SOME OF THE MOST EXCITING floral colors of the year make their appearances in the warm luminescence of September. One of my favorites is the deep sensuous raspberry of purple globe amaranth, its bobbing domes alert and perky on their stems. Sturdy splashy annuals like zinnias and sunflowers are still emphatically blooming; the familiar black-and-yellow rudbeckia and the cheerful, sprightly aster will persist well into autumn; and those who potted geraniums and left them on their stoops and walks will continue to enjoy bright cheerful blooms for several more weeks.
I always thought of geraniums as absurdly easy and hopelessly mundane, the plastic-looking preference of suburban housewives, until I traveled abroad and saw what southern Italians did with them on their patios, verandas, and piazzas. These weren’t the weakly pigmented, shriveled specimens of home; these heads of tight, compact blooms were true red, paper white and flirty magenta; as big as baseballs or even grapefruits, they bulged with density and vibrated with color. Exploding from boxes or lined-up rows of pots, and protruding from hanging baskets, they formed little geranium oases that flourished in the sunny dry climate. They were a staple at nearly every doorway or window box in the village where I spent the summer, planted into every available vessel: ceramic pots brightly colored with thick chunky brushstrokes, olive oil cans, coffee cans, silver tin pails, watering cans, pickle barrels. Eventually I felt something that resembled love for these geraniums, an amorous grateful affection for their hearty and abundant presence in the seaside village.
The remarkable contrast between sickly geraniums and lush, verdant ones is exactly the one that Flannery O’Connor chose as an entry point and an anchor symbol for the aptly titled short story “The Geranium.” The first story she ever published, “Geranium” appeared in a 1946 issue of Accent magazine, and its narrative follows the gaze and perspective of Old Dudley, an elderly man and overt racist who, because of his age and ailing health, has been displaced from his home in the deep south and forced to move into his daughter’s apartment in New York City.
The potted geranium referenced in the title is owned by Old Dudley’s neighbor, and any glimpse of it reminds Old Dudley of his hometown where his neighbor had plentiful geraniums in her windowboxes. Each sighting of the urban flowerpot makes him more homesick, but he can’t help himself; every day he watches the plant come out and go back in again. Old Dudley doesn’t even like plants, he muses, but even so, his temper is aroused to see the plant get mistreated, put out where “the hot sun would bake it all day, … so near the ledge the wind could almost knock it over.”
Meanwhile, the poor old man despises New York City, which he finds to be vast, confusing, overcrowded, and vehemently offensive. “There were plenty of geraniums at home, better looking geraniums,” he grumbles. “These people across the alley had no business with one.”
For miserable Old Dudley, the geranium provides constancy and predictability in a chaotic environment as he watches the neighbors put the pot out every morning at ten and take it in every evening at five-thirty. But this ritual doesn’t give him solace; instead it intensifies his discomfort as the feeble geranium reminds him of the severity and the permanence of his displacement.
Most of the story takes place within the resentful sphere of Old Dudley’s roiling mind, but the final spillover happens when Old Dudley hunts invisible possum in the stairwell. He raises his false gun and aims … then stumbles, slips and falls down the stairs. He struggles, but he cannot get up. And then, to his extreme humiliation, his new black neighbor lifts him up, helps him climb the stairs. The encounter leaves him panicky, helpless and emasculated, and once inside his daughter’s flat, he goes to the window and looks for the geranium.
But the geranium is gone: “That was where the geranium was supposed to be and it was a man in his undershirt … The geranium belonged there, not the man.”
The man yells at Old Dudley, tells him to stop looking in his window! Old Dudley then looks down sees the smashed geranium at the bottom of the alley: “its roots in the air.” In a rage, he resolves to go down to get it, but once in the hallway, he realizes that the situation is hopeless, that he cannot make it down the stairs.
There is a bit more to the story, but enough said: the destruction of Old Dudley’s geranium mirrors the breakdown in his imagined social order. At one point, coming off the subway, Old Dudley cringes at the crowds as “people boiled out of trains and up steps and over into the streets. They rolled off the street and down steps and into trains – black and white and yellow all mixed up like vegetables in a soup. Everything was boiling.”
The election of Obama to the presidency and the potential of an Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan has opened up a new chapter of American racism and xenophobia. And to my great sadness, the month of September now seems to also ratchet up anxieties about how some Americans might choose to commemorate 9/11. That we can feel empathy and even sympathy for outright and brutally racist characters is one of the most bewildering and agitating aspects of reading O’Connor. In this very early story, she lays the groundwork for characters that will reappear in “The Judgment.” (By the time we get to “The Judgment,” there is no geranium; there is no need for one.) Here we see the cultivated plant acting as a catalyst for interaction with the outside world, where one’s habits and routines are ultimately meaningless and may be squelched out at any moment. When Old Dudley’s cherished privacy and sacred rituals are interrupted by disrespectful outsiders, he cannot defend himself, and he is forced to accept his weakened position in a hostile world.
Danielle Winterton is a fiction writer, frequent contributor to The Ithaca Post, and co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.