As Part I of the story begins, Mrs. McIntyre and the woman who works on her farm, Mrs. Shortley, are watching as the Guizac family arrives to work on the farm. The new family, whose arrival has been organized by a priest, Father Flynn, is Polish and has been displaced due to the war. Father Flynn marvels at the peacock that has followed Mrs. Shortley to the scene, and Mrs. McIntyre reveals that there used to be many more on the farm but that she has let them die off. Mrs. McIntyre leaves to lead the Guizac family to the shack in which they are to live, and Mrs. Shortley discusses their arrival with the two black farm hands, Astor and Sulk. Her disdain for them is revealed not only in the way she speaks to them, but in her thoughts about them. She attempts to spark fear in them that the arrival of the Guizacs will jeopardize their jobs on the farm. Then she reports what has happened to her husband, Mr. Shortley, who is smoking while using a milking machine in the barn, and he predicts that the new family will be fired soon.
However, Mr. Guizac proves to be an extremely competent worker, especially in his maneuvering of the tractor. Three weeks later, Mrs. McIntyre and Mrs. Shortley watch him work, and the former comments on how lucky she is to have found such a great worker, calling him her salvation. Mrs. Shortley takes offense, since she thinks her husband is also a great worker, and begins to worry for their position on the farm. But she continues to insist to Astor and Sulk that it is their jobs which are at risk. It is only that night while she and Mr. Shortley are in bed that Mrs. Shortley gives voice to her suspicion of the Guizacs and her fear for their own position on the farm.
As time passes, Mrs. Shortley notices that Mrs. McIntyre is acting less friendly toward her. She becomes increasingly annoyed by and suspicious of Father Flynn, who visits often. She has become terrified of the Polish family, and begins reading the Bible with the intention of doing God's will, which she wrongly believes is for her to keep an eye on the priest. On a Sunday afternoon, she has a vision of fish in the sky, inspired by low-lying clouds. She sees a huge figure in the sky, and hears a voice say the word, "Prophesy!" It is unclear exactly what her horrifying prophesy signifies, but before she can tell anyone about it, she overhears Mrs. McIntyre confiding in Father Flynn that she is about to fire the Shortleys.
Mrs. Shortley runs to her house and begins packing all their things. She is too proud to be fired, so she decides her husband must quit instead. They pack up their car and leave early the next morning before Mrs. McIntyre awakes, with no destination in mind. Mr. Shortley asks his wife where they are going, but she does not answer. Instead, her body spasms and she grabs at anything she can get ahold of before becoming eerily still.
Part II begins as Mrs. McIntyre talks with Astor about how she can get along fine without the help of the Shortleys. They reminisce about all the horrible, untrustworthy people who have worked on the farm before. When Astor wanders away, Mrs. McIntyre thinks about how many peacocks there used to be on the farm, and how now she has let all but one of them die off; she only keeps that one around because she superstitiously worries about upsetting her dead husband, the Judge.
Mrs. McIntyre goes to inspect the work being done in the barn, and finds Sulk holding a photograph of a young white girl in his hand. He tells her that the girl is Mr. Guizac's cousin, and that Mr. Guizac is planning to bring her to the United States to marry Sulk. This revelation greatly upsets Mrs. McIntyre, who retires to her room and cries out of self-pity for having hired yet another terrible farmhand. She pulls herself together in the Judge's old office, where his spirit still seems to linger, then finds Mr. Guizac and yells at him for planning to marry a white girl to a black man. He returns to work while she wonders, dismayed, how he could be so ungrateful.
Part III begins as Mrs. McIntyre is having a tense conversation with Father Flynn about Purgatory. She interrupts him rudely to tell him how dissatisfied she is with Mr. Guizac's work; he doesn't "fit in." When he appeals to her with the truth that Mr. Guizac has nowhere else to go, she displaces blame by responding, "I didn't create this situation, of course... It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go. I don't find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world."
A few weeks later, Mr. Shortley returns to the farm and reports that Mrs. Shortley has died, with "a corpse-like composure about his face." Mrs. McIntyre, having lost faith in Mr. Guizac, welcomes him back, although he is an even worse worker now that his wife has died. Mrs. McIntyre does not fire Mr. Guizac immediately, and Father Flynn returns to further preach to her about Christ. However, she interrupts him to declare that she is, in fact, going to fire Mr. Guizac, and she announces the same thing to Mr. Shortley after the priest's visit is over.
