O'Connor, Flannery (Vol. 1)
O'Connor, Flannery 1925–1964
A Southern American novelist and short story writer, Miss O'Connor is the author of The Violent Bear It Away and Everything That Rises Must Converge. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
With the publication … of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor sums up her earlier work and challenges comparison with the greatest in her exploration of the consequences of man's refusal to see things as they really are and act accordingly….
All of the South, as every average reader knows, is like Gaul, divided into three parts: the Magnolia South of the Civil War, costume romance; the Bayou South of decadent honor and Krafft-Ebing sin; and that last great battle ground of cultural conflict, Yoknapatawpha County. Miss O'Connor's South cannot be located anywhere on this distorted literary map, but it does seem typical of large sections of real-life Georgia and Tennessee—and of large sections of many other parts of the world where real people struggle with real emotions. It is the typical and essential which interest her, not the unique of abnormal psychology nor the encyclopedic detail of photographic realism.
P. Albert Duhamel, "Flannery O'Connor's Violent View of Reality," in Catholic World, February, 1960, pp. 280-85.
In a certain sense Flannery O'Connor has replaced Carson McCullers as the image of the young writer; although her face is perhaps more rounded and less "dreaming androgynous" than her older contemporary, she still manages a talent "as real as her face" and a prose which is both "chaste and severe."….
She has proved agreeable to most of the literary and quasi-literary factions which pass judgment on contemporary literature. She has failed to please only the most rigidly party-line Catholics who find her brand of Catholicism not orthodox enough and the most "textual" literary critics who find her language too bare and her experiments with structure not eccentric enough….
She has shown the same devotion to birthplace as so many other southern writers. The settings of her stories and novels are either Georgia or Tennessee, often backwoods or rural areas. She has never tried to superimpose on these settings a mythical or ritualistic importance; she seems to have no interest in creating a Yoknapatawpha County or a Port Warwick (the city which recurs in Styron's fiction) as a symbolical southern landscape. She seems content to write about the region she knows best in its own "southern gothic" terms with a disarming modesty unknown in most writers of similar reputation….
A Flannery O'Connor story or novel is always the slowly paced, leisurely uncovering of a series of unusual people and circumstances. She seems always intent on at first disenchanting us—mainly through a systematic puncturing of the myth of southern gallantry and gentility—and then restoring our confidence when she has forced us to view her world on her own terms. She forces us to go through a complete Cartesian purgation; our minds are cleansed of all previous notions…. We almost willingly "suspend disbelief" in the face of impossible happenings to unlikely people. This is part of what we must go through when we read most fiction writers. But never have I felt the compulsion to reject everything and start over again that I feel with Flannery O'Connor.
This is all the more curious because the demands she makes are not in the direction of new techniques or startling dislocations of structure…. Her work is usually completely faithful to chronology, with no attempt at reproducing an atmosphere of psychological time. In short, her fiction bears no relation whatever to the so-called "art novel."
Where Flannery O'Connor is most unlike her contemporaries is in her almost Dickensian devotion to oddities of character…. [She] insists on precise and detailed delineation. Her creatures are usually rounded personalities, believable if only on their own terms…. They are not introspective types who brood about metaphysical problems, nor are they very concerned with the existentialist notion of self-identification. They go about their business in a workaday manner, but it is the "business" which is usually unorthodox…. Flannery O'Connor's characters are almost all fanatics, suffering from what we might diagnose as an acute sense of dislocation of place.
Almost everywhere in her fiction some person is trying to fulfill a mission in unfamiliar surroundings. The mission is usually self-imposed and the role assumed is invariably self-appointed…. One feels that her entire notion of character depends on the fictional creature's leaving his native habitat with an evangelical urge and then returning in defeat or else dying in defeat. The peculiarities and oddities seem a part of the whole plan; the working out of a mythical situation in modern terms forces the odd behavior and credos of a group of people who are often ironical counterparts of classically defined heroes.
It is probably safest to leave this kind of interpretation as a marginal suggestion. Flannery O'Connor is no believer in mythical parallels and certainly offers no outward concern with archetypal patterns in her fiction. One cannot insist often enough that she depends on traditional procedures to the almost complete exclusion of experimentation. It is probably no accident, however, that the motif [of rite de passage—transplantation-prophecy-return—which runs] through almost all her writing is of great antiquity—Homerically conventional.
