For fans of Flannery O’Connor, “The Displaced Person” is a a short story that occupies a special place, not only because it exhibits her love for peacocks, but because of its more overt religious themes. The story takes place on a farm, the inciting incident being the hiring of a “displaced person” (or refugee) from Poland. O’Connor, a devout Catholic, is one of America’s most famous writers, known for her southern stories of grotesque people encountering beautiful grace.
As the crisis of refugees stepped into the minds of Americans, I decided to reread the story. In the next three posts, covering each of the lengthy story’s three parts, I will analyze the the tale in light of current events through a Christian eye. I invite you to read the story, which is available for free online or in several anthologies of her work.
Part I—Bringing Hell with Us
On a farm in post-WWII Georgia a farm-owner’s widow, Mrs. McIntyre, agrees to let a Catholic priest bring a Polish refugee to work for her. Mr. Guizac, the refugee, relocates with his family. He knows very little English but is the hardest worker she’s ever hired. She contrasts him with the work ethic of both the black and white workers. Mrs. Shortley, a white farm hand and confidant to Mrs. McIntyre, feels threatened by Mr. Guizac’s industriousness, and attempts to persuade Mrs. McIntyre to fire him. On the contrary, Mr. Guizac’s hard work reveals Mr. Shortley’s laziness, and the Shortley’s are fired.
The most obvious irony of part I is that while Mr. Guizac enters as “the displaced person,” it is the Shortleys who are displaced from their home. This story plays on the fears of immigrants coming to America and taking not only our jobs, but even our way of life. An entire American family is uprooted and put in financial straits after the guest arrives. When we first read of Mr. Guizac’s arrival, we are given an intimate description of what is going on in Mrs. Shortley’s mind:
“Mrs. Shortley recalled a newsreel she had seen once of a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up stick ing out, a hand raised clutching nothing[…]This was was happening every day in Europe where they had not advanced as in this country, and watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks, like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?“
It’s a familiar situation for those who fear waves of displaced immigrants and refugees. We hear of the terror of the place they came from, imagine that they brought it with them, or were even contributors to the terror, terrorizers undercover. We don’t know them or their ways, and so we feel we have to err on the side of caution, assuming they are capable of anything. Of course, the Polish immigrant is consistently capable of working hard and staying out of trouble.
The use of the term “displaced” is not coincidental. Under the laws of physics, when one object occupies a space, others have to move out of the way. When the Pole shows up, both the rich landowner and the poorer worker feel threatened by his new presence, his otherness, the change he represents. According to O’Connor scholar Christina Bieber Lake, O’Connor’s stories always displace her readers, using grotesque imagery and situations to make us uncomfortable, remind us of our vulnerability.
We begin with the absurdity of Mrs. Shortly who, while a farmhand’s wife, struts about like she’s queen, ready to defend her territory, looking over the refugee family “the way a buzzard glides.” Shortly enlarges herself by demonizing people she thinks are in her way. Even Holocaust survivors to her are part of the contagion of the Holocaust, and she has no sympathy for them. She links them as people with the horror sight and nothing else. Her caricature is meant to displace us from our own fears of the other.
This is done masterfully when, as Mrs. Shortly realizes that skin color is not enough to displace the humanity of the Polish in her mind, she resorts to language barriers. When she hears that another Polish family might come,
“She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel. God save me, she cried silently, from the stinking power of Satan! And she started from that day to read her Bible with a new attention. She poured over the Apocalypse and began to quote from the Prophets and before long she had come to a deeper understanding of her existence. She saw plainly that the meaning of the world was a mystery that had been planned and she was not surprised to suspect that she had a special part in the plan because she was strong.”
In this deeply insightful passage, we see the mind of an ignorant, frightful, selfish person at work, processing fear and abusing the power of scripture to make a weapon out of that fear. Her ethnic and patriotic self-importance and security is attacked by otherness, and she becomes paranoid, reading her own fears into the scriptures. Jesus is not to be found in her own private religion.
Mrs. Shortley’s own displacement from the farm isn’t just a kind of divine punishment for her selfishness, but a consequence of her husband’s own sloth. Because he takes for granted his privilege as an American farm worker who 1)isn’t a negro and 2)isn’t a genocide survivor, he has chosen a life of laziness and diverted work. Mrs. Shortley is blind to her husband’s self-imposed inefficiency, and the industrious immigrant becomes her scapegoat. Ironically, when she appeals to a shrewd employer, that employer is wise enough to see that, for purely economical reasons, the Polish family is more beneficial to have around than the American family.
Thus, O’Connor demonstrates that the Shortley family, tough born and having lived in the same place, suffer displacement as a a consequence of rejecting Grace. Mrs. Shortely’s ungratefulness, arrogance, racism, and inability to share place leads to her being displaced by someone from another country who suffered a most cruel displacement, yet works most gratefully and, as we shall see, is more racially “enlightened.”
And little do the others know, just after her departure, Mrs. Shortley suffers a stroke, apparently so emotionally displaced her mind itself seems to leave the earth to go to the place she really belongs.
[Continue to part II]
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