Mr. Shortley begins complaining to everyone about the fact that Mrs. McIntyre still has not fired Mr. Guizac as she has said she would. Under all this pressure, Mrs. McIntyre walks down to the barn one morning to finally fire the Polish man. He is lying under the small tractor fixing it. Mr. Shortley backs the alrge tractor out of the shed and brakes it on an incline. Mrs. McIntyre hears the brake on the large tractor give, and she knows before it happens that the large tractor is going to roll right over Mr. Guizac's extended legs. She, Mr. Shortley, and Sulk make eye contact but none of them calls out to Mr. Guizac to save his life. After Mr. Guizac's death, Mr. Shortley leaves to look for another posiiton, and both Sulk and Astor also leave. Mrs. McIntyre becomes ill and bedridden, with only Father Flynn to come visit her.
Racism is an extremely important theme in this story, and is quite explicit in dialogue and in the characters' judgments of each other. When Mrs. McIntyre asks Mrs. Shortley where her husband is during the Guizacs' arrival, she answers, "He don't have time to rest himself in the bushes like them niggers over there." Later, while she discusses the Guizacs' arrival with Astor and Sulk, O'Connor reveals that, "The illogic of Negro thinking always irked Mrs. Shortley." But Mrs. Shortley is also racist toward Europeans, and is suspicious of the Guizacs for this reason. In conversation with her husband, she reveals, "I'd rather have niggers than them Poles." Mrs. McIntyre decides to do away with Mr. Guizac because he is trying to organize a marriage between his white cousin and Sulk, a black farmhand, even though her financial success will be negatively affected by his departure. Her racism is clear toward the black farmhands as well: "The niggers don't leave - they stay and steal. A nigger thinks anybody is rich he can steal from." Even Mr. Guizac, whose point of view never dominates the story, has racist feelings toward the black farmhands: "The Negroes made him nervous."
Mr. Guizac can be interpreted as a Christ-like figure. This connection is most clear in Mrs. McIntyre's outburst to Father Flynn that, "Christ was just another D.P." (D.P. stands for "displaced person.") Likewise, the peacock on the McIntyre farm symbolizes Christian faith: Father Flynn and Astor, the only two characters who are concerned with religion, are also the only two characters who care about the bird. Mrs. Shortley, who "had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn't have the brains to avoid evil without it," is followed around by a peacock in the very first sentence of the story, hinting at her chance to accept Christ. At first, she looks at the peacock with "unseeing eyes," unable to open herself up to Grace. Later, she has a prophesy inspired by clouds that resemble fish - the fish is a universal symbol of Christ - that foreshadows her mental breakdown in the car as the family is sneaking off the McIntyre farm.
Throughout "The Displaced Person," point of view oscillates between characters. As the story begins, it is told from Mrs. Shortley's point of view; that is how the reader is first introduced to the Guizac family. In the second and third parts of the story, the reader mostly learns things from Mrs. McIntyre's point of view, although the reader also has moments of insight into Mr. Shortley and Father Flynn's points of view. By denying Mr. Guizac a voice, O'Connor makes him the most sympathetic of the characters, since if he is nasty at all, it is not revealed.
Though on the surface, the story's title refers to Mr. Guizac, who has physically been displaced from Poland, it can be interpreted as referring to Mrs. McIntyre. She is the character most displaced from Grace, and she constantly displaces blame for her actions. Mr. Shortley, a witness to Mr. Guizac's murder, is also quite far from salvation. His figurative deadness is made clear in his own conversation with his wife, while he pretends to be a corpse. As she worries about their job on the farm, he says, "Don't worry me now, I'm a dead man," and "If everybody was as dead as I am, nobody would have no trouble," though she ignores him.
Eyes, which are a prominent symbol in many of O'Connors short stories, are often violent in "The Displaced Person." When Mrs. McIntyre exclaims toward the beginning of the story that Mr. Guizac is her salvation, Mrs. Shortley looks straight ahead "as if her vision penetrated the cane and the hill and pierced through to the other side" before answering that she would be suspicious of "salvation got from the devil." Before her physical spasm in the car, Mrs. Shortley has "a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes;" immediately following it, her eyes are "like blue-painted glass." They change as a result of her religious vision. Mr. Guizac's gaze is piercing when Mrs. McIntyre scolds him: "His eyes were like two bright nails behind his gold-rimmed spectacles."
Language as a violent, animate entity is a recurring image in O'Connor's stories: here, Mrs. Shortley's fear of the Guizac family manifests as an imaginary battle between the Polish language and the English language: "She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other." When Mrs. McIntyre yells at Father Flynn in Part III, "her voice fell across his brogue like a drill into a mechanical saw." As Father Flynn preaches to her, Mrs. McIntyre does not listen, but rather waits for "an opportunity to drive a wedge into his talk."