In several of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, character foibles provide the main narrative drive. There is something satisfying, in a Schadenfreude sort of way, in seeing a character’s preconceptions of the world torn to shreds. This certainly can be seen in “A Circle in the Fire” and even within “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” but this narrative device is used most directly in O’Connor’s only Civil War-related story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” (1953). This story, eleven pages long in the Library of America edition, is short, sharp, and succinct in its treatment of misplaced pride. This story of an decrepit 104 year-old Civil War veteran, “General” Sash and his 62 year-old teacher granddaughter, Sally Poker, does not contain the depth of most of O’Connor’s other stories, but it does not need it, as it is so vicious and yet touching that the surface of the story should suffice for most readers.
“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is seen through both the General and Sally Poker’s points-of-view. The passage quoted below, taken from the first two paragraphs of the story, illustrate perfectly the story’s structure and development:
General Sash was a hundred and four years old. He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college. The General didn’t give two slaps for her graduation but he never doubted he would live for it. Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition. A graduation exercise was not exactly his idea of a good time, even if, as she said, he would be expected to sit on the stage in his uniform. She said there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but that there wouldn’t be anything to equal him in his uniform. He knew this well enough without her telling him, and as for the damm procession, it could march to hell and back and not cause him a quiver. He liked parades with floats full of Miss Americas and Miss Daytona Beaches and Miss Queen Cotton Products. He didn’t have any use for processions and a procession full of schoolteachers was about as deadly as the River Styx to his way of thinking. However, he was willing to sit on the stage in his uniform so that they could see him.
Sally Poker was not as sure as he was that he would live until her graduation. There had not been any perceptible change in him for the last five years, but she had the sense that she might be cheated out of her triumph because she so often was. She had been going to summer school every year for the past twenty years because when she started teaching, there were no such things as degrees. In those times, she said, everything was normal but nothing had been normal since she was sixteen, and for the past twenty summers, when she should have been resting, she had had to take a trunk in the burning heat to the state teachers’ college; and though when she returned in the fall, she always taught in the exact way she had been taught not to teach, this was a mild revenge that didn’t satisfy her sense of justice. She wanted the General at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, “what all was behind her,” and was not behind them. This them was not anybody in particular. It was just all the upstarts who had turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living. (pp. 252-253)Here are dual narratives that parallel and compete with one another. First is the old man, living his last days in a haze of forgotten memories and lustful desires, seeking to be the center of attention. He lives in part because he cannot think of being anything else other than alive. He knows his past is a partial fantasy; he cannot bear to remember (or so one might suspect, if he had a choice in the matter) what he had endured. He has been reduced to nothing more than a living relic, but he still views himself as a handsome old codger whose greatest pleasure is being surrounded by pretty women. He occupies only the Present; the Past and Future are equally meaningless to him.
His granddaughter, however, inhabits the past and the remembered failures of her life. She embraces it as a refuge from the real and perceived humiliations of her life, such as the state forcing her after years of being a teacher to go to college in order to learn how to be a teacher or the wrong shoes that she wears for an important occasion. Her pride is not in her present state but in the half-real, half-fictional past that she has constructed for her family from the living corpse of her grandfather. There is no familial affection present in her relations to him; he is a means to her glorification, a symbol of her being able at long last to thumb her nose at those “upstarts” who are challenging the precious social order that she has held dear for decades.
Characters such as these immediately grab the reader’s attention, for their vanity and self-absorption made for a delightful comeuppance comedy or a searing moral tale. O’Connor manages to capture elements of both in this story, all the while also succeeding in making these characters sympathetic even as we might take delight in seeing their pride crushed. Although the story ends abruptly with the General’s “late encounter with the enemy,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is one of O’Connor’s more memorable tales because the reader is able to delve deeper than normal into the characters’ mindsets. It may not be her best tale, but “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” certainly one of O’Connor’s better character portraits.
Originally posted at Gogol's Overcoat in March 2013.