No Place Like Home
Virtue versus Necessity in Flannery O’Connor’s story
"The Displaced Person"
© March 2002, Stephen Sparrow
Cataclysmic events in history are invariably fertile soil for the growth of the arts, whether performing, visual, or imaginative, and the period after World War II closely followed this trend as once more the art scene in Europe and North America found its feet and began to flourish. A story about a man displaced by war from his home in Poland, and who comes to America to make a new beginning for himself and his family, is the focus of Flannery O’Connor’s novella "The Displaced Person" and although the drama unfolds on a farm far removed in both time and place from any actual battlefields, in my opinion the story holds an honoured place in the genre of World War II art. Although scenes of fighting are absent, the story certainly portrays a battlefield, with the action being the old, old and ever new story of Original Sin, which was exactly how O’Connor described the collection1 in which it appeared. Nine stories about Original Sin, with my compliments, was the phrase she used in a letter to her close friend Sally Fitzgerald.
At the end of the war Flannery O’Connor was twenty years old. She was obviously completely aware of the events that took place in both the European and Pacific War Theatres. Newspapers and film newsreels of the day were full of carefully censored but morale lifting stories on Allied military operations against the Axis Powers. And then, as the fighting in Europe ground toward its end in April 1945, the sensational and gruesome revelations from the newly liberated Nazi death camps came to light.2 The stories were replete with film footage and photographs of piled up naked and cadaverous bodies ready for incinerating, emaciated, starving survivors looking like living skeletons, and warehouses filled with clothing, jewelry, human hair, gold teeth and other pillaged items. For Flannery O’Connor, this repository of images and memories was now grafted onto the xenophobia and racism of the American South and became the genesis of her story "The Displaced Person" first published in 1954.
In the aftermath of the war, Europe was awash with millions of people uprooted from homes in places that had either been devastated in the fighting or that were now under Communist Russian control. Most of these refugees ended up in Camps scattered all over Western Europe where those lucky enough to qualify, waited for resettlement opportunities in the New World.
Flannery O’Connor’s widowed mother, farming near Milledgeville in Georgia, did her bit to help by taking on some of these foreign workers and their families, and this experience combined with the knowledge of her mother’s solo struggle to wrest a living from the land, (as well as care for her invalid only daughter) enabled O’Connor to write one of her most poignant and harrowing tales.
The story starts with the arrival of a Polish family (the Guizacs) at the farm of widowed Mrs. McIntyre. The Guizacs, father, mother and two children had been living in a European displaced person’s camp before coming to America. Their possessions amounted to little more than the clothing they stood in and their coming had been arranged through an elderly Catholic priest acting for a refugee relief agency. Mr. Guizac was reputed to be an expert agricultural worker who had formerly owned his own farm; but that was before the German Army invaded in 1939. Later in the war the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland from the East, kicked out the Germans and stayed on as an army of occupation. Little wonder then that Mr. Guizac gathered up his family and fled.
Mr. Guizac lived up to his reputation. He turned out to be an excellent worker, he was honest and hard working and extremely knowledgeable in operating and maintaining agricultural machinery and implements. The trouble was he was too good and it wasn’t long before he had the other farm workers worried. Back in Poland, he had been his own boss. On Mrs. McIntyre’s dairy farm, with his work ethic, knowledge and expertise, Guizac quite literally put the other workers to shame. His presence made Mrs. McIntyre’s regular help (the Shortleys) feel threatened and insecure and in various ways they conveyed this insecurity to the two Negroes who also helped on the place. But Mrs. McIntyre was delighted. For the first time in her life as a farmer she had a worker who was thrifty, energetic and who knew what he was doing. She looked forward to getting rid of some of the deadwood around the place. The words she used to Mrs. Shortley were, “At last, I’ve got somebody I can depend on.” It was an insensitive remark reflecting in a negative manner on Mrs. Shortley’s husband. But Mrs. McIntyre had still not finished. “For years I’ve been dealing with sorry people…poor white trash and niggers.” And after going through a list of these same sorry people and the problems of being in the dairying business she turned and crowed to Mrs. Shortley. “That man (Guizac) is my salvation.” Little did she know how prophetic her words were to be, and little did she know what turn that salvation was to take. At this early stage in the story, salvation to Mrs. McIntyre meant operating a good business and making money.
