Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”: Part II

Part II—All the Colorful, Useless Peafowl
[Read part I here]

In part two of O’Connor’s story, Mrs. Shortley has left the farm and Mrs. McIntyre is left with the displaced Pole and her black workers. We’re given more insight into her character through her conversations with the older farmhand, Astor. While Astor remembers well her husband, the Judge, Mrs. McIntyre is haunted by her late husband. Astor has noticed two things: The decline of the peacocks and the incline of Mrs. McIntyre’s greed.

peacock_milwaukee_county_zooAstor demonstrates wisdom in both acknowledging the beauty of the peacocks and his relationship to Mrs. McIntyre.  He is careful of what he says around her, but tries to sneak in her late husband’s wisdom. And like the priest, he appreciates the peacocks, beautiful birds Mrs. McIntyre neglected because of their uselessness. The peacocks embody the beautiful unwelcome problems, birds that are just another mouth to feed in the books, and whose value must be placed beyond the money ledger. But Mrs. McIntyre does not have an eye for beauty, because her eye rests on her being the center of the universe.

While Mrs. Shortley treated the negro workers like children with “limitations,” Mrs. McIntyre is somewhat more affectionate with them. Yet her comparative fondness for negroes is only so deep. As Astor kindly points out to her, “black and white…is the same.” For Mrs. McIntyre, however, negroes are merely a tradition of cheap, reliable work.

“What you colored people don’t realize,” she said, “is that I’m the one around here who holds all the strings together. If you don’t work, I don’t make any money and I can’t pay you. You’re all dependent on me but you each and everyone one act like the shoe is on the other foot.”

It should be clear to her that she is just reliant on their work. A farm doesn’t produce without workers. While Mr. Guizac works harder than anyone on the farm ever had, and manages the negro workers more than Mrs. McIntyre ever could, her bigotry is a smokescreen that blinds her to the irony of her own worldview. “Do you know what’s happen­ing to this world? It’s swelling up. It’s getting so full of people that only the smart thrifty energetic ones are going to survive.” If she lived out her belief, she would respect the Pole’s efforts to work hard and be a good citizen. But instead, her words seem to reflect on herself. Being a white landowner, her land is hers, and everyone else is swelling up her world. Like peacocks, their population should just dwindle.

Mr. Guizac brings out the worst in everybody. As he assumes authority over Astor and Sulk, the two workers grieve that they are worked too hard. Feeling a sense of obligation to her negroes, as well as the economic benefit of working them for less, the widow begins to feel her own economy is threatened by Guizac. When she finds out that Sulk, the younger black worker, has been paying Guizac to have his daughter flown over to marry Sulk, she is enraged. Her motives clash. Is she really fond of her negro workers, or fond of using them? For she cannot stand the idea of the Pole’s daughter marrying a “nigger.” Mrs. McIntyre arrives at the conclusion that “they’re all the same,” meaning that all her workers are a threat to her personal economy and worldview, but ironically revealing a fundamental truth about all humanity that the Pole and the priest have accepted: All people are the same.

As she rebukes the Pole for his plans to bring his daughter to America to marry a black man, she declares, “I am not responsible for the world’s misery,” as if the charge was laid against her and she needed to defend herself. Because she did not cause the Holocaust in Europe, she feels no responsibility for those who were displaced. She washes her hands of anyone’s suffering, even though her firm belief that the world is overcrowded by people less than her eerily echoes the lebensraum rhetoric of Nazi Germany that produced the Holocaust.

It is the Holocaust, of course, that has given the Guizac family the perspective Mrs. McIntyre is lacking. When challenged about the ethnicity of his daughter’s groom, his response is simple. “‘She no care black,’ he said. ‘She in camp three year.'” When you’ve been through Hell because of your race, and you feel lucky to be alive, a racial objection to marriage is absurd. While Mrs. Shortley was terrified of the Holocaust somehow coming here along with the Poles, Mrs. McIntyre seems to gloss it over as if it isn’t even a thing, almost like a Holocaust denier.

Those who neglect the causality of tragedy tend to neglect confronting the causes of tragedy. There is a link between Mrs. McInty’re failure to listen to the refugee and her assumption that the refugee is “ungrateful.” While taking his labor for granted, she irrationally interprets his enlightened attitude as some sort of stubborn ungratefulness. Because he does not fit into her tiny worldview, he has become like one of the farm peacocks. She is unable to see the grace, but only grace’s interference with her specific vision. Yet her very world vision is a cause of her taking part in the world’s miseries, as we shall clearly see in part III.

[Read part III here]

2 responses to “Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”: Part II

  1. Pingback: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”: Part I | CALEB COY

  2. Pingback: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”: Part III | CALEB COY

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