A World of Speculation

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Wildcat,” an old, blind, black man faces death.

Old Gabriel, blind from childhood, can perceive a lot through his senses of smell and hearing. He recognizes three of the four young men—his grandchildren—on the front porch by their smell, and he knows the smell of a wildcat.

The young men are planning to hunt a wildcat that’s been killing cattle in the neighborhood. Old Gabriel offers to go with them; he can sniff it out, he says, but the young men laugh at him. They offer to take him to a woman’s house for safety, but the idea of staying with women in this situation is an insult. They go off on their hunt and leave him alone at home.

The situation is a sort of replay of an event that happened when he was a child. Then, like now, the young men were going hunting for the wildcat, and young Gabriel had to wait back with his mother and aunts because he was blind. It was humiliating to wait with the women. While the young men were away, ol’ Hezuh, who was bedridden, with only a woman to care for him, died of a wildcat attack.

That event comes back to Old Gabriel as he waits alone in his house for the wildcat to attack and kill him. Two women at that distant time embody two extremes of our approach to death.

Reba expects the worst: “They ain’t gonna do no good out huntin’ it,” she whined. “It here. It right around here. Ef it jump in this room it gonna git me fust, then it gonna git that boy, then it gonna git . . . .”

And then there’s Thin Minnie: “How’s it gonna git in here? Yawl jus’ frettin’ for nothin’.”

Now, alone and waiting for his grandsons to come back, Old Gabriel tends toward the Reba end of the spectrum. He knows the wildcat is out there, and it’s coming for him. He tries to think of ways to fight it, and then he tries to calm himself while he waits.

He wonders if it will bite his face off. “Lord waitin’ on me,” he whispered. “He don’t want me with my face tore open.”

On the other hand, he could see “Across on the river bank, the Lord was waiting on him with a troupe of angels and golden vestments for him to put on and when he came, he’d put on the vestments and stand there with the Lord and the angels, judging life.”

Death is coming for everybody, whether in the form of a wildcat or cancer. Young people go out hunting it while the old ones wait and listen to it sniffing at the door. We may face it in panic or denial. We may think the Lord will reject us or dress us in golden vestments to judge life. Most likely we rock between those notions like a boat on the ocean.

But one thing we know, as sure as Old Gabriel—it’s coming, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. And while the young men are out chasing it down, we’ll probably face it alone.


  • Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Photo by Ray Shrewsberry on Unsplash