Study Guide

The Complete Stories of Flannery O' Connor

by Flannery O’Connor

The Complete Stories of Flannery O' Connor Summary

Chapter Summaries

The Geranium Summary

“The Geranium” was first published in the literary quarterly magazine Accent in 1946. It was also the first of six stories Flannery O’Connor submitted to fulfill the requirements of her master’s degree in fine arts at the State University of Iowa in June 1947. (O’Connor entitled her thesis project The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories.) Ten years later, O’Connor began to rewrite “The Geranium” and retitled it “Judgment Day,” which was published posthumously in her second short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. In her early short stories, O’Connor experimented with her writing style and themes, honing the skills that eventually defined her as a major American author. During her graduate studies, O’Connor was greatly influenced by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, whose pessimistic and prophetic poem The Waste Land helped fashion the “shattered epic of modern life” that characterizes much of O’Connor’s fiction (Gooch 137).

O’Connor attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop while working on her master’s degree. This workshop was directed by American writer, editor, and literary critic Paul Engle, who was a professor at the State University of Iowa at the time. Engle recognized O’Connor’s talent and became her mentor as well as her teacher. Many early stories O’Connor wrote for Engle’s workshop, including “The Geranium,” were read aloud and brutally critiqued by her fellow workshop attendees. The original ending of this short story, for example, was much more violent. The protagonist in the story, an old man named Dudley, spends his lonely days staring at a geranium in his neighbor’s window. Fellow workshop member Norma Hodges recalled that Old Dudley “pitched himself out of the window” in the version O’Connor first read aloud at the workshop. Hodges explained, “I think his daughter asked, ‘Where are you going?’ and Old Dudley said, ‘After that damned geranium!’” (quoted in Gooch 126). A young writer, O’Connor bowed to the opinions of her fellow writers, who claimed that this ending was “too much.” Years later, when “The Geranium” became “Judgment Day,” the mature O’Connor wrote the old man's death, as in her original, violent ending.

O’Connor began reworking and revising “The Geranium” in 1955. By the time the story was reborn as “Judgment Day,” the geranium had disappeared from the title and the story. Old Dudley became Old Man Tanner. There was still an unnamed daughter who cared for an aging father out of a sense of duty. New York City was still a callous place where even a hardy geranium had trouble surviving. In “The Geranium,” race relations and alienation were the prominent themes, but in “Judgment Day” those themes were secondary to ones that became more important to O’Connor as she matured as a writer: grace, redemption and judgment. In “Judgment Day,” Old Man Tanner escaped the trap his life had become through death. In “The Geranium,” Old Dudley was not able to escape his “Wasteland.” He became trapped in a place “where niggers could call you ‘old-timer’,” a place where everything was topsy-turvy, like a toppled geranium “at the bottom of the alley with its roots up in the air.”

Summary

Old Dudley has left his life in the South to move in with his daughter who lives in New York City. It was a big mistake. He must have been sick when he agreed to move, he decides. He feels sad, lonely, and trapped. He had been happy in the South, living in the upstairs room of a boarding house after his wife died. He was the “man in the house” who “protected the old ladies.” He survived on his pension and a few odd jobs. He enjoyed fishing and possum hunting with Rabie, a black man who lived in the basement of the boarding house with his wife, Lutisha. Old Dudley’s daughter had gone South to “pester him” about moving in with her. It was her duty to care for her father in his old age, she believed. Old Dudley had always wanted to see New York City, so in a weak moment he agreed to move. New York City is “swishing and jamming one minute and dirty and dead the next.” The streets are like “dog runs” and all the buildings look the same. Instead of fishing with Rabie on the thick, red river back home, Dudley now spends his days staring out the window at his neighbor’s geranium, forcing back tears of loneliness.

It is a sorry-looking geranium, not like the ones they have back home. The geranium is a symbol of Old Dudley himself. Back home, geraniums, like Dudley, were brightly colored, better looking, “sho nuf” geraniums, not dried up, sickly looking, pale pink flowers with faded paper bows. Dudley complains bitterly that the people across the alley have no business even having a geranium, just as he has no business being in New York City. Old Dudley’s throat knots up every day as he contemplates the flower. He stares at it for hours as he thinks about home. Tears well up in his eyes, which he desperately tries to hide from his daughter because she looks at him with pity, not love, when she sees him crying. “Do you want to go for a walk?” she often asks him. The last time he went for a walk with her, she dragged him through multiple subways and city streets where “everything was boiling” until he felt sick and almost tumbled off the overhead “El.” Things are no better in the “too tight” apartment...

