The Lame Shall Enter First by Flannery O’Connor

In The Lame Shall Enter First by Flannery O’Connor we have the theme of selfishness, faith and connection. Taken from her Everything That Rises Must Converge collection the story is narrated in the third person and tells the tale of a man called Sheppard and his efforts to try and redeem a young juvenile delinquent called Rufus Johnson. There is a trace on irony in O’Connor calling the main protagonist Sheppard as the name would suggest at least symbolically, someone who is guiding others. It is after the reader reads the story that they realise Sheppard is unable to guide others (Rufus or Norton). The story is divided into two parts and in the first section O’Connor begins with Sheppard sitting in his kitchen having breakfast with his ten year old son Norton. He tells Norton that he has seen Rufus searching for food in a trash can, however Norton remains unaffected by this and continues to eat his cake. This annoys Sheppard because he feels that Norton has been given everything unlike Rufus who has nothing. It also appears that Sheppard considers Norton to be selfish having never had to share anything with another person.

Sheppard’s perception that he has given everything to Norton is important because it is while they are in the kitchen we realise that Norton’s mother has been dead for a year. Though he is only ten, Sheppard believes that Norton should have moved on from his mother’s death by now. He tells Norton that ‘If you stop thinking about yourself and think what you can do for somebody else, then you’ll stop missing your mother.’ This is important because it highlights to the reader that in essence Sheppard is not giving his own son the support that he needs. Norton needs his father’s support and guidance, especially after losing his mother but Sheppard is blind to this. Ironically Sheppard wants to help Rufus but cannot see that his own son needs his help. O’Connor may be using irony to suggest that it is Sheppard who is being selfish, by not focusing on Norton, rather than Norton being the selfish one.

Sheppard met Rufus at the local youth reformatory where he works at weekends. The most striking thing about their first meeting is that Sheppard compares his office to being like a confessional box, despite having never been in one. Again this is important as O’Connor may be suggesting the lack of religious faith that Sheppard has. Sheppard also compares himself (or rather his job) as being similar to the job of a priest. Again what is striking about this is that it highlights to the reader that Sheppard has an overly high belief in his own importance (ego). This idea of ego is further demonstrated at the end of the first section of the story when Rufus tells Norton that his father ‘He thinks he’s Jesus Christ.’

In the second section of the story Rufus moves in with Sheppard and very early on the reader realises that Sheppard is focusing his attention on Rufus rather than on Norton. He buys Rufus a telescope and sets it up for him in the attic. It is while Rufus is playing with the telescope that O’Connor again brings in the idea of faith. Sheppard tells Rufus and Norton that they could both be astronauts when they grow up and that they could end up going to the moon. However Rufus tells him ‘I ain’t going to the moon and get there alive’ and ‘when I die I’m going to hell.’ Unperturbed Sheppard answers Rufus by telling him ‘It’s at least possible to get to the moon. We can see it. We know it’s there. Nobody has given any reliable evidence there’s a hell.’ This annoys Rufus and he tells Sheppard that ‘The Bible has give the evidence and if you die and go there you burn forever.’

This engagement between Rufus and Sheppard is important for two reasons. Firstly because it highlights to the reader that Rufus has at least some sort of faith or belief. It is also important because it is through Rufus talking about Hell that Norton asks his father if his mother is in hell. Sheppard tells his son she’s not, however the reader learns that Sheppard has never told his son that his mother is in heaven either ‘he could not allow himself to bring him up on a lie.’ To Sheppard neither heaven nor hell exists and he tells Norton that ‘She doesn’t exist. That’s all I have to give you, the truth.’ Again O’Connor may be suggesting the lack of religious faith within Sheppard.