Melvin J. Friedman, "Flannery O'Connor: Another Legend in Southern Fiction," in English Journal, April, 1962, pp. 233-43.
Though he died in 1940, [Nathanael] West is the one writer who, along with Flannery O'Connor, deserves singular attention as a rare American satirist. I would propose that West and Flannery O'Connor are very nearly alone today in their pure creation of "aesthetic authority," and would also propose, of course, that they are very nearly alone in their employment of the devil's voice as vehicle for their satire or for what we may call their true (or accurate) vision of our godless actuality. Their visions are different. And yet, as we might expect, these two comic writers are unique in sharing a kind of inverted attraction for the reality of our absurd condition….
[Both] writers are reversing their artistic sympathies, West committing himself to the creative pleasures of a destructive sexuality, Flannery O'Connor committing herself creatively to the antics of soulless characters who leer, or bicker, or stare at obscenities on walls, or maim each other on a brilliant but barren earth. And finally both writers—one a Roman Catholic, the other a man of no particular religious drive—are remarkably similar in their exploitation of the "demolishing" syntax of the devil. But then a good many readers would mistake Flannery O'Connor's belief in the Holy for its opposite, in the same way that many readers might be misled into thinking of Nathanael West as a Christian manqué. The point is that in the most vigorously moral of writers the actual creation of fiction seems often to depend on immoral impulse….
Flannery O'Connor's work is just as great a violation of probability and of anticipated, familiar "reality" as West's. In Wise Blood two policemen turn out to be sadistic versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee; in The Violent Bear It Away the devil himself quite literally appears, wearing a cream-colored hat and lavender suit and carrying a whiskey bottle filled with blood in the glove compartment of his enormous car….
Surely if the elements of Flannery O'Connor's fiction could be referred point for point to the established principles of a known orthodoxy, then many of the imaginative beauties and tensions of her fiction would disappear. But this is not the case. The very revivalist or circuit-preacher Protestant world of her fiction, with its improbable combination of religious faith and eccentricity, accounts in large part for the way in which "unknown country" and "actuality" are held in severe balance in her work…. Within her almost luridly bright pastoral world—usually created as meaningless or indifferent or corrupted—the characters of Flannery O'Connor are judged, victimized, made to appear only as absurd entities of the flesh. Or, sometimes, they are allowed to experience their moments of mystery….
When I suggested to Flannery O'Connor some time ago that as writer she was on the devil's side she responded at once—and of course to disagree….
I would not say that Flannery O'Connor's uses of image and symbol are inconsistent, but rather … that they are mildly perverse. If the writer commits herself at least creatively to the voice and attitude of her imagined devil, or if her imagined devil is at least a partial heightening of her own creative voice and attitude, then we have only to compare "that dwarf sun" with the "crown of trees" in order to interpret the very strength of her authority as being in a way perverse. In Flannery O'Connor's fiction personified nature is often minimized…. Or it is made to assume a baldly leering attitude toward the jocular evil antics of the men in its midst….
Certainly Flannery O'Connor reveals what can only be called brilliant creative perversity when she brings to life a denuded actuality and writes about a "catfaced baby" or a confidence man with "an honest look that fitted into his face like a set of false teeth" or an automobile horn that makes "sound like a goat's laugh cut off with a buzz saw." This much, I should think, is happily on the side of the devil….
It may be … that I have been giving undue stress to the darker side of her imaginative constructions, and that the devil I have been speaking of is only a metaphor, a way of referring to a temperament strong enough and sympathetic enough to sustain the work of piercing pretension. To think so, of course, takes much of the pleasure out of the piercing.
John Hawkes, "Flannery O'Connor's Devil" (© 1962 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1962, pp. 395-407.
It has remained to Flannery O'Connor (insofar as I have been able to discover) to create a brand of humor based on the religious point of view.
In a world as secular as ours the phrase "the religious point of view" requires definition. In this country in particular, the Protestant movement has added uncertainty to such a viewpoint. To address this issue to a more specific context, there appeared in The Sewanee Review (Summer, 1962) an article on Flannery O'Connor's work by John Hawkes, who apparently does not understand the religious viewpoint and, hence, the diabolism he would attribute to Miss O'Connor.