(The entire section is 2265 words.)

The Barber Summary

“The Barber” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was first published in 1947 in New Signatures, an anthology of student writing (O’Connor 551). It later appeared in her second short story collection, The Complete Stories, published in 1971. According to O’Connor’s biographer, Brad Gooch, O’Connor was inspired to write this topical short story by events that occurred while she was in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the State University of Iowa. Black students at the university were unable to get haircuts at Jim Crow barbers in Iowa City or on campus, and many drove 21 miles to Cedar Rapids for their haircuts. The president of the university refused to take a position on this issue so a married couple finally opened University Barber Shop to accommodate the black students (Gooch 132).

O’Connor’s story takes place in a barber shop in Dilton, a fictional college town in the rural South. The story explores racial tensions between a liberal college professor named Rayber and a racist barber and his patrons (O’Connor would later expand Rayber into a character for her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away). “The Barber” illustrates how ignorance fuels racism. It also demonstrates the futility of trying to fight ingrained Southern racism with mere intellectualism. Rayber’s anger over the racist comments and beliefs he encounters in the barbershop is mostly cerebral. His arguments against the barbershop bigots seem quite erudite when Rayber rehearses them in his head, but they are ineffective when he tries them out on real people. No one appreciates Rayber’s rhetoric except Rayber himself. His discourse is on an intellectual level far beyond that of his opponents, so the ignorant men retaliate the only way they know how—treating Rayber and his arguments as a joke. The result is a frustrating stalemate for Rayber. He punches the barber in the face. When intellectualism fails him, he resorts to violence, lowering himself to the level of ignorance where bigots dwell. If two men cannot settle their differences in a civilized way, there is not much hope for society.

Summary

Dilton is a town in the deep South, and Rayber is a liberal college professor who lives there. Many of the people who live in Dilton are racist, even some of Rayber’s educated colleagues. Rayber has been frustrated by these pervasive racist attitudes. As the result of an incident that occurred a few weeks prior to the Democratic White Primary, he changed barbers. Until 1944 when White Primaries were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, many Southern states were virtually one-party states dominated by the Democratic Party. Black people were not allowed to vote in the primaries, so they were essentially excluded from the decision-making process altogether because the candidate who won the primary also won the general election. In this short story, Darmon and Hawkson are running for governor. Darmon is the liberal candidate and Hawkson is a racist “demagog.” Three weeks prior to the White Primary, Rayber’s barber had asked him, “Who you gonna vote for?” When Rayber replied, “Darmon,” the barber asked him, “You a nigger lover?” After that, it was all downhill for Rayber and his barber. During his weekly shaves, Rayber and his barber had been engaging in political discussions. Rayber and his barber were so opposed to each other philosophically that they failed to realize they were talking but not communicating. The barber is emboldened by his fellow racist cronies who frequent the barbershop. The frustrated Rayber decides that as a college professor, he should be able to “argue down” these bigots: “As much rot as it was, the whole asinine conversation stuck with him.” Rayber decides that he must defend his views.

Rayber’s barber supports the racist Hawkson for governor. Hawkson’s campaign is built around getting rid of “Mother Hubbards” and “Little Boy Blues”—words used to describe liberals, “nigger lovers,” and...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)

Wildcat Summary

“The Wildcat” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime prior to 1947. O’Connor submitted the story to The Southwest Review in the summer of 1946 but it was rejected (Whitt 209). The story was first published posthumously in 1970 in The North American Review with the permission of O’Connor’s literary executor and longtime friend, Robert Fitzgerald (O’Connor 551). The story was later included in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, published in 1971. Most scholars and critics agree that none of the six stories in O’Connor’s master’s thesis are comparable...

(The entire section is 1499 words.)

The Turkey Summary

“The Turkey” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis, entitled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime before June of 1947. Originally entitled “The Capture,” it was first published in November 1948 by Mademoiselle. In 1955 when O’Connor was selecting stories to be included in her first short story collection, entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she rewrote “The Turkey” and retitled it “An Afternoon in the Woods.” O’Connor ultimately decided not to include it in the collection, however, because she had completed another short story entitled “Good Country People” that she liked better (Whitt 220). The...

(The entire section is 2114 words.)

The Train Summary

“The Train” is the last of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis at Iowa State University. Written sometime before June 1947, the story was first published individually in the literary quarterly Sewanee Review in April 1948 (O’Connor 552). O’Connor later revised and expanded this short story into the first chapter of her debut novel, Wise Blood, which would take her an additional five years to complete. O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch explains that O’Connor’s inspiration for this short story was a train ride home to Georgia for the holidays:

There was a Tennessee boy on it [the train] in uniform who was much taken up worrying the...

