‘The Artificial Nigger’ and the Redemptive Quality of Suffering

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Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 173)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,400 words

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[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Giannone suggests that, although the conclusion of “The Artificial Nigger” may disappoint those looking for a political statement, it offers valuable insights into the functions of redemption, repentance, and mercy.]

… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. …Romans 5:3

“The Artificial Nigger” occupies a special place among the ten stories comprising A Good Man Is Hard To Find. “I suppose,” Flannery O’Connor writes to her friend “A,” ““The Artificial Nigger” is my favorite.”1 Since 1955, when it was published, “The Artificial Nigger” has come to rank just as high in its appeal to readers. It is a staple of anthologies and a source of continual analysis. But the fascination that “The Artificial Nigger” holds for readers runs counter to O’Connor’s enthusiasm. In fact, the history of its popularity is a history of discontent, especially over the way in which the action ends.

At the center of the controversy lies a simple tale. Mr. Head takes his grandson to Atlanta for the day. Nelson was born in Atlanta and uses his place of birth to boast of his importance. The boy’s impudence rankles Mr. Head, so he plans the trip to teach the boy a few things about authority. Once in Atlanta, they get lost. Exhausted and terrified, Nelson accidently knocks down a woman, who screams for justice by threatening Mr. Head. Frightened himself, Mr. Head says that he does not know the boy. The denial estranges grandson from grandfather. As they walk back single file for the train, they see a battered lawn statue of a Negro. This plaster figure unites them, and they return to their rural home.

This one-day excursion has called forth multiple readings. Critics have provided the expected glosses on Nelson’s rite of passage,2 Mr. Head’s bigotry,3 their joint reenactment of original sin,4 and the descent they make into hell.5 O’Connor herself widens the interpretive horizon by citing “Peter’s denial” (Letters, p. 101), “the Christ-Child” (Letters, p. 78), and “what the South has done to itself” (Letters, p. 140). She complicates matters further by sweeping aside speculation to say that “The Artificial Nigger” is “a story in which there is an apparent action of grace” (Letters, p. 160). “What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger,” she avows to Ben Griffith, “was the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for all of us” (Letters, p. 78).

The intrusion of God’s favor through the statue has been anything but apparent to most readers. Critical consensus translates the statue back into its opposite, finding it a means of punishment. James Napier cites O’Connor’s remarks on the story to show how far astray the assertions of imprisonment and ironic salvation have taken us from O’Connor’s clear intention.6 However, such quarrels are instructive. They tell us something about the assumptions O’Connor’s art contends with, and they invite us to consider just what...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420111578