Perhaps the first element in the religious perspective to consider here is that of man's free will. In some idiom or other, as we know, all of the world religions have recognized man's deficiencies, for life both in the here and the hereafter. They have offered personal salvation at a price. The religious man must choose the costly way…. Responsibilities represented in the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and, among the orthodox, in the communion of a Christian church come along with Christ's redemption of us. It is from this orthodox view that Miss O'Connor sees the humor of man's predicament….
The genius of Miss O'Connor's humor is that she nowhere appears the partisan of human fallibility. This is the initial requirement of the orthodox outlook: the Christian must realize that he is as liable to human weaknesses as any sinner or the unbeliever…. That sense of conscience, that nakedness before God, is the source of religious realism and the premise for Miss O'Connor's humor….
Miss O'Connor has a genius for the grotesque, and she makes effective dramatic use of misfortunes in a God-given world. This is her métier. But I would challenge Mr. Hawkes to support with evidence the view he attributes to her. Nowhere in any of her work with which I am acquainted has she as author viewed our condition as being absurd….
The situation of humor is presented in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." It is characteristic dramatic strategy of her short stories and it abounds in her novels too. She begins with familiar surfaces, in an action that seems secular at the outset, and in a secular tone of satire or humor. Before you know it, the naturalistic situation has become metaphysical, and the action appropriate to it comes with a surprise, an unaccountability that is humorous, grimly humorous, however shocking. It is paradox, to be sure, but it rests on a theology and a Christian perception more penetrating than most people in this world are blessed with…. It is the genious of Miss O'Connor's Christian realism that her characters who are touched with Holiness reveal their human frailties and foibles too….
Miss O'Connor's art is committed to religious revolution against a secular world. Perhaps one can only grasp the overtones of her humor finally by holding firmly to an unsentimentalized appreciation of the Sermon on the Mount.
Brainard Cheney, "Miss O'Connor Creates Unusual Humor Out of Ordinary Sin" (© 1963 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1963, pp. 644-52.
Flannery O'Connor is most certainly a theological [writer] and "The Displaced Person" is essentially a probing of two deeply theological themes, the nature of Christian love or divine, supernatural charity, which in turn reflects its source in a theological event, the Incarnation….
Interestingly enough, "The Displaced Person" is one of the few O'Connor stories without a demoniac; but it is in fact more metaphysically subtle, for in it evil is not defined in a person nor in an action but in an absence, the absence of love, the "displacement" in the "displacer."
Eileen Baldeshwiler, "Thematic Centers in 'The Displaced Person'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter, 1964, pp. 85-92.
With a mind steeped in religious thought, Miss O'Connor goes beyond philosophy to theology in order to deal with what she would call man's most important problem, his relationship with God….
Those who do not accept the theological viewpoint in Miss O'Connor's work often consider her to be "just another Southern writer" dealing with regional decay, that is to say, someone like Carson McCullers. Others who have accepted her viewpoint wonder why she deals with violent and grotesque people. Those who see that it is necessary for the modern writer to deal with the decay of our times often do not understand that what gives Flannery O'Connor's work a depth not found in many writers who deal with the same sort of material is her view of the modern world from the standpoint of philosophy and theology. The reply to those who accept her theology but who dislike the violence of her stories is that any basic truth to have meaning in literature must be seen in relationship to the essence of life in a particular time; by now nearly everyone has accepted the fact that Western man has in his soul a powerful destructive element, which often makes him behave in a violent and grotesque manner. Religious thinking has become pale and peripheral during the past hundred years precisely because it has left out of its main consideration the existential struggle with the principle of destruction traditionally called the Devil.
Ted R. Spivey, "Flannery O'Connor's View of God and Man," in Studies in Short Fiction, Spring, 1964, pp. 200-06.
[Flannery O'Connor] approaches the religious primitivism of the South, traditionally Protestant, from the standpoint of a Roman Catholic, and her theme, if I understand it right, is the spiritual distortions that are the consequence of Protestant primitivism. Her characters are grotesque precisely because they are spiritually primitive and afflicted both in mind and body. Their lives are like nightmares that are both brutal and farcical, and this is because they are God-intoxicated, one might say doomed to God. God is the sole reality in their lives, and this is so even when they repudiate Him.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 308.
