The Unobtainable Good Things in O’Connor’s A Late Encounter with the Enemy
I have Seen the Enemy and it is Myself . . .
. . . . She wanted the General at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, "what all was behind her," and was not behind them. This them was not anybody in particular. It was just all the upstarts who has turned the world on its head and unsettled the ways of decent living. (134)
These are the thoughts of Sally Poker Sash, as offered by Flannery O'Connor in the second paragraph of her story "A Late Encounter with the Enemy." Sally, a sixty-two year old school teacher, is receiving a college degree that has taken her twenty years to earn. She should be proud of her accomplishment. Of course she should be proud. She proves true the old adages, "its never too late" and "good things come to those who wait." Isn't it possible though, that in some situations, the "good things" come too late and when they do arrive they are not so good? I think O'Connor, through this story, is trying to warn us (the readers) of that possibility.
The first paragraph of "A Late Encounter" is told from the point-of-view of Sally's grandfather, General Tennessee Flintrock Sash. O'Connor makes it very clear to us that the old man doesn't "give two slaps for her graduation." Surely, his attitude is apparent to Sally, too. Sally is aware of his attitude, too. Why, then, is it so important to her that he live to see her graduation? In the above passage, Sally offers three seemingly simple, but in actuality, complicated explanations for her prayer.
Sally states explicitly that she wants her grandfather to attend her graduation because she "wanted to show what she stood for." This is very believable, as people should be proud of their achievements. However, we know Sally resented having to get the degree in the first place and that she did not allow the "education in education" to change her way of teaching. On the contrary, Sally claims that she "taught in the exact way she had been taught not to teach . . ." We get the impression that she is only going to school in order to keep her job or keep up with her peers. Either way, O'Connor does not imply that Sally earned a degree out of a desire to better herself or her students in any way. Obviously it is not improved education, but what does she stand for?