O'Connor's Short Stories By Flannery O'Connor Summary and Analysis "The Displaced Person"

As we noted in discussing "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," O'Connor was able to make use of events which occurred around Milledgeville or else were reported in the newspapers and magazines which she read. The first version of "The Displaced Person" appears to have been at least partly inspired by two incidents; first, by a 1949 newspaper story about the Jeryczuks (a refugee family), who had settled on a dairy farm near Milledgeville; and second, by the arrival of a refugee family in 1951, who were hired to work at Andalusia, O'Connor's mother's dairy farm. In a letter to her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, O'Connor reported that "Mrs. P.," the wife of the dairyman who worked for Mrs. O'Connor, asked, "Do you think they'll [the refugees] know what colors even is?"

This sentence and the incident which provoked it (the making of curtains from different colored feed sacks for the tenant house) were moved almost verbatim into the story. Even Mr. Shortley's comment, "I ain't going to have the Pope of Rome tell me how to run no dairy," appears to have its origins in events which occurred in September of 1951. In another letter to the Fitzgeralds, O'Connor writes, "They are having conventions all over the place and making resolutions and having the time of their lives. You'd think the Pope was about to annex the Sovereign State of Georgia."

The first version of "The Displaced Person," published in 1954, concentrates on Mrs. Shortley's growing fear of and hatred for the Guizacs and the unknown culture and religion which they represent. Mrs. Shortley associates the Guizacs with the victims of the World War II death camps, pictures of which she saw in local newsreels; she fears that the Guizacs might be capable of committing the same acts of violence against others. She even imagines that the priest who arranges for the Guizacs to come to the farm is an evil force who came "to plant the Whore of Babylon in the midst of the righteous." (Some fundamentalist religious groups commonly refer to the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon.)

Because Mr. Guizac proves to be a much better worker than Mr. Shortley, Mrs. McIntyre tells the priest that she has decided to give the Shortleys a month's notice. Mrs. Shortley overhears this conversation and orders her family to pack. As they are leaving the following dawn, Mrs. Shortley dies of a heart attack in the car.

O'Connor describes Mrs. Shortley's death by suggesting that Mrs. Shortley's vision of her "true country" (the afterlife) might be coming from "inside her"; then, O'Connor further depicts Mrs. Shortley's death by using the same imagery which Mrs. Shortley associated with the death camps in Europe — a confused intermingling of body parts and piles of corpses. There is a certain irony in O'Connor's noting that the Shortley girls do not realize that their mother has undergone a "great experience" or has been "displaced in the world from all that belonged to her." It is also ironic that it is Mr. Guizac, the frail, foreign, displaced person, who displaces the mountainous Mrs. Shortley and who serves as the catalyst which forces her to "contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country."

By describing Mrs. Shortley in the first paragraph of the 1954 version of the story as having a stomach upon which the sign "DAMNATION TO THE EVIL-DOER. YOU WILL BE UNCOVERED" might have been painted, O'Connor leads the reader to recall the words of Christ in the seventh chapter of Matthew: "God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others."

The conclusion of the story, then, suggests that Mrs. Shortley has received her just reward and has been uncovered as the evil-doer standing in danger of damnation. O'Connor, however, was obviously not satisfied to let the story end here because she expanded and changed the focus of the story before it was published as the final selection in her first volume of short stories.

The addition of all the references to the peacock, the few lines needed to prepare the reader for the displaced person's attempt to marry his cousin to Sulk, and the few minor stylistic modifications which O'Connor made are the only changes which she made in the original story in order to integrate it into the longer version. Although the changes may appear minor, the manner in which they are handled produces a profound change in the tone of the story.

The 1954 version of the story begins, "Mrs. Shortley . . ."; the final version begins, "The peacock . . ." O'Connor once noted that the peacock represents the eyes of the Church, but one does not need to be familiar with O'Connor's particular point of view in order to appreciate the image of the peacock in the story.

