Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Peacock

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. "Christ will come like that!" he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre's face assumed a set puritanical expression and she reddened. Christ in the conversation embarrassed her the way sex had her mother. "It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go," she said. "I don't find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world."

The old man didn't seem to hear her. His attention was fixed on the cock who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. "The Transfiguration," he murmured.

[Flannery O'Connor, "The Displaced Person," The Complete Short Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York: 1977) 226.]

The peacock in this story is quite a remarkable symbol, handled well by a brilliant writer. Through much of the story the peacock -- the hope of Transfiguration -- is notably present; he opens and closes the story, in fact. The first sentence is:

The peacock was following Mrs. Shortley up the road to the hill where she meant to stand.

The last sentence is:

He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.

(The 'He' is the priest in the passage above.) However, with the exception of the explicit notice in the above passage, the peacock is largely ignored. Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre are so caught up with the problem of the Displaced Persons -- World War II refugees -- that they have no real patience for it. The Transfiguration theme is linked with another theme, namely, Christ as a Displaced Person; while the peacock may seem to Mrs. McIntyre merely another mouth to feed, it carries with it an implicit transfiguration, a secret splendor. For Mrs. McIntyre, the D.P.'s, like Mr. Guizac, are a problem, but in truth they are an opportunity, bringing with them a sort of liberation.

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