“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary by Flannery O’Connor (Sparknotes Substitute)

“The Lame Shall Enter First” is a short story by Flannery O’Connor, first published in 1962 and in book form in 1965 in the collection Everything That Rises Must Converge. It’s about a widower who tries to help a troubled boy while his own son mourns the loss of his mother. Can’t find a Sparknotes summary? No problem. Here’s a full plot summary of “The Lame Shall Enter First”.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary

Sheppard eats his breakfast in the kitchen while watching his ten-year-old son, Norton. He wants Norton to be good and unselfish but doesn’t believe he will be either.

Norton sits near his father with his breakfast—chocolate cake on which he puts peanut butter and ketchup. Sheppard talks about a fourteen-year-old boy, Rufus Johnson, whom he saw yesterday looking for food in the trash. Johnson was released from the reformatory, where Sheppard volunteers as a counselor, two months ago. Sheppard points out to Norton the difference between his life and Johnson’s.

Johnson’s father is dead and his mother is in prison. His grandfather is abusive. He also has a club foot and one leg longer than the other. Sheppard gave Johnson a key to their house when he was released but he hasn’t come. He might now because they’ve seen each other and he’s hungry.

The Lame Shall Enter First Summary by Flannery O'Connor Sparknotes
“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary

Norton stops eating his cake. Sheppard again tries to impress upon him how good his life is, including the fact that his mother isn’t in the penitentiary. Norton bursts into tears and howls in misery, saying at least then he could visit her.

Sheppard is upset with Norton’s selfishness—his mother has been dead over a year and he shouldn’t still be grieving like this. Sheppard impresses on Norton the importance of following his example and helping people instead of thinking about his own troubles.

Sheppard asks Norton’s plans for the day to get his mind on something else. He’s going to sell seeds. He has jars full of coins that he takes out every few days and counts. He could win a prize of a thousand dollars. Sheppard talks about the unselfish things he could do with the money.

Norton throws up over his plate. Sheppard tells him to go lie down. He takes the mess to the sink.

Sheppard thinks back on when he met Johnson and about the potential the boy has. When reading his record before their first meeting, which included many senseless petty crimes, he saw that the boy’s IQ was 140. Johnson could be something, while his own son was average at best.

Sheppard tried to be supportive with Johnson, helping him understand why he did bad things. Johnson already knew—Satan had him in his power. He rejected this explanation, saying Johnson was too smart to think that.

Sheppard met with Johnson once a week for the next year. Sheppard tried to expand the boy’s horizons by talking to him about a variety of academic subjects. He wished he could have gotten Johnson a telescope, so he could see the universe. Johnson didn’t say much except to contradict. He always had his clubfoot raised between them. Sheppard believed he was getting through to the boy.

Sheppard is angry that things have gone back the way they were. He couldn’t get custody of Johnson because of his grandfather. He imagines how he could help Johnson—get him a proper orthopedic shoe and encourage him in an intellectual pursuit. They could get a second-hand telescope. At the trash can, he had seen something in the boy’s eyes that gave him hope.

Before going out, Sheppard looks in on Norton, who’s sitting on his bed counting his money.

It rains that afternoon. Alone at home, Norton arranges his seeds on the floor of his room. It’s suddenly silent as the rain stops. Norton hears the front door lock click. He hides in the closet. He hears irregular footsteps going into the kitchen and then the fridge opening.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary, Cont’d

Coming out of the closet, Norton sees a thin, drenched boy blocking his doorway. Recognizing him, Norton blurts out how his dad’s going to get him a new shoe because he eats out of the garbage. Johnson says he doesn’t need the help.

Johnson sits on Norton’s bed and says his thick-soled shoe is good for kicking people. He tells Norton to make him a sandwich and get him milk, calling him “waiter”. Norton brings the food, Johnson eats it, and then he asks for an orange, which he eats while spitting seeds over the bed.

Johnson insults Sheppard’s intelligence. Norton mumbles a defense but Johnson says Sheppard isn’t right. They hear the cook enter through the kitchen door. Johnson makes a disparaging remark and she looks at them insolently.

