30 pages 1 hour read

Flannery O'Connor

A Late Encounter with the Enemy

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary: “A Late Encounter With the Enemy”

Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” explores themes of Modernity and the Fetishization of the Past, Vanity as an Obstacle to Grace, and The Ultimate Inescapability of Reality. The story was published in 1952 in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, and later in the author’s first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). While one of O’Connor’s earlier works, it employs devices, such as the grotesque, epiphanies, and repetition, that would re-emerge throughout her career.

“A Late Encounter With the Enemy” was first published four years after O’Connor graduated from the MFA program at Iowa State University. This year also saw the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood (1952). Often cited as one of the greatest writers of her generation, O’Connor would become particularly known for short stories that exemplified the Southern Gothic sensibility. She would appear in the O. Henry Prize Collection three times, in 1957, 1963, and, posthumously, 1965. O’Connor died in 1964 at age 39 from complications of lupus erythematosus.

This guide refers to the story as it appears in the Harcourt Brace Modern Classics edition of A Good Man is Hard to Find, published in 1981.

“A Late Encounter With the Enemy” begins with a third-person narrator introducing the story’s two main characters: protagonist General Sash, who is 104 years old, and his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash. Sally is 62 years old and about to graduate from college, and she worries that her grandfather will not live to see the occasion. She has told him that, as a war hero, he will be expected to sit on stage in his uniform, and that he will outshine all the professors in their fine academic robes, but General Sash does not share his granddaughter’s enthusiasm. He prefers parades with floats and beauty queens, and he imagines the graduation ceremony as “a procession full of schoolteachers”—about the dullest thing he can think of (154).

Sally feels that she has often been treated unfairly and has been robbed of what she desires. For the general to die before her graduation would be one more disappointment. She feels alienated from a changing society. She has been teaching all her adult life, but for the past 20 years she has also had to spend her summers working toward a degree that didn’t exist when she began. At the teachers’ college, they emphasize a pedagogy that is the antithesis of her own, and when she returns home, she takes her revenge by continuing to teach in the same way she always has. Now about to graduate, she wants General Sash at her graduation, “standing for the old traditions” (154), her real values. Sally yearns for the opportunity to shout, “See him! See him! My kin, all you upstarts!” (154) at the anonymous crowd. One night, however, she has a terrible dream:

[Sally] turned her head and found him sitting in his wheelchair behind her with a terrible expression on his face and with all his clothes off except the General’s hat, and she had waked up and had not dared to go back to sleep again that night (155).

The General is not interested in Sally’s defense of their values. The only important thing for him is sitting on a stage—he thinks he is handsome and will be an impressive sight in his uniform. The uniform, however, is not the one he wore when he fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Further, while he is called “The General,” he was never actually a general. To his own recollection, he was likely a private, although he cannot remember his service in the war, nor his son’s death in the Spanish-American War, nor even his son himself.

What General Sash does remember well is a film premiere he attended 12 years prior. The premiere is the story’s first vignette: It was held in Atlanta, and attendees came from all over the country dressed in formalwear. The General believes “beautiful guls” presented him with the uniform, although Sally asserts it was “Mr. Govisky” (156). At the premiere, General Sash (introduced as “General Tennessee Flintrock Sash” rather than his actual name, “George Poker Sash” [158]) was called up to the stage, where he stood “in the exact center of the spotlight.” The announcer asked him how old he was, and when he said he was 92, the audience erupted in enthusiastic applause. He wished to remain in the spotlight, basking in the crowd’s approval, but Sally realized she forgotten to put on the silver shoes she bought for the occasion and is instead wearing “two brown Girl Scout oxfords” (159). Mortified, she rushed him off the stage.

There has been little else of interest in the General’s life since the premiere. Every year on Confederate Memorial Day, he puts on his uniform and goes to the Capitol City Museum to sit alongside other wartime memorabilia, as if he has become an object himself.

The climax of the story is Sally’s graduation, for which the General arrives with John Wesley, his great-nephew. A photographer comes to take pictures of the three generations, and Sally is very excited, but the General is most concerned with ensuring his sword is best positioned to shine. Sally joins the procession of students and imagines the General on the stage with John Wesley. They are, in fact, she sees, standing outside by a Coca-Cola machine. Upon seeing this, Sally “broke from the line and galloped to them and snatched the bottle away.” (141) She then directs John Wesley to take the General inside.

Now on the stage, the General remains unsure about what is happening. He feels “a little hole beginning to widen in the top of his head” and looks out to see “figures in black robes” (141) moving toward and around him. He sees the procession but does not know what it is for, hears the commencement speaker begin talking about history, and remains silent when he hears his name and John Wesley wheels him forward. While John Wesley bows, the General finds to his frustration that he cannot move from his seat. He doesn’t want to listen to the speaker’s words about the past, but the words seep in through the hole in his skull. Finally, the General feels like “the entire past opened up on him out of nowhere and he felt his body riddled in a hundred places with sharp stabs of pain and he fell down, returning a curse for every hit” (143). Sally is in the graduation procession. As she receives her degree, she looks over at her grandfather on stage and holds her head high, experiencing a moment of triumph. After the ceremony, Sally waits with her family for John Wesley to come out with the General. They have left through the back entrance, however; by the end of the ceremony, the General has died.