Study Guide

The Displaced Person Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Flannery O'Connor

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Peacock

O'Connor was a hard-core bird lover. Her favorite bird? Yes, the peacock. She owned dozens of them and considered herself their servant.

In her November 25, 1955 letter to her friend Betty Hester, O'Connor discussed the peacock in "The Displaced Person":

The Priest sees the peacock as standing for the Transfiguration [one of Christ's stages of transformation], for which it is most certainly a most beautiful symbol. It also stands in medieval symbology for the Church – the eyes are the eyes of the Church. (source: Collected Works, 971)

Notice that O'Connor doesn't try to tell us how to read the peacock in the story, but rather to share with us what it means to her. The quote suggests that she uses the peacock to let us know what she thinks of a character. For example Father Flynn and Astor are the only characters who seem to care about the peacocks: the priest is fixated on the bird, and Astor is upset about the fact that Mrs. McIntyre starved the peacock population from twenty plus to one peacock and two peahens. That makes Mrs. McIntyre a villain and Father Flynn and Astor likeable characters. Notice also that neither Father Flynn nor Astor are present at the murder of Mr. Guizac.

Most of the characters in "The Displaced Person" don't seem to notice the peacock at all. It seems that O'Connor uses the peacock when she wants to make a specific point about a certain character or set of characters. The other character strongly associated with the peacock is Mrs. Shortley. Her relationship with it is ambiguous. She isn't fascinated by it and doesn't appreciate it. The thing that makes the relationship ambiguous is the fact that the peacock follows her around and seems to be fascinated by her. The "fiery wheels with fierce dark eyes in them" sound suspiciously like the eyes on the peacock's tail. If these are the eyes of the Church then does that mean the Church has its eyes on Mrs. Shortley? If so, what does that mean? It depends, we suppose, on how the Church is looking at her. Disapprovingly? Lovingly? We leave it to you to decide.

The Tractor

The tractor in this story is a murder weapon. The neglect and silence of Mrs. McIntyre, Mr. Shortley, and Sulk allow the huge piece of machinery to roll over Mr. Guizac's leg and snap his spine. The tractor is also a symbol of the money Mrs. McIntyre is making as a result of Mr. Guizac's labor and the money she probably already had, even though she constantly complains about being poor. Tractors and other farm equipment are expensive and Mrs. McIntyre keeps investing in more machinery throughout Mr. Guizac's time on the farm. Since Mr. Guizac is skilled at operating, repairing and maintaining machinery, the tractor also represents his talent, the talent that he loses along with his life.

Generally speaking, the whole tractor issue might also express anxiety over increased industrialization, from the various perspectives of farmers and farm employees in the rural South.

The Newsreel and the Photo

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.

Jesus Christ

Symbols of Christ are sprinkled throughout the text. In the Christian religion, fish are often symbols of Jesus. We see fish in the ironic derisive nickname that Mrs. Shortley gives the Guizacs – the Gobblehooks. We also see them in the sky before and after Mrs. Shortley has her vision. As we discuss at length in "What's Up with the Title?" and "What's Up with the Ending?" Mr. Guizac can be seen as a Christ figure. And the striking peacock that starts off the story is also a symbol of Christ. There are probably many more symbols of Christ in the story. If you're interested in Christ as a symbol, you've come to the right author.

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