Although Mrs. Shortley fitted into the category of friend and sometime confidant to Mrs. McIntyre, her husband (Mrs. McIntyre’s dairyman) was barely tolerated “deadwood”. He was supposed to rest after the early morning milking in order to be refreshed enough to do the evening milking but when Mrs. Shortley spoke up about her husband’s chronic tiredness, (he had had to have a few days bed rest) Mrs. McIntyre suspected he must have a second job and said as much. And yes he did; he was moonlighting. He distilled moonshine liquor on the side and in the middle of the day when he was supposed to be resting, he was tending his “still”, hidden on a piece of rough unused land on the farm. While Shortley had been ill and off work, Mr. Guizac stepped in and did both his own job and Shortley’s. As for the two Negroes, Astor and Sulk, it was expected of them to thieve, lie and be work shy, but, in their own manner of not having expectations of either good wages or being required to work too hard, they were essential to the running of the place, especially when it came to the performing of menial and repetitive work.
But Guizac also had his limitations. He arrived in America’s rural South as if expecting life to be little different to what he’d been used to in Poland. For a start, he had unreal expectations of both the capabilities and integrity of his fellow workers and when he caught Sulk in the act of stealing a turkey, he dragged the culprit together with the evidence in front of Mrs. McIntyre in order to see justice done; or rather how he thought it should be done if this had happened back in his homeland. We can imagine his consternation when confronted with Mrs. McIntyre’s acceptance of the situation; her tacit approval of theft as part of the price of keeping low paid workers trapped in poverty. Let’s face it. Mrs. McIntyre was a mean woman whereas Mr. Guizac for all his shortcomings was a virtuous man.
Race relations were another issue where Guizac displayed incredible naivety and it was that naivety that was to bring about not only his downfall but the downfall of the whole McIntyre farm as well. The Shortleys for one were amazed to see him on his arrival at the farm shake hands with the Negro workers as though they were no different to himself. But “worse” was to come.
Somewhere back in one of Europe’s displaced person’s camps lived Guizac’s sixteen year old orphaned cousin. Guizac hatched a plot to bring this teenaged blonde woman into America. Two things were needed though; an American husband and money. His idea was to marry her off to the young Negro Sulk and get him to pay half the cost of her travel to the U.S. Mrs. McIntyre was the last one on the place to find out about it and when she did, her fury was white hot. After she cooled down a little, she told Guizac, “Maybe it can be done in Poland but it can’t be done here.” She foresaw all sorts of problems in this hare brained scheme and told Guizac that unless he dropped it, he wouldn’t have a job and that the job he had was a good one and he should be grateful for it. It was at this point in the story that Mrs. McIntyre concluded that Guizac was not going to fit in and she decided he would have to go. However, she was in a difficult position. She had already invested in new agricultural machinery based on the expanded skill base that had come in with the Guizac family, and so she couldn’t bring herself to dismiss him, not straight away. She told those around her that he would have to go. She even told the Priest on one of his periodic visits to check on the new arrivals, but she kept on putting off the unpleasant task. The farm had become more efficient and profitable in the short time Guizac had been working there but on the other hand she thought his presence on the place was detrimental to the long term stability of the enterprise, mainly because of the feeling of insecurity engendered among the other workers, especially the two Negroes, neither of whom Mrs. McIntyre thought she could do without. And so she kept looking for reasons to fire Guizac and now, at last, Chancey Shortley saw his opportunity and stirred things along more with his own whispering campaign that further poisoned Mrs. McIntyre against the Pole.
