(Preface: I love Flannery O’Connor. Read her.)
Flannery O’Connor is one of the most regionally specific writers I can think of. She’s up there with Jhumpa Lahiri or Steinbeck (India & Boston and Central California, respectively.) Flannery’s stories all take place in the South and are about Southern people and the values they may or may not possess. Flannery O’Connor hated the south and I love her for it. Raised in the south, she went away to the University of Iowa to study creative writing, but had to return to her family’s farm in Georgia after being diagnosed with Lupus. She was a devout Roman Catholic, which I think really informs her understanding of human nature. She’s part of the “Southern Gothic” subgenre, which is characterized by a critique of southern values.
At this point, you might think I’ve forgotten this is a transnational lit class, however, I have not. O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person” tells the story of a farm run by a widow that employs both black and white farmhands. The woman’s pastor has arranged for her to hire a family of Holocaust survivors, the Guizacs, termed “displaced people,” coming from Poland after WWII. The father of the family is quite good at his job and has a variety of skills that the other white farmhand does not have. The widow eventually fires the white farmhand so that she can pay the D.P. more, to incentivize him to stay. The wife of the white farmhand has a stroke the day they have to leave the farm. The widow finds out the DP (to use O’Connor’s abbreviation) wants to bring one of his cousins to the US, securing her green card by marrying her to a black farmhand. The widow freaks out and intends to fire him. When she goes to fire him, he is run over by a tractor, which is sort of crazy. The widow dies lonely and destitute. This all occurs because the transnational enters the regional.
This story deals with both xenophobia and racism. Until the point that the white farmhand is fired, the story focuses on the white farmhand’s wife, Mrs. Shortley, who is friends with the widow, Mrs. McIntyre. After they are fired, the focus switches to Mrs. McIntryre. Both women are extremely ignorant but insanely self righteous. Mrs. Shortley repeatedly says the DP cannot talk. The entire Guizac family can speak of course, they just don’t speak English. Shortley believes that their inability to speak English translates to an inability to drive a tractor or, strangely, tell that their curtains are made of red and green burlap, and so they don’t match. She also tells McIntyre that the Guizacs probably speak more English than they’re letting on, they just want to pretend to not understand so they can do whatever they like. Shortley is concerned about the stability of her husband’s job, and is suspicious of the pastor’s motivations in placing the Guizac’s at the farm.
McIntyre is in denial of the severity of the Holocaust. This is made evident when she finds out that father Guizac has plans to bring his cousin over to marry a farmhand. She says, “You would bring this poor innocent child over her and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you!” O’Connor is being heavy handed, because the cousin has literally been in three different concentration camps, subjected to the monster that was Hitler, but I think that her use of subject and situation makes the story intelligent and readable, rather than a straightforward tale of morality. She later says, “My obligation is to the people who’ve done something for their country, not to the ones who’ve just come over to take advantage of what they can get.” and repeatedly mentions how ungrateful the Guizac’s are of her hospitality.
I think what strikes me in this story is the conflict between these women’s racism and their fear of immigrants. Shortley hates the Guizacs because they are better workers than any of the “american” farmhands, black or white. McIntyre loves the immigrants until they do not share her racist ideas, at which point she attempts to get rid of them, saying that they don’t deserve her help. As I’ve reread this story, and now writing this, I just have to wonder; has anything changed? Sure, the homelands of the immigrants are different now, but fear of the other and racism are still present today. The judgement in O’Connor’s story is clear—Shortley dies, McIntyre loses her entire staff and dies alone, knowing she caused the death of a Holocaust survivor. Again, it’s heavy handed, but maybe it needs to be.