A Grave Mistake: The Irony of Sheppard’s Selfishness

January 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the short story “The Lame Shall Enter First,” author Flannery O’Connor describes a widower’s attempts to mask his grief over his wife’s death. In order to fill the void in his heart, the widower, Sheppard, throws himself into miscellaneous charitable endeavors. He shows this philanthropy most notably in his treatment of a young delinquent named Rufus Johnson, whom he takes in and cares for as his own son. Through his treatment of Rufus, Sheppard also tries to teach his son Norton-whom he judges as extremely selfish-about sharing. What Sheppard fails to realize, however, is that he is actually just as selfish as he judges his son to be-they are using the same coping mechanisms to try to deal with their loss. Consequently, his “generosity” and “kindness” will not profit anyone; in fact, it will actually cause harm. O’Connor uses devastating irony-manifested through parallel descriptions of the characters and various interactions between them-to convey the idea that artificial philanthropy will accomplish nothing. O’ Connor uses parallel descriptions of Sheppard and Norton in order to expose the same character flaws in Sheppard that he scorns in his son. Throughout the story, she describes them in such similar ways that their shared traits become obvious. Norton’s apparent self-centeredness is revealed at the very beginning, when “he gorges himself until he vomits…” (Walters 103). Sheppard then looks upon him with disdain, thinking, “…his own child, selfish, unresponsive, greedy, had so much [food] that he threw it up” (O’Connor 374). Although Sheppard is criticizing his son for being selfish, he later realizes that “he had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton” (403) and had thus behaved no better than his son had in attempting to cope with his wife’s death. Though this shared reaction to their loss is their most obvious similarity, Sheppard and Norton also have other parallel characteristics. Sheppard criticizes Norton’s lack of intelligence near the beginning of the story when he laments, “…Norton was average or below and had had every advantage” (374). When Rufus (whose intelligence Sheppard revered, in stark contrast to his own son’s lack thereof) joins the household, however, Sheppard finds that the tables have been turned and he is now the one being criticized for his stupidity. Rufus insults Sheppard’s intelligence several times and in fact compares him unfavorably to Norton when he says, “He [Sheppard] don’t know his left hand from his right, he don’t have as much sense as his crazy kid!” (402). He later verbally attacks Sheppard to his face when he tells him, “You ain’t any smarter than that cop” (396). Through these descriptions, O’Connor paints similar pictures of father and son-making Sheppard’s criticisms seem even more ironic and his character less credible. In addition to juxtaposing the characters of Norton and Sheppard, O’Connor further reveals Sheppard’s flaws and inconsistencies through various interactions with Rufus. From his first meeting with the boy, it is obvious that Sheppard seems to take pleasure in analyzing Rufus’s motives and behavior, failing to realize how it mirrors his own. For example, “Sheppard, of course, seizes upon the foot as the unquestionable source of Rufus’s delinquency, interpreting his criminal behavior as simple ‘compensation’ for his physical defect” (Walters 103). What Sheppard does not immediately see, however, is that he is also trying to compensate for his own defect-his overly philanthropic gestures are an attempt at filling the hole in his heart left by his wife’s death. It is not until much later that he realizes he has been stuffing his emptiness with good works (O’Connor 403) in order to find fulfillment. Sheppard is also the object of Rufus’s discrepancy between the Christlike image Sheppard tries to convey and his actual selfish motives, and he openly “…accuses Sheppard of confusing himself with Christ” (Walters 102). He first does this behind his back during a conversation with Norton, exclaiming, “God, kid, how do you stand it? He thinks he’s Jesus Christ!” (383). In a subsequent conversation, while explaining to Norton the concept of heaven, Rufus mocks Sheppard outright when he says, “I’ll tell you all about it [heaven] tomorrow, kid, when Himself has cleared out” (387). In fact he takes this even further, later calling Sheppard a “lying stinking atheist” (403)-a stark contrast to the Christlike character Sheppard attempts to show. In the midst of Rufus’s criticism, Sheppard valiantly attempts to maintain his image as a genuine humanitarian by saying, “If I can help a person, all I want is to do it. I’m above and beyond simple pettiness” (383). Rufus, however, does not believe anything Sheppard says, as he tells Norton: “Yaketty yaketty yak…and [Sheppard] never says a thing. Gas. Gas” (279). Through these and other insightful, yet derogatory comments, Rufus reveals Sheppard’s selfish, hypocritical character. As Rufus helps to point out, Sheppard is so entrenched in his grief-induced selfish ambitions that he completely loses sight of his son Norton’s struggles and makes himself a hypocrite; however, with Rufus’s further assistance he is able to begin the process of self-discovery that eventually leads to his revelation. Sheppard is arguing with Rufus when he begins to see the first glimpses of his true self-and he is understandably taken aback. He thinks, “The boy’s eyes were like distorting mirrors in which he saw himself made hideous and grotesque” (397) and “a moral leper” (398). His violent epiphany comes shortly after this moment of clarity. He realizes that “…he had done more for [Rufus] Johnson than he had done for his own child” (403) and that in so doing he had failed to help Norton through his grief like a loving father would. He also realizes how self-centered he had been-even as he had lectured Norton about being selfless, “…he had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself” (403). The hypocrisy in his actions is readily apparent-although he was preaching generosity and compassion, he was in reality practicing selfishness and thoughtlessness. This is in itself ironic, and O’Connor takes advantage of this throughout the story. In fact, she uses mankind’s innate selfishness as the source of nearly all her irony (Malin 36), and nowhere is this more apparent than in Sheppard’s situation. O’Connor’s final, most heart-wrenching use of irony occurs when Sheppard at last realizes his grave mistake through a violent revelation and is overcome with love for Norton-only to learn that his epiphany has come too late and all his apparent benevolence has failed him. He is shocked and horrified when he recognizes how he has neglected his child in the name of charity, and he promises, “He would make everything up to him, He would never let him suffer again. He would be a mother and a father” (404). Sheppard immediately rushes to Norton’s room to begin making amends for his past behaviors-only to discover that “…the child hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space” (404). Sheppard’s neglected child had killed himself in an attempt to be reunited with his mother in heaven. Sheppard is absolutely devastated, because he knows that “Norton’s extreme action is evidence of his acute longing for love” (Walters 103). Sheppard grieves because he had deprived Norton of the love he so desperately needed-and when he is ready to give that love, it is too late. It is also cruelly ironic that he had previously thought, “…in his efforts to reform the intractable Rufus, he had fatally neglected his own son” (103). The most frustrating irony of all, however, is that of the timing of Sheppard’s revelation-had he recognized the error of his ways only minutes earlier, he could have saved his son’s life. At this point he fully realizes that all his philanthropy has gained him nothing-in fact, it has caused him to lose everything. This painful irony makes “The Lame Shall Enter First” an unforgettable tale of hypocrisy, frustration, and ultimately tragedy. BibliographyFrieling, Kenneth. “Flannery O’Connor’s Vision: The Violence of Revelation.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1974.Malin, Irvin. “Flannery O’Connor.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980.O’Connor, Flannery. 3 by Flannery O’Connor. New York: New American Library, 1983. pp. 371-404.Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. Boston: Twayne, 1973.

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