For centuries, the peacock has been associated with immortality and has been employed as one of the standard symbols within the Christian tradition. In the second paragraph of the story, we see the peacock's attention "fixed in the distance on something no one else could see." Any reader who realizes that this image is associated with that of the sun/son "which was creeping behind a ragged wall of cloud as if it pretended to be an intruder" and realizes that it is ignored by Mrs. Shortley, "the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was," will, if he is familiar with O'Connor's fiction, know that he is about to be treated to another story in which the profane world is to be penetrated by the sacred.

In the final version of the story, Mrs. Shortley is the first human character introduced, and it is through her eyes that we perceive the initial sequence of events. Consequently, we come to know her as O'Connor uses her character to establish the setting of the story and to outline the social order which Mr. Guizac will disrupt.

The dairy farm is owned by Mrs. McIntyre, thus putting her at the top of the miniature society. Mrs. Shortley sees herself as next in line because she knows that Mrs. McIntyre would not talk to her about "poor white trash" if she considered Mrs. Shortley to be trashy. Mr. Shortley, who had "never in his life doubted her omniscience," stands next in the hierarchy, followed by the Shortley children, and then by the two black workers, Astor and Sulk.

It is a society which has learned to function smoothly because all of its members have tacitly agreed to overlook the corruption of the other members in exchange for their overlooking others' corruption. Both Mr. Shortley and the black men operate illegal stills, but "there had never been any disagreeableness between them" because they all know and abide by their tacit agreement. When Mr. Guizac, not a member of this society, catches the young Sulk stealing a turkey, Mrs. McIntyre has to go to great lengths to explain to him that "all Negroes would steal," and the incident is dropped.

Mrs. Shortley, "the giant wife of the countryside," is primarily concerned with preserving the sanctity of her position and with maintaining the stability of her small domain. Her mental limitations are such that she cannot understand the special circumstances of the poor refugees from Europe, and she considers them to be "only hired help," like her family and the black men. Because she is a woman of determination, self-confidence, and limited perception, she cannot imagine that she and her family will be the ones displaced by the Guizacs.

Consequently, when Mr. Guizac proves to be an admirable worker and impresses Mrs. McIntyre with his ability, Mrs. Shortley, feeling her society threatened, tells her husband, "I aim to take up for the niggers when the time comes." She even holds back a secret which she feels "would floor Mrs. McIntyre" and restore everything to normalcy. However, when she overhears Mrs. McIntyre tell the priest that the Shortleys will be given a month's notice, her world crumbles and she dies shortly thereafter.

With the introduction of the peacock in the final version of the story, O'Connor is able to provide a way of ranking the spiritual level of her major characters. She does this by noting their reaction to the peacock that "stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all." For the priest, who functions as the touchstone against which Mrs. McIntyre and Mrs. Shortley are measured, the peacock is a "beautiful birdrrrd," with "a tail full of suns." Later, the priest is "transfixed" when the peacock suddenly spreads its tail; he comments, "Christ will come like that," and later, he observes the peacock and murmurs, "The Transfiguration."

To Mrs. Shortley, "religion was essentially for those who didn't have the brains to avoid evil without it," and thus the bird was "nothing but a peachicken." Even when the tail of the bird with its all-seeing eyes is placed directly before her and the reader is informed that Mrs. Shortley "might have been looking at a map of the universe," she stands with unseeing eyes because "she was having an inner vision instead." It is only after Mrs. McIntyre has announced, concerning Mr. Guizac, "That man is my salvation," that Mrs. Shortley turns to religion and allows her inner vision to lead her to prophesy: "The children of wicked nations will be butchered." Her prophecy continues with a description of the dislocation of body parts, a reference to a newsreel footage she has seen. Ironically, it is Mrs. Shortley's death — not the death of Mr. Guizac — which closely resembles the "inner vision" which she has been given.

