The story opens in the kitchen, appropriate because food as metaphor characterizes all three main characters. We first meet Norton stuffing himself with peanut butter and ketchup smeared on a piece of chocolate cake, trying to satisfy an emotional emptiness he feels as a result of his mother’s death. He vomits all that he consumes because it is love, not food, that he needs. By the end of the story, in contrast, Sheppard “had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself.” Rufus at first prefers to find food in garbage cans, suggesting he sustains himself on what others throw out, which motivates Sheppard to bring him into his home, where he “feeds off” Sheppard’s misplaced good will. After intimidating Norton to fix him sandwiches, Rufus later “devour[s]” encyclopedias, and as his confrontation with Sheppard reaches a climax, he literally eats pages from the Bible to prove the authenticity of his belief in it. Having accomplished this, Rufus screams at Sheppard, “I don’t want none of your food after it nor no more ever,” meaning he will no longer tolerate Sheppard’s “good works.” By this point Sheppard loathes the child and only wants him out of the house. He no longer feels compassion, only hatred.

Another significant setting is the universe itself, the stars and moon that can be seen through the telescope Sheppard gives Rufus. The view of the universe through the telescope represents a realm of possibilities in life created by science and rationalism, a cold reliance on reason rather religious faith. In contrast to the garbage can, where Rufus’s “thin hand...roots” down for rotted food, the universe is a reaching out for intellectual food. In his worldview, Rufus looks downward toward a belief in hell, which is why Sheppard says to Rufus, “Rubbish!” when the child speaks of Satan. “We’re living in the space age! You’re too smart...

(The entire section is 599 words.)


Brewer, Nadine. 1985. “Christ, Satan, and Southern Protestantism in O’Connor’s Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 14:103-11. Brewer argues that Rufus Johnson symbolizes both Christ and Satan, for he reveals the way to Christ and, rather than deny him, promotes him.

Garson, Helen S. 1987. “Cold Comforts: Parents and Children in the Work of Flannery O’Connor.” In Realist of Distances: Flannery O’Connor Revisited, eds. Karl-Heinz Westarps and Jan Nordby, 113-22. Gretlund, Denmark: Aarhus University Press. Garson explores themes of childhood and parenting in O’Connor, arguing that Norton wants to escape to his dead mother because life with his father contains coldness, emptiness, and cruelty.

Walters, Dorothy. 1973. Flannery O’Connor. Boston: Twayne. For Walters, the major theme in “The Lame Shall Enter First” is the inadequacy of intellectualism that denies the evil that is part of human experience.

Wood, Ralph C. 2005. Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. Wood argues that O’Connor’s stories challenge the sentimental piety of Catholicism as well as the inability of Protestant liberalism to deal with human issues of good, evil, and faith.