A Late Encounter with the Enemy by Flannery O’Connor
In A Late Encounter with the Enemy by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of desire, image and history. Taken from her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection the story begins with the reader being introduced to the two main protagonists, General George Poker Sash (104 years old) and his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash (62 years old). Sally is due to graduate from college and it is her wish (desire) that her grandfather has a part in her graduation. This desire isn’t borne out of affection for her grandfather rather Sally wants to parade him in front of people because of his history. A history that the reader soon becomes aware is not all that it seems to be. George Poker Sash was never a General (he was a foot soldier) in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. The title General was given to him, twelve years previously, by a publicity agent who needed someone to help promote a film about the Civil War.
Another thing which becomes clear to the reader is the fact that while George lives in the present (he likes all the attention he gets from being a General), Sally on the other hand is firmly rooted in the past. There are two notable examples which highlight this, the first being the fact that Sally is going to college to obtain her B.S in Education. She is being forced to do so by her employers and has spent the last twenty summers attending college (she’s already a teacher but doesn’t have the degree). She resents this and despite everything she has been taught (how to teach children) she still does the opposite (defiance, stuck in the past). The second notable example of Sally being stuck in the past occurs when the reader is told about the time that she brought George onto the stage at the film première What should have been one of the proudest moments in her life turned out to be an embarrassment. Despite wearing a new dress, when she looked down at her shoes she saw that she was still wearing (image) her ‘two brown Girl Scouts oxfords.’ Sally believes that by having George on the stage at her graduation she will finally be able to put these remembered failures behind her.
What Sally and George do have in common is the fact that they both want to be the centre of attention. Sally at her graduation and George likes putting on his General’s uniform and being paraded around people, particularly pretty women (lustful desire). He is also fond of telling people about how he attended the film première and was treated like a star. It is lost on both Sally and George that he was in essence used by the publicity agent as a prop to promote the film and ironically Sally is as guilty as the publicity agent of treating her grandfather as a prop or living relic. There are no obvious signs of affection from Sally for her grandfather. If anything having him at her graduation is more to promote her (image) and her idea of her family history.
O’Connor plays on the theme of image again by introducing Sally’s nephew John Wesley. Sally believes that by having John Wesley in his khaki outfit (Boy Scout) he’ll compliment George on the stage at her graduation (which in turn Sally believes will make her look good). Another important thing about the introduction of John Wesley is that if Sally lives in the past and George in the present there is no doubting that John Wesley represents the future. This point is emphasised at the graduation when instead of bringing George into the auditorium, Sally discovers George and John Wesley outside by a Coca Cola vending machine. At the time the story is set, coin operated Coca Cola vending machines would have been a relatively new innovation and by associating John Wesley with the vending machine O’Connor may be suggesting that John Wesley symbolizes the future.
The most important scene in the story is at the graduation. George is on stage with John Wesley waiting for Sally to receive her scroll and as one of the speakers is speaking he can hear him telling those in attendance ‘If we forget our past, we won’t remember our future and it will be as well for we won’t have one.’ This is important because the reader is aware that George lives in the present and has never tried to remember his real past. It is only now that the past (his real past or history) starts to creep up on him (ironically as he is dying). If words are used to measure or assess our memories or past (history) then the speakers words are cutting through George as he is sitting on the stage in his wheelchair ‘words were coming at him like musket fire, just escaping him but getting nearer and nearer.’ As he is dying George sees his past open up in front of him and he can see his wife (looking at him critically) and children. For the first time in his life he is in fear, reality (his real history) has awoken him, again ironically as he is dying. What is further interesting to note at this point is that O’Connor uses imagery to highlight the fact that George is dying. All he can see is the black procession (image of death) of students coming up on stage to collect their scrolls.
O’Connor ends A Late Encounter with the Enemy with Sally collecting her scroll and proudly looking over at George unaware that he is dead. The reader sensing that Sally believes that she is finally putting her remembered failures behind her. After she leaves the auditorium John Wesley wheels George outside and heads towards the vending machine (he doesn’t realise George is dead either). This action is important as O’Connor may again be highlighting to the reader the idea of the future. As Sally waits for them to meet her outside it becomes clear to the reader that despite her wishes, she has been cheated out of her triumph. George did not live to see her graduate. His past finally caught up with him.