A World of Speculation

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s earliest stories, an old man from Georgia laments his decision to move in with his daughter in New York City. His yearning for home is like Psalm 136 (137):

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.

This Psalm is sung during matins of the three Sundays of the pre-Lenten period, leading up to the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the day before Orthodox Lent begins.

Flannery O’Connor has a way of expressing sublime truths in the ridiculous body of human life, and she does that here with Old Dudley, who is like Adam surveying his life after the loss of the Garden.

In the story, “the daughter,” as he calls her throughout the story, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, who isn’t around much. Old Dudley shares a bedroom with her son, “who was sixteen and couldn’t be talked to.”

The apartment was too tight. There was no place to be where there wasn’t somebody else. The kitchen opened into the bathroom and the bathroom opened into everything else and you were always where you started from.

She invited her father to live with her family because he was getting older and had lived “in a decaying boarding house full of old women whose heads jiggled.”

She doesn’t understand that Old Dudley was happy there, in his crotchety-old-man fashion of happiness, with his constant friend, Rabie, Rabie’s wife Lutisha, and the old women in the boarding house whom he “protected. “

He was the man of the house and he did the things a man in the house was supposed to do. It was a dull occupation at night when the old girls crabbed and crocheted in the parlor and the man in the house had to listen and judge the sparrow-like wars that rasped and twittered intermittently.

He and Rabie went out hunting and fishing together. Rabie knew the river and the woods, and Old Dudley caught fish and chased possums without ever actually killing many (or any) of them. Rabie is black, and Old Dudley has a dismissive admiration for him that won’t admit friendship but turns into an aching loneliness for his company when he finds himself in New York.

At vespers of the Sunday of Forgiveness, when we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, we sing this hymnography:

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth and formed me into a living creature . . . . He honoured me, setting me as ruler upon the earth over all things visible, and making me companion of the angels.

The Decision

Old Dudley accepted the daughter’s invitation to move to New York because “there was that thing inside him that had wanted to see New York.”

Big towns were important places. The thing inside him had sneaked upon him for just one instant. The place like he’d seen in the picture show had room for him! It was an important place and it had room for him! He’d said yes, he’d go.

He could have turned down the invitation. He had enough there, but once the decision was made, there was no going back.

We all know “that thing inside us” that wants notice or power or other irresistible trash that leaves us empty after it’s gone. In Vespers, we sing:

Adam sat before Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept: ‘Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and led astray, and now I am an exile from glory. Woe is me!

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of his decision, Old Dudley is cut off from everything he knew. City life is crowded and complicated. He and his family don’t know how to talk to each other. His daughter brought him to New York out of duty, not out of love. He is lost in a maze of concrete and identical buildings, navigating through cavelike subways and dizzying elevated trains.

People who pass him in the hallway look stonily past him, or stare from window to window across alleys with no interaction. The only exception is a black man who wears a suit and has polished shoes and fingernails. When he sees the man next door, Old Dudley has a fleeting illusion that they can be friends, but the daughter tells him the man is not a servant, as Old Dudley thinks he is, but a neighbor and to leave him alone. For Old Dudley, that is a scandal (even though Rabie lived in the same building Old Dudley did).

But the worst is when the black man comes upon Old Dudley in the hallway, reminiscing about hunting with Rabie, and is kind to him. The black man holds himself back from laughing at the old man with his imaginary gun in the hallway; he tries to make conversation about guns, which Old Dudley used to “teach” Rabie about; he even helps Old Dudley up the stairs. It’s all just too much.

The final blow is the destruction of a geranium that used to show up in a window across the alley. Not as good as the geraniums back home, of course, kind of pathetic with its pink color and green paper bow. He doesn’t even seem to appreciate it until the man in the apartment with the plant pushes it off the windowsill and leaves it, roots up on the concrete in the hot sun six floors below. He shouts across at Old Dudley, “I don’t like people looking at what I do.”

From Matins of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise:

Thou hast counted me worthy of honour in Eden, O Master. . . . O blessed meadow, trees and flowers planted by God, O sweetness of Paradise: let your leaves, like eyes, shed tears on my behalf, for I am naked and a stranger to God’s glory. No longer do I see thee nor delight in thy joy and splendour, O precious Paradise.

From Expulsion to Forgiveness

Flannery O’Connor writes on two levels. On the material level, you understand the daughter’s difficult position, why the grandson can’t have a conversation with his grandfather, how the black neighbor is kind to the peculiar old man acting out a memory in the hallway. If anyone is a “villain” in this story, it’s Old Dudley himself, with his racism and dismissive attitudes. And yet, the protagonist, the person we’re set up to identify with, is Old Dudley.

O’Connor never lets the comfortable off easy in her stories. She makes us face up to the reality of who we are, and it’s not a flattering image. What she as a Christian know and what Old Dudley doesn’t is the rest of the story:

O precious Paradise . . . pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.

As we enter the “doors of repentance” this Lent, may we be aware of how far we’ve fallen, and also the way back to Paradise.


  • Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, translators. The Lenten Triodion. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.
  • Photo by Miguel Ángel Escalera on Unsplash