Sunday, November 17, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Geranium"

This is post two of the series. After leading off my tour through Flannery O’Connor with my favorite O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I will now start The Complete Stories at the collection’s beginning, “The Geranium.” While not as clean as many of her other stories, this piece still holds psychological substance. Something is there, something that the reader wants to get to the heart of.
The piece, originally published as part of O’Connor’s thesis and later revised and republished as “Judgment Day,” concentrates on decaying isolation of Old Dudley. Dudley has left his life behind, left the south, left the land where things are strong, powerful, and proud. New York, the land of his daughter’s apartment, stands as a cell to an old man who lived a full life in the expansive freedom of the south: “The apartment was too tight. There was no place to be where there wasn't somebody else. The kitchen opened into the bathroom and the bathroom opened into everything else and you were always where you started from” (O’Connor 7). Dudley’s isolation rests just below the surface throughout the duration of the narrative. His age, his background, and the obvious collision of the two worlds, north and south, open and closed, engulfs the man:  “He was trapped in this place where niggers could call you "old-timer." He wouldn't be trapped. He wouldn't be. He rolled his head on the back of the chair to stretch his neck that was too full” (13). As long as he lives, Dudley will remain wedged between the past and the present in a world he fails to understand.

So he sits by the window trying to glimpse his past. Dudley stares out at his favorite flower, yet even the flower exists as merely a wisp of what it was back home: “The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink” (3). This geranium, glaring from across the alley, further enhances the theme of melancholic isolation that will haunt Dudley throughout the text. He can’t touch it nor can he go near it—the space is too vast, the gulf too wide. Like Dudley, the flower appears weak, decrepit, and not quite whole. Everything has changed and he can never go back, a fact that is made fully concrete when he learns of the flower’s fate.

Dudley has forsaken his independence in South. His daughter, at least in his mind, cares for him out of duty, and where he used to care for the old ladies in the boarding house, he did so to feel needed and whole, not with his daughter’s compulsion: “not be so taken up with her damn duty” (4). Thus the daughter is viewed with resentment, the city a trap. He dreams of getting lost, fails to connect with the rivers of cement that have replaced the river he used to fish on with the negro servant Rabie, and exists as a wallflower in his daughter’s apartment. Yet, O’Connor pushes the issue, spelling the bitterness out, for Dudley fails to take ownership over his offspring, identifying her with the article “the,” repeatedly calling her “the daughter” in lieu of taking ownership (6). This daughter, one that he can never call his, is fine living next door to negroes, a fact that Dudley can’t take—in the south they are two separate classes, divided by their past, by the gulf of slavery and wars and blood, but in the north, they intermingled, and Dudley wretches at such a fact: “he didn't know his own daughter that was raised proper would stay next door to them-and then think he didn't have no more sense than to want to mix with them. Him” (9). It is such internal angst that rests at the story’s final resolution as Dudley finally bares his soul.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.


  1. Nice, in reading this story I wanted to see what thoughts and interpretations were out there. I too saw the geranium as a reflection of Dudley. The blatant racism seems so foreign now despite current media political fluff.

    1. Thanks and yes, the racism is rampant in the piece. Not that O'Connor was being dishonest about the state of the south at the time (and maybe now).

  2. So many questions -- it took me a long time to figure out that Old Dudley was a white man. What is the point in including the daughter and son-in-law in the story. Who is Lutisha? Is she black or white? If Old Dudley didn't like "niggers" and didn't want to have anything to do with them, why was Rabie OK? The two seemed to have fun with each other. Old Dudley called him a "water nigger". When the story was written, was it universal that only white people called black people "niggers"? Culturally, that isn't always the case. Can someone clue me in?

  3. There is a conflict between his past and present that is shown through more tangible conflicts in the story. This includes the conflict between the north and the south and the conflict between urban and rural. These represent an internal battle in Old Dudley and I think the racism helps illustrate his inability to change simply because it is change. He does not want to lose his life as he knew it, his youth, and Rabie is an important part of that. He must keep the concept of Rabie pure, how he was brought up, right or wrong, represents what he is losing. His reaction to the new ideas being introduced about race are there to show the changes he must face and his reaction shows his inability to deal with these changes.