Role models for younger generations: The elders equip themselves with the wisdom throughout their lifetime to benefit their youth. They pass on the knowledge, traditions, and moral values of the previous generations to the next. Even though there is always some degree of conflict between the older and the younger generations, the experiences of childhood will forever leave their mark on the mentality of the youth.
In “The Artificial Nigger” by Flannery O’Connor, Mr. Head emerged as a key figure who attempted to convey the legacy that characterized the South to his grandson. The first impression of Mr. Head illustrated him as a wise and morally responsible old man. Despite his old age and impoverished life, his character and will were strong. O’Connor emphasized how he was very well suited for the role of being a moral guide for young people from the statement, “His eye had a look of ancient wisdom as if they belonged to one of the great guides of men” (281). His grandson, Nelson, emerged as the figure who sought guidance from him. Nelson dreamed of being better than his grandfather in all respects.
Every parent desires their child’s capacities to exceed their own capacities. Mr. Head’s response to that situation was not what would be expected from an elderly man. His attitude towards Nelson resembled that of a competing sibling or a friend. They were similar not only in their behavior but also in their appearance, “they looked alike enough to be brothers” (282). Thus, from the beginning, it is evident to the reader that Mr. Head is not suited for his role of guiding youth into the bright future. Grandfather and grandson are engaged in a battle of wills, and at the center of this battle is the issue of knowledge. Both want to claim knowledge of the city. It was important for Mr. Head to accept that Nelson was his own person and not try to impose his own legacy on him.
Head to be better than his grandson. On the day of theirtrip to the cityhis goal was to be the firs one up. And yet, he was defeated. His reactionindicates theshallowness of character. Rather than thanking Nelson for cooking, he wastrying toexert his superiority upon his grandson. His “wisdom” and “knowledge” werefar beyondthe ones posed by Nelson.
Mr. Head’s defeat gave him the inspiration tobeat the boy inany other respect possible without showing a weakness of his own. Over thecourse of theplot the most important thing for Mr. Head was to avoid any possibility ofappearingfoolish and suffering embarrassment in front of Nelson. Mr. Head had adefiniteadvantage over Nelson due to his age and life experiences.
Nelson, on theother hand,was raised in isolation. Due to his restricted childhood, he was not ableto recognize thethree people moving down the aisle on the train as African Americans. Mr. Headimmediately took his chances to laugh at the boy by pointing out hisignorance. Tofurther ridicule Nelson he leaned in triumph across the aisle to anotherpassenger saying,”That’s his first nigger” (285). But to all his horror, Mr.
Head was not immune from ridicule himself. When later on it was discovered that he left their lunch on the train, Nelson sneeringly noted, ‘I would have kept hold of it’ (288). His grandfather, unable to take yet another insult, retaliated the only way he could in that situation. He threatened to leave him behind. Nelson turned white from the prospect of being left alone in the city. That clearly indicated that the boy lacked experience and confidence that is necessary to maintain his ground in his unusual competition with his grandfather.
In the city, though, the knowledge which had granted Mr. Head the upper hand escaped him. Lost in the black neighborhood and once again felt humiliated by Nelson, Mr. Head was ready for revenge.
The moment of the greatest triumph for Mr. Head was also the moment of his greatest demise. He arrogantly thought that the boy would have a ‘mighty sorry time’ (290) without him, and he decided to teach him a lesson once and for all. A sixty-year-old man trying to prank his ten-year-old grandson would be considered shocking and ridiculous by many readers.
When the boy was resting, he hid and waited for Nelson to wake up. Due to his impatience of waiting for Nelson to wake up, he demonstrates his immaturity by waking him up with a loud noise. Nelson was scared to death to discover that he was alone. His panic and loss of any sense of reason clearly indicated that despite all of his cockiness, Nelson was still a child totally dependent upon his grandfather for care and security.
Mr. Head, on the other hand, was insecure himself, and the denial of his own grandson in the face of potential danger indicates his rotten morals that were falling apart under pressure of time. Mr. Head’s action clearly horrified and repulsed everyone, ‘The women dropped back, staring at him with horror, as if they were so repulsed by a man who could deny his own image and likeness that they could not bear to lay hands on him’ (291). He had disgraced himself and betrayed the person who believed in him the most.
And yet he was still victorious as a result of the boy being scared to the point of telling Mr. Head that he never wants to go back to the city. Throughout the progression of the plot, Mr. Head adopted all possible means to prevent the changes in the society from affecting his or Nelson’s lives. It seems that he was able to perform his ‘moral mission’ of locking the boy in the past. However, that emerged to be impossible for him.
The city itself was the origin of new values and changes. The inhabitants of the city represent the future. Mr. Head and others like him had no future as a result of their entrapment in their past. It was only a matter of time before the traditional way of life would be overtaken by innovation. His desperate struggle to freeze the time, in fact, only accelerated the process of change.
It wouldnot be thatlong until the time when Nelson fully comprehend the extend of the betrayaland lie thathe was given that faithful day in Atlanta. Mr. Head had won that dayagainst Nelson, buthe lost against the society that sees betterment in the future. O’Connor herself believes into the brighter future despite the seeminglypessimistic depiction of the future of the South. The change in people wasapparent inthe man who was walking his two bulldogs. No longer were the dogs used astool forkeeping slaves under control, they became a hose pet.
The “artificialnigger” serves greatimportance in the story. The statuette represent far more than meets theeye. It wasseparated from the rest of yard by a wall, just as black people weresegregated from white. And just as the plaster that once held the statuette cracked so did thebonds of slavery.
The piece of brown watermelon represents the rotten values of Mr. Head andall of thosethat he represented. And just as rotten food thrown in the garbage, so isthe fate thatwould be expected for the old traditions of the South. The country was the cradle of the civilization, but just as one cannot stayin thecradle forever it is only a matter of time before old conservativetraditions will give wayto the brighter future. When they were reunited by the mysterious”artificial nigger”, Mr.
Head and Nelson returned home. It seems that O’Connor depicted the futureof Nelson tolie along the same direction as Mr. Head’s past, but Nelson is just a boyand he chose toreturn to his home to mature, to become an adult that could face thechallenges of life. His curiosity and his destiny would steer him into the city again.
Perhapsnext time hewould see that there is more to the city than what was conveyed by hisgrandfather. SinceMr. Head went to the city twice on his own will despite all his hate forit, Nelson wouldeventually follow the same path. The future seems more exiting and brighterin the city. It is like a drug that captivates the person from returning to theirprevious state of life.
The day will come when Nelson will feel the call of the civilization andleave his olddwelling just as his mother had done before him. Mr. Head has won a battlethat tookplace on that day, but ultimately he had lost in the long-term perspective. Once an imageis planted, the curiosity about it will never fade away. He exposed hisvulnerability toNelson, and no longer was the same powerful and knowledgeable figure thatNelsoncould trust without reservation.
Even Mr. Head himself had experienced adeep religiouschange that might make him a better guide for grandson.