Fatherless Sons in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Lame Shall Enter First”

As the city’s recreation director, Sheppard took an interest in the youth he encountered in his work, and also volunteered to counsel troubled boys at the reformatory, “receiving nothing for it but the satisfaction of knowing he was helping boys no one else cared about.” His idea of “help,” however, assumes the form of social work, welfare, and benevolence without any spiritual foundation or moral principles except for the general mandate against “selfishness” that fills his conversation with his son Norton. Sheppard’s efforts at humanitarian relief of the unfortunate provide material benefits and bodily needs but lack charity and love of neighbor.

A recent widower with a grieving ten-year-old son longing for the love of his mother, Sheppard offers Norton no comfort for his sorrow or knowledge about eternal life because “he could not allow himself to bring him up on a lie.” Sheppard’s idea of fatherhood, then, reduces his role to a mere provider who cares for Norton’s material needs and to a counselor who advises against selfishness and the idea of an afterlife: “Your mother isn’t anywhere… She just isn’t.” Sheppard feels no moral responsibility in educating his son to know and love God or to follow His commandments. Fatherhood, however, is not social work or psychological counseling but a vocation that instructs the young in the virtues of self-discipline, justice, moral courage, integrity, honor, generosity, and a self-sacrificing love of family.

When Norton begins to eat a piece of chocolate cake without offering some to his father, Sheppard interrupts him to correct the fault: “Norton… do you have any idea of what it means to share?” To teach Norton this virtue, Sheppard decides to model it with a social experiment. He invites into his home Rufus Johnson, a fourteen-year-old juvenile delinquent recently released from reform school, a boy deprived of a normal home life and subjected to beatings from his grandfather. In a display of altruism and compassion Sheppard welcomes Rufus into their family because he observed him searching for food in garbage cans. As he explains to Norton, “I gave Rufus a key to this house when he left the reformatory… I can’t see a child eating out of garbage cans.” When Norton frowns at the prospect of a stranger suddenly becoming a member of their family or sleeping in his mother’s bedroom, Sheppard disapproves of Norton’s reluctance as another example of his unwillingness to share and to be compassionate: “You have a healthy body… a good home… Your daddy gives you everything you need and want.” Adopting a gesture of hospitality and providing a home to an abandoned child to rescue him from his sordid life, Sheppard hopes to teach Norton the meaning of sharing and helping his fellow man, again, without recourse to religion, the Bible, or God.

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Attempting to be a good father to Norton by exemplifying a moral standard, a man with a social conscience with concern for the poor and succor for the downtrodden, Sheppard approaches his task more as a social scientist or welfare worker than as a loving and just father. His idea of helping and sharing becomes the purchasing of expensive gifts and material goods as expressions of kindness and care. Recognizing the intelligence of Rufus and his potential for academic success, Sheppard purchases an encyclopedia to whet his appetite for knowledge and buys a telescope and microscope to motivate a love of science, especially space exploration and the thought of becoming an astronaut. Explaining Rufus’s club foot as the reason for his destructive behavior of smashing windows and setting trash cans on fire (“His mischief was compensation for the foot”), Sheppard poses as an expert who knows the cure to Rufus’ violent outbursts—an orthopedic shoe that will remedy his low self-esteem and eliminate his self-consciousness about his handicap: “There are a lot of things about you I think I can explain to you,” Sheppard remarks. Although Sheppard acts like the caring social worker and experienced psychologist who knows the solution to Rufus’s life of crime, all his efforts prove a failure. The root of Rufus’ sinful behavior and Norton’s inconsolable grief is moral and spiritual, not economic and sociological.

Rufus’ delinquency does not originate from his poverty, dysfunctional family, or club foot but from his free will and immoral choices. Rufus does not want the sentimental love or false pity Sheppard offers as superficial gestures for charity and honesty. Nothing that Sheppard says or does carries any moral authority or conviction for Rufus. Instead of gazing at the stars in awe with the telescope Sheppard bought for the boys to marvel at the infinity of space, Rufus is bored and “fed up looking at stars.” He tells Norton, “Don’t waste your valuable time… You seen the moon once, you seen it.” When Sheppard buys Rufus the orthopedic shoe to eliminate the stigma of the club foot and to raise his self-esteem, he reassures himself, “In that shoe … he won’t know he don’t have a normal foot.” But this display of concern also has no effect on Rufus who resents it as an inauthentic expression of pity. Angered, he vows, “I ain’t going to wear it at all,” insisting “I don’t need no new shoe” and “And when I do, I got ways of getting my own.” Without saying it in words, Rufus is crying for justice and honesty, a son needing a father to discipline him rather than to shower him with meaningless gifts and false sentiments of compassion.

