The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor

The Artificial Nigger - Flannery O'ConnorIn The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of pride, reliance, betrayal, grace and forgiveness. Taken from her A Good Man is Hard to Find collection the story is narrated in the third person and tells the story of a sixty year old man’s (Mr Head) journey to Atlanta with his ten year old grandson Nelson. Mr Head believes that there is nothing good in the city and he hopes by the end of the day that Nelson will think the same way too. He believes it is his moral mission to show Nelson how evil the city is. Very early on the reader realises that there are similarities between Nelson and his grandfather, both are stubborn (full of pride) and while they are sitting in the kitchen having breakfast, before they catch the train to Atlanta, O’Connor describes both of them as looking more like brothers than grandfather and grandson. Later O’Connor again describes Nelson and Mr Head as being indistinguishable from each other when they come across the lawn ornament. This may be important as it is through these similarities that O’Connor may be connecting both Mr Head and Nelson.

O’Connor also uses colour as symbolism in the story. While Mr Head and Nelson are waiting for the train the reader finds that the sun is ‘a coarse-looking orange-colored.’ This is important because orange is associated with pride. O’Connor uses colour again as symbolism when the train does arrives to pick up Mr Head and Nelson. Mr Head sees the ‘one yellow front light’ of the train. O’Connor using yellow as symbolism for betrayal, something she has also done in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. In some ways the arrival of the train (with it’s yellow light) acts as a foreshadowing device for the eventual betrayal by Mr Head of Nelson. There are also two incidents on the train that highlight to the reader how much Nelson relies on his grandfather. The first is when Mr Head tries to bring Nelson into the kitchen on the train. One of the waiters tells him ‘Passengers are NOT allowed in the kitchen.’ In an attempt to save face the quick witted Mr Head tells the waiter ‘And there’s good reason for that, because the cockroaches would run the passengers out.’ It is through Mr Head’s reaction to the waiter that Nelson realises that his grandfather is the only person he can rely on in the city. The second incident occurs when the train is on the edge of Atlanta. As it is pulling up to the station Nelson gets ready to get off but his grandfather tells him to sit down, that it’s not their stop. Nelson ‘for the first time in his life, he understood that his grandfather was indispensable to him.’ Again this is significant as it highlights Nelson’s reliance on his grandfather.

When Mr Head and Nelson do arrive in Atlanta, Nelson is impressed with the city, much to his grandfather’s annoyance. What is interesting to note at this stage is that Mr Head doesn’t bring Nelson into any of the stores that they pass by. The reader being told by O’Connor that Mr Head got lost the last time he went into one of the stores. Ironically it becomes obvious to the reader and to Nelson that his grandfather has again got lost in Atlanta when they end up walking through one of the black neighbourhoods of the city. Mr Head getting lost again is important because it is through it (or the symbolism of it) that the reader becomes aware that Nelson’s grandfather isn’t the moral guide he thinks himself to be.

O’Connor also uses animal imagery in the story. Firstly when Mr Head hides behind the trash can, he is described as being ‘hunched like an old monkey’ and Nelson when he wakes up on the pavement and starts to dash down the street looking for his grandfather is described as being like ‘a wild maddened pony.’ Similarly when Mr Head does catch up with his grandson after frightening him the reader finds ‘the old man’s head had lowered itself into his collar like a turtle’s.’ This imagery is important because it is through it that O’Connor is highlighting to the reader the ignorance of the characters. Something the reader realises when Mr Head finds Nelson after he has knocked the woman over on the street and denies he knows him. It is by claiming not to know Nelson that Mr Head is displaying a type of ignorance (or lack of knowledge). In essence Mr Head has betrayed Nelson by claiming not to know him.

There is however a reconciliation later between grandfather and grandson when Nelson forgives Mr Head for denying that he knew him. It happens as they are walking, trying to find the train station and Mr Head shows Nelson a lawn ornament depicting a young black boy. Mr Head tells Nelson that it is ‘an artificial nigger.’ The lawn ornament is important because it acts as an agent of grace, allowing Mr Head to be forgiven by Nelson. Another reason it is important is because as both Nelson and his grandfather are looking at the ornament O’Connor again describes both characters as looking like each other. Firstly Mr Head looks like a child and then O’Connor describes Nelson as looking like an old man. This is important because the reader is aware that it is Nelson who has taught his grandfather a lesson about forgiveness rather than Mr Head teaching his grandson something (which he set out to do at the beginning of the story – moral mission).

The ending of the story may also be significant as the reader finds that after Nelson and Mr Head have safely arrived home, there is a sense that both have learnt a lesson from their visit to Atlanta. Nelson realises that he doesn’t want to visit the city again (it has frightened him and he is no longer overly proud of having been born in Atlanta) and Mr Head now knows that despite all men being sinners, they can be redeemed by God’s gift of grace. O’Connor tells the reader that the mercy Nelson has shown his grandfather, by forgiving him for his betrayal, ‘covered his (Mr Head) pride like a flame and consumed it.’ O’Connor highlighting to the reader that Mr Head’s pride has been replaced with grace.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O'Connor." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.

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