Johnson looks around the house—a pink-tiled bathroom, Sheppard’s bedroom since his wife died and then Sheppard and his wife’s old room. He goes in, picks up a comb and uses it. Norton protests, saying his mother is dead. Johnson isn’t bothered by that. He puts his hand in a drawer. He takes out a few things. He puts on a corset and starts singing and dancing around.

A half hour later, Sheppard gets home. He’s delighted to find Johnson there reading out of the encyclopedia. Johnson jokes that his grandfather is dead, but then says he went into the hills with an apocalyptic remnant to bury Bibles.

Sheppard goes to hang up his coat, needing time to think about how to get Johnson to stay. He comes up with a way that allows him to keep his pride. Sheppard finds Norton hiding in the closet. He brings him into the parlor with Johnson. Sheppard tells Johnson he needs his help. He wants him to stay so that Norton will learn how to share.

Norton protests, recounting Johnson’s disrespectful speech and behavior from earlier. Sheppard chides him for tattling. He knows Johnson’s insults are just a defense mechanism. Without enthusiasm, Johnson agrees to stay.

Sheppard tells the boys it doesn’t matter what Johnson thinks of him, and that it would be selfish not to help him. He’s beyond simple pettiness. He tells the boys to get acquainted and goes to see what the cook left for supper. Johnson asks Norton how he can stand his dad, who acts like he thinks he’s Jesus.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary of Part II

Within a week, Sheppard has a second-hand telescope set up in the attic. Johnson wears one of Norton’s shirts and new khaki pants. He was fitted for a new shoe, which will be ready next week. Sheppard is pleased with the progress.

He looks across the attic at Norton who seems far away. He had to whip Norton the first night when he found out Johnson would sleep in his mother’s bed. There hasn’t been any trouble since.

The boys have a routine of going to the swimming pool in the mornings, getting lunch at the cafeteria and then meeting Sheppard to watch Little League practice in the afternoons. The boys aren’t close, but there’s no fights.

Johnson downplays the telescope. Sheppard knows he’s just feigning boredom. He says they could go to the moon one day. Johnson says he won’t get to the moon, but that he’ll go to hell. He talks about people burning.

Norton asks if his mother is there. Sheppard says she simply doesn’t exist. He asks Johnson, who says she is if she was evil. Norton says she believed in Jesus, so Johnson says she’s in heaven. Norton wants to know if he’ll go to heaven or hell. Johnson says for now he’ll go to heaven, but if he lives long enough, hell. Sheppard tells them it’s bedtime. Johnson says he’ll tell Norton more tomorrow.

Johnson talks to Norton the day at the ballpark. Norton looks like he’s realized something. Sheppard knows Norton’s not smart enough to be damaged much by religion. Johnson interrupts Norton from saying what they’ve talked about.

That night, Norton looks through the telescope alone. Johnson was tired of looking at the stars and went out. Sheppard sits and thinks he could be failing with Johnson for being too lenient. He would have to lay down some rules. He can’t be too firm because Johnson can simply leave.

A policeman comes to the door with Johnson. He was picked up outside a vandalized house. Johnson proclaims his innocence and appeals to Sheppard for help. Sheppard says he has to go with the officer. Johnson looks at Sheppard with hatred before he’s taken away.

Sheppard had lost faith in Johnson, but now summons his compassion. He’ll go to the station tomorrow and see what he can do. The experience might be good for the boy. Then they’ll go get his new shoe.

The sergeant calls the next morning and says they cleared Johnson and he can be picked up. Sheppard is ashamed. He goes to the station and sits next to Johnson. He apologizes for not believing him. He asks Johnson to forget about it. Johnson says Sheppard better remember it.

They go to get the new shoe. It’s too small and will take another ten days. Johnson thinks his foot has grown to spoil the plans.

Sheppard tries even harder. He buys a microscope, which occupies Johnson for two nights. After that, he reads the encyclopedia in the evenings. Sheppard’s confidence in Johnson’s prospects returns.

One night soon after, Sheppard attends a city council meeting. He drops the boys off at the movies and picks them up after. When they get home, the police are in the driveway. Sheppard says he’ll handle it.

