Flannery O'Connor's Stories

A Grave Mistake: The Irony of Sheppard's Selfishness

In the short story "The Lame Shall Enter First," author Flannery O'Connor describes a widower's attempts to mask his grief over his wife's death. In order to fill the void in his heart, the widower, Sheppard, throws himself into miscellaneous charitable endeavors. He shows this philanthropy most notably in his treatment of a young delinquent named Rufus Johnson, whom he takes in and cares for as his own son. Through his treatment of Rufus, Sheppard also tries to teach his son Norton-whom he judges as extremely selfish-about sharing. What Sheppard fails to realize, however, is that he is actually just as selfish as he judges his son to be-they are using the same coping mechanisms to try to deal with their loss. Consequently, his "generosity" and "kindness" will not profit anyone; in fact, it will actually cause harm. O'Connor uses devastating irony-manifested through parallel descriptions of the characters and various interactions between them-to convey the idea that artificial philanthropy will accomplish nothing.

O' Connor uses parallel descriptions of Sheppard and Norton in order to expose the same character flaws in Sheppard that he scorns in his son. Throughout the story,...

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