- A Patriotic Deus ex Machina in Flannery O'Connor's "The Displaced Person"
"Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine."—Flannery O'Connor, "The Catholic Novelist in the South"
Critical attention to the relationship between religion and southern-ness in Flannery O'Connor's fiction has long been focused through her famous observation that "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted" (Collected Works 818). Many critics have productively tested the incisiveness of this statement in their readings of the stories and have naturally focused on how the Divine Son haunts O'Connor's South. Comparatively few, however, have investigated how fathers—both divine and human—haunt O'Connor's landscapes. As a result, not enough has been said about what this fatherly haunting suggests regarding O'Connor's general position on specifically patriarchal masculinity, and how a sense of this position could in turn inform and clarify her critiques of modern Western life as situated in the postwar American South. Louise Westling has helpfully drawn attention to the "absent patriarch" featured in O'Connor's works and rightly notes that "O'Connor's ultimate identification is with this paternal authority [in its absolute form], the Judeo-Christian God" (111). Westling goes on to establish a father/daughter punishment motif in the fiction that reveals "the disastrous consequences for women who accept … and identify with the father's power" (121). This interpretation, like Claire Kahane's argument that O'Connor was aesthetically invested in identifications with masculine power to the denial of the feminine, can at times overemphasize gender categories as ends in and of themselves and reduce [End Page 59] the theological element of O'Connor's work to a biographical dimension.1 More recent studies of patriarchy in O'Connor have moved even further along this line. In a 2004 collection of feminist reconsiderations, J. June Schade, for example, accurately observes that "O'Connor incorporated into her fiction what she considered to be the fundamental flaws affecting the social hierarchy of the South," but she too neatly aligns O'Connor with Virginia Woolf as a fellow woman writer committed to "illustrating the system of patriarchal authority in order to expose its 'contradictions'" (157). Similarly limited is Teresa Caruso's call for feminist readers to use O'Connor's fiction as a resource for "new ideas valuable for the ways in which they turn patriarchal notions around and against themselves" (6). Such readings emphasize straightforward, antagonistic relationships between O'Connor and the monumental masculinities built into both Catholicism and southern culture. As such, they simplify the complexities of O'Connor's presiding commitment to a deeply patriarchal religion and formation in a classically patriarchal culture, given that this commitment was made manifest through satirical representations of the institution of patriarchy itself as emptied of any positive theological regard and self-destructing through its own misapplication and undermining.
In other words, O'Connor was absolutely interested in the relationship between religion, culture, gender, and power, specifically as it came through the interplay of divinity, masculinity, authority, and power. This is dramatically evident in her short story "The Displaced Person," in which O'Connor imagines the devolution of patriarchy from its ordered relationship to the Divine Father to a darkly modern phenomenon: the hollowing out of theological categories for morally justifiable action, to be held in place and then filled in with principles derived secondarily from sectarian nationalist, racialist, and xenophobic categories. Through this story O'Connor reveals that all of these categories, in their devolved manifestations, depend upon and promote a self-interested, patriarchal complex of authority which, in its strategic invocations of and associations with God-the-Father, in fact signals a lack of any positive patriarchal element in male characters' actions. Farrell O'Gorman's topical observation that "The Displaced Person" is "perhaps [O'Connor's] single clearest exploration of the dangers of fundamentalism" rightly attends to the story's intertwining of the less savory elements of southern and Christian cultural politics (179). But the fundamentalism that O'Connor critiques in "The Displaced Person," while certainly localized within the Bible Belt, proves to be...