The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Artificial Nigger Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “The Artificial Nigger,” Old Mr. Head and his ten-year-old grandson, Nelson, live in a state of subdued tension in which each works to outdo the other. Their planned trip to Atlanta (they live in rural Georgia) has made this competition worse. Even though Nelson has never been to the city, he is cheekily sure that he will enjoy it.

Gradually the reader understands that Mr. Head is thoroughly uncertain of his own ability to manage in the city, and he uses the sight of the city’s black people (a race Nelson has never seen) as a sort of weapon over Nelson, a threat of something foreign that he may find frightening but with which his grandfather can claim, not quite accurately, to be familiar. Nelson is unimpressed with his grandfather’s talk.

When they arrive in the city, Mr. Head is frightened by Nelson’s immediate delight in it and by his refusal to be intimidated by the unfamiliar. After walking for a while, they become lost and, at the same time, realize that they have also lost their lunch bag. Nelson takes things into his own hands and asks directions from a black woman to whom he feels drawn, but Mr. Head’s resentment grows. At last, while Nelson naps at the curbside, Mr. Head finds a way to retaliate and hides from the boy.

When Nelson wakens, he thinks he has been abandoned and races into the street, knocking down an old woman. That is when Mr. Head commits his worst sin and denies knowing Nelson at all. His grandson is deeply wounded and refuses all of his grandfather’s subsequent attempts to make peace. Mr. Head feels certain that this is a divine judgment on him. They walk on in separate misery, getting ever more lost, until Mr. Head cries out to a passing stranger, “Oh Gawd I’m Lost!” The two are rescued with directions to the train station.

It is the sight of a plaster lawn statue of a black man (or child, the statue being too battered to be easily identified) that really reconciles the pair. The statue’s pictured misery seems to be a monument to the black man’s victory, a portrayal which moves both Mr. Head and his grandson. The notion that, in a city which already has so many black people, someone should feel the necessity to make an artificial one strikes them both as mysterious and somehow powerful. Reunited, they travel home peacefully, having miraculously escaped the consequences of their anger.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Flannery O’Connor’s own favorite among her stories, “The Artificial Nigger” is really two stories in one: the saga of Nelson’s initiation into the world of experience and the tale of Mr. Head’s fall from righteousness to emptiness. The two journeys parallel each other, just as the railroad tracks, which play an important part in this story, parallel each other; unlike the tracks, however, which never intersect, Mr. Head’s and Nelson’s journeys coalesce in their shared visions of the mysterious statue that provides the title of the story.

In the opening scene, Mr. Head and Nelson, who live together in rural Georgia, are preparing for a trip to Atlanta, each motivated to make this monumental expedition for different reasons. Mr. Head, proud of his independence and omniscience (he does not even need an alarm clock to awaken him), sees the trip as a “moral mission” during which he will guide his grandson through the complexities of the city, helping him see everything so that Nelson will never again want to visit the city and will, instead, be content to live forever with his grandfather. Nelson, for his part, wants to see the city where he believes he was born; for him, the trip is a journey into his past.

Traveling to Atlanta by train, the pair experience their first shared event—an event that, ironically, separates them. Mr. Head has been warning Nelson about seeing “niggers,” telling him that the city is full of these people, who were run out of the county two years before Nelson was born. Nelson, confident that he will be able to identify a black person when he sees one,...

(The entire section is 1,332 words.)