The Train by Flannery O’Connor, 1948
The magic trick:
Showing a man’s disorientation, and then gradually explaining the cause of his anxiety
We have a story about home today, and home in this case is Tennessee.
Flannery O’Connor turned this story into her first novel, Wise Blood. I haven’t read it, so I can’t speak to how this sets up the larger picture. But I can report that it works excellently as a self-contained short story.
The story progresses without explaining itself. So we see Haze feel a mix of awe and anxiety over every aspect of the train. We don’t totally know why. We see him obsess on the porter. We don’t totally know why.
Gradually, we can start putting the pieces together. He is returning home from war. He misses home badly. Not in a sentimental way. He misses home in a thorough, all-encompassing, existential kind of way. He misses his mother, his house, the neighbors, knowing what was what. He pines for his identity.
These ideas all come together in a vision of his old home – broken and abandoned. It becomes clear that this isn’t a dream but instead a very recent memory. He tried to go home but couldn’t. Now he’s on the train, facing a new and foreign world.
It’s just absolutely expertly laid out through the story. Nothing obvious but nothing too obfuscated for too long.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Connor’s part.
He remembered when he was a little boy, him and his mother and the other children would go into Chattanooga on the Tennessee Railroad. His mother had always started up a conversation with the other people on the train. She was like an old bird dog just unpinned that raced, sniffing up every rock and stick and sucking in the air around everything she stopped at. There wasn’t a person she hadn’t spoken to by the time they were ready to get off. She remembered them too. Long years after, she would say she wondered where the lady was who was going to Fort West, or she wondered if the man who was selling Bibles had ever got his wife out the hospital. She had a hankering for people – as if what happened to the ones she talked to happened to her then. She was a Jackson. Annie Lou Jackson.
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