Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s The Artificial Nigger

The Artificial Nigger focuses on several themes that recur in Flannery O’Connor‘s (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) fiction. It features tension between generations (an adult, Mr. Head, who is determined to prove his intellectual ability over a child); it discusses racial prejudice and overblown human egos; and, finally, its ending offers redemption and personal understanding about life to its protagonists.

“The Artificial Nigger” begins with Mr. Head’s decision to teach his grandson, Nelson, a lesson about the wicked city. The precocious child, almost his grandfather’s mirror image, doubts that Mr. Head actually knows much at all about the place on which he claims to be an expert. By defiant retorts and aggressive actions, Nelson suggests the fallibility of his grandfather and defies his adult authority. In return, the old man angrily asserts his higher intelligence (a character trait symbolized by his unusual name) by stressing the child’s lack of experience—a fact heightened by Nelson’s inability to recognize a Black, whom Mr. Head considers not only lower class but part of the darkness and evil ways of Atlanta. Mr. Head also attempts to elicit Nelson’s approval and respect through his ability to prevent them from getting lost during the visit.

During their train ride, Mr. Head deliberately takes out his hostility toward Nelson by demeaning the boy’s abilities and by suggesting his total unpreparedness for the corruption that awaits them at their journey’s end. When they confront a large black/mulatto man on the train, Mr. Head is quick to exploit the boy’s naïveté, his innocence regarding racial identity and the prejudice that accompanies it. Thus the boy is made to feel inferior, like the Black, a parallel O’Connor develops in detail later in the story.

Flannery O’Connor/Britannica

Other incidents on the train, however, indicate that it is Mr. Head as well as Nelson whose knowledge is limited. His constant talking and loud assertions are embarrassing as well as indicative of his bravado rather than his command of experiences. His prideful actions establish him as a know-it-all whose claims of expertise are questionable at best. Nonetheless, Nelson seems convinced that he would be lost without the old man’s help and guidance.

When the two finally arrive in Atlanta, Mr. Head nervously begins to act as tour guide, pointing out the enticements the place offers and the intricacies of his knowledge of the city. He authoritatively points out weight machines that predict human destiny (“Beware of dark women”) as well as a sewer system with dark tunnels that he hopes will bewilder and scare Nelson properly. O’Connor uses characteristic religious symbolism in depicting Nelson’s association of the city sewers with “the place where I came from,” thus acknowledging that the source of his humanness is in the muck and refuse rather than in the pristine country. Such acknowledgment of one’s original sin is reminiscent of such Nathaniel Hawthorne stories as “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux,” in which a similar innocent is initiated into the ways of the world.

Unfortunately, Mr. Head refuses to acknowledge his own association with this hell-like environment, labeling it instead a “nigger-heaven” where only those of inferior social status belong. Having lost his way and wandered into a totally black area of Atlanta, he begins to see his own shortcomings and hesitates to lower himself further by asking directions from a race of people whom he despises.

Even this small act of self-humiliation proves beyond him as he forces Nelson to fulfill this task, in the process encountering the dark woman of his fortune. Again Nelson is made to feel less than adequate, and he dismisses rather than follows the accurate advice. The two proceed to wander aimlessly, following streetcar tracks in hopes of finding the train that will take them home.

O’Connor is not finished, however, for although Nelson has grown considerably and experienced a rite of passage, Mr. Head has not undergone a similar transformation. After Mr. Head cruelly leaves Nelson asleep on a curb in a white neighborhood, in an attempt to teach the self-confident little boy a lesson, the child awakens suddenly and runs in terror, seeking the security of his grandfather’s presence. The practical joke having backfired, Mr. Head races after him but seconds later further alienates the child by denying he knows him.

This treachery or denial, of course, is not unpunished, for Nelson reciprocates the isolation and coldness and leaves Mr. Head feeling forlorn and guilty at his rejection of his own flesh and blood. As the sun begins to set, he is suddenly illuminated with a truth similar to the one Nelson has already acknowledged: “He is lost and cannot find his way.” Finally depicting Mr. Head’s redemption from his prideful nature, the story closes with the “artificial nigger” of the title—a plaster statue that appears in a front yard. By emphasizing the statue’s combination of a wry smile and an expression of misery, O’Connor suggests its appeal to both Nelson and Mr. Head: It allows them vicariously to see their own lowness and to understand that only through mercy and forgiveness can humankind cope with suffering.

Although the story begins in darkness and ends with a sunset, the author again affirms her belief that positives can overcome negatives. Surprisingly, in this story the penalty for attaining self-knowledge is not a character’s death, as it normally is in O’Connor’s fiction, but rather the symbolic death of an “old Adam,” the foolish one who asserts personal superiority over others, whether black or white, young or old.

Analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Major Works
Novels: Wise Blood, 1952; The Violent Bear It Away, 1960.
Miscellaneous: Collected Works, 1988.
Nonfiction: Mystery and Manners, 1969; The Habit of Being: Letters, 1979; The Presence of Grace, 1983; The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and Brainard Cheneys, 1986.

Bibliography
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982.
Bacon, Jon Lance. Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Cash, Jean W. Flannery O’Connor: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 2002.
Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Enjolras, Laurence. Flannery O’Connor’s Characters. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995.



Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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