For Mrs. McIntyre, who tells the priest, "I'm not theological, I'm practical," the peacock serves to remind her of her marriage to the Judge, her first husband. Although when he died he left only a bankrupt estate, O'Connor tells us that the three years that he lived after he and Mrs. McIntyre were married were "the happiest and most prosperous of Mrs. McIntyre's life." The gradual decline of the flock marks the decline of Mrs. McIntyre's ability to love anyone or anything for itself; but the very fact that she has kept the peafowl around, if for no more than "a superstitious fear of annoying the Judge in his grave," aligns her more closely with the priest rather than with the Shortleys. In addition, even though her motive for accepting Mr. Guizac may be primarily economic, and even though she may not understand him, she does not have the irrational hatred of the Guizacs which marks the attitude of the Shortleys.

If Part I of the story belongs to Mrs. Shortley, the second half belongs to Mrs. McIntyre, and O'Connor then further subdivides Part II of the story into two halves. The first half of Part II is used to develop Mrs. McIntyre's character; the second half of Part II is used to reveal the secret which Mrs. Shortley felt "would floor Mrs. McIntyre."

To develop Mrs. McIntyre's character, O'Connor uses an extended conversation between her and old Astor. The character of Astor was based, as she wrote to a friend, on an old black employee of her mother: "The old man is 84 but vertical or more or less so. He doesn't see too good and the other day he fertilized some of my mother's bulbs with worm medicine for the calves." Her personal affection for this old man may be one factor which helps to account for the fact that his character is not present at the moment of Guizac's accident. In terms of the story, he is the only other person on the farm who remembers the Judge, and he has seen the change in Mrs. McIntyre, a change marked by the steadily declining number of peafowl on the farm and by a steadily increasing materialism on the part of Mrs. McIntyre.

In the second half of Part II, Mrs. McIntyre learns that Mr. Guizac has been receiving money from Sulk, the younger black worker on the farm. The money is to be used to pay half of the fare needed to bring Mr. Guizac's female cousin to America. In exchange for that financial help, the cousin is to become Sulk's wife.

The secret which Mrs. Shortley had been keeping to herself does indeed "floor" Mrs. McIntyre. She goes into the house, takes to her bed, and presses her "hand over her heart as if she were trying to keep it in place." Mrs. McIntyre is made of sterner stuff than Mrs. Shortley, though, and in a few moments, she decides that "They're all the same," a reference to all the irresponsible hired help she has had in the past.

Following a brief cry, she retires to the back hall, the place where the Judge's old desk is located: "It was a kind of memorial to him, sacred because he had conducted his business there." As if to emphasize Mrs. McIntyre's worship of material things, O'Connor describes the room as being "dark and quiet as a chapel." The desk has a "small safe, empty but locked, set like a tabernacle in the center of it." (In Roman Catholic churches and in a number of Eastern churches, the tabernacle is the focal point of the altar because it is the receptacle which houses the Host, the communion bread, used during the Mass.) By using this scene, O'Connor manages to describe both the physical poverty and the spiritual poverty of Mrs. McIntyre. A few minutes later, moving "as if she had gained some strength," she drives to the cornfield to confront Mr. Guizac.

Mrs. McIntyre's confrontation with Mr. Guizac is prefaced and concluded by O'Connor's use of graveyard imagery. We see Mr. Guizac cutting silage "from the outside of the field in a circular path to the center where the graveyard was," and at the end of section two of Part II, we are told that by nightfall, Mr. Guizac will have worked his way to the center of the field "where the Judge lay grinning under his desecrated monument." Mrs. McIntyre, her arms folded (an image which connects her with Mrs. Shortley), waits until Mr. Guizac comes over to her and then produces the picture which she took from Sulk. She informs Mr. Guizac that he cannot bring the girl to America and marry her to a black man: "Maybe it can be done in Poland but it can't be done here and you'll have to stop." You should note at this point that her first appeal is based on the assumption that a person cannot overturn the rules governing traditions and the organization of the small society of which she is the head. Mr. Guizac, thinking that the problem may be the young age of the girl in the picture, tells Mrs. McIntyre that the picture is an old one and that the girl is now sixteen. She then threatens to dismiss him if he mentions the girl again to Sulk.

