Guizacs, Shortleys, and O’Connors―Flannery and Postwar Immigration

Flannery grew up in a turbulent world, graduating from high school during World War II. Although America was less affected than other parts of the world by this global tragedy, the turmoil and upheaval of her younger years shines through in much of O’Connor’s writing. One story, “The Displaced Person,” deals very heavily with the aftereffects of World War II―in particular, postwar immigration from Eastern Europe.

            After WWII, up to eleven million people were displaced in Eastern Europe.[1] America, attempting to prove themselves as the global hero of the war (as well as cover up from their pre-war rejection of Jewish immigrants), passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948.[2] This act allowed for up to 200,000 European immigrants to enter the United States, provided that they had been in resettlement camps and could prove that they had American sponsors to provide for them.[3] Once in the United States, many refugees were aided by relief organizations, many headed by religious institutions. This program proved majorly effective, as nearly 400,000 immigrants had relocated to America by 1952.

            In 1953, however, the effectiveness of previous legislation began to run dry, and the Refugee Relief Act was passed in order to provide aid to those fleeing Soviet-occupied or Communist states.[4] As the Cold War began to grow in intensity, America took a stand to defend the world from the perceived threat of Communism and Russia. In this defense, however, another enemy reared its head, one much more subtle and sinister than whatever red evil McCarthy warned against: xenophobia.

            Back in Milledgeville, Georgia, the O’Connors were dealing with displaced persons of their own. Regina needed help running the dairy farm out at Andalusia, and the sudden influx of immigrant workers provided many helping hands. She furnished a house for the family she was meant to receive, despite not knowing much about them.[5] Regina said Flannery “ought to be able to teach [the family] English,” showing a kind (if misguided) attempt to help out strangers who were far from home.[6] Once she actually got acquainted with her workers, Regina was reportedly very fond of them. She gave them Christmas presents, and treated them with her characteristic hospitality and tough nature.[7]

            Flannery, of course, took this experience and turned it into a short story. “The Displaced Person” tells the tale of Mrs. Shortley, the wife of a farmhand, and her life at Mrs. McIntyre’s farm. When a family of Polish immigrants arrives to work on the farm, Mrs. Shortley finds herself questioning the morals of European refugees, if they had “carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place.”[8] Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre share their worries, parroting the concerns Flannery was hearing―“You reckon they’ll know what colors even is?”[9] “You reckon he can drive a tractor when he don’t know English?”[10]

            Their fears turn out to be unfounded, as the Guizac family works diligently and efficiently. In fact, the better they perform, the more anxious and hostile Mrs. Shortley becomes. She criticizes their religion, the country they came from, their language, their way of life. Mrs. McIntyre, too, finds little solace in their good work. In a classic Flannery tone, the two American women undo themselves in their prejudices, trapping them within their own spheres of worry and assumptions. The story ends with Mrs. McIntyre feeling as if “she was in some foreign country” on her own farm, breaking down the traditional definitions of citizenship and nation.[11] Flannery, in her usual way, attacks the specters of fear and prejudice that haunt her environment, turning them into something between satire and a cautionary tale.

[1] “Displaced Persons Act of 1948.” Immigration to the United States. Accessed April 7, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Refugee Relief Act (1953).” Immigration History, January 1, 1970.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), 30.

[6] Ibid, 31.

[7] Ibid, 193.

[8] Flannery O’Connor “The Displaced Person,” The Complete Stories, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), 196.

[9] Ibid, 196.

[10] Ibid, 201.

[11] Ibid, 235.

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