The matter is resolved near the story’s end when Guizac is killed in a single evil act of opportunist omission tacitly agreed upon but carried out both collectively and individually by Mrs. McIntyre, Mr. Shortley and the two Negroes. It could easily have been avoided. One warning yell would have sufficed. But it suited each of their private but unstated ends to remain mute. In its own small way it was more spectacular even than the very worst of the evils sanctioned in the Nazi death camps, where the bureaucrats were absorbed with their meticulous record keeping of the tallies of people processed, while the guards herded the fearful naked inmates into the ‘look alike’ shower chambers to be gassed. As far as any evil went, the consciences of the death camp operators had atrophied to the point where they were just as dead as the inmates they so mechanically killed. The contrast with what happened in Mrs. McIntyre’s barn was that that evil bore an abundance of fruit in the form of guilt, which in a very short time destroyed the McIntyre farm. For the lifetime of the death camps, there was no such guilt. That particular evil wasn’t toppled from its throne until the liberating armies of Allied soldiers arrived. The destruction of the McIntyre place was the crack in the hard shell through which O’Connor demonstrated the penetration of God’s grace and its action on Mrs. McIntyre, although the reader is left to surmise on its outcome.
The story, certainly as O’Connor said herself, is about Original Sin (The Garden of Eden). Its background is the clash of cultures; Old World manners versus New World manners. An old tradition based on the overcoming of adversity coming hard up against a new tradition based on doing only what seems possible. Old style virtue combating new style necessity and neither emerging from the fight unscathed.
All the Guizacs had wanted was the opportunity to work hard and establish themselves in a new home, but, after Mrs. McIntyre initially gave them that chance, albeit with a definite eye to the health of her bank balance, she went back on her decision. She wasn’t prepared to see the thing through all its difficulties, not if it was going to cost her serious money. Tiring of Father Flynn’s regular visits to check on the Guizacs and his constant speaking up for them, she muttered once in barely disguised irritation, “As far as I’m concerned, Christ was just another displaced person.” Earlier she and the priest had been talking at cross-purposes when he, looking at the peacock in full display and talking about Christ’s Transfiguration said, “Christ will come like that.” She not knowing what he was talking about but thinking of Guizac said, “He didn’t have to come in the first place.” To which the priest replied, “He came to redeem us.” Father Flynn was the first priest she had had anything to do with. He was useful at first because it was through him that she got Mr. Guizac, but then she had to put up with his visits and his subtle sermonising. For her, ‘the name Christ in conversation embarrassed her the way sex had her mother’. Although O’Connor didn’t belabour the point, she was too good a writer to do that; it’s a fairly safe assumption that Mrs. McIntyre thought that the very idea of anyone needing redemption was meaningless. She was obviously one of those who hadn’t the faintest clue on the true meaning of Christ’s Redemption and furthermore, had no desire to look into it. As far as she was concerned, (had she paused to consider it); her ancestors undoubtedly strolled out of The Garden of Eden to God’s applause, still dressed in ball gowns and tuxedoes. It was for everyone else’s, to scuttle furtively out of the place wearing only the fig leaves of guilt.
Like Mrs. McIntyre, Mrs. Shortley also thought that God could be dispensed with. She felt that religion was essentially “for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.” But the arrival of the Guizacs and the regular visits of the priest had her reaching for her Bible, and she began poring over Revelations looking for an answer. Both of these women had substituted faith in Jesus Christ as a personal redeemer, for a faith in themselves. In their own eyes; each was their own saviour. Mrs. Shortley also held the opinion that Europe was not as advanced as America. She based this on the newsreel images of all those naked bodies in the Nazi Death Camp, stacked up and waiting for incineration: that, and the fact that their religion had been the same for over a thousand years and had had none of the foolishness reformed out of it, settled the matter as far as she was concerned.
With Mrs. McIntyre determined to fire Guizac, Father Flynn on one of his visits patiently appealed to her not to dismiss him because, “He has nowhere to go.” “Give him time and he’ll fit in.” He told her. His rambling references to Christ the Redeemer alluded obliquely to the point that the code of ethics upheld by Christian Faith is a by-product of Christ’s Redemption. Without that central premise, ethics are meaningless. Telling people to be good because it’s good to be good is a waste of time. Sooner or later somebody is bound to ask why? It would undoubtedly have been a sacrifice for Mrs. McIntyre to keep Guizac in his job but then virtue is the parent of all sacrifice and, material necessity or ‘the easy way out’ is the parent of all vice. Shouting at the reader from this story is the fact that the world’s problems stem directly from unbelief; i.e. the fast spreading notion that a human being has no soul or if he has one, it is not in any danger, which begs the question, if the souls of human beings are in no danger of being lost, why then did God fulfill His covenant by entering history and submitting to the crucifixion. If there is no such thing as the human soul or if it cannot be lost; then as Flannery O’Connor’s character Hazel Motes preached (in the novel Wise Blood); “Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.”