(The entire section is 1806 words.)

The Peeler Summary

“The Peeler” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood (“The Train,” “Heart of the Park,” and “Enoch and the Gorilla” were the other three). “The Peeler” became the third chapter in Wise Blood, but it was published as a short story in the literary quarterly Partisan Review in 1949 (O’Connor 552). By that time, Hazel Wickers, the main character in “The Train,” had become Hazel Motes (Haze) in “The Peeler” and ultimately in Wise Blood. In the short story, Haze meets the two men who will also become major characters in Wise Blood: Enoch Emory, an alienated young man who tries to befriend...

(The entire section is 2835 words.)

The Heart of the Park Summary

“The Heart of the Park” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood. (“The Train,” “The Peeler,” and “Enoch and the Gorilla” were the other three.) “The Heart of the Park” was published as a short story by the literary quarterly Partisan Review in February 1949 (O’Connor 552). It later became chapter five in Wise Blood.

Like the other short stories that would become part of Wise Blood, “The Heart of the Park” is allegorical, conveying its theme by means of symbolism and religious imagery. O’Connor juxtaposes carnal and spiritual images as in the other three stories, and the central themes...

(The entire section is 2966 words.)

A Stroke of Good Fortune Summary

“A Stroke of Good Fortune” was included in Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, but it was first published in 1949. The date is significant because this story alludes to radically changing post-World War II social and moral values such as women’s rights and birth control. Such values were an anathema to a devout Catholic like Flannery O’Connor, who often equated progressiveness with sinfulness in her fiction.

The story’s protagonist, Ruby Hill, is a familiar O’Connor character type—an angst-ridden, spiritually bereft woman guilty of two of what O’Connor believed to be the worst of the deadly sins: pride and envy. Determined...

(The entire section is 1688 words.)

Enoch and the Gorilla Summary

“Enoch and the Gorilla” is one of four short stories Flannery O’Connor revised to include as chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood. (“The Train,” “The Peeler,” and “The Heart of the Park” are the other three.) “Enoch and the Gorilla” was published as a short story in the literary anthology magazine New World Writing in April 1952 (O’Connor 552). It later became Chapter 12 in Wise Blood, the final chapter involving Enoch Emery, one of the two main characters.

Of the four short stories that would eventually become part of Wise Blood, this story is one of two in which Enoch Emery is the protagonist (“The Heart of the Park” is the other one). In the other...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)

A Late Encounter With the Enemy Summary

In August 1951, Flannery O’Connor read a story in her hometown paper, The Milledgeville Union-Recorder, about a “dashing” 106-year-old Confederate general named William J. Bush. Photographed in full-dress uniform, the General was attending a graduation ceremony for his 62-year-old wife at Georgia State College for Women (Gooch 202). O’Connor was an enthusiastic reader of local news and gossip, ever on the lookout for inspiration for her fiction. Quirky stories such as this one appealed to her sardonic sense of humor. She often clipped them out and enclosed them with letters to her friends. This particular news article inspired her short story “A Late Encounter With the Enemy."

The Civil War...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)

A Temple of the Holy Ghost Summary

Flannery O'Connor's religious beliefs are evident in most of her short stories. Nowhere are they as explicit as in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” published in 1955 as part of her first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Although this story deals with characteristic O’Connor religious themes, it differs from her other stories because her usual biting satire is softened with an atypical sympathy for the characters, making the omniscient narrator's point of view “more complex and humane” than is sometimes associated with O’Connor. The ornery twelve-year-old child at the center of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost” has a spiritual awakening that replaces her stubborn pride with repentance and leads...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)

You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead Summary

“You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” was published as a short story in the literary anthology magazine New World Writing in October 1955 (O’Connor 552). Flannery O’Connor later revised and rewrote the short story for her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, considered by most critics to be a classic example of Southern gothic fiction. The title of the story comes from Matthew 11:12:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

In many of O’Connor’s stories, when God’s grace encounters the evil and violence of sin, sometimes a stronger opposing violence is necessary...

(The entire section is 2185 words.)

