Short story: “The Artificial N——r”

by look i have opinions

Note: That last word is dashed out because I didn’t especially want it staring at me from my list of post titles. I’ve retained it below.

“The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor

Read here; collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)

8,940 words

This is my favorite story I’ve read by Flannery O’Connor, for some reason, and apparently it’s the writer’s favorite as well. Something about Mr. Head’s childish pomposity appeals to me very much.

A lot of short stories have a main character who clearly exists to be taken down a peg or two—someone who starts out noticeably complacent. The success of this type of story probably depends a lot on how the reader responds to that. A naive reaction (I think I mean that term respectfully) is to become annoyed with the character. Another type of naive reaction is to resent being expected to identify with such an ignorant, self-important dick. A more sophisticated reaction is to be put off by the author’s blatant judgment of the character, to feel that the author is overstepping her bounds. I’m not sure how a good story gets around those reactions. The realness of the character has something to do with it—the conviction with which O’Connor draws Mr. Head and her other “fallen” characters.

When I first read this story I didn’t understand why it opens the way it does, with a long paragraph that personifies the moonlight. The moon is introduced before Mr. Head is, and only afterwards is it used to show us something about his character. It returns at the end of the story, where it seems to signify the mercy granted to Mr. Head. Still, what a slow way to start!—we spend 897 words here (including a 110-word flashback) before the characters even get up to make breakfast. I guess it’s as good as any other way of setting down background information.

There’s a pretty good essay on this story here.

Edited to add: I forgot to link to this interesting essay by Jeanne Perreault, who suggests that the ultimate “redemption” is thoroughly ironic, that Mr. Head’s humility is only his new form of arrogance. This is something I didn’t really have a handle on and it makes the story make more sense. The line “Mr. Head had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any” shows us that we’re still in Mr. Head’s point of view, since the author knows better than to claim that Mr. Head was ever really “too good,” and therefore I think we can take the whole passage about grace with a grain of salt. The very last line shows us how cruelly well Nelson’s rebelliousness has been broken. Both of them have affirmed their identities as white men, rejected the diverse world outside their hometown, and thereby rejected redemption. True redemption would mean some form of reconciliation with the black people whose otherness they use to define themselves.

One thing I keep being reminded of in my readings is that a story doesn’t have to be widely understood to be excellent. Often a story’s excellence is felt even by those who don’t understand it.

Perreault also (if I’m reading this right) argues that the black woman who speaks with Nelson is primarily a symbol of the things the Heads are cut off from: sexuality, physicality, and maternity. On reflection, this seems to me a serious flaw in the story—not the (necessary, routine) use of flat characters as symbols, but the use of a black female character to symbolize the stereotypical values that white patriarchal culture attributes to nonwhites and women. Perhaps this story could have been written without that stereotyping, by using the woman and other black characters to symbolize different values, or at least a greater variety of values. Then again, part of the power of any story comes from the unconscious associations we bring to it. If a writer taps into ready-made associations that have harmful implications, is she obligated to find a way to subvert them or eliminate them? I think so. I’m not sure.

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