O’Connor, Flannery. “Judgement Day.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.
Summary of Work
Tanner is an old man sitting in his daughter’s apartment in New York City, and he wishes he had never come from the South to live with her. He remembers when his daughter came down from the city to see him, and found him in a shack he and his black worker Coleman had built on someone else’s land. She told him that he ought to know better than to live with black people, and that if he had any self respect, he’d come live with her. He told her he didn’t want to go, and she said that it was his decision, but her mother taught her to do her duty to her family and that she would take care of him if he’d come with her.
He is determined not to go, but then the owner of the property, Doctor Foley, comes to survey his land purchase. The man is part black, and Tanner despises the thought that a black man has power over him and his place of residence. When Foley tells him that his options are to get off of the property or to work the still for him, Tanner states that he will never work for a black man and that he doesn’t have to because he has a daughter up North that will take care of him. Doctor Foley doesn’t believe him, and tells him he will be back next week, and if Tanner and Coleman are still on the land, he’ll assume Tanner will work the still for him.
Looking back on that, Tanner wishes he would have stayed and worked the still for the black man so he could have open air and space and be living in the South. He had overheard his daughter and her husband talking about him, and overheard her say that she was going to bury him in New York City when he died, even though she had promised him that she would send him South to be buried. He is very upset at his daughter, and he determines that he is going to go through with his original plan: he is going to steal away down South to either live or die.
When he first moved into the apartment with his daughter, he had seen new neighbors moving in, and saw that it was a black couple. He assumes that they must be from Alabama, and he tries several times to talk to the man, but he always skirts past him in the hallway. His daughter warns him to leave the neighbors alone, saying that people in New York City just mind their own business and don’t talk to their neighbors. But Tanner persists, and when he stands in front of the black man and calls him preacher and asks how it is coming from Alabama, the man stops and says that he is not a preacher and doesn’t believe in God and is not Christian. He is an actor by profession, and he was born and raised in New York City. And Tanner says that sure, all preachers have a bit of acting in them. The man tells him to leave him alone and leaves. Tanner, however, convinced that he can still make friends with this black man, waits until he returns and, unthinkingly, calls him preacher as he asks how he is. The black man gets so angry that he beats Tanner and throws him back into his daughter’s apartment. He is beaten so badly that the doctor has to be called.
When Tanner is finally able to speak after the incident, he asks where his pension check is. He had intended to use it to travel back home to live. But his daughter tells him that they used it to cover medical bills, and that it is silly to think he will be going back home now. He can barely walk from the beating he took. Still, he is determined. He waits for his daughter to leave, and then he puts his coat on and tries to make it down the four flights of stairs to get out to the road and head to the train station to hop a freight and make it home dead or alive. He has written directions of who to send his body to in case he dies in transit. He trusts that strangers will treat him better in death than his daughter will. But as he is halfway down the first flight of stairs, his legs give out on him and he slips. He uses his arms to catch himself on the railing, but lands on his back anyway.
Delirious and trying to get up, he imagines himself in a coffin, just getting of the freight train. Coleman is looking at the pine box and talking about him, and then Tanner starts to move and says to Coleman, don’t you know it’s Judgement Day? As he is saying that, someone comes up over him, and he asks, preacher? And when he comes back to reality, he realizes it is the black neighbor. The black neighbor decides that he is going to string him up with his arms through the railing of the stairs. When his daughter comes home and sees what’s happened, she calls the cops, but he has been dead for hours. She buries him in the plot she has for him in New York City, but she cannot sleep well and is haunted by her father until she exhumes him and sends his body South for burial.
Brief Discussion of Themes
The nostalgia for the South, even the Postbellum South, looms large over this entire short story. Tanner remembers his life, even as pitiful as it was, as worth more in the South than in comfort in the North. The decline and decay of the South is in full view as readers learn that Tanner has lost land and has nothing; the state of the shack could be seen as the state of living in the South. He has more power over people, particularly black people, in the South, and he is far more familiar with the cultural customs and social interactions in the South. The work displays two different types of racism and also racial prejudice: the daughter is outright racist; she does not want her father seen living or associating with black people outside of the employer-employee relationship. Tanner is more subtly racist; he likes to be around black people in order to have power over them, and he does that by finding ways to relate to them or make black people believe that he is smarter than they are. He takes care of Coleman, yes, but he does so more out of a power dynamic than he does out of friendship or love.
Race relations are further complicated as Doctor Foley comes into the picture. Coleman is black, and so Tanner feels that he knows how to deal with him, but Foley is part white, and he is rich and owns a lot of land, and he knows he cannot deal with him in the same manner. Still, he does not find Foley to be his equal or even his better because he is part black, which, in Tanner’s eyes, nullifies all the education and wealth that Foley has attained. It is a reminder that in the minds of many white people, white blood is what makes mixed race people successful, and they are still less because it is only whiteness that has helped them along the way, skewing the power dynamic back to the majority.
Racial prejudice comes forward in the figure of the black actor who lives across from Tanner’s daughter. He doesn’t per say have a grudge against white people that could be outright stated, but it is apparent that he is wary or resentful of white people, as rather than taking Tanner’s gestures to be friendly, takes them to be offensive and dangerous. Of course, Tanner’s gesture is one of power dynamics, but those power dynamics are turned on their head when the black neighbor successfully attacks the white man with no repercussions, as there would have been in the South. This could be seen as a protection of black embodiment, but it may simultaneously be seen as an inherent distrust of white motives and actions.
Religion also plays a large part of this story, as Tanner is a believing Baptist and everyone around him in New York City is an unbeliever. Tanner is constantly concerned with the idea of judgement day, with his reckoning coming over how he treats people and what he says and does. The theme is carried forward through the imagery and symbol of Tanner as a Christ figure, crucified upon the makeshift cross that is the stairwell railing.