In her November 25, 1955 letter to Betty Hester, Flannery O'Connor discussed her goals in writing "The Displaced Person" and her belief that she failed in those goals. We think that what she said is helpful in understanding the ending. By ending we mean what happens in the story after Mr. Guizac's death, though we also discuss the death here. Here's the passage from the letter:
The displaced person did accomplish a kind of redemption in that he destroyed the place, which was evil, and set Mrs. McIntyre on the road to a new kind of suffering, not Purgatory as St. Catherine would conceive it (realization) but Purgatory at least as the beginning of suffering. None of this was adequately shown and to make the story complete it would have had to be – so I did fail myself. (source: Collected Works, 973)
Whether or not you are well versed in Catholic theology, that quote brings up an array of issues, all of which can help us get closer to understanding what O'Connor was trying to do with the ending. Here are our top three issues:
O'Connor makes it sound like the story is more about Mrs. McIntyre than Mr. Guizac, that her redemption is more important than his life. What's the deal with that?
Why should Mr. Guizac have to die so that Mrs. McIntyre can get to go to Purgatory? Suffering aside, Purgatory is just one step removed from Heaven, right? (By the way: in Catholic theology, Purgatory is a place where some souls go to suffer in order to atone for their sins, so that they can go to Heaven.)
Why is suffering necessary for both the person causing the redemption (Mr. Guizac, by dying) and for the person being redeemed (Mrs. McIntyre, according to O'Connor)?
If you've read "What's Up with the Title?" and "In a Nutshell," you probably have a pretty good idea of where we're going with this. Here are the answers we've come up with:
From O'Connor's perspective, the most displaced person is probably the person farthest from God, as evidenced by the way such person treats other human beings. In the story, Mrs. McIntyre is, arguably, that person. By exploiting and verbally abusing all of her employees, the farm she runs has become a hell on earth. If Mrs. McIntyre is the person most in need of redemption, she displaces Mr. Guizac in his position as The Displaced Person, or at least forces him to share it.
We suggest in "What's Up With the Title?" that O'Connor intended Mr. Guizac as a Christ figure. If so, like Christ, Mr. Guizac has been redeemed all along, and so his death only means his freedom from the suffering of the earth. Giving up his life (metaphorically, that is – there is nothing to suggest his death was actually voluntary) so that Mrs. McIntyre can find redemption is proof of his goodness.
O'Connor seems to be suggesting that Mrs. McIntyre's inability to empathize with the suffering of others is a result of her not having truly suffered herself. She also inflicts suffering on others instead of making personal sacrifices to limit the suffering of others. Christ is the ultimate example (in Christian theology) of a person who suffers in order to ease the suffering of others. In Christian theology, the reason why everyone has to suffer goes back to the Biblical "Fall of Man," but is also part of the mystery of God. There are really no easy answers to any of these questions.
Before we go we should remind you that other interpretations of the ending are both valid and desirable. On the rare occasion that a writer explains his/her ending, we feel compelled to make good use of it. But this doesn't mean that you, as a reader, need to interpret a given story as the writer intended it to be interpreted. Hopefully the discussion has provided you with a basic foundation for creating your own interpretation of the ending of "The Displaced Person." Check out "Writing Style" and "Genre" for more ideas.