Themes and Meanings
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 his behavior is probably perceived as being as condescending as his mother’s giving pennies to black children. He daydreams of offering the ultimate insult to his mother by bringing home a beautiful black girl to marry. Indeed, most of his shallow liberality seems to stem from his resentment of his mother and the fact that they are poor.
Although his mother may chatter on complacently about the aristocratic old home of her childhood, it is Julian who looks back with longing to that time when birth, instead of personal effort, luck, character, or ability, established social status. Suspecting, correctly, that he has none of these qualities, he doubts that he can ever compete in a world where idle luxury is not his birthright.
O’Connor’s stories are sometimes like Elizabethan secondary plots that provide comic relief for tragedy. The lowlife reenacts in miniature the sins of the tragic hero, such as Wagner dabbling irresponsibly in magic as his master, Dr. Faustus, consigns his soul to the devil.
The title comes from the Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom O’Connor admired. Teilhard de Chardin based his thought on the conception of evolution as the emergence and perfecting of consciousness. As consciousness becomes more clear in individuals, it projects itself toward some hypothetical maximum development that Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega point. Everything that rises in consciousness must converge in spiritual terms as it approaches nearer the Omega point, which is presumably the end of time. Teilhard de Chardin was trying to avoid a simple pantheistic mysticism in which individual egos simply dissolved again into the impersonal stuff of the universe. The superconsciousness developing at the Omega point is greater than its parts without extinguishing the consciousness of individual selves.
The implications of O’Connor’s story are ambiguous with regard to Teilhard de Chardin’s conception. One might argue that this ridiculous encounter between a person...
(The entire section is 1,765 words.)