As Mr. Guizac struggles to understand Mrs. Mcintyre's objections, she recalls one of the poisonous comments made by Mrs. Shortley, who had insisted that Guizac understood everything and only pre-tended not to "so as to do exactly as he pleases." Mr. Guizac's suggestion that "She no care black. . . . She in camp three year" causes Mrs. McIntyre to shift her argument. By claiming that the place is hers and by stating firmly that she is not responsible for the world's misery, Mrs. McIntyre moves away from what O'Connor would have considered a proper response. Man, according to Christian tradition, is placed as a caretaker of this world only, not as an owner of it; just as we bring nothing into this world, it is equally certain that we take nothing from it. More importantly, however, Mrs. McIntyre has failed to extend proper charity to Mr. Guizac, ignoring the admonition of Christ, "whatsoever ye do unto the least of these my brethren, ye do unto me."

Part II of the story closes on an ambivalent note, with Mrs. McIntyre described as standing and looking out at Mr. Guizac "as if she were watching him through a gunsight," and, later, she stands with her arms folded "as if she were equal to anything." Mrs. McIntyre is, however, also described as having "an aging cherubic face" and a heart "beating as if some interior violence had already been done to her." The cherubic face image appears to be used to tie her to the "naked granite cherub" which the Judge brought home "partly because its face had reminded him of his wife," a woman whom the Judge realized at once "admired him for himself." The cherub had been placed on the Judge's grave, and, later, it was stolen by one of the tenant families Mrs. McIntyre had hired. "Mrs. McIntyre had never been able to afford to have it replaced," a possible indication that her concern for others has been replaced by materialistic considerations. The folded-arm image, which we earlier associated with Mrs. Shortley, and the gunsight image appear to be used as foreshadowing images.

The final section of the story, until the death of Mr. Guizac, continues to focus on Mrs. McIntyre's inner conflict with Mr. Guizac. Although she marshals many arguments to demonstrate that Mr. Guizac "doesn't fit in" and that she herself is under "no legal obligation" to keep him, she is unable to bring herself to dismiss Mr. Guizac because he is an extremely capable worker and because the priest has suggested that she has a moral obligation to keep him: "She felt she must have this out with the priest before she fired the Displaced Person."

Although Mrs. McIntyre's confrontations with the priest and Mr. Shortley's conversations with Sulk add a note of humor to Mrs. McIntyre's conflict, you should not overlook the serious undercurrent which is at play throughout this final section of the story. Clearly, the priest points the way toward salvation, and just as clearly, Mr. Shortley points the way toward the road to damnation.

Although Mrs. McIntyre finally tells the priest, "as far as I'm concerned . . . Christ was just another D.P.," she still cannot bring herself to fire Guizac, and the outer manifestation of her inner struggle is perfectly clear to Mr. Shortley, who notices that "she looked as if something were wearing her down from the inside." At least part of Mrs. McIntyre's difficulty comes because "she had never discharged anyone before; they had all left her."

Finally, driven by a dream in which she sees herself overcoming the priest's objections and insisting that Mr. Guizac is just "one too many," Mrs. McIntyre decides to give Guizac his month's notice. The following morning, however, she goes to the barn, but she is still unable to fire the Pole and so she settles for the assertion, "This is my place. . . . All of you are extra."

Mr. Shortley's role in the story is made unmistakably clear at this point. While Mrs. McIntyre is talking to Mr. Guizac, "she saw a long beak-nosed shadow slide like a snake halfway up the sunlit open door and stop." Because Mrs. McIntyre failed to fire the Pole, Mr. Shortley takes his case to the people of the town: "Since he didn't have Mrs. Shortley to do the talking any more, he had started doing it himself and had found that he had a gift for it. He had the power of making other people see his logic" (like the serpent in Eden, perhaps). When Mrs. McIntyre discovers that everyone in town knows Mr. Shortley's version of her business and that everyone is "critical of her conduct," she convinces herself that she has "a moral obligation" to fire Mr. Guizac.

