Just today I started Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. She is said to be one of the greatest short story writers to have ever lived. So, I decided to be introduced to Southern writing by way of Flannery–by reading one short story each Saturday until I finish her short stories. Her first short story in this collection I have is titled ‘The Geranium.’ It is about Old Dudley, a southern old man now living with his daughter (and her family) in New York City. In this story, we see characters and how they relate to other people, specifically African Americans (I will not be using the word that Flannery uses just because I don’t feel comfortable saying. I do, however, think her using of it actually adds something to the short story). These are the following characters we see and their view of African Americans:
- Old Dudley
He shuffled to the chair by the window and sank down in it. His throat was going to pop on account of a nigger – a damn nigger that patted him on the back and called him “old-timer.” Him that knew such as that couldn’t be. Him that had come from a good place. A good place. A place where such as that couldn’t be. His eyes felt strange in their sockets. They were swelling in them and in a minute there wouldn’t be any room left for them there. He was trapped in this place where niggers could call you “old-timer.” He wouldn’t be trapped. He wouldn’t be. He rolled his head on the back of to stretch his neck that was too full. (p. 13)
Old Dudley cannot adjust to the idea that this man (the African American, or any African American at that) is not able to be on the same level as him. He has no problem living in community with African Americans–he hunted and fished with Rabie back in Georgia all the time! Yet, Old Dudley can only commune with an African American if it is known that he is superior to the man of color. It offends him that this suited black man in New York feels on equal footing with him–enough to have compassion on Old Dudley. How dare he help an old man like that!
2. The Daughter
You would hope that the daughter had a better view of African Americans than Old Dudley. But no, her view merely is a different form of hatred. When Old Dudley and his daughter talk about the man moving in next door (the suited black man), this is their conversation:
“You mean,” Old Dudley murmured, “he’s gonna live next door to you?”
She shrugged. “I suppose he is. And you tend to your own business,” she added. “Don’t have anything to do with him.” (p. 9)
The Daughter accepts the fact that this suited black man (and all African Americans) are not inferior to her (and all white people). Yet, she is unwilling to live in relationship with this man. She deems him unworthy of her company. A woman on the staircase treats Old Dudley in a similar way, as The Daughter relates to the suited black man:
He turned down the first flight of stairs. down the second he heard footsteps coming up. He looked over the banisters and saw it was a woman – a fat woman with an apron on. From the top, she looked kind er like Mrs. Benson at home. he wondered if she would speak to him. When they were four steps from each other, he darted a glance at her but she wasn’t looking at him. When there were no steps between them, his eyes fluttered up for an instant and she was looking at him cold in the face. Then she was past him. She hadn’t said a word. He felt heavy in his stomach. (p. 10)
Now, this is how these two characters treat African Americans. But this need not be limited to the way in which white people think about and act towards black people. No, I think O’Connor is showing us the art of compassion (or the lack of such art, rather). Yet, we do get one image of compassion in this short story. See the suited black man assist Old Dudley on the stairs:
“You better be careful,” the Negro said. “You could easily hurt yourself on these steps.” And he held out his hand for Old Dudley to pull on. It was a long narrow hand and the tips of his fingernails were clean and cut squarely. They looked like they might have been filed. Old Dudley’s hands hung between his knees. The nigger took him by the arm and pulled up. “Whew!” he grasped, “you’re heavy. Give a little help here.” Old Dudley’s knees unbended and he staggered up. The nigger had him by the arm. “I’m going up anyway,” he said. “I’ll help you.” Old Dudley looked frantically around. The steps behind him seemed to close up. He was walking with a nigger up the stairs. The nigger was waiting for him on each step. “So you hung?” the nigger was saying. “Well, let’s see. I went deer hunting once. I believe we used a Dodson .38 to get those deer. What do you use?”
Old Dudley was staring through the shiny tan shoes. “I use a gun,” he mumbled.
“I like to fool with guns better than hunting,” the nigger was saying. “Never was much at killing anything. Seems kind of a shame to deplete the game reserve. I’d collect guns if I had the time and money, though.” He was waiting on every step till Old Dudley got on it. he was explaining the guns and makes. He had on gray socks with a black fleck in them. They finished the stairs. The nigger walked down the hall with him, holding him by the arm. It probably looked like he had his arm locked in the nigger’s. (pp. 12-13)