The Lame Shall Enter First

by Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Lame Shall Enter First” is told from the point of view of Sheppard, who is unable to empathize with the grief of his son, Norton, over the death of his mother a year ago. Instead, Sheppard insists that helping others is the most important good in life. In addition, Sheppard does not believe in God or heaven, espousing a rational view of life that does not provide Norton the means to understand the death of his mother and the emptiness it created in his life. It takes Rufus Johnson, a fourteen-year-old child who fully believes in good and evil and especially in the power of Satan, to enable Sheppard to understand the love and attention his son needs. However, Sheppard learns this only after Norton kills himself in an attempt to reach his mother, whom he imagines he sees on the moon when he looks at it through a telescope. Through both satire and irony, O’Connor suggests that science cannot replace moral thought and that moral thinking begins with authentic love and compassion rather than a false sense of “doing good.” Furthermore, evil, represented by Rufus, becomes an instrument of good, but only with tragic consequences. Atheism more than Rufus is the real antagonist in the story, for Sheppard’s lack of belief in God and compassion undermines his attempts to accomplish a false, self-absorbed understanding of good.

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Sheppard has little sympathy for his ten-year-old son, Norton, who in his view lacks brains, curiosity, and, most importantly, empathy for others. Instead, Sheppard prefers the fourteen-year-old miscreant Rufus Johnson, whom he had been trying to help at the reformatory. Sheppard thinks that Rufus is brilliant and needs only a chance to make something of himself. In fact, Sheppard gives Rufus a key to his house to demonstrate his trust, for Rufus’s grandfather, a religious zealot, beats him. When Sheppard pressures his son by asking him how he would like to live as poor Rufus has, Norton “lamely” says that he “doesn’t know.” The child misses his dead mother too much to think of the welfare of others, but his father thinks his son has been sad much too long. An atheist and rationalist, Sheppard has told Norton his mother simply is “gone” now that she is dead, an idea that only intensifies the child’s grief.

Although Norton answers his father’s questions “lamely,” Rufus in fact is lame, marked by a clubfoot, which Sheppard believes is the crux of his bad behavior and attitude toward life. He is certain that if he challenges Rufus’s mind and gives him a decent shoe for his deformed foot, the child will mend his ways. Rufus, on the other hand, flaunts his foot and brags he is evil because “Satan has [him] in his power.” Eventually Rufus does come to Sheppard’s house, initially terrifying Norton. Sheppard’s goal is to “save” Rufus, and he is willing to sacrifice his son to Rufus to do this. Even after Sheppard puts a telescope up in the attic for Rufus to see something greater in life and purchases an orthotic shoe for him, the boy only scoffs at his would-be benefactor, telling Norton his father is a fool who thinks he is “Jesus Christ.”

Rufus begrudgingly enjoys the comforts of Sheppard’s house and at first shows some interest in the telescope, but when Sheppard enthusiastically tells him he could go to the moon when he grows up, Rufus scoffs at the idea. “When I die, I’m going to hell,” he proudly asserts. Having absorbed his grandfather’s zealotry, he believes in harsh biblical versions...

(This entire section contains 804 words.)

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of good and evil, and he condemns Sheppard for his refutation of these. Norton, meanwhile, is fascinated by the ideas of heaven and hell because these are places where his mother might be, and any place seems better than “no place,” which is what his father insists on. Though he might be as evil as he insists, Rufus also believes in Jesus and goodness, and these principles intrigue Norton. Later, Sheppard finds the two boys talking closely. In these conversations, Norton learns more about Jesus, sin, and hell. He desperately wants to know where his mother might be.

Rufus does not seem to benefit from Sheppard’s generosity toward him but instead tests the man’s trust. Several times the police bring Rufus home for breaking into neighbors’ houses. After the first time, Sheppard thinks he should allow Rufus to learn a lesson and refuses to stand up for him, but after learning that in fact someone else broke into a neighbor’s house, he feels guilty that he did not give the child a better chance. After that, he refuses to think ill of Rufus, and even though it seems very likely Rufus has done what the police accuse him of, Sheppard believes him, even ignoring the safety and trust of his son to demonstrate an unwavering loyalty in Rufus, for he is determined to save this wayward child.

The boys become closer and closer, and Norton becomes more fascinated with looking at the moon through the telescope. Desperate to locate his mother in the emptiness of his personal world, he becomes certain he sees her on the moon. A rationalist to his core, Sheppard will not allow his son to entertain such ideas. As the children develop a closer relationship, Sheppard learns that Rufus has been breaking into houses all along but now feels powerless in forcing the boy out of the house. Sheppard is caught in his own myopia: intent on saving Rufus, he realizes he has put his own child in harm’s way and has allowed Rufus to get away with much wrongdoing. “I have nothing to reproach myself with” is Sheppard’s first reaction, but then “his heart constricted with a repulsion for himself” because “he had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself.” With this epiphany, he wants to make everything up to Norton, but he does not have the opportunity. Sheppard finds his son in the attic hanging from the rafters, “from which he had launched his flight into space,” with the telescope on the floor below him.