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Imagination in Flannery O'Connor's 'The Turkey'

Guessing and Growing Up


Image courtesy of Teddy Llovet.

Flannery O'Connor's "The Turkey" (1947) tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who discovers a wounded turkey in the woods, chases it down, and proudly carries it through town. The boy, Ruller, plans to take the turkey home to impress his family, but it's stolen from him before he gets the chance.

Imagination plays an important role in this story as Ruller tries to navigate the transition between childhood and adulthood. He's completely comfortable conjuring childhood fantasies in which he wields six-shooters and apprehends cattle rustlers. In contrast, his attempts to picture himself in an adult world about which he knows very little are tentative -- and at least as unrealistic as his childish fantasies.

Childhood Imagination

The story opens in the middle of Ruller's fantasy of capturing the cattle rustler. Though O'Connor doesn't specifically say that the character is pretending, she gives us clues, especially in the hokey dialogue, which uses phrases like "the jig is up" and "you varmit." It's the language of movies and dime novels, not the language of real life.

Later, we learn that Ruller's father is concerned that Ruller plays alone so often, further emphasizing the idea that he's spending most of his time lost in his own head.


The minute he sees the turkey, Ruller switches seamlessly from pretending to level a gun at the cattle rustler to wishing he had a real one. O'Connor writes, adopting Ruller's perspective, "If he only had a gun, if he only had a gun!"

Ruller is in a stage of transition between what he feels is certain (cattle rustlers are bad and Ruller has the power to stop them) and what he feels entirely uncertain about (adulthood).  The push and pull between childhood and adulthood continues throughout the story.

Even before Ruller has caught the turkey, he is imagining the glory of bringing it home. O'Connor writes, "He saw himself going in the front door with it slung over his shoulder, and them all screaming, 'Look at Ruller with that wild turkey!'" It's a vision of heroism not far removed from apprehending a cattle rustler.

In fact, at the same time he is imagining this glorious future, he also continues to engage in a world of childhood imagination, rallying his "posse" to help him catch the turkey and issuing commands like, "Joe, you cut around by the gorge and head him off."


O'Connor frequently uses the word "guess" when describing Ruller's thoughts. On the one hand, the word "guess" is just a synonym for "suppose" here, though it's possibly a better fit with the lexicon of the story. On the other hand, O'Connor uses it so frequently that the word seems to underscore Ruller's uncertainty about his future, about the meaning of events around him, about God, and about adults.

The word first appears when Ruller imagines his parents' reaction as he walks through the door with the turkey. O'Connor writes, "He guessed they'd be knocked out when they saw him; he guessed they'd talk about it in bed."

Later, he continues "guessing" when he loses the turkey and bitterly experiments with "going bad" by testing out forbidden curse words and imagining all the criminal deeds he could do, like stealing.

Then, when he rediscovers the turkey after having given it up for lost, his guesses move in the opposite direction. He begins to think God has given him the turkey for a reason -- perhaps to keep him from "going bad." He imagines that God wants him to become a preacher or perhaps, like Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy, to "found a place for boys to stay who were going bad."

He starts to fabricate conversations with God about the turkey and about the imaginary boys Ruller is saving. As the country boys start following him, he even imagines he "might found a home for tenants' children."

He tells himself that his catching the turkey is a sign that "God must be wonderful," and he plans to give his last dime to a beggar because he wants to "do something for God." He prays for God to send him a beggar, and he decides that if a beggar appears, it must mean that "God had gone out of His way to get one" and that "God was really interested."

Failure of Imagination

The reader probably has a pretty good idea that the country boys who are following Ruller are planning to steal the turkey, but Ruller himself doesn't see it coming. The boys have "found" the turkey, too, just as Ruller did, and they've followed him all through town waiting for their chance.

It seems to me that the great failure of Ruller's soaring imagination is exactly its grandiosity -- the presupposition he makes that everything must somehow be about him. He can't see the impending theft because he's convinced himself that the turkey is destined for him alone. He's convinced himself that he is "unusual" and that God is "really interested" in him.

I find Ruller charming both in his imagined "going bad" and in his imagined "going good," so I have a hard time seeing him get his comeuppance. After all, I can't fault an 11-year-old for feeling as if it's "a dirty trick" when the turkey disappears, or for patting himself on the back for giving away his last dime. I figure a lot of kids would have kept the turkey and the dime.

But I do think O'Connor takes issue with the idea that God owes us a turkey or anything else, and that we'll behave well only if God gives us what we want first. So, I think the story is not so much about a specific child as it is about attitudes that O'Connor would find childish and immature -- and the adults who might hold them long past age 11.


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