About every four or five years I reread Flannery O’Conner’s short stories. Always fascinated how she can open up the wounds of our human delusions. Her grotesques are creatures of habit and stupidity: men, women, and children who seem to fall into the ruts of some organic necessity, their minds bound to outmoded forms of thought and behavior.
Rereading The Geranium which was her first published short story (1946) one can already see that ironic and cynical eye she cast on everything, showing the slow and methodical destruction of those habits of mind that bind us to our personal world of delusory fictions. The main character in this story is an old man, Dudley, who unable to take care of himself anymore has been hijacked from his home up North in New York by his daughter and brought south, brought into a world unfamiliar and almost hostile to the likes of Dudley.
Most of the story is wrapped around Dudley’s inability to accept this new situation. So that he continuously reminisces about his fabled antics in the boarding house where he still had some sense of being needed and wanted for who and what he is rather than what he’s become in this unsettled realm of his daughter’s southern clime. This juxtaposition between his supposed idyllic world up North, and the darker and more fragmented world down South plays out against an unfolding destruction of his life’s equilibrium based as it is on a racist mythology at the heart of the American Anglo-Saxon culture and ideology.
Truthfully this story is about racism, about a man who’d been a racist his whole life as if it were the normal aspect of things. Where he’d come from up North in some small town victim and perpetrator alike of this racist mythology of the White Man seems to have never dissolved – at least in Dudley’s eyes. While down South in his daughter’s inner-city tenement living quarters where Dudley now finds himself he discovers that people are jammed up against each other so close and without any natural or organic sense of the world that he is no longer able to keep his sense of balance. The geranium of the title becomes the focal point of his need for the natural world, for a sense of connection to his old life. The flower that a neighbor puts out every morning at the same time becomes a part of Dudley’s new mythology of order.
His rage for order, for a world that fits his expectations begins to unravel when the flower goes missing, when his neighbor seems to have forgotten to put it on the window seal at the usual time. From that point forward in the story everything in Dudley’s life and Mind begins to unravel. His daughter having two children in an unwed household works long hours so that Dudley is surrounded by the activities of the children. O’Connor chooses to show the story completely through the mental breakdown of the old man, a story in which his grand children and daughter seem peripheral and almost lost as to what to make of this cantankerous old curmudgeon. Right off the bat he is at odds with his daughter, wondering why she felt it her ‘duty’ to take care of him when he was very able to take care of himself. Of course, that’s one of the key delusions: a sense of self-sufficiency and independence. His inability to accept growing old, of needing others in his life, of needing people to care and look after him; this wound to his narcissistic pride, of being a Man.
It all comes to a head when he discovers his daughter’s next door neighbor is an African American. Of course Dudley has throughout the story referred to ‘people of color’ with the ‘N’ word so that his whole life has been built out of this prejudiced sense of inequality to the point that having his daughter, who as he puts it, “You ain’t been raised that way!”1 This sense that White’s are somehow better shows us Dudley’s world in a nutshell. A world of racist hierarchy and prejudice that is a part of American psyche and behavior that most White’s are raised up and indoctrinated into as part of a twisted history.
When the young African American man next door meets Dudley on the stairs, after the old man has run down to do an errand for his daughter, he pats him on the back in a friendly gesture. Suddenly Dudley is beside himself and falls back sliding down the stairs and landing on his butt. The young man helps him to his feet and guides him to his daughters apartment. The whole time Dudley is speechless and unable to say or do anything. As he is about to enter the apartment the young man once again pats him on the back which reminds Dudley once again that his world is tilted and unhinged:
He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes. He shuffled to the chair by the window and sank down in it. His throat was going to pop. (13)
This physical sense of explosion, an outer sign of his internal condition, a condition that like the tales of his hunting days suddenly finds him at a loss for words, a man who has for his whole life lived according to a set of rules and habits that gave him a sense of place bound to a White culture that no longer exists except in the Mind of an old man who has now sensed the deluded truth of his own petty existence. And, yet, it’s a truth he is unwilling to accept. It’s at this moment that the geranium, the last refuge of his connection to the old world, to his place up north, his life without doubts about who he was and his place in the universe becomes absolutely unhinged. The flower has gone missing:
A man was looking at him. A man was in the window across the alley looking straight at him. The man was watching him cry. That was where the geranium was supposed to be and it was a man in his undershirt, watching him cry, waiting to watch his throat pop. Old Dudley looked back at the man. It was supposed to be the geranium. The geranium belonged there, not the man. “Where is the geranium?” he called out of his tight throat. (13)
His neighbor feeling threatened by the old man tells him it’s none of his business where the flower is, but if he wants to know it fell down and broke six floors below. Dudley looks over the window sill and sees it down in the alley smashed but still living in a clump of dirt. He takes a mind to go down six flights and pick it up after being challenged by the white man across the way. But getting to the end of the hall and actually faced with walking down six flights,
He walked slowly down the dog run and got to the steps. The steps dropped down like a deep wound in the floor. They opened up through a gap like a cavern and went down and down. (14)
This notion of entering an abyss, an infernal where he’d have to confront more people like the neighbor next door and the neighbor across the way is too much for Dudley.
The man was sitting over where it should have been. “I ain’t seen you pickin’ it up,” he said.
Old Dudley stared at the man.
“I seen you before,” the man said. “I seen you settin’ in that old chair every day, starin’ out the window, looking in my apartment. What I do in my apartment is my business, see? I don’t like people looking at what I do.”
It was at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air.
“I only tell people once,” the man said and left the window. (14)
For once in his life Dudley is unable to keep his Mind balanced, completely unhinged and unable to speak or say anything he just stares at the broken flower pot and the pink-red geranium six floors below as if it was his broken Mind and Life. Oblivious to the violence surrounding him, of the hostile intent of the White man across from him he just stares at the flower. Dumfounded at the catastrophe of his existence, a World shattered to the point of no return, a world beyond redemption, he felt a sense of doom realizing he was now living in a world that would lie like that flower in a broken heap of ruin, forever.
It’s this sense of shock and devastation, an awakening from the delusions of one’s world, of a life lived in the midst of pure and unadulterated delirium that is the earmark of O’Connor’s stories, her Gnostic fables in which the only truth given is that we are all deluded living in our own private hells beyond redemption. Of course her defenders have tried to return us to a Catholic vision of hope and transcendence, rather than as in this story the truth of a bittersweet world of immanence and ruin, a world full of grotesques like Dudley who in the end crumple and fold under the weight of the World’s clamour.
- Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories (p. 9). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.