him, feels that he can now understand "why his grandfather disliked them."

The second "learning" incident involves Mr. Head's confrontation with a black waiter in the dining car. Attempting to show Nelson the kitchen, Mr. Head is stopped by a black waiter, who announces that "Passengers are NOT allowed in the kitchen!" Mr. Head, "known at home for his quick wit," saves face by loudly responding that the reason for that rule was "the cockroaches would run the passengers out." Nelson, feeling a keen sense of pride in his grandfather, realizes that "he would be entirely alone in the world if he were ever lost from his grandfather."

Finally, when Nelson starts to leave the train at a suburban stop, Mr. Head prevents him from getting off. Even though Mr. Head has gained this knowledge because he himself made the same mistake during one of his trips to Atlanta and had to pay a man to take him on into the city, he does not tell Nelson this fact. Consequently, Nelson, "for the first time in his life . . . understood that his grandfather was indispensable to him."

You might also wish to note at this point that Mr. Head's apparent triumphs occur while the two are on the train. At the end of the story, O'Connor observes that the train, after having dropped off Nelson and Mr. Head, "disappeared like a frightened serpent into the woods." The traditional association of the serpent and Satan in Christian literature, coupled with the yellow light, may, on an anagogical level, indicate that O'Connor is using Mr. Head's apparent success at intimidating Nelson while on the train; she may also be suggesting that the serpent, "the craftiest of all the creatures the Lord God had made," works in mysterious ways even today.

Mr. Head's apparent victory as a "moral guide" begins to turn to ashes even as the two leave the train. Neither of them notices that they have left behind the paper sack containing their lunch, "some biscuits and a can of sardines" (loaves and fishes?).

Spit, as it were, from the train, just as Jonah was vomited forth from the belly of the whale, Mr. Head begins to lead Nelson through the city. Fearful of getting lost, he attempts to keep the train station always in sight; as a consequence, the two travel in a circle reminiscent of Vergil and Dante's journey through the Underworld.

As though O'Connor were deliberately attempting to create a parallel with the three scenes of Mr. Head's apparent victory on the train, she now shows Mr. Head suffering three very real defeats.

Walking the streets around the railway station, Nelson is impressed with the many stores (which they do not enter because Mr. Head got lost in one on his first trip to the city and doesn't want to repeat the experience). In addition, they use a weighing machine (a useless, mechanical, oracle-like "guide") which dispenses their incorrect weights and their "fortunes," and note that Nelson is directed by his card to "beware of dark women."

Finally Nelson is overcome by the glories of the city, and he proclaims, "This is where I come from!" Mr. Head is so appalled that Nelson likes the city that he shows him the entrance to the sewer system, describing it as an endless pitch-black tunnel into which a man might be sucked and never heard from again. Nelson "connected the sewer passages with the entrance to hell and understood for the first time how the world was put together in its lower parts." Nelson is momentarily shaken by this revelation, but he quickly recovers and comments, "You can always stay away from the holes." Mr. Head is unable to eradicate Nelson's enthusiasm for the city.

Mr. Head's second defeat occurs when Nelson notices they have been traveling in circles, and the boy accuses Mr. Head of not knowing where he is going. Determined to find some way of impressing Nelson with the evils of the city, Mr. Head loses sight of the train station, and they accidentally wander into a black neighborhood.

It is here that Nelson runs into the "dark woman" warned of on his fortune-telling card from the weighing machine. Chided by Mr. Head into asking for directions, Nelson approaches a large black woman in order to ask her how to get back to town. Paralyzed by the experience, Nelson "stood drinking in every detail of her," and "he felt as if he were reeling down through a pitchblack tunnel."

Some critics have suggested that Nelson's reaction to the maternity of the black woman before him was intended by O'Connor to depict a kind of prepubescent sexual awakening on Nelson's part. O'Connor, in a letter to a friend, notes that "I meant for her in an almost physical way to suggest the mystery of existence to him — he not only has never seen a nigger but he didn't know any women and I felt that such a black mountain of maternity would give him the required shock to start those black forms moving up from his subconscious."

When Nelson is pulled away from her by Mr. Head, who is embarrassed by Nelson's conduct, a sense of foreboding overcomes him, and he takes hold "of the old man's hand, a sign of dependence that he seldom showed." Because Mr. Head is so concerned with the shame of Nelson's conduct, he does not notice this change in Nelson's attitude. This failure to recognize the change in Nelson leads Mr. Head to commit one last error and to suffer another humiliating defeat.

When the two arrive at the trolley tracks to which the black woman directed them, Mr. Head follows the tracks in the wrong direction. Because Nelson, recovered from his experience with the black woman, has again begun to act sassy toward Mr. Head, Mr. Head decides that he must really teach the boy a lesson.