Offering itself as the most grotesque work in all of Southern fiction, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood is a novel only in the widest possible sense of the word. It is a prose fiction of considerable length, but beyond that requirement none of the standard elements of the novel is to be found. The development of character, the exploration of character interaction, and the development of plot are unimportant. Such action as occurs is often without motivation, leads nowhere, and is almost always absurd. Any resemblance to the world of objective reality is certainly incidental. Yet, when these things are said, the book still remains one of the most impressive creations of the School of the Grotesque, or School of Southern Gothic. That the book is rewarding despite its unconventionality can be attributed to the author's singular vision and style….
The main character of Wise Blood, the Tennessean Haze Motes, is an example of the complete artistic freedom which Miss O'Connor allowed herself. Uninterested in creating a rounded character, she concentrated instead upon constructing a caricature whose flatness continually reminds us that he is unreal. To the charge that such a technique weakened her fiction, Miss O'Connor would have replied that any other technique would weaken her vision. She had no interest in Haze Motes as a human being; he was conceived, and his creator would have insisted that he remain, as an exemplum, as a vehicle whose attitudes and actions would personify a spiritual view which she wished to reveal….
There are suggestions at times that the structure of the gospels is consciously being used: an abstract idea will first be introduced and then made concrete, as in the parables of Christ. Haze Motes was, in his creator's eyes, an exemplification of the deadly effect that Southern fundamentalism could have on the soul, warping and terrorizing it so completely with its perversion of Christian doctrine that the soul in rebellion rejects entirely the idea of orthodox Christianity. Since the creation of a character whose premise lay in normality and logicality would encourage us to identify with him and thus blunt the effectiveness of her attack, Miss O'Connor wisely felt free to make her foil as bizarre, as distasteful, as ridiculous, as she thought necessary….
[The] grotesque for her was a form of religious hyperbole. There is always the danger that an audience not attuned to the form will misunderstand such hyperbole. That is the chance that Miss O'Connor must have felt she had to take. Certainly she was deadly serious when she used the grotesque, and its use was not merely gratuitous. Just as certainly she was not merely celebrating Southern degeneracy.
Flannery O'Connor was, on the contrary, perhaps the writer of the modern Southern school most conscious of the chaotic world caused by the declining belief in older religious institutions. Thus her satire was the most desperate, for to her it was most obvious that the old order was crumbling. But she saw that the old order in religion remained a husk; therefore she had to attack those people who play out their lives within the old form without giving allegiance to it and those people who have gone over more obviously to some other allegiance. There was no place in her world for any norms; from her vantage point the entire world did look grotesque, since her audience did not recognize the normative value of faith.
Lewis A. Lawson, "Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque: Wise Blood," in Renascence, Spring, 1965, pp. 137-47.
With rare exception, Miss O'Conner explored in all her fiction the same private world, a world of corrosion and decay, invested with evil, apparently Godforsaken, but finally redeemed by God. Despite her somewhat solemn concerns, at her best her fiction is mordantly comic. The practice of life is an eternally serious business, but the world which gives it occasion is a grotesque and absurd place….
[The] very neatness [of denouement] is the besetting limitation of Miss O'Connor's fictional world. Her grays finally separate of themselves, as if their component blacks and whites were only temporarily miscible. Her world lacks breadth and texture; it hangs gloomily in space, revolving on its axis, but it manages—and this is its achievement as art—to create its own claustrophobic reality. She has, it is dull to say, a fecund imagination and her conceptions are, for lack of a more scrupulous word, brilliant. Yet, for all that, much of the experience of her fiction is either private or abstractly rendered. That her most potent scenes rely on the impact, comic and pathetic, inherent in the nightmare reality of her situations suggests that the nature of her talent often distorted the explicitly theological concerns that inform her work….
She is a less impressive rhetorician than many another southern novelist, but her style, an admixture of the lucidly simple and the baroque, adequately accommodates her vision. Even if we have reservations about the significance of what she did, we must admit that she did it incomparably well.
Jonathan Baumbach, "The Acid of God's Grace: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 87-100.
The Southern milieu [in Miss O'Connor's work] is a convenience to make articulate the moral hazards of all contemporary life. If the outlandishness of the characters nullifies the empathic identification which a reader might make with them, the bold lines of their portraiture nevertheless converge directly on the spiritual errors of the present, failings far more consequential than disruptive social changes or a malfunctioning economy. When these lines are too direct, the fiction lapses into preaching.