When Rufus loses interest in the telescope, Sheppard believes that by buying him a new shoe (Rufus has a clubfoot) he will change Rufus for the better. However when they go to the store to try on the new shoe, Rufus tells the clerk that he doesn’t want it, despite it fitting him and helping him with his walking. The shoe is important symbolism and can be seen as either representing a new way of life for Rufus (which he is ultimately rejecting) or it can be seen as Rufus being comfortable with his old shoe (or the way he is living his life). Disappointed that Rufus has not accepted the new shoe, Sheppard becomes even more disillusioned with him when he discovers that Rufus is responsible for the vandalism of some of the homes in the neighbourhood and he starts to wish that Rufus would just leave. Sheppard’s longing for Rufus to leave is also significant because it suggests that Sheppard no longer feels he is able to make a connection with Rufus.

There is another important incident when Sheppard returns home to find Rufus and Norton reading a bible. When they sit down to have dinner Sheppard tells Rufus that ‘That book is something for you to hide behind. It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.’ Sheppard’s reaction to the boys reading the bible is important because it again highlights his lack of faith. He tells Rufus that ‘You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.’ Again Rufus is angered by Sheppard and he replies ‘You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.’ To prove that he believes what the Bible says Rufus rips out one of the pages and starts to eat it.

When the police bring Rufus back to Sheppard’s house for the second time the reader also gets a closer look at how Rufus thinks. Despite knowing that he is going to the reformatory again, Rufus tells the police and the reporter that he’d rather go back there than live with Sheppard. He also accuses Sheppard of having made suggestions to him and having told him ‘there wasn’t no hell.’ When Sheppard pleads with him to tell the truth we also learn that rather than looking at his clubfoot as a disability, Rufus looks upon it as an asset ‘I lie and steal because I’m good at it! The lame shall enter first!’ Rufus believes that even though he steals because he is lame he will get to heaven, unlike Sheppard who Rufus is suggesting has no faith.

The ending of the story is also significant as it is at the end of the story that Sheppard realises that his attempts to save Rufus were not a selfless act but rather it was an attempt to ‘feed his vision of himself.’ It is upon this awareness that Sheppard decides that he needs to connect with Norton, rather than with Rufus. However when Sheppard goes to the attic to spend some time with Norton, he discovers Norton’s body hanging from a beam. Norton’s death is also significant as it would appear that he has killed himself in an attempt to be closer to or connect again with his mother. It is also possible that O’Connor is suggesting at the end of the story that Sheppard has been blinded by selfishness, his own. Rather than focusing on the good within his own son, he focused, for his own benefit and ego on Rufus.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Lame Shall Enter First by Flannery O'Connor." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 3 Jan. 2014. Web.


  • A very good analysis, but it fails to mention Sheppard’s inability to just tell Rufus to go away, even when he (Sheppard) truly wants him to go. He is like a helpless puppet, a slave to his own ego-maniacal drive to transform Rufus into an upstanding citizen.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Alexander and thank you for highlighting the omission. I probably should have mentioned how weak Sheppard is when it comes to asking Rufus to leave.

  • Nice job. The club foot has a great deal of significance. It represents the deformity of the human soul, an idea that Shepperd finds repulsive. At the brace shop, Shepperd sees the “unsheathed mass of foot in the dirty sock” and it “made [him] feel queasy.” He thinks that just as covering the club foot with a bright new shoe will rid Johnson of his defect, with the right education and enlightenment, humans can achieve a kind of perfection beyond reproach. Notice how this mantra of Shepperd’s “I have nothing to reproach myself with” implies that he is spotless. The mantra loses force, though, as the realization sinks in, as you mention above, that he has been feeding Rufus a “vision of himself”.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment and insight Justin. You explain matters a little bit clearer than I might have done. Shepperd really is a selfish man despite the front he likes to show society.

  • Absolutely no insult intended here, but this is not a “critical analysis” of this great story. It is merely a recapitulation and summarization of the story itself, like a version of Monarch or Cliff Notes; except that even those provide some rudimentary analysis. I deeply love O’Connor and her work, and appreciate someone focusing on it, but this simply offers zero insight – just a summarization.

  • I like Sheppard who tried to help a boy, who instead exploited Sheppard though. Who else would do like this in this age.

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