They finally arrive in a white neighborhood, and Nelson, exhausted by the heat and the long walk, collapses in a heap and falls asleep. Convinced that it is "sometimes necessary to teach a child a lesson he won't forget," Mr. Head conceals himself in an alley and waits for Nelson to wake up. But fearing that Nelson will not awaken in time to catch the train home, Mr. Head kicks a trash can and the noise awakens Nelson. Frightened because he cannot see his grandfather, Nelson begins to run madly down the street with his grandfather in pursuit.

Mr. Head finally catches up to Nelson just as the boy knocks down an elderly lady carrying groceries, and he also goes sprawling onto the pavement. Frightened by the woman's cry for a policeman and finally spotting his grandfather, Nelson "caught him around the hips and clung panting against him." Mr. Head senses what he thinks is the approach of a policeman behind him, and it is precisely at this moment that he commits his greatest sin against the boy. He denies him — "I never seen him before" — at which point "Nelson's fingers fell out of his [grandfather's] flesh."

Shocked and "repulsed by a man who would deny his own image," the crowd falls back, and Mr. Head passes through, seeing nothing before him but "a hollow tunnel that had once been a street." By denying his own flesh, Mr. Head has aligned himself with the sin of the Apostle Peter, who denied knowing Christ. With his third and final defeat, Mr. Head's pride — and not Nelson's pride — is shattered, and he experiences the pangs of guilt.

Walking aimlessly onward, Mr. Head tries to think of some way to soothe the injured Nelson, knowing "the boy was not of a forgiving nature." In desperation, he offers Nelson that most sovereign of all Georgia-patented elixirs, a "Co' Cola," only to have the boy turn and stand with his back to him. Convinced that he will be beaten and robbed if they miss the train, Mr. Head feels that such a fate would justifiably be his, "but he could not stand to think that his sins would be visited upon Nelson." Moving deeper into the depths of despair, Mr. Head finally feels that "if he saw a sewer entrance he would dropdown into it and let himself be carried way."

Startled from his despair by the sound of two barking dogs, Mr. Head sees a man approaching and cries out to him, "I'm lost!" He ends his appeal with the unconscious prayer, "Oh Gawd I'm lost! Oh hep me Gawd I'm lost!" With this admission and appeal for help, Mr. Head's pride has clearly been shattered. He is completely humbled, and he has now, from O'Connor's point of view, reached the moment when he can benefit from God's offer of grace. This moment comes as the two walk toward the suburban station to which the man directed them, and it comes in a truly unexpected way.

Still distressed because Nelson has shown no signs of forgiving him, Mr. Head feels no joy in the prospect of returning home. Then his attention is captured by a battered and paint-chipped lawn ornament, "an artificial nigger."

In a letter to a friend, O'Connor comments, "What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro's suffering for us all." As described in the story, it seems as though Mr. Head and Nelson almost melt into one another's forms — "Mr. Head looked like an ancient child andNelson like a miniature old man." They stand looking at the statue "as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat." As Mr. Head recognizes the action of mercy on Nelson and on himself, he also recognizes that Nelson needs him to say something "to show that he was still wise." Although his trite comment, "They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one," is not the lofty statement he wishes to make, it is sufficient, and Nelson's hatred dissolves, indicated by his suggestion that they return home before they get lost again.

After they return to the clearing near their house, the moonlight imagery reappears, and they find themselves in a clearing with the treetops "fencing the junction like the protecting walls of a garden" (are turn to the rural and almost Eden-like environment, free of the evils of the city). Mr. Head now sees things in a new light. No longer does he see his world as marred by a small dark spot (Nelson, sleeping in the shadows); he now sees that his silver, moonlight-lined world contains dark "clinkers" which glisten "with a fresh black light" (clinkers are the residue that remains when the "useful part" of coal has been burned).

Mr. Head's experience before the "artificial nigger" has humbled him — "Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now" — and he is now capable of seeing that he, too, is composed of a "useful part" of something, as well as "clinkers."

In the next-to-last paragraph of the story, O'Connor provides a description of the effect of the action of grace on Mr. Head. Such a complete explanation is unique in O'Connor's fiction; for that reason, you should be aware that from her point of view the action of grace should produce a similar degree of awareness in the hearts and minds of all her characters who choose to receive this gift from God.

The story ends, then, with the two characters safe in their rural haven. The journey into the wicked city completed, they have both brought back new and useful knowledge. Nelson, as Mr. Head had hoped, no longer sees the place of his birth as something to be overly proud of. He announces, "I'm glad I've went once, but I'll never go back again!" It is Mr. Head, however, who comes back with the greatest knowledge. He has learned that although all people are sinners (having inherited Adam's Original Sin), they are also capable of being redeemed by God's gift of grace.

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