Monday, January 12, 2015

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "“A Late Encounter with the Enemy"

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” follows the interaction of Sally Poker, an aged woman about to graduate from a teacher’s college and her Civil War veteran grandfather General Sash. Focusing on pride, the story digs deep into the many facades that drive Southern Tradition. More than anything, the Old South lives through the collective focus on social perception and appearance. People dwell on the past, attaching themselves to both tradition and their lineage as if it is a form of nobility, a fact O’Connor never fails to spotlight.

Thus General Sash follows in a long line of O’Connor’s aged, southern males, men fixed in their racist, proper ways. These men stand above others and establish themselves through their self-importance and ability to not only be the best, but to also look the part: “he would be expected to sit on stage in his uniform …there wouldn’t be anything equal to him in his uniform” (134). The General, a man who eschews false teeth, because well, they make him look bad, isn’t even a general. A foot solider at best, over his hundred and four years he’d forgotten his rank and the war itself, leaving his pride to stand on the shoulders of false pretense, traits that O’Connor’s fiction seems to both bask in and treasure: “He had not actually been a general in that war. He had probably been a foot solider; he didn’t remember what he had been; in fact, he didn’t remember that war at all” (135). But he has his new uniform, his new title, his sword, and most importantly his ego.

Likewise, Sally Poker strives to be better than the rest. She is graduating at the age of sixty-two with a degree in education despite having a career in the field. She approaches graduation with a grand reluctance, ananger over having been forced to attend school in the first place: “For the past twenty summers, when she should have been resting, she had had to take a trunk in the burning heat to the state teacher’s college; and though when she returned in the fall, she always taught the in the exact same way she had been taught not to teach, this was a mild revenge that didn’t satisfy her sense of justice” (134-135). These words ring with the very same spite as the General’s, and while they detail anyone’s anti-tenure argument, they speak to the family tradition of haughty arrogance. This is the woman who regrets attending a gala because she forgot to put on her fancy shoes—forget the fact that her grandfather was crowned a fictional general at the Confederate Ball. This is a woman who turns her nose up at the system, but parades her symbol of excellence out at the system's celebration. Yet Sally can’t stand up to grandfather, once pretending to sleep in fear upon waking up to find him staring at her naked except for his general’s hat. Such an encounter would have shredded not only her respect, but the general’s, a deed that would crush both proud characters.

Sally needs him whole, for he is her trophy, her beacon of self-worth: “If he had died before Sally Poker’s graduation, she thought she would have died herself” (139). He exists to make her proud, a fact she again voices at the ceremony itself, unaware of the man’s true fate: “she glanced at the General and saw him sitting fixed and fierce, his eyes wide open, and she turned her head forward again and held it a perceptible degree higher” (144). He is her symbol in a symbolic event.

The graduation itself, is well, a graduation. People speak, clap, stand, walk, sit, and wait. No one has fun at these, not the speakers, not the teachers, not the graduates. This is not to say that the event is not dignified and important, but rather, that the event is about the pomp: the show. The General exists as a pawn in the game as he is put on display for all dignitaries. He should love it, yet he feels lost, and confused, a victim to his age and lack of comprehension on the world: “The figure was telling him something about history and the General made up his mind he wouldn’t listen, but the words kept seeping in through the little hole in his head” (142). History contorted, existence as well, the General cannot avoid his greatest advisory: time. Time degraded his brain, brought on confusion, and thus, through a symbolic hole he endures the torment of the graduation ceremony in his own way. Names barrage him, music assails him, and unable to control his facilities, too proud to ask for help and reach out beyond the pain, the General falls, passing away in the sea of black before him. His habit of life comes to an end as a useless symbol to his granddaughter’s misplaced pride.

Favorite Lines:

  • “Living had got be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition” (134). So poignant and telling—these words show the reader so much about a character as he is just being introduced.
  • “The past and the future were the same thing to him, one forgotten and the other not remembered; he had no more notion of dying than a cat” (139). Here O’Connor confronts the malaise of life the General is living through, much the same as Old Dudley from The Geranium,and thus is set up for a fall.
  • “The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them” (141).
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.

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