Post four of my tour through Flannery O’Connor The Complete Stories centers on “Wildcat.” This piece continues the flow through the six stories that comprised O’Connor’s master’s thesis at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Like the other six that start her collected works, the piece never saw print in her lifetime.
“Wildcat” is a terse piece, one rich with authentic dialect that rings true to a time when the educational gap between rich and poor, black and white, created a linguistic gulf. While some may contend such a separation may still exist today, the piece is driven by the language and the thoughtful way in which O’Connor crafts dialogue. The characters sound real, and there conversations drive the piece, turning the pages.
As the narrative commences, Old Gabriel, blind not from age but from birth, converses with his grandchildren, calling them by name using not his eyes or ears, but his nose. The idea of smell extends into a vision of Gabriel’s youth, one where despite his handicap, he desires to step out and prove himself: “‘I could er gone wit ‘em,’ he said sullenly. ‘I could sniff er smelled it out. I ain’t afraid’” (O’Connor 27). The wildcat his grandkids fixate on cannot possible be the one from his youth, but one of these animals smells like another, and thus the scent, the sheer primal nature of it, haunts Gabriel. The cat of his youth ate a man, the grandkids are not yet men, they too could fall victim despite their thoughts to the contrary.
That smell from his youth, the smell now cannot possible be real or the same. Old Gabriel, unable to locate the cat with his eyes, unable to picture it, finds himself thinking it is there, thinking he can smell it. Like the parents of a newborn child who always think they hear the baby crying, he too searches for the foil to his peace: “He could smell the other jus’ the same. He had been smellin’ it, been smellin’ it ever since they started talkin’ about it” (29). He wants the cat, he wants to find it and go at it, and the tension is created, for how can a blind man hunt, how can he be of use against an able bodied, man eating beast: “They’d lose him in the woods, they’d say. Huntin’ wildcats won’t no business for him” (30)? Thus Gabriel stews and speculates and sits in his chair. Will the cat attack him, will it break into his house, or will it only devour cattle?
Either way, the act of sitting, draws him closer to death. If the cat were to take him, despite his fears, he may greet it with open arms. Thus Gabriel confronts his end in what maybe the story’s most beautiful line: “Across on the river bank the Lord was waiting on him with a troupe of angels and golden vestments for him to put on and when he came, he’d put on the vestments and stand there with the Lord and the angels, judging life” (31). Like many old men, especially those scorned by youth, overlooked as helpless, Gabriel judges. The youth confuse him, fail to listen to him, do everything wrong when others can lead them in the right direction. What pains him is the lack of ears for his judgment—people either don’t want to or care to listen to him, to covet his wisdom. These boys are no different: “‘How many wildcats you killed, Granpaw?’ Gabriel stopped; the plate of side meat tremored in his hand. ‘I knows what I knows, boys’” (32). As in “The Geranium,” the elderly in these early O’Connor works are shown to be weak but wanting, to be helpless but out to prove themselves. The piece ends with Gabriel knowing full well what his family thinks of him and knowing full well how he will meet his end.
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.