“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is a short story by Flannery O’Connor first published in 1953 and appearing in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. It’s about a woman who desperately wants her very old grandfather to live until her graduation. Here’s a summary of “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”.
“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” Summary
General Sash, a hundred and four years old, lives with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, sixty-two. After twenty years of summer school, Sally is getting her teaching degree. It wasn’t required when she started teaching, but the “upstarts” have changed everything.
Sally prays her grandfather will live to her graduation, so the General can sit in his wheelchair on stage behind her. That will show everyone she’s from the proud, old traditions. The General doesn’t care about the graduation, but he likes to sit on stages in his uniform and be acknowledged. This event will only have teachers; he prefers ones with beautiful women.
“She meant to stand on that platform in August with the General sitting in his wheel chair on the stage behind her and she meant to hold her head very high as if she were saying, ‘See him! See him! My kin, all you upstarts! Glorious upright old man standing for the old traditions!”
General Sash wasn’t a general in the Civil War. He can’t remember that war and many other significant events from his past. The only past event he cares about and talks about was the premiere of a war movie in Atlanta twelve years ago.
He received the general’s uniform in a hotel beforehand, along with a sword. He was introduced during the proceedings and received loud applause. General Sash remembers the beautiful girls who paid attention to him. He was able to walk onto the stage himself back then. He ignored his cue to exit and tried to stay on stage. Sally pulled him off. He continued calling out things from his seat, but the show moved on and no one paid attention any more.
Sally’s memory of the premier is tainted. She bought a new black dress and silver slippers to wear. While on stage with her grandfather, she saw she forgot to change into the new shoes. She was wearing brown Girl Scout oxfords.
Since the premiere, General Sash’s life has been uneventful. He’s deteriorated physically and lost his sense of time. He goes to an occasional local event in his uniform to lend atmosphere.
Now, getting the General to her graduation is the most important thing to Sally. She arranged with the dean to have him on stage. Her nephew, a Boy Scout named John Wesley, will wheel the General out.
“She thought how sweet it would be to see the old man in his courageous gray and the young boy in his clean khaki—the old and the new, she thought appropriately—they would be behind her on the stage when she received her degree.”
Sally’s grandfather and nephew arrive at the hotel. A reporter takes their picture. On graduation morning, Sally gets the General ready then leaves to take her place in the procession.
The procession walks three blocks in the hot sun to the auditorium. The attendees stand on the grass and watch everyone come in. Sally sees the General and John Wesley by a big red Coca-Cola machine; the boy drinks a bottle. The General feels like a little hole is opening in his head. Sally runs over, takes the bottle and orders them to take their place.
John Wesley hurriedly wheels the General to the stage entrance and into position. Several people in black robes shake his hand as they walk by. The music feels like its entering his head through the little hole.
The General doesn’t remember what this procession is for. It’s probably something to do with history, but he doesn’t care about that anymore. He only likes processions with floats and beautiful girls.
A figure in black addresses the crowd. General Sash hears his name. John Wesley wheels him forward and bows. The General is annoyed the boy is stealing his spotlight. He wants to stand up but can’t. He’s quickly wheeled back into place. The hole feels like it’s getting wider and deeper.
Another figure in black talks to the audience about the importance of history. The General’s forgotten history—the names and faces of his departed family, places, and the events that happened there.
The General is increasingly annoyed by the hole in his head. He hears a smattering of words from the podium and wonders if they relate to him in some way. He feels overwhelmed by the words and music in his head. The people start moving. He tries to run away but can’t.
He gets images of his wife, one of his son’s, his mother and various places. He clenches his sword, cutting himself to the bone.
The graduates cross the stage to receive their diplomas. As Sally crosses, she sees the General looking fixed and wide-eyed. She holds her head high and receives her scroll.
Outside in the sun, she waits on a bench in the shade. In a line at the Coca-Cola machine, John Wesley waits with the General’s corpse.
I hope this summary of “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” was helpful.