This tragicomic tale of social bigotry and fake liberal sentiment is the title story of Flannery O’Connor’s last collection of short stories, written before her untimely death at the age of thirty-nine. It displays the author’s unique talent for ironic social commentary and grim humor.
With her consummate skill at revealing ordinary people with small minds, she reduces some of the traditional ingredients of southern fiction to the miniature, without sacrificing an iota of their reality. Generational conflict, racial confrontation, sudden death—they are all there, but stripped bare of any aura of honor and glory, displaying themselves either as tawdry and mean-spirited or as absurdly comic.
In spite of Mrs. Chestny’s mental and moral limitations, she is a more sympathetic character than her son, and not simply because she, in one sense, dies for her sin of racial bigotry. Unlike her son, she entertains her mindless notions of social superiority without a trace of actual hypocrisy. She truly believes that she is a member of the upper classes, even as she endures and indeed enjoys her thoroughly middle-class struggle to make her own living and put her callow young prince through college. She has absorbed the middle-class work ethic as unconsciously as she internalized her forebears’ pride of family, quite unaware of any contradiction of values. Moreover, before she dies, her stroke wipes out her adult memory and she resumes the innocence of childhood, perhaps an indication, if one considers O’Connor’s predilection for themes of redemption, of a wiping out of sin along with memory.
Julian, on the other hand, pretends to the most enlightened democratic attitudes toward blacks, but has no real sympathy or understanding for them. He tries to show his intellectual sophistication by striking up conversations with prosperous looking blacks on the bus, a familiarity usually resented by the recipients of his unwanted attention. He does not realize that...
(The entire section is 814 words.)