Louise Y. Gossett, "The Test by Fire: Flannery O'Connor," in her Violence in Recent Southern Fiction, © 1965 by the Duke University Press, pp. 75-97.
[Because Flannery O'Connor] had such a quick, deft, animating touch that brought her characters and milieu to life by means of a few details and the flick of a metaphor, it is easy to forget that she was not portraying Southern life so much as her own lurid sensations of religious life. Even in the rural South, where she sets her two novels and early stories, most people belong to something—to a community, a church, a family, a settled way of life—but her people are so solitary or isolated, their degree of alienation is so extreme, that they seem to know no one else except the other characters they meet in the tale. Divested of all social ties and acquiring none, they are the creatures of a vision, and though their speech, manners, and dress bespeak the Bible Belt, their real existence is meant to lie in the eternal mysteries of sin and redemption, which they grotesquely and usually blindly enact. This weird procession of teen-age prophets, backwoods nihilists, and demented acolytes, as well as orphans and widows, frauds and psychotics, is intended to create a world that was as close as possible to pristine Christianity.
Theodore Solotaroff, "The Development of Flannery O'Connor" (1965), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 171-77.
The organization of Wise Blood is … a tight network of imagery, symbolism, and foreshadowing. The plot of the novel is much less tight, since the whole episode of Enoch and the gorilla suit is unrelated to Haze, and Enoch simply falls out of the book dressed as a gorilla. The language similarly shows that Miss O'Connor had not reached the stage of full control of her material. Some of it represents the perfect plain style of her later triumphs, but some of the tropes are so garish or elaborate as to be distracting, and thus ineffective. (pp. 13-14)
Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away …, is Miss O'Connor's masterpiece. It tells the terrible initiation of a reluctant prophet…. The Violent, like Wise Blood, is tightly unified by symbolism. The principal unifying symbol is burning…. A second important symbol, balancing judgment with mercy, is spiritual feeding…. The other important symbol in The Violent Bear It Away is Bishop, the holy idiot…. Unlike that of Wise Blood, the narrative structure of The Violent is perfectly shaped; there are no loose ends like Enoch Emery…. The novel unfolds the motifs of the opening sentence inexorably, from this first drunkenness to the final drugged drunkenness and transformation. Even the sodomic rape, not much appreciated by the reviewers, is right and inevitable: it is at once the ultimate violation of the untouchable anointed of the Lord, a naturalistic explanation for the shaman's spirit possession, and a shocking and effective metaphor for seizure by divine purpose…. [The novel's] clear meaning is that the violent are enemies of the kingdom, capturing it from the righteous, as a sign of the imminent coming of the Messiah, the Christ. In this sense the Tarwaters are mad fanatics carrying away the kingdom from its lukewarm heirs, and Rayber is an equally mad fanatic preaching secular salvation…. Violence and madness are the curse in the family's blood, but Rayber succeeds in controlling them. The effect of the novel's events on young Tarwater is to extirpate the rational self instead, to burn away all reason and leave him entirely violent and mad. (pp. 19-24)
In all her writing, Flannery O'Connor has certain preoccupations that seem almost obsessional. A few simple images recur so strikingly that every reader notices them: the flaming suns, the mutilated eyes, the "Jesus-seeing" hats, the colorful shirts. These images may be obsessive with the author, but they are used organically in the fiction. (p. 28)
A few recurrent symbols are more complex than these. One is the young preacher in bright blue suit and stern black hat. His principal embodiments are Hazel Motes and the False Prophet in Wise Blood, and the Bible salesman in "Good Country People," but we see traces of him everywhere: the bright blue suit on the preacher who introduces the girl evangelist who tells Rayber that he is a damned soul in The Violent; the stern black hat on the old man in "Judgement Day." These are not simply a uniform, but emblems: the blue suit glares with raw Fundamentalist fervor, the black hat represents what the old man's daughter dismisses as "a lot of hardshell Baptist hooey." (p. 29)
The peacock is another complex symbol. It is central in "The Displaced Person," but it appears in many places: the innocent deaf girl in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" has "eyes as blue as a peacock's neck," and learns to say only one word, "bird"; Joy-Hulga is "as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail"; the little girl in The Violent preaches "Silver and gold and peacock tails, a thousand suns in a peacock's tail," and Rayber thinks of her as "one of those birds blinded to make it sing more sweetly." As the peacock was a personal image of the Second Coming for the old priest and of wealth for the old Judge in "The Displaced Person," so it seems to have been a personal image of freedom and beauty (that is, of art) for Miss O'Connor. (pp. 29-30)