A house nearby was vandalized. Sheppard says Johnson was at the movies with his son. He says it’s a mistake like last night, and he’ll be responsible.

Inside, Sheppard wants to know if the alibi is reliable. He goes into Johnson’s room, where he’s in bed. He asks if he left the movie for anything. Johnson is outraged, saying Sheppard has no confidence in him. He’s going to ask Norton questions too. Sheppard trusts that Johnson knows not to get in trouble anymore.

“The Lame Shall Enter First” Summary, Cont’d

Johnson says you don’t do bad things when you have everything you want. Sheppard is overcome with emotion at this sign of appreciation. He leaves the room. Everything will be fine now. Norton tries to get his attention, but he goes to his own room. Tomorrow they’re going to get the new shoe, which will seal the good feeling between them.

Johnson is silent the day, probably ashamed for revealing his feelings. Sheppard takes him to pick up the shoe. He leaves Norton at home. Johnson doesn’t seem interested.

At the brace shop, Johnson sits and waits. Sheppard is excited. The clerk brings out the shining black, hideous shoe. He helps Johnson put it on. Johnson walks a few steps, sits back down, and takes it off. He puts his old shoe on. He’s not going to wear it.

Sheppard says he’ll take the shoe with him. Johnson’s not mature enough for it yet.

That night Sheppard reads the paper and Johnson reads the encyclopedia. Sheppard’s irritation lessens, realizing that Johnson is having an identity crisis. He tells Johnson he can be anything he wants.

The same policeman from last time comes to the door, wanting to see Johnson. He asks what Johnson was doing a half hour ago. Sheppard says Johnson’s been there all night. The officer says they’ll get him and leaves.

Johnson thanks Sheppard and compliments his lying. He did leave for a while; he was sitting in the bathroom with no witnesses. Sheppard is relieved. Johnson repeats his contention that Sheppard doesn’t really believe in him. He reveals he did sneak out to the site the officer asked about.

Sheppard is overcome with hate for Johnson, but he says his resolve isn’t broken. He will still save Johnson. The boy says he’ll get kicked out. He claims responsibility for the first crime someone else was picked up for and the one during the movie. He says only Jesus can save him.

Sheppard says he flushed that out of Johnson’s head. Johnson says he’ll show him, and goes to his room. Sheppard wishes Johnson would leave of his own accord.

The next morning, Johnson wears the clothes he first arrived in. Sheppard is numbed by his failure; he hopes the boy will be gone when he comes home later.

When he gets back, the boys are sitting together reading. Sheppard puts out the supper the cook left. He wants to tell Johnson to go. He calls the boys to supper. They bring the book, the Bible, with them. Johnson says he stole it.

They argue about religion again, with Sheppard claiming Johnson doesn’t believe what he’s saying about hell and Satan. Johnson tears a page out and eats it to prove his belief. Sheppard orders him to leave the table. He goes, telling Sheppard the devil has him in his power.

Johnson goes out that night. Sheppard finds Norton in the attic looking through the telescope intently. He’s waving. Norton says he found his mother and she’s waving at him. Sheppard tells him to be in bed in fifteen minutes.

Two policemen and a reporter come to the door with Johnson. He claims he let himself be caught to show up Sheppard, who thinks he’s God. He says Sheppard made immoral suggestions to him, telling him there was no hell.

Sheppard implores him to tell the truth. He blames Johnson’s leg for his misbehavior. Johnson says he does what he does because he’s good at it. He screams his religious beliefs as he’s taken away.

A dejected Sheppard thinks about his selfless attempt to save Johnson. He keeps repeating to himself that he did more for Johnson than for his own son. Aghast, he realizes he has ignored Norton to deal with his own emptiness. He’s overcome with love for his son. He’s going to make it up to him. He rushes to Norton’s room to assure him of his love.

His room is empty. He runs up to the attic. The tripod has fallen over and the telescope is on the floor. Norton hangs from the beam over it.

I hope this summary of “The Lame Shall Enter First” by Flannery O’Connor was helpful.