Rufus finds nothing of value, truth, goodness, or love in any of Sheppard’s words or deeds. When Sheppard attempts to impose his atheism on the boys by posing as enlightened, scientific, and progressive, insinuating that the eyes can see the moon, but “Nobody has given any reliable evidence there’s a hell,” Rufus remains unconvinced and counters with “The Bible has give the evidence,” and he bluntly states another hard truth: “Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.” Rufus wants nothing to do with any of Sheppard’s offers of kindness and concern, asking Norton how he can tolerate living with an imposter who makes no logical sense and merely talks without thinking or listening: “Yaketty yaketty yak yak… and never says a thing.” Despite Rufus’s rejection of Sheppard’s paternalism, his defiance, ingratitude, and insults to his benefactor, Sheppard insists, “I’m going to save you. The good will triumph”—words that amount to another lie In Rufus’s mind as he retaliates with his angriest words: “Save yourself… Nobody can save me but Jesus.” Rufus needs truth, God, morality, discipline, and punishment, but Sheppard merely tolerates evil, indulges in false compassion, acts non-judgmental, and fails to be a just father to either Norton or Rufus.

Sheppard does not mean what he says, gives no ultimatum to Rufus for his inappropriate behavior, and acts as if righteous anger has no place in a father’s relationship to a son. Despite Sheppard’s invitation to live in his home, his attempts to counsel Rufus, the provision of food and shelter, and efforts to instill an enjoyment of learning, Rufus reverts again to a life of crime even with all these benefits and perquisites to guide him into a responsible life. He learned nothing from Sheppard’s example of “unselfishness” and offer of welfare in the form of false compassion. Sheppard’s fault of being “nice” and over lenient rather than just and honest and his doing good for his own respectable image rather than for the real needs of the boys only exacerbate Norton’s suffering and Rufus’s criminal activity. When the police apprehend Rufus and report to Sheppard the boy’s crime of breaking and entering, Sheppard acts incredulous and pleads the boy’s innocence because he was allegedly at a movie at the time and scene of the crime. Again, Sheppard denies evil and invents excuses that Rufus finds insulting: “And I could have broke in there if I’d wanted to in the time I had.”

Sheppard’s whole social experiment in welfare proves a total failure. He not only fails to succeed in correcting Rufus but also gives Norton a poor example of unselfishness in the form of his useless, unwanted help that never locates or addresses the problem. Without limits, ultimatums, discipline, anger, and justice, humanitarian aid never addresses the moral problem Rufus suffers. A father or father figure who panders, indulges, or lowers his moral principles to accommodate a son’s wayward behavior in the name of false kindness and sentimental pity loses the child’s respect and filial fear of the father. A father who gives special attention to someone who is not his true son in the name of altruism at the expense of the tender care of his own suffering boy does not transmit fatherly love, win the heart and affections of a son, or accomplish corporal or spiritual work of mercy. Welcoming Rufus into the home, introducing him to space exploration, and buying him a telescope does not inspire him to become a scientist or astronaut. Instead it leads to Rufus’s baneful influence upon Norton who believes that by death he can rejoin his mother in some remote world as far away as the moon the boys see through the telescope.

Because Sheppard lacks faith and belief in God, he provides no consolation or hope to Norton in his mourning for his mother. But Rufus, who reads the Bible and has a smattering of religion, reassures Norton that his mother is “on high” somewhere in the sky, “but you got to be dead to get there. You can’t go in no space ship.” Looking through the telescope at the moon with Rufus, Norton imagines he sees his mother, exclaiming “She waved at me!” The void in Norton’s knowledge of the spiritual life that Sheppard neglected and ignored (“She doesn’t exist!”), Rufus supplies. There is life after death in heaven or hell. Rufus convinces Norton that if he dies now before he commits grave sins and goes to hell, Norton will reunite with his mother. Admitting the failure of his social experiment by his humanitarian efforts to do good, help, and save a boy always in trouble with law, Sheppard seeks Norton to compensate for his neglect and to affirm his love: “He would be both mother and father.” But as he enters the room where the telescope is placed, he finds it fallen and discovers the tragic price he has paid for belief in science versus faith in God, belief in space exploration rather than contemplation of God’s grandeur, belief in altruism rather than fatherly love, and commitment to atheism rather than hope in everlasting life: “A few feet below over it[the telescope], the child hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space.”


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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