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Artificial Nigger, The

Author: O'Connor, Flannery

Genre: Fiction

Description:

FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S STORIES PROVIDE some of the most penetrating dissections of white solipsism that American literature has to offer. (1) Of the many stories that include overt white perspectives on race, "The Artificial Nigger" is arguably the most complex and perplexing. Flannery O'Connor declared that "The Artificial Nigger" was her own "favourite story," (2) and critics concurred, many seeing it as one of her "best" stories. (3) O'Connor does not explain why this story was her favorite; indeed, she had some trouble with it and had to write "The Artificial Nigger" "a good many times" (Habit, p. 78). Although she says that "it is the best thing I will ever write" (p. 209), O'Connor seems to puzzle over the story's resistance: "I have often had the experience of finding myself not as adequate to the situation as I thought I would be, but there turned out to be a great deal more to that story than just that" (pp. 100-101). The rather awkward phrasing of this comment suggests that her entanglement with this story lay not only or merely in her own limitations but in something unruly within the story itself. Most critical discussion of the story seems untroubled by such doubts, and few of the many published papers on it express discomfort with the happy reconciliation of Mr. Head with God and with his grandson, Nelson. O'Connor herself does not elaborate on what trouble in the story is "a great deal more" than her own inadequacy. Here, I want to suggest that "The Artificial Nigger" vexed O'Connor with a subtle contradiction: by attributing "body" to the "large colored woman" for the purpose of the spiritual development of the white boy, (4) O'Connor subverts her own deeply held belief in the necessity of unifying body and spirit for true spiritual integrity. O'Connor sets the sociopolitical aspects of "The Artificial Nigger" alongside a discussion of her view that spiritual redemption requires redemption of the body. When she says "there is nothing that screams out the tragedy of the South like what my uncle calls 'nigger statuary'" (Habit, p. 101), she makes one of the few comments that demonstrate that she sees the South as tragic, and that the tragedy is specifically based in racial injustice. For O'Connor, social dynamics are metonymic of spirit and of body. Her observation of the "tragedy of the South" is not part of a conversation about a political or moral issue but rather is made in the context of a discussion of "Christ as God and man" (p. 100). For O'Connor salvation means that "flesh and spirit [are] united in peace" (p. 100). The mystery of the body (not designated black or white, male or female) is how it is to be united with spirit, not how it can be reconciled in social justice. (5) This concern for the embodied spirit is her obsession, apparent in her many stories in which the afflicted flesh is a precious and prized manifestation, the outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual encounter. Her Catholicism demands a reconciliation of spirit with body, but for O'Connor neither body nor spirit can be abstracted from its material, social condition. Repeatedly, O'Connor's characters confront that embodied materiality, leaving the reader with a collection of wooden legs, tattoos, club feet, and corpses, and very occasionally, as in "The Artificial Nigger," a material object that produces the impression of reconciliation. But in "The Artificial Nigger" her representation of that inner and outer reconciliation is fraught with ambivalence. I believe that O'Connor's willingness to use "a large colored woman" (p. 262) to effect spiritual healing reproduces a white imaginary and makes the conclusion a representation of unredeemed failure.Mr. Head must take Nelson to the city to teach him to be a white man and, rather than being an instrument of grace, the Negro statuary crystallizes the place of white maleness crucial to the "action of mercy" Mr. Head feels (p. 269). (6) O'Connor reiterates the profound displacement of body onto the figure of the black woman, and thus makes her the bearer of hope and possibility for the white characters. Part of the reason this story continues to fascinate is the contradiction that O'Connor settles on: racial prejudice is arbitrary and unnatural, yet the story positions that crucial black character primarily in terms of her spiritual usefulness to whites. Since body and spirit must be united for salvation to occur, displacing "body" onto ...

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