Only four pages long, Why Do the Heathen Rage? is Flannery O’Connor’s shortest short story—a fragment, really, of an unfinished novel. The hero, sort of, is Walter Tilman, a twenty-eight-year-old bookish type, unmarried, living at home, without anything that might commonly be called ambition. He remains enigmatic, partly because we only see him through the disapproving eyes of his mother, to whom he’s a maddeningly incomprehensible cipher, “like an absorbent lump . . . taking everything in, giving nothing out.” But he pretty clearly fits the profile of one of O’Connor’s flawed Southern prophets—a more or less crazy outsider who turns out to be saner, in certain crucial ways, than all the normal, practical people around him.
At the start of the story, Walter’s father (“Tilman”) has had a stroke, and after a two-week hospital stay, it’s time to bring him home. On the way, riding in the ambulance, Mrs. Tilman studies her husband’s paralyzed face:
Only his left eye, twisted inward, seemed to harbor his former personality. It burned with rage. The rest of his face was prepared for death. Justice was grim and she took satisfaction in it when she found it. It might take just this ruin to wake Walter up.
Mrs. Tilman means that, now, her son will have to to forsake his books, take up his father’s mantle, and assume responsibility for the family.
Needless to say, Walter disappoints. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t take an interest “in the proceedings.” On his father’s return, he greets him with a “sloppy salute” and, “Glad to see you back, capt’n.” “Obviously fascinated,” he takes in “every detail” of the stricken man’s face; he “registers” the “confusion” of Mary Maud (his older sister) and the tears of Roosevelt (a family servant); he “studies” his mother to see how she’s “taking it,” and as she straightens her hat, tipping it back a bit too far, he disarmingly remarks, “You ought to wear it that way
. . . It makes you look sort of relaxed-by-mistake.”
When she responds with an angry rebuke, exhorting him to accept responsibility for the household—“Somebody has to make these Negroes work”—he calmly pleads his unsuitability and goes back to reading. At this, she remains
standing there, rigid, her eyes on him in stunned disgust. Her son. Her only son . . . There was no innocence in him, no rectitude, no conviction either of sin or election. The man she saw courted good and evil impartially and saw so many sides of every question that he could not move, he could not work . . . Any evil could enter that vacuum. God knows, she thought and caught her breath, God knows what he might do!
Not a flattering portrait. Yet we are clearly meant to regard, not poor Walter, but rather Tilman and his wife as the “raging heathen” of the story’s title (cf. Ps 2:1; Acts 4:25). Tilman has the angry eye, after all, and Mrs. Tilman is surely no dove.
But the story’s final page is the clincher.
Bitterly musing on her son’s lack of ambition—which extends even to the use of assumed names in his letters to the newspapers—Mrs. Tilman remembers finding a certain underlined passage in one of his books. Like all of the underlined passages in all of the books he left lying around, this one seemed to her to have “nothing to do with anything that mattered now,” and yet it “stayed with her ominously.” “’Love should be full of anger,’ it began, and she thought, well mine is. She was furious all the time. It went on,
“Since you have already spurned my request, perhaps you will listen to admonishment. What business have you in your father’s house, O you effeminate soldier? . . . Listen! The battle trumpet blares from heaven and see how our General marches fully armed, coming amid the clouds to conquer the whole world. Out of the mouth of our King emerges a double-edged sword that cuts down everything in the way. Arising finally from your nap, do you come to the battlefield! Abandon the shade and seek the sun.”
The passage, she discovers, is from a letter by St. Jerome, who (with angry love) is rebuking his friend Heliodorus for failing to join him in the desert as a monk. Typically irrelevant nonsense, she always thought, and still thinks. But then “it came to her, with an unpleasant little jolt, that the General with the sword in his mouth, marching to do violence, was Jesus.”
All this time, and she hadn’t realized Who her son was reading about. All this time, she had been a heathen—and an angry one at that.
As for Walter, perhaps we are to regard him as O’Connor’s grotesque, latter-day, emasculated St. Jerome. Renouncing familial claims in order to devote himself to reading books and writing letters, perhaps he aspires (in his own small way) to imitate his hero and, someday, cast off his literary idols. Tellingly, in light of the apocalyptic tone of Jerome’s letter, we’re told that Walter has “the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.” And his mother’s description of him could apply to any prophet: “. . . he was homeless. Homeless here and homeless anywhere.”