In several places in the story, the old Negro Astor is used like a sage, to render truths in short pithy statements. When the Guizacs first arrived he asked Mrs. Shortley the meaning of the words Displaced Person and after absorbing the explanation ‘that they had been run off their home and had nowhere to go, that they weren’t where they ought to be,’ he said, “It seem like they here though. If they here they somewhere.” A response that exasperated Mrs. Shortley whose conception of place was confined to people staying put, staying where they were born, no matter what. Astor with natural courtesy was making the point that that he was descended from a people displaced by common greed (sold into slavery) and transported to America; compared to the Guizacs who were displaced by the clash of mad ideologies (Fascism and Communism) and were voluntarily looking for a new home. The irony of Astor’s comment was lost on Mrs. Shortley, but then she in her own way was also a D.P., always on the move from place to place, her husband always looking for a better place and a better job. And Mrs. McIntyre was also a D.P., having married the Judge and inheriting the place that way. Come to think of it, isn’t O’Connor throughout this story telling us that we are all displaced persons, certainly discontented persons: exiles living out our allotted span until confronted with the last four things i.e. death, judgement, heaven and hell. O’Connor especially made the point clear when covering Mrs. Shortley’s last moments. ‘She (Mrs. Shortley) seemed to be contemplating for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.’
Astor also remembered with affection when Mrs. McIntyre’s first husband (the Judge) told him that he longed for the day when he would be too poor to pay a nigger to work and that ‘when that day came the world would be back on its feet.’ An allusion to some future world maybe? Where the differences between rich and poor have been evened out? Where all notions of class and standing had evaporated? What a hope. It sounds more like The Garden of Eden before The Fall, but if applied to today’s world, it brings to mind a quip made by G. K. Chesterton3 about Capitalism. “The trouble with capitalism is that there are not enough capitalists.”
O’Connor speaking through the Judge, sees eye to eye with Chesterton on the problem of greed and the uneven spread of property ownership in the world. Once again we are reminded of the theme of ultimate destiny, the true country, the bringing together of the natural and the supernatural in that astonishing manner which Flannery O’Connor uses to illustrate the sacramental throughout her fiction.
But before finishing, we must revisit this whole question of the clash of manners and its link to both virtue and vice. All of us know ‘nice’ people, which probably means they have nice manners, which are nice things to have; right? Now manners can be of all sorts, good and bad and every gradation between: and it was O’Connor who said that bad manners are better than no manners at all and I hope none of us need to be told that the best manners are those that are derived from virtue (goodness). Material necessity has ushered in another group of manners, i.e. the necessity to get “on” in life; get a good job etc, become successful—whatever that word means. The manners that prevail inside a lawyers consulting office differ vastly from the manners that prevail inside a prison and yet both are manners of necessity, i.e. manners born of survival. Manners of virtue may be present but in reality, material necessity will trump virtue nearly every time. If manners of virtue are to have any effect, it can only come about if the protagonists acknowledge that they have a soul with an eternal future and which can be either saved or lost depending upon how they conduct themselves in this life. As O’Connor said in Mystery and Manners, “Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live.”
Good manners and charm are the essentials coached by every Public Relations expert. The PR people may have their place but sincerity is something that cannot be coached and sincerity only shines out of the charm born of virtue (see Mother Teresa4), while deceit lurks in the charm born of material necessity. (See Dr Josef Mengele5 or for that matter any plausible crook).
Returning to the ugly affair in the McIntyre barn, we see that shreds of virtue still survived in the witnesses to Mr. Guizac’s death, which explains why Chancey Shortley left the farm the same day it happened, with Sulk and Astor heading off in separate directions a few days later. And then, Mrs. McIntyre fell ill with a nervous complaint and had to be admitted to hospital. When she came out she knew she couldn’t manage the place without help and so she sold all of her livestock. But, her formerly robust health never recovered and before long she was confined to bed with only a coloured woman looking after her (classic irony in that situation). After a while, the only visitor to call was Father Flynn who came once a week and after feeding a bag of breadcrumbs to the peacock, “he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.” Perhaps at this stage we may speculate that for Mrs. McIntyre, any high and mighty ideas she may have entertained about her ancestor’s “grand exit from The Garden of Eden” will have vanished. Gone forever is the image of the strong, confident and capable woman. Now she is just a lonely, frightened and sick widow wearing only the “fig leaf of guilt” and ready for the priest to prepare her to meet her maker.