A View of the Woods Summary

“A View of the Woods” was first published in the fall 1957 edition of Partisan Review, a literary quarterly magazine. It is the third story in Everything That Rises Must Converge, O’Connor’s second short story collection published in 1965. This story is one of many that deals with a dysfunctional family—a precocious child and a surrogate parent, in this case a grandfather. Along with three other stories in this second collection, “A View of the Woods” features a property motif that is also common in O’Connor’s fiction, especially the later stories that were written from her native Georgia. After O’Connor was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus at age 25, she was forced to return home to...

(The entire section is 3076 words.)

The Comforts of Home Summary

“The Comforts of Home” by Flannery O’Connor was first published in the fall 1960 edition of The Kenyon Review, a literary magazine founded by literary critic, teacher, and long-time O’Connor admirer John Crowe Ransom. It is the fifth story in O’Connor’s second short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, published in 1965. This story is one of four in that collection that deal with mother–son issues. Three of the stories end with the mother’s death; in this one, the son is the killer.

Particular character types and human relationships populate O’Connor’s fiction, and many of her stories focus on parents and children. Critic Helen S. Garson points out that in...

(The entire section is 2451 words.)

The Partridge Festival Summary

“The Partridge Festival” was published in a Catholic journal called The Critic in March 1961. It was one of Flannery O’Connor’s least favorite short stories. She wrote to her friend Maryat Lee on September 6, 1959, that she was currently working on a story “that seems very lightweight indeed” and not much of a challenge (The Habit of Being 348). On May 20, 1964, she wrote to her publisher, Robert Giroux, that she did not want to include “The Partridge Festival” in her latest collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. “I have decided that it is a very sorry story and I don’t want it in” (The Habit of Being 579). The story was not included in any...

(The entire section is 1781 words.)

Why Do the Heathen Rage Summary

“Why Do the Heathen Rage?” is an excerpt from what might have become Flannery O’Connor’s third novel. According to O’Connor scholar Dorothy Whitt, the O’Connor archives at Georgia College have 378 pages of O’Connor’s unfinished third novel, but they only make up six chapters (Whitt 227). This short story was first published in Esquire Magazine in 1963 (O’Connor 554). O’Connor died on August 3, 1964 before she could finish her third novel. On November 5, 1962, O’Connor wrote to her publisher Robert Giroux that she was working on a story with this title—“It’s been inevitable I get around to that title sooner or later” (The Habit of Being 498). The title originally comes from Psalms 2:1:...

(The entire section is 1146 words.)

Revelation Summary

Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” was published in 1965 as part of her second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Like most of her short stories, “Revelation” was inspired by events in the author’s life. Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with the inherited autoimmune disease lupus when she was twenty-five years old. Like her father, she would eventually die of the disease. “Revelation” was written during a time when she was spending many hours in doctors’ waiting rooms similar to the one in this story. Flannery’s disease forced her to give up her independent lifestyle and return home to Georgia to live with her mother, who became her caregiver. By this time,...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)

Judgment Day Summary

“Judgment Day” was Flannery O’Connor’s last short story. Her long-time friend and publisher, Robert Giroux, explained in his introduction to The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor that this story was a revised and expanded version of her first short story, “The Geranium.” O’Connor had been working on its revision off and on since 1955 (O’Connor xvi). O’Connor originally wrote “The Geranium” to fulfill the requirements for her master’s thesis in fine arts from the State University of Iowa in 1947. The reworked “Judgment Day” was published posthumously in 1965 in O’Connor’s second collection of short stories entitled Everything That Rises Must...

(The entire section is 2509 words.)

The Artificial Nigger Summary

Many scholars believe that “The Artificial Nigger” is Flannery O’Connor’s best short story. In her letters, O’Connor claimed that it was her personal favorite, describing it as “the best thing I will ever write” (The Habit of Being 209). The story deals with two themes that were important to O’Connor throughout her fiction: it exposes racism, and the pride and ignorance that spawn racism; it also explores the mystery of grace and mercy, and their importance to human beings. O’Connor explained that what she tried to suggest with this short story “was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all” (Habit 78). Not all scholars and critics agree that O’Connor...

(The entire section is 3229 words.)

The Crop Summary

“The Crop” is one of the six stories included in Flannery O’Connor’s 1947 master’s thesis titled The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories. It was written sometime prior to 1946. O’Connor submitted this story, along with one entitled “The Geranium,” to the literary magazine Accent in her first attempt to become a published author. Just before her twenty-first birthday, she was notified that “The Geranium” was accepted for publication (Gooch 127). “The Crop” was first published posthumously by Mademoiselle in 1971 with the permission of O’Connor’s literary executor and long-time friend, Robert Fitzgerald. It later appeared in her second short story collection, The Complete...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)