Another complex symbol can only be called, in acknowledgment of Miss O'Connor's debt, Georgia Snopesism. It is principally embodied in two families, the Shortleys in "The Displaced Person" and the Greenleafs in "Greenleaf," but there is more than a touch of it in the Pritchards in "A Circle in the Fire" and the Freemans who are the "good country people" of the story of that title…. More than any other figures in Miss O'Connor's work, these Snopes families are social, even class, symbols (as are their Mississippi counterparts in Faulkner). They represent the southern poor white class seen as intrinsically vicious. In the stories, they murder Mr. Guizac and let the bull gore Mrs. May; in our newspapers, they have other victims. (p. 30)
Half a dozen important themes run through all Miss O'Connor's work. One is a profound equation of the mysteries of sex and religion…. Another recurrent theme is change of identity, transformation, death-and-rebirth…. A theme of great power in the work is what might be called the perverse mother…. Miss O'Connor's principal theme is what Walter Allen … excellently calls "a world of the God-intoxicated"…. One way that intoxication with God expresses itself, in short, is Satanism [as in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"]…. Another form God-intoxication paradoxically takes is Rationalism [as in "The River" and The Violent Bear It Away]…. If the male characters are all God-intoxicated, the female characters in Flannery O'Connor's fiction are mainly self-intoxicated. Smugness and self-satisfaction, often represented by women, is another important theme…. In Flannery O'Connor's moral universe, in short, Hazel Motes may have backed himself into heaven, but fat Mrs. Turpin seems destined for hell. This dualism relates to another theme, the transvaluation of values in which progress in the world is retrogression in the spirit…. It is … necessary to imitate the monks of old, to deny the world, and Naysaying is another of Flannery O'Connor's major themes. (pp. 32-7)
Flannery O'Connor's meanings are not only Christian, they are Christian mainly in the mystic and ascetic tradition of St. John of the Cross. (p. 37)
Stanley Edgar Hyman, in his Flannery O'Connor ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 54), University of Minnesota Press, © 1966 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).
In Miss O'Connor's fiction, the religious vision is markedly apocalyptic. According to this vision, everything in life leads to death, and death is revelation. It is exactly in the instant of passing out of time and life and into eternity that her characters seem to live most fully: they begin their humanity exactly when it is ended in time. She quietly insists on viewing death, however horrible and violent, from the perspective of eternity. If the reader resists this view, there will seem to be no moral or emotional resolutions to her stories: only the arbitrary, violent, and meaningless "resolution" of an equally arbitrary, violent, and meaningless death. If he accepts her view, he will be asked to see that the death of any character is supremely valuable as a means to his awakening to reality.
Ruth M. Vande Kieft, "Judgment in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor" (© 1968 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 337-56.
In literary matters, as in theological and social, we are still largely Romantics. Non servium has been an insistent and bold affront in literature, since Milton's struggle with his Lucifer (which struggle culminates in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Since Milton's time, while we have developed highly skilled techniques, they have been predominantly in the interest of the transubstantiation of Lucifer into Prometheus, a transubstantiation that has had an accelerating influence on social, political, theological changes. Herein lie the hidden springs of faith in a Shelley, in a Lawrence, and even in a Joyce or Pound. But try as one may, one cannot intellectualize Miss O'Connor's analogues into a romantic myth of revolt toward the elevation of man as artist or self-savior. One cannot loosen her fiction into the void of art to drift self-contained as if out of nature itself. That is where the critics who take The Violent Bear It Away as an existentialist novel misunderstand. The works of Flannery O'Connor are anti-Existentialist, as they are anti-Freudian, and anti-Nihilistic, though they are so by an art out of her vision, and not from a polemical display.
Marion Montgomery, "Miss O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 665-72.
In the fiction of Flannery O'Connor,… [it] is obvious from the beginning … that a physical defect is not to be taken as a mere emblem of spiritual deformity. In most of these stories, characters with physical defects are involved in various ways with characters whose inner deformities are not signalled by anything so obvious as a missing limb; and sometimes the characters who are physically whole turn out to be more spiritually flawed than their physically deformed counterparts…. [Below] the surface, there is a pervasive theme at work in these stories, which has to do with their being so often peopled with characters who, in some obvious physical way, are only partly there. This is the theme of man's awareness of guilt, his hope for redemption, his ability to have some effect upon what he sees as a universal human spiritual condition; and a physically deformed person is peculiarly well-equipped to come to grips with these problems, which are so important in Miss O'Connor's fiction.