The following morning, she goes out to fire Guizac, and O'Connor tells us that "the countryside seemed to be receding from the little circle of noise around the shed." This description appears designed to cause the reader to recall "the sky full of white fish [frequently used as a symbol of Christ] carried lazily on their sides" (therefore, dead or belly up), and pieces of the sun "washed in the opposite direction," which appear on the Sunday afternoon that Mrs. Shortley has her inner vision of butchery. In both instances, nature is seen to draw back from the evil which is about to occur.

As she stands waiting for Sulk and Mr. Shortley to get "out of the way" before she begins "her unpleasant duty," Mrs. McIntyre becomes a witness to — and an accomplice in — the death of Mr. Guizac: He is killed in a tractor accident which she witnesses. Later, she remembers that "she had started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not. She 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 then she fainted.

After she comes to, Mrs. McIntyre sees the priest give Mr. Guizac final communion, but "her mind was not taking hold of all that was happening. She felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger while the dead man was carried away in the ambulance."

Mr. Guizac's death destroys both Mrs. McIntyre's farm and her health. All of her help leaves, and she is hospitalized with "a nervous affliction." Upon her return home, she is forced to sell all her cattle at a loss and retire to live on "what she had, while she tried to save her declining health." Paradoxically, it is the loss of the material things which she valued too highly that appears to open the door to her spiritual well-being. Although the story does not end with her conversion, the circumstances which surround her suggest that in her chastened condition, it cannot be long in coming. Left in the care of an old black woman, she is rarely visited by anyone but the old priest who comes once a week to feed bread crumbs to the peacock and then comes into the house to "sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church."

Some critics have found "The Displaced Person" to be less effective than many of O'Connor's other stories because they feel that it contains a structural weakness caused by her addition of the last two sections of the story. Although we may readily admit that this story is, like any other story of merit, open to any number of different interpretations, an examination of what O'Connor called "the added dimension" (the anagogical intent) of the story shows it to be much more unified than some critics have chosen to admit. Therefore, let us look briefly at what appears to be the added dimension of this story.

As the final story in her first collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, one might reasonably expect to find an example of a truly "good man" in it. That good man is, of course, Mr. Guizac, the Displaced Person. He, however, is not the only person displaced in this story. At the end of Part I, Mrs. Shortley is "displaced in the world from all that belonged to her." At the end of the story, Mrs. McIntyre feels as if she is "in some foreign country" where she is a stranger. By his death, Mr. Guizac is displaced from his new home, and by the end of the story, all those attached to the McIntyre farm have been dispersed. Assuming, then, that the story deals with the human person displaced, one can observe a unity within the story which explains it within the framework of O'Connor's world view.

Mrs. Shortley, the ignorant and self-centered enemy of Mr. Guizac, distorts both the countryside and religion to serve her purposes. She is hardly "the faithful servant" for she takes advantage of her employer, and she shows no compassion for those less fortunate than herself. By extension, of course, Mr. Shortley is a part of his wife's world. That her ultimate destination appears to be damnation should come as no surprise to the reader.

Mr. Guizac, on the other hand, is the model of "the faithful servant"; he toils diligently for his employer, and he shows compassion for his fellow beings, as illustrated by his attempt to bring his cousin to America. At his death, he receives communion, and the assumption is that his end is a good one.

The case of Mrs. McIntyre is much more ambiguous. During the course of the story, we see her being driven by materialistic greed; but during the Judge's lifetime, she was happy, and he associated her with the granite cherub. But Mrs. McIntyre partakes of many of the negative aspects of Mrs. Shortley. She is self-centered and vain, although she is not as ignorant and as suspicious of the Guizacs as Mrs. Shortley is. Mrs. McIntyre cannot bring herself to fire Mr. Guizac; instead, she becomes a quiet conspirator in his death.

When one concentrates on the anagogical level of the story, it would appear that O'Connor has presented the consequences of human conduct in a world where all people are displaced from the home which was originally intended for them. Mrs. Shortley is condemned, Mrs. McIntyre is shown undergoing a kind of living purgatory, and Mr. Guizac, as a good man, is presumably granted a spiritual reward for his faithful service.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How did O'Connor's religion affect her stories?




Quiz