Generally agreed to be one of Flannery O’Connor’s best stories as well as an excellent entrée to her work, “The Displaced Person” offers all the major hallmarks of the first-rate story. It first appeared in Sewanee Review in 1954. Echoing throughout the story is the phrase displaced person: Although the term initially refers to Mr. Guizac, the literal socalled D.P., a refugee from Poland, by the end of the story we realize that everyone—including the reader—is a displaced person at some point, severed by race, class, or gender prejudice from the mainstream community. Other major O’Connor themes support the story, as well: the South, the Catholic faith, and her use of the grotesque.
“The Displaced Person” begins as Mr. Guizac, the displaced foreigner, appears in a southern rural area where class and color lines are already in place. He finds work with Mrs. McIntyre, who, as owner of the farm, considers herself superior to Mr. and Mrs. Short ley, the poor whites, and to the “Negroes,” Sulk and Astor, all four of whom work for her. The Shortleys dislike and distrust the industrious Mr. Guizac, who, they fear, will take their place on the farm. As Ann Charters notes, their suspicious, fear-driven attitude is the American version of those in Europe who would put people like Mr. Guizac in concentration camps. Mrs. Shortley thus forms an unlikely alliance across color lines with Sulk and Astor in an attempt to shore up the position of her and her husband.
Mrs. Shortley’s fears prove well grounded. Mrs. McIntyre, impressed with Mr. Guizac’s willing devotion to farm work, decides to fire the Shortleys and replace them permanently with Mr. Guizac. Initially the two women seem to be FOILs; O’Connor gradually reveals to us, however, that despite their different social positions, Mrs. McIntyre (ironically, “entire” only in her complete self-interest) and Mrs. Shortley (short on compassion) are linked through their egotism and selfishness (Paulson 64). Mrs. Shortley, on the verge of escaping the farm before she is literally replaced, dies a violent death that recalls the concentration camp pictures she has seen in a newsreel. In her displacement and violent death, she begins to understand suffering. With
Mrs. Shortley’s death, Mrs. McIntyre’s problems would appear to have ended: Mr. Guizac is helping her to modernize the farm into a model of efficiency. However, she learns that, to save his niece from the concentration camp, he plans to bring her over to marry Sulk. Since Mrs. McIntyre cannot abide the thought of interracial marriage (racism temporarily overrides self-interest here), she forms another unlikely alliance, this time with Mr. Shortley, on whom devolves the responsibility to devise a way to kill Mr. Guizac. As we hear the sounds of the dying Mr. Guizac, crushed under the tractor wheel, we see Mrs. McIntyre and Mr. Shortley joined in their responsibility for Guizac’s death. Their collaboration is shortlived, though, and Mrs. McIntyre ultimately is left with no one to help her but Astor and his wife, and the priest. Forced to sell off all the farm equipment, she is literally left with nothing but a place.
Many critics view the priest as the central consciousness of this tale. He, along with the revelatory images of the peacock, always associated with Christ in O’Connor’s stories, provides some sense of the redemptive meaning of Christianity. Seeing Shortley as a devil figure and Guizac as a Christ figure might seem an easy way out, but O’Connor’s stories are too complex for easy allegory in which the characters represent pure good or pure evil. Indeed, even Mrs. Shortley, in death, finally has her vision, in which the meaning of the peacock is revealed to her. And O’Connor extends the possibility that Mrs. McIntyre, alone on her farm with a black couple and a priest, may learn true equality and humility. In addition to a Christian and humanitarian message is a historical or sociological one. Mr. Guizac, the displaced person, was the truest American of all: Having emigrated from his own country, he arrived in America determined to succeed and was too busy working and helping others to succumb to either class or race prejudice. In this sense, as nearly always occurs in O’Connor’s stories, Georgia—or the South—becomes a microcosm for the United States, in all its horror and all its possibility.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Displaced Person.” In Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
———. “The Displaced Person.” Sewanee Review, 62, no. 4 (October–December 1954): 634–635.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study in the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story
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