The Displaced Person
by Flannery O'Connor
Mrs. Shortley is a character that everybody loves to hate, partly because she seems to love to hate. If that sounds like a trap, then you're getting the hang of O'Connor. Because her characters are so extreme, we experience extreme emotions when dealing with them.
One reason that Mrs. Shortley seems hateful is because she holds and voices so many prejudices. She can be mean, too. She tells Astor and Sulk that with people like the Guizac coming to America to work, black people will have no place in society and will cease to exist. She thinks the Catholic priest, Father Flynn, is the devil. She is suspicious, nosey, and bossy. And, by framing Mr. Guizac and Father Flynn as evil, she sets the stage for Mr. Guizac's murder. But, there's more to her than that. We'll be looking at two important aspects of her character here. We'll first examine her role in the story as prophet, and then we'll explore the possibility of finding her a sympathetic character.
Mrs. Shortley, Prophet of Doom
Mrs. Shortley is constantly associated with visions, and her husband has full faith in the accuracy of her sight. After she tells Mr. Shortley that he "ain't waiting around to be fired," we learn that he "had never in his life doubted her omniscience" (1.122). This is ironic, in that Mrs. Shortley has extremely limited vision. But, Mr. Shortley's statement also serves to reinforce the idea that she is a visionary of sorts.
Here's her first vision:
She was seeing the ten million billion of them pushing their way into new places over here and herself, a giant angel with wings as wide as a house, telling the Negroes that they have to find another place. She turned herself I the direction of the barn, musing on this, her expression lofty and satisfied. (1.36)
This first vision is not very saintly. Mrs. Shortley's nastiness here is directed towards black people. But her discrimination soon changes directions, and she fears that with the black employees gone, it will be her family against all the immigrants from Europe. She begins reading the Bible and starts to think of Father Flynn as evil. Soon, she has her biggest vision:
[…] A gigantic figure stood facing her. It was the color of the sun in the early afternoon, white gold. It was of no definite shape, but there were fiery wheels with dark eyes in them, spinning rapidly all around it. She was not able to tell if the figure was going forward or backward because its magnificence was so great. She shut her eyes in order to look at it and it turned white. A voice very resonant, said the one word, Prophesy! (1.104)
The eyes and the wheels of the figure Mrs. Shortley envisions immediately recall images of Biblical Cherubim, which are symbols of divine vision. You can click here to see the exact Biblical passages and some interpretation. The idea that the figure might be going both forward and backward at the same time reminds us of a figure from pre-Christian time, Janus. Janus is a Roman god with two faces, which look in opposite directions. He's a figure that represents transitions – such as marriages, births, and deaths – often in the form of doors.
As such, the vision does prophecy Mrs. Shortley's transition, first from the farm, and then to death. It's unclear whether the figure is telling her to "Prophesy!" or just letting her know that it can "Prophesy!" In any case, it provokes her to these mysterious words:
"The children of the wicked nations will be butchered. […] Legs where arms should be, foot to face, ear in the palm of hand. Who will remain whole? Who will remain whole? Who?" (1.301).
O'Connor seems to be drawing from several sources for this vision. The phrase recalls several Biblical passages, but also the "newsreel footage" of the Holocaust (or Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that Mrs. Shortley remembers having seen, earlier in the story:
[…] bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing. (1.10)
We aren't doubting Mrs. Shortley's vision, we're just pointing out that it seems to have sources in her reading and viewing material, and might be alluding to events that have already taken place (depending on when exactly this story is set). The vision also foreshadows the moment just prior to her death. The misplaced legs and arms become those of her own family:
She thrashed forward and backward, clutching at everything she could get her hands on hugging it to herself, Mr. Shortley's head, Sarah Mae's leg […]. (1.127)
All this is very mysterious and we probably aren't meant to come to any conclusions about it. Does Mrs. Shortley gain redemption through religion at the moment of death? Is she meant to be seen as a false prophet? A true one? Does she prophecy Mr. Guizac's death? If so, how? While you ponder this, check out our attempt to see her as a (somewhat) sympathetic character.
Mrs. Shortley: A Sympathetic Character?
Mrs. Shortley is a strong woman in many ways. She doesn't seem to sleep. We aren't told what her exact duties on Mrs. McIntyre's farm are, but we can assume she works her tail off. In the first paragraph of the story we are told that "she might have been the giant wife of the countryside, come out at some sign of danger to see what the trouble was" (1.1).
The "might have been" is an important clue. The phrase "wife of the countryside" implies a harmony with nature. Mrs. Shortley seems to be in harmony with her natural surroundings, but not with her social and cultural ones. As such, her harmony with nature is thrown off as well. The phrase also implies happiness. She "might have been" happy, but society considers her "trash," or as Mrs. McIntyre puts it, "not quite trash" (2.1).
As we learn, the Shortleys are one of many white families that are dependant on situations like this one with Mrs. McIntyre. The family is given room, board, and some small salary in exchange for manual labor. There is little possibility of saving enough to buy a farm of their own, or otherwise becoming more financially stable. A family in this situation is dependant on their employers for all of their needs. If they mess up, their car becomes their home as they scout the countryside for a new situation.
Mrs. Shortley takes great care to be above the competition. By performing her duties perfectly, and by befriending Mrs. McIntyre, Mrs. Shortley tries to make herself indispensable. When Mr. Guizac arrives she realizes that the rules of the game are changing. Mr. Guizac is not only a skilled worker, but a seemingly tireless laborer. Mrs. Shortley knows that her husband, Chancey, will never be able to match Mr. Guizac's work ethic. Mrs. Shortley also knows that, ultimately, money talks, at least with Mrs. McIntyre.
Mrs. Shortley takes her constant fear of displacement out on those she considers both competition and socially inferior (i.e., the black employees and the Guizacs). In so doing, she is echoing the prejudices of the time. We all know about racism in the South, and we probably also know that during World War II there was rampant anti-immigrant sentiment. Mrs. Shortley is repeating the unfortunate views of many citizens of the day. None of this excuses her, but it does help us understand her, which is what this story is all about.
Another sympathetic aspect of Mrs. Shortley is her love for Mr. Shortley. Doesn't it warm your heart when Mr. Shortley pretends to swallow the cigarette butt and then spits it out, still "smoldering" (1.40)? Maybe be not, but surely when you learn that "This trick of Mr. Shortley's was his way of making love to her," you feel something (1.41). This is one of the more innocently funny and sweet moments in the story. The Shortleys might not love anyone else, but they do love each other. Yet, "The Displaced Person" is an O'Connor story, so that love has a dark side. When his wife dies, Mr. Shortley takes seriously his wife's claims that Father Flynn and Mr. Guizac are evil, and blames them for her death. This, as we know, ends in the murder of Mr. Guizac.