- Displaced Communities and Literary Form in Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person"
Most commentary on Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person" follows that of Robert Fitzgerald, who summarizes the religious theme of the story when he writes that "the estrangement from Christian plenitude is estrangement from the true country of men" (394). The estrangement noted here is metaphorically a geographical one, and later critics have elaborated on the story's implication that all humans are uprooted and do not possess the earth as their real home. These interpretations involve reading the story as product, as a kind of achieved metaphor establishing a connection between home in the material and home in the spiritual realms. Indeed, O'Connor's typical narrative method encourages us to read her stories as products in which the concluding epiphanies gather up the preceding events in an image of clarity and retrospective meaning. At the end of Section One in "The Displaced Person" the stricken Mrs. Shortley has "been displaced" and "seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country" (214). And near the conclusion of Section Three Mrs. Mclntyre "felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives" (235). Revelatory conclusions such as these invite the perception that her stories get fixed only in the epiphanies that complete them.
Treating O'Connor's "The Displaced Person" as a process uncovers significant patterns that parallel the theme of the story read as product and are necessary for the effectiveness of the concluding revelations. I am suggesting that the story still needs to be investigated on the dramatic level—that is, as a sequence of developments-as a displacement of community, and on the rhetorical level as a displacement of literary strategies. What occurs on the dramatic level is a process [End Page 219] of human communities forming and dissolving until at the conclusion we are left with the odd couple of the garrulous and persistent Father Flynn and the mute, dying Mrs. Mclntyre. The implication is that the displacement of human beings occurs not only in relation to place but also in relation to community. Furthermore, the literary strategies through which the drama occurs themselves undergo a process of change and dissolution. Each of the story's three sections is presented in a different narrative form, so that the acts of community dissolution dramatized in the three sections are embodied in literary acts that suggest the instability of a central literary strategy, the absence of a necessary principle of form. Each section, that is, involves a method that cancels as much as it complements the methods of the other two sections. In Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person" the displacement of place and community is underscored by the displacement of its own recording.
The first section of "The Displaced Person" opens on a scene in which the small community that constitutes Mrs. Mclntyre's farm is in the process of being reconstituted. The original nucleus of five—Mrs. Mclntyre, the owner; the two black workers, Astor and Sulk; Mr. and Mrs. Shortley—is joined by the four Polish immigrants, Mr. Guizac and his family. Of the original group Mrs. Shortley is clearly the center of gravity. She is described as "the giant wife of the countryside" with the "grand self confidence of a mountain" (194). Her solid and weighty sense of being placed geographically and communally is destabilized somewhat by the appearance of the Guizacs, immigrants whose strange foreignness disturbs the established order. As Mrs. Shortley thinks to herself, "The first thing that struck her as very peculiar was that they looked like other people" (195). The more significant feature of the Guizacs' strangeness is their language (an issue discussed more fully below). Mrs. Shortley dismisses Polish as no language at all: " 'They can't talk,' Mrs. Shortley said. 'You reckon they'll know what colors even is?' " (196).
We never learn whether the Polish immigrants know what colors are, but we do know that Mr. Guizac has an attitude toward his work and his role in the community that upsets the balance. The established balance involves a...