Must we make a virtue of necessity? First of all, we should ask ourselves what is virtue? We should already know what it isn’t. We know that virtue certainly isn’t vice, because that is its opposite. The dictionary definition of virtue is moral excellence, goodness, uprightness and integrity. In Catholic theology the four cardinal virtues on which everything else hinges are: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice, which with the addition of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, make a total of seven, the chief of which (as St Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 13), is love; this being the essential nature of God. Yes, virtue is to do with loving God. Yes, it is necessary for Human Beings to love God. That is the prime necessity for our human condition and that necessity is the parent of all virtue and in that sense it is the prime virtue and this virtue was conspicuously lacking on the McIntyre farm until the advent of Mr. Guizac and his family, who, without realising it, shook the place to its very foundations, finally shaking it to pieces.
Once more we have been witnesses to O’Connor’s use of characters who illuminate Christianity by trying to run away from it.
1. "The Displaced Person” features in the short story collection entitled A Good Man Is Hard To Find.
2. When World War II ended on September 2nd 1945, the six years of conflict had caused the deaths of an estimated fifty-five million people. Of that total, 12 million were executed in accord with Nazi Germany’s race policy : the vast majority of them being gassed and incinerated in the many death camps such as Auschwitz or Dachau. Half of these victims were Jews and the rest comprised those also deemed useless and unwanted by the Third Reich, viz. Slavs, Gypsies, the mentally handicapped, homosexuals, and of course, any groups comprising dissenters or others thought likely to cause trouble by which rationale the Nazis slaughtered 2.6 million Polish Catholics including a large number of the clergy; a statistic which doesn’t seem to receive much of an airing these days. But almost as bad as that episode, was the virtual handing over on a plate, of the bulk of Eastern Europe to the control of the Soviet Union under an agreement reached between Western Allied Leaders and Russian dictator Josef Stalin in February 1945. This agreement resulted in the enslavement of more than 200 million people trapped on the wrong side of an arbitrary wandering line drawn across Europe from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Balkans in the East. For the next fifty years these formerly free states were vassals of Communist Russia and their citizens forced to endure living under brutal police state regimes where freedom of speech was prohibited and cross border travel permitted only to senior Communist Party Officials.
3. G. K. Chesterton 1874-1936. Popular English writer, poet, thinker and devout Christian convert. He made a number of lecture tours of the USA.
4. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 1910-1997. Catholic Nun who for nearly fifty years devoted herself to caring for and serving the poorest of Calcutta’s poor. She founded the religious order of the Missionaries of Charity dedicated to caring for poor people both in India and in other parts of the world. Mother Teresa was a woman of great charm, combined with charisma, humility and sincerity. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. The following anecdote is typical of her character. In the early years, she went out to plead for food, medicine, and funds to care for the abandoned children she had taken under her wing. She also went from office to office, and most business people reacted favourably, but one man spat in her outstretched hand, saying, "Take that!"
"That was for me," Mother Teresa responded quietly, and then extending her other palm she said, "now what about something for my children?"
5. Dr Josef Mengele. 1911 –1974. Medical doctor at the Auschwitz Death Camps. Mengele helped select which new arrivals should be executed immediately and those who were to be retained temporarily for their usefulness. He was a handsome cultured man of impeccable manners and dress who whistled favourite Wagnerian melodies while going about his evil and grisly business. He was always on the lookout for sets of identical twin children to “experiment” on. Charismatic, charming and affable, but underneath it all supremely arrogant, he often personally drove the children he had been “experimenting” with, to the gas chamber, always retaining his air of cheerfulness on the short journey. Mengele frustrated efforts to track him down to face a trial for war crimes and in the late 1950s is believed to have escaped to South America, dying in Paraguay in 1974.