The Displaced Person
by Flannery O'Connor
The Newsreel and the Photo
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
When Mrs. Shortley first sees Mr. Guizac she thinks of a newsreel:
[…] recall[s] a newsreel she had seen once of a small room piled high with bodies of naked dead people all in a heap […]. This is the kind of thing that was happening every day in Europe where they had not advanced as in this country. (1.10)
Now, what does that passage have to do with this next one, in the context of the story?
It was a photograph of a girl of about twelve in a white dress. She had blond hair with a wreath in it and she looked forward out of light eyes that were bland and composed. "Who is this child?" Mrs. McIntyre asked. (1.43)
As you know, the child is Sulk's bride-to-be, Mr. Guizac's cousin. We learn that she is a sixteen-year-old girl trapped in a Polish detention camp.
What, then, do the two pictures have in common? For one thing they are both images of victims of the Nazi occupation of Poland (where many events of the Holocaust took place). The difference, of course, is that the people in Mrs. Shortley's newsreel are dead, while the girl is alive.
There are other similarities between the two images. For example, both women take the images they see as truth. The images do hold some truth, but this is lost when taken out of context. Mrs. Shortley uses the newsreel as a model for all of Europe, and for all European people. Because the newsreel is not a model for all of Europe, much of the truth of the newsreel is lost.
Similarly, Mrs. McIntyre seems to assume that the twelve-year-old girl in the picture will be eternally twelve. Whether or not she takes into account the passage of time, the girl's age is not the real issue for her, but rather the girl's race. The idea of a white girl marrying a black man horrifies her more than the idea of the girl dying in a prison camp. Even when the truth of the photograph is explained to her, she doesn't see it.
With these symbols O'Connor is pointing out the power of images, particularly media productions like the newsreel. O'Connor suggests that we should contextualize and look beyond the surfaces of images to their deeper truths.