The Judgement of Geraniums: Shared Identities and Inspirations in Flannery O’Connor

– “What does the Bible say? ‘Driven off the face of the earth.’ Very well, I am off the face of the earth now. As I came at night so I shall go.”

– “… Not naked like a soul on the Day of Judgment.”

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer”

 

Flannery O’Connor closed the circle of her art as she closed the book of her life. “The Geranium” began her professional career. We can assume she wrote that story after her first visit to New York, but it was also among the portfolio stories for her Master of Fine Arts degree. The features that began her art, the mistaken belief in privilege, advancing age under declining health, the relationship of child to parent, and fatal misjudgment continued to characterize her work until her very end. They were common among her stories, but in “Judgement Day” she returned to each theme present in her first story but under an enriched understanding. O’Connor wrote “The Geranium” before she knew her red wolf of lupus. She wrote about mortality without the urgency that would come on her later. After ten years,  as “An Exile in the East” that story she said was “rather much changed.” After another decade, she finished the third telling as “Judgement Day” only a few weeks before she died. Under her pain and isolation, she had become an integrationist of the most profound and humane practice.

Commentary now indicts Mary Flannery O’Connor for racial prejudice. She was the product of a time and place that churned hatred. I’ll leave the discussion of society’s hatred to others but will say that those who accuse O’Connor of hated confess they have not read or understood much of Flannery’s work. It is fair to say, I think, that she was not a missionary for the rights of the Black American. She confessed that she was unable to play that role. Her mission, her vocation, was to save the racist soul. However, from the beginning of her career, O’Connor made Black characters frequent vehicles of rationality, kindness, and salvation. There are notable exceptions like “Everything that Rises Must Converge” where mutual enmity is evident. That theme resurrects in her last work, “Judgement Day.” After twenty years, “The Geranium’s” patient, truly Christain, and educated Black man has succumbed to atheism and bitterness. As death called her, she closed the circle of her stories joining the first, “The Geranium,” to the last, “Judgement Day.” The last of her stories also shows the perfect integration of a Black and white soul.

The author lived in a small universe. Her history stretched only from Iowa to Metropolitan New York and again to The Garden of Andalusia with brief excursions as her illness allowed. Confined to her bedroom and the bunker between her typewriter and her narrow bed, Miss O’Connor learned second-hand civil rights from Harlem activist and close friend Maryat Lee and from the author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker. Walker thanked her for not presuming to portray the inner dialog of the Black characters sketched. Typically, one or two white characters sorely needed the Grace that Flannery offered in her stories. These white characters were the readers she hoped to convince. Outside of Andalusia’s split rail fences, Flannery O’Connor straight-armed organized integrationists, keeping her distance from the provocative. She admired Muhammid Ali because both he and she were segregationists. She was first an artist and understood that the chisel of her craft was the understanding of her subjects to the deepest spiritual and psychological levels. For that reason, the Black persons essential to her works could not be central characters. She would never be capable of truly understanding them. She was the missionary to the White Racist Souls and left even other racist souls to better-equipped missionaries. 

In “The Geranium,” Rabie and Lutish are natural people. They grow, heal, know the soil, and understand the river but they live like a secret in the basement of the boarding house. O’Connor’s view of race is immature in this early piece. These characters appear in the story but do not affect it. Flannery was herself as ineffectual about race as was all 1950s society. For example, she was closed-mouthed and wary of the Klan. Bigotry still exerted itself against Jews and Catholics like the O’Connors. That prejudice persists even into this millennium. James Martin of America: The Jesuit Review wrote in 2000: “… the leaders of Bob Jones University, call Pope John Paul II the ‘Anti-Christ,’ and the Catholic Church ‘satanic and the ‘Mother of Harlots.'” (“Is Anti-Catholicism The Last Acceptable Prejudice?”). 

O’Connor was still in good health when she created Dudley. He grows old and consequentially slips into obesity, clumsiness and is shortsighted. Rabie is quite the opposite, being lean, agile, and able to sniff out fish without the aid of vision and possum in the pitch of night. Tanner in “Judgement Day” is not merely old but ailing likely with Parkinson’s Disease (Multiple Sclerosis is also possible). His hands shake, his vision is failing. He is losing his vitality for work or fight, and his power of persuasion is slipping. There was a time when “no city could hold him.” Now he proves himself unable to escape. He may hallucinate.

