The Displaced Person
"The Displaced Person" is a short story by Georgia writer Flannery O'Connor, most famous for another short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Both pieces appear in her second book, a collection of stories called A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953). In 1964 at the age of 39, O'Connor died of heart failure, due to complications from the disease lupus. She was writing, revising, and sending out stories almost to the last moment of her life.
O'Connor's stories can be a hard to grasp, but once you know a few things about her, it's easy to see where she's coming from. Luckily, she explained much about her writing in letters, essays, and speeches (many of which can be found in The Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor).
O'Connor, who was of Irish decent, made no secret about the fact that she was a devout Catholic, and that all of her stories are Catholic stories, meaning they are meant to express her vision of the world from a Catholic perspective. In her essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country" she wrote:
I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the word I see in relation to that. I don't think this is a position that can be taken halfway […]. (source: Collected Works, 804-805)
She basically viewed her work as a writer as one in the same with her work as a religious person. For her this meant showing the darkest sides of human existence along with the possibility of human redemption. She resisted pressure from other Catholics to write less brutal, happier stories.
In "The Fiction Writer" she also said, "Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the life we live […]" (source: Collected Works, 805). In other words, she saw lots of bad things going on around her, lots of people acting in "evil" ways. In her eyes, this entire world was in need of redemption (though her focus was on the American South).
She approached her task with the belief that life and religion are full of mystery. She wanted her fiction to "always be pushing its own limits outward to the limits of mystery […]," to focus on "what we don't understand" and on "possibility rather than […] probability" (source: "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction"). This is why even when we "get" an O'Connor story, some aspects of it will remain mysterious. Like most good fiction, it asks at least as many questions as it answers.
So, we've looked at what O'Connor's stories mean to O'Connor, but we should caution you – they might mean something different to you, and this is OK. Her views on her own work should be used as a basic foundation for reading her, but not as the end of interpretive possibilities. So, don't be afraid to trust your own instincts, to come up with your own interpretation, or even to take O'Connor to task in your essays and in class discussions if you interpret her stories differently than she intended them to be interpreted.
Why Should I Care?
Quick story for you, Shmoopers: Once upon a time, many, many years ago, we weren’t cool. Now, now. We understand that this might come as quite a shock to you, but it’s true. You see, we were just a bit behind on all the fads. We wore bell-bottoms for just a few too many years. We threw away our old neon sunglasses right before hipsters brought 'em back. And we were tucking our jeans into our boots when it was not the way of the world.
Long story short: when it came to fashion, we were just… different from all the other cool kids. And being different made for some pretty unhappy times. Don’t feel too bad, though. As soon as SAT became important, we became cooler than James Dean at a Miles Davis concert. We’re guessing that you, too, might know what it feels like to be different, or at least know what it feels like to be afraid of being different. It’s a universal experience. Like a bunch of snooty wildebeest, humans are essentially herd animals.
But what's the cost of that pack mentality? That’s a question that’s on the mind of renowned short story writer Flannery O’Connor in “The Displaced Person.” This story portrays characters who are rejected for their nationality and their race, all against the backdrop of the most heinous act of discrimination in history: the Holocaust. The cost of discrimination is high, though—in the story and in real life. Reading "The Displaced Person" will get you to think about how you might define “us” and “them.” The real truth is that, when you boil down this crazy stew of humanity, we have a lot more in common with each other than we might guess.
So the next time you're tempted to see someone as an “other” just because they don't speak the same language or have the same background, think of us with our jeans tucked into our boots. Or, better yet, read “The Displaced Person.” It will give you an important lesson in our shared humanity, and it might just help you—or others—see past the surface to the true value of all people.