Henry Taylor, "The Halt Shall Be Gathered Together: Physical Deformity in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor," in Western Humanities Review, Autumn, 1968, pp. 325-38.
Flannery O'Connor lived intimately with her materials. She used situations, characters, language immediately at hand, and with such a loving regard for the immediacy of those borrowings from her world that they seem magically to have revealed the distant realities to her. Her talent she considered a gift of grace, but she did not rest from intellectual labor in the name of talent. She worked with the intellectual faculty as intensely as the imaginative. Consequently, she understood, and could articulate most convincingly, the reasons why the immediate concrete world opened upon the more distant reality.
Marion Montgomery, "Flannery O'Connor's Territorial Center," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1969, pp. 5-10.
Of all the young writers of promise in the postwar period, none seems to me more extraordinary than Flannery O'Connor….
In looking the reviews over, I notice that at different points I have described Miss O'Connor as compassionate and as lacking in compassion. I should like to believe that I was right the first time, but I am afraid that, by and large, compassion was not among Miss O'Connor's many virtues. She was more concerned with understanding the truth about people than in feeling sorry for them. She did not pity herself, though she had what would seem to be reason to, and she was not inclined to pity others.
Granville Hicks, with Jack Alan Robbins, in their Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 135-36.
Miss O'Connor's writing is incarnational—a celebration of the distant in terms of the immediate. It is not important whether her fiction mirrors an accurate sociological world (does it?—doesn't it?), because its territory is not really Georgia; "Georgia" is the surface of the mystery. She states again and again that fiction concerns itself with mystery. To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly "neurotic." However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the "limits of mystery."
Joyce Carol Oates, "Realism of Distance, Realism of Immediacy" (reprinted by permission of the author and Blanche C. Gregory, Inc.; © 1971 by Joyce Carol Oates), in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 295-313.
Flannery O'Connor is mainly a writer of morality plays. In her richest work she fuses comedy and tragedy, and the idiom and manner of her society. She translates moral and religious abstractions into living presences, drawing on the techniques of distortion and grotesque exaggeration—not simply for the sake of shock, but for purposes of revelation.
Thomas A. Gullason, in Saturday Review, November 13, 1971, pp. 63-4.
[Flannery O'Connor] could put everything about a character into a single look, everything she had and knew into a single story. She knew people with the finality with which she claimed to know the distance from hell to heaven. For her, people were complete in their radical weakness, their necessarily human incompleteness. Each story was complete, sentence by sentence. And each sentence was a hard, straight, altogether complete version of her subject: human deficiency, sin, error—ugliness taking a physical form….
Completeness is one word for it; relentlessness, unsparingness would be others. She was a genius. A mark of nongenius in story telling is to be distracted, to hint there are things to say that the author will get down to someday. Nongenius is nonconcentrating, and no matter how nasty it may be to people in the story, it is genial to itself. There is laxness in the air, self conscious charm, a pensive mood of: What should come next?
O'Connor, as I must call her, was in story after story all there, occupying the mind and the whole life of a character who was as solidly on the page as if impaled on it. Her people were wholly what they were, which wasn't much in "humane" terms. But they were all intact of themselves, in their stupidity, their meanness, their puzzlement, their Southern "ruralness." The South was her great metaphor, not for place but for the Fall of Man. Life for O'Connor was made up of absolutes; people were absolute, sharp, knives without handles….
No one ever wrote narrative with more secret cunning, coming up with the minute differences that excite us in reading and cause us to respond. Yet no one ever wrote less "beautifully" in the contemplative, lyric Hemingway fashion. She was more devoted to the synonym than to the metaphor, for what she saw was the non-human that people always reminded her of….
Reading her, one is aware above all of a gift blessedly made objective, a giftedness reading the world. Words became true in her dramatic world, in action, gesture, death. That too was completeness of a kind, resting its weight perfectly in story after story. But fiction depended for her on an unyielding sense of our limits, and the limits could be raised only by death.
Alfred Kazin, in New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1971, pp. 1, 22.