In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Geranium,” Old Dudley, a traditional, Southern man, is stuck living with his daughter in New York City. The place is too loud, too big, and too close for him, and he desperately misses his old home and his old life down South. The only comfort he can find is the geranium he can see from his daughter’s window that reminds him of “home,” at least until it is taken from him, too.
One concept that has emerged over the course of my MFA studies in Creative Writing is the idea that authors often fixate on certain stories or themes. It’s an idea they return to over and over throughout their writing career, one that grants them comfort or one that won’t leave them alone. It’s fascinating to witness that fixation reveal itself over the years. I’ve seen it in my peer’s submissions to workshops and I’ve seen it in my own work. In my case, I write a lot about certain aspects and realities of my family life and my childhood illness. These were things I needed to express, to get out of my head and out into the world where others could see them and I could point and say “This, here, I need you to understand THIS.” “The Geranium” was absolutely that kind of story for Flannery O’Connor.
“The Geranium” was one of Flannery O’Connor’s earliest published short stories, first appearing in Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature the summer of ’46. Flannery was so taken with the story and its themes that she rewrote it three times over the course of her life, first as “An Exile in the East” in 1954, then “Getting Home” in 1964, and finally as “Judgement Day,” also in 1964. Only two versions of the story appear in Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories: “The Geranium,” and “Judgement Day.” While I wouldn’t mind reading the in-between versions, I do like that the publisher opens the collection with one and ends it with the other. It affords the reader a grand opportunity to experience this story’s life at its beginning and at its end. Both follow the same basic story, but you can see plainly the growth of Flannery O’Connor’s skill from one to the other.
But all this begs the question, why did Flannery O’Connor choose this story as her fixation? We can only speculate, but I believe she identified with the old man she wrote about, or at least sympathized with his plight. It’s a tragic fish-out-of-water story where the old man, Dudley in “The Geranium” and Tanner in “Judgement Day,” simply cannot adjust to his newfound surroundings. At the time of writing “The Geranium”, O’Connor was attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, a far cry from her Georgian roots. It’s said that her accent was so thick, other students and professors had to read her short stories out loud for her so people could understand. I can easily imagine Flannery wondering if she had made a mistake moving out there. I can easily imagine her nostalgic and longing for the simplicity of life at home. I can even imagine her finding a token to sooth her unsettled mind, perhaps a flower, one that reminded her of her farm home in Milledgeville. These are just imaginings, but they’re fun to consider.