Themes and Meanings

Two worlds are juxtaposed in “The Artificial Nigger”: the world of the machine, with its alleged accuracy and predictability, and the world of mystery, with its ambiguity and spontaneity. In the first world, the railroad train arrives on time and, like the best of technological inventions, transports its passengers efficiently and safely to their destinations. The scale, another mechanical device, provides weight and fortune, both for a mere penny. The train, however, delivers Mr. Head and Nelson to a place that they had not expected to visit—their inner selves—and the scale gives numbers that are not accurate and fortunes that are ambiguous.

In the other world, the world of mystery, there is no pretense of accuracy or clarity. A black man on a train is not really black; he is tan. A black woman leaning in a doorway is not simply seductress or mother; she is both. A statue, appearing miraculously on the lawn of someone’s yard, is not merely terrifying or purifying; it is an ambiguous combination of both emotions.

Like William Faulkner, another southern writer, O’Connor celebrates those qualities that distinguish human beings from machines, those qualities that are most closely connected to mystery and ambiguity. When Mr. Head and Nelson return from their trip to the city, they are interdependent because they have been touched by the mysterious, shared vision that connects them.