Control and Geraniums: An Analysis of The Geranium by Flannery O’Connor

So today I’ll be starting a new series. I’ll be blogging through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in chronological order, analyzing them, and trying to figure out what each one is saying. Her first published story is called “The Geranium.” It tells what appears at first glance to be a rather trite story.

I highly suggest that before you read the rest of this post, you jump over to this site, and read the story. It’s available for free, and the ensuing observations will (hopefully) make more sense if you do read it.The Geranium by Flannery O'Connor

So, let’s go ahead and start to dissect the story.

The main character, Old Dudley, is an interesting figure. From the first page we get the sense that he’s quite arrogant, full of his own opinions, certain that his views are the right ones. Even to things as trite as deciding that his neighbors shouldn’t have a geranium. “Those people across the alley had no business with [the geranium]…they had no business with it, no business with it,” he says near the beginning. It’s odd, isn’t it, how sure he is of his own opinions?

It goes on and on, too. “The geranium is late today,” he pronounces to himself, frustrated that his neighbors don’t abide by his schedule. He’s frustrated by the demands of his daughter, frustrated by the business of New York. He’s frustrated that he can’t understand it. He’s angry that he can’t control it.

And that’s one of the most important things–Dudley is searching, constantly, for control. When he came to New York he was immediately dissatisfied. Why? Because he can’t control it. He can’t fully comprehend it, and he is, frankly, intimidated by it. The hugeness of it, the constant movement, the millions of people each going about their own lives–in other words, reality–slams headfirst into his own version of reality in which he’s in control. In which he’s always right.

To me, this seems obvious in one section in particular. “Old Dudley would have liked to have explained New York to Rabie. If he could have showed it to Rabie, it wouldn’t have been so big–he wouldn’t have felt pressed down every time he went out in it.” If he could control New York, he wouldn’t be so intimidated.

In my opinion, as I read the story, Dudley’s constant grasping for control is crucial, and ultimately, his illusion of control being violated is what sets up the finale. It begins, after we’ve already gotten a good understanding of his racist beliefs, when a black person moves in next to them. Dudley is angry, and his daughter turns to him and says “You tend to your own business…don’t have anything to do with him.” She violates his control. She tells him what to do, what to be OK with.

She tells him to “mind his own business.” But the real climax is when he meets this same person one day on the way back up to his apartment. And, in direct defiance of the way that Dudley sees the world, his next-door-neighbor treats him as an equal. Dudley can’t stand it. Almost in a daze, he runs back to his apartment, getting inside as fast as he could. He’s angry, he’s confused, and he suddenly feels like he can’t control things. That’s not how people were supposed to act towards him, in his mind at least. The control is gone, and Dudley is, very simply, angry.

So what does he do the second he gets back in his apartment? He runs towards the one thing he thinks he can control–the geranium. But instead of the geranium a man is sitting there, watching him. The geranium is on the ground, several floors below, having fallen off the ledge.

The man looks at Dudley, and the following conversation occurs:

“Where is my geranium?” Old Dudley quavered. “It ought to be there. Not you.”

“This is my window,” the man said. “I got a right to set here if I want to.”

“Where is it?” Old Dudley shrilled…

“It fell off if it’s any of your business,” the man said…

“You shouldn’t have put it so near the ledge,” he murmured. “Why don’t you pick it up?”

“Why don’t you pop?”

Old Dudley stared at the man who was where the geranium should have been…

“I ain’t seen you pickin’ it up,” [the man] said. “I seen you before…I seen you settin’ in that old chair every day, starin’ out the window, looking in my apartment. What I do in my apartment is my business, see? I don’t like people looking at what I do.”

[The geranium] was at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air.

“I only tell people once,” the man said and left the window.

Dudley first has his control broken by his neighbor treating him as an equal. His illusion of control was weakening every time he went out in New York, as he realized how big the city was, and how small he was in comparison. Then it was broken by his neighbor, and finally his illusion was shattered by the rebellion of the only thing he felt like he could control.

It seems that the story is, to some extent, about control. It’s about a man’s obsessive pursuit of it, and how ultimately he can’t achieve it. Like everything I’ve read by O’Connor so far, the story rings true. People do seem to seek after control, almost obsessively at times. Though the result in this story is simply a moment of embarrassment and anger, it certainly seems like the consequences could have been far more dire.

Control, the story seems to say, is elusive. And people who have illusions that they are in control are in for a rude awakening. The illusions will be shattered, and those who have them could very well be in worse shape than before.