By Flannery’s end in 1964, she metamorphosed the separate white racist and the incidental Black character into one being. They are not symbiotic because that biological relationship allows one entity to continue and even thrive if the other fails. In “Judgement Day,” we might conclude that Tanner’s demise is caused by separation after Coleman and he merged into a single person. Look-alikes, surrogates, and alter egos are as old as mythology. Deities often assume false identities. Judeo-Christian dogma and lore also describe this device. In literature, doubles appear in the Arthurian legends and in the gothic literature of Melville, Poe, and Stevenson. You may see it in A Tale of Two Cities and in Joyce’s Ulysses (and Finnegans Wake) where there is a blending of souls, father and son, linked to Elija and Elijah. O’Connor may have admired these doubles, but the tribute in “Judgement Day” is most easily tied to Joseph Conrad.

Tanner “sees” nearsightedness in or projects it onto Coleman. He fashions spectacles from haywire as a remedy (538), but Tanner’s eyes are as useless as those of “an angry corpse.” That there are no lenses in the glasses doesn’t seem to matter as long as Coleman and Tanner see each other. A more significant concern for Tanner would be Parkinson’s and its symptomatic hallucinations. Coleman shares Tanner’s bedroom. When Tanner answers to who built the cabin, he reports (first) “Coleman and (then) me.” They have swapped animal spirits, monkey and bear. More than changing identities, they seem to share one soul. When Tanner first found Coleman, his crew slowed its efforts as Tanner was unable to chase Coleman off the job site. Tanner dallied, and the crew took lunch early. Had Coleman shown the crew that Tanner could be ignored, or had Tanner assumed the layabout role he attributes to Coleman?

Other unanswered questions remain: Is there one person or are there two? If there is only one, is that person Coleman or Tanner? “Stop!” says the reader. Flannery gave us episodes in New York with dialogs and events that don’t include Coleman. However, she also gave us scenes in Corinth with Tanner absent or already dead. “Enough!” you interrupt. There is a note in evidence written by station master Hooten on Coleman’s dictation. Other Characters make the claim that Tanner is delusional; Jokster Hooten might forge a note from Tanner’s imaginary companion Coleman and add the poke in the rib about the New York nightlife. If you come to accept the dependency between the Black and white men, Tanner’s death might be due not to a cluster of strokes but separation from his surrogate.

Whether you choose to believe that the two men gravitate into a singular character or that one character willfully assumes the identity of his racial opposite, the plot throws doubt on any branding of O’Connor as a bigot. It also requires reconsideration of FO’C as a segregationist. The now-abandoned promise of the 1960s was that America would evolve as a single blended culture rather than the schizophrenic dual cultures that exist in the raw coexistence of the  2020s.

After leaving Coleman in Corinth, Tanner spends his days sitting at the window in the slouch hat that marks his status and privilege. The hat signals his identity as his son-in-law’s shapeless cap identifies him as a teamster. The old man is hatted for travel or to attend a funeral. He fantasizes that he shares the filthy, jostling, dog run of a city with Coleman. On the street, the hat marking distinction has shifted to Coleman:

Keep to the inside or these people’ll knock you down, keep right behind me or you’ll get left, keep your hat on, you damn idiot, he had said, and Coleman had come on with his bent running shamble, panting and muttering, What we doing here? Where you get this fool idea coming here? (“Judgement Day” 541)

In Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” O’Connor found another author working with a secret self. An unnamed ship’s captain on an unnamed ship harbors a fugitive accused of murder. The escapee Legget is much like the Captain by training, career, and stature. The Captain hides this other self in his quarters, feeding him dried foods and his own morning coffee. The crew, unable to see the stowaway, marks the behavior of the master of their ship as eccentric.

Leggett swims to the captain’s vessel exhausted and naked. His benefactor hides the stowaway and clothes him in his sleeping garment. At the story’s conclusion, as the alter ego disembarks, the protagonist plants his own hat on the escapist’s head. The Captain then loses sight of his double as he intentionally puts his ship in harm’s way as a distraction, allowing the escape. That hat, like Tanner’s, becomes the mark of the surrogate’s release.

I recognized my own floppy hat. It must have fallen off his head… and he didn’t bother. Now I had what I wanted—the saving mark for my eyes. But I hardly thought of my other self, now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, with no brand of the curse on his sane forehead to stay a slaying hand… too proud to explain. (Conrad 53-54)

The ship that brought the fugitive to the harbor, The Sephora, carried a cargo of coal.

 

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Sharer,” Digireads Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2011.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories, FSG Classics, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Kindle Edition, 1971. 

 

Acknowledgment

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance and permission of the Georgia College & State University, The Flannery O’Connor Collection, The Estate of Mary Flannery O’Connor, and The Flannery O’Connor Foundation. Particular thanks are due to the curator of the collection, Nancy Davis Bray, and her team.

 

 

 

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