Flannery O'Connor Essay - O'Connor, Flannery (Vol. 2)

O'Connor, Flannery (Vol. 2)

O'Connor, Flannery 1925–1964

A Southern American novelist and short story writer, Miss O'Connor is the author of Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Many critics have commented on Miss O'Connor's irony, but they have not explained why it is so devastating. Her irony lies in an awareness that all people—criminal and grandmother—are in love with themselves.

Irvin Malin, in his New American Gothic (© 1962 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962, p. 36.

Flannery O'Connor's limitations were numerous and her range was narrow: she repeated herself frequently and she ignored an impressively large spectrum of human experience. But what she did well, she did with exquisite competence: her ear for dialogue, her eye for human gestures were as good as anybody's ever were: and her vision was as clear and direct and as annoyingly precious as that of an Old Testament prophet or one of the more irascible Christian saints.

Her concern was solely with the vulgarities of this world and the perfections of the other—perfections that had to be taken on faith, for the postulations and descriptions of them in her work are at best somewhat tawdry. She wrote of man separated from the true source of his being, lost, he thinks and often hopes, to God; and of a God whose habits are strange beyond knowing, but Who gets His way in the end. That she was a Southerner and wrote about the South may have been a fortunate coincidence. The South furnished her the kind of flagrant images her theme and her style demanded, and Southern dialogue augmented and perhaps even sharpened her wit…. Had she been born in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, the surface agonies of her work would have been altered: perhaps they would have been weakened: but the essential delineations of her fiction, the mythic impulse itself would, I believe, have been essentially unchanged.

As a novelist she was not successful. She could never fill a book-length canvas: the colors thinned out, the relationships weakened, the images became, before the denouement, rigid and brittle. The weakness obviously was not in her theme, which was big enough to fill the world, powerful enough to shape some of the greatest of all literary careers in the past, and in our own time those of Eliot and Mauriac and Graham Greene and William Golding. What went wrong was technical.

Walter Sullivan, "Flannery O'Connor, Sin, and Grace: Everything That Rises Must Converge," in Hollins Critic, September, 1965, pp. 1-9.

In her commitment to the irrational in man—that faith by which we "know" different "truths" from those asserted by reason and empirical observation—Flannery O'Connor reflects one of the ways that the modern mind meets existence. Even though she explicity rejects … relativism … she cannot escape the atmosphere of her time. Reduce life to its most fundamental factor, she suggests, and you move into regions of indeterminacy. Carried far enough, that indeterminacy does not yield even to the intellectual construct of statistical probability, but only to the intensity of individual existence for which reason and probability graphs are irrelevant, and faith and irrationality are the definitive features of human life.

Faith is the affirmation of one's own integrity and the worth of life even though one can find no rational or objective standards to validate that affirmation. Faith is the confidence the self feeds in occupying his own novel world-center, in being-in-the-world in its own unique way and on its own unique terms, independent of any transcendent validating standard. Lacking confidence in the strength of one's own personal authenticity, one becomes vulnerable to the powers of destruction.

Jerry Bryant, in his The Open Decision (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Open Decision by Jerry Bryant; © 1970 by The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), The Free Press, 1970, pp. 263-64.

Flannery O'Connor is one of the funniest American writers. Laughter followed by a gasp is the natural first reaction to that irresistibly awful family junketing across Florida to be slaughtered by escaped convicts in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"; to Mrs. Hopewell and her glum daughter Joy who loses her wooden leg to a traveling Bible salesman in "Good Country People." An O'Connor story often begins with a confident figure on a front porch, armed with platitudes, facing down a suspicious-looking stranger. Before it's over, safety has been violated, pride is stolen, and the whole house of cards in which a spurious life has been conducted may be pulled down. The audacity of the demonstration is exhilarating and appalling. It takes some readers (I was one) a while to understand that it's more than a superb Punch-and-Judy show.

Walter Clemons, "Acts of Grace," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), November 8, 1971, pp. 115-17.

Flannery O'Connor is perhaps the closest thing to Franz Kafka that America has produced. Just as he was no ordinary Jew she certainly is no ordinary Christian. Indeed, she seems to use her religion in much the same way Kafka used his law court or his castle, as a representative of an inscrutable mystery that deals harshly with all questioners. Yet Miss O'Connor is an original. By always keeping close to her religious themes she makes us read her stories not only as a terrible kind of realism but also as parable, as warnings, as prophecy. We are her grotesques. Yet we are not. By the very act of suffering with them we are allowed somehow to go beyond them, perhaps to be saved by them. Certainly Kafka desired this second kind of reading also. And just as certainly when he ordered his manuscripts destroyed he thought he had failed to do this, that his art had been swallowed by his own terrible vision. Of course it hadn't, and he can be read just as prophetically as Miss O'Connor, yet it is to Miss O'Connor's everlasting credit that she only grew more conscious of her powers as the end approached. It has never occurred to me to mourn Kafka's early death. Yet I mourn Miss O'Connor's. And the reading of these thirty stories [Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Short Stories] strikes my grief anew.

Earl Ganz, in Mediterranean Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 56-7.

The greatest literary discovery that I have made in years of going to America has been the work of Flannery O'Connor. She is already recognised as a classic over there, though not wholly understood. Outside she is as yet hardly known. But she will be. I am not much given to uncritical admiration, but I regard Flannery O'Connor as in a comparable class with Emily Brontë. Pure genius which, in a short life, achieved absolute expression in art; an unflinching view of life which revealed alike its tragedy and its poetry, penetrated by the sense of the mystery behind it all; disciplined by an uncompromising stoicism. Emily Brontë may have had a shade more poetry; Flannery O'Connor had much more humour.

The Americans think of her as a humorous writer; in fact she was a tragic ironist—and that they never understand. Then, too, she was a Catholic, who was glad that she lived in the Bible Belt of the Protestant South: it gave her her difference, her identity, besides the extraordinary, outrageous subjects that astonish because they are authentic. She realised that character reveals itself in extreme situations: it is the strange encounters that appeal to the deeper levels of imagination of the real writer, 'for whom the ordinary aspects of daily life prove to be of no great fictional interest.'

She was probably the greatest short-story writer of our time….

Flannery O'Connor's own work is inspired by the sense of the mystery of the human condition, of our place in the universe, the tragedy of our state without some redeeming power. She herself was so profoundly a Catholic that she did not obtrude it and so diminish the artistic effect, as with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. (She was aware of this defect.)

But of course it placed her in profound opposition to the superficial rationalism of contemporary society and the humbug it talks to paper over the cracks and crevices…. There is the real difference between this and all preceding ages: for the first time, an end may be put to the human experiment. She herself realised, like the reflective Christian she was, that the human experiment is only a quite recent development in the history of the world….

Though penetrated by the sense of the mystery of life, Flannery O'Connor was not a mystic, but a poetic realist. For her the mystery of human personality expressed itself in the concrete, the character in the action and the words.

From the moment I first read a page of her work I realised, as a fellow-craftsman, here was a master.

I do not often confess to being humble, but the combination of her genius and her spirit has ground me to humility. There are places in her work … into which I dare not venture.

A. L. Rowse, "Flannery O'Connor-Genius of the South," in Books and Bookmen, May, 1972, pp. 38-9.