Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor

by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor Essay - O'Connor, Flannery (Short Story Criticism)

O'Connor, Flannery (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Flannery O'Connor 1925–-1964

(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short fiction writer, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of O'Connor's short fiction works from 1996 to 2002. See also A Good Man Is Hard to Find Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6, 13, 21.

O'Connor is considered one of the foremost short story writers in American literature. She was an anomaly among post-World War II authors–a Roman Catholic from the Bible-belt South whose stated purpose was to reveal the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life. Aware that not all readers shared her faith, O’Connor chose to depict salvation through shocking, often violent action upon characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Moreover, her penchant for employing ironic detachment and mordant humor prompted some critics to classify O'Connor as an existentialist or nihilist. She also infused her fiction with the local color and rich comic detail of her Southern milieu, particularly through her skillful presentation of regional dialect. A complex system of symbolism and allegory adds further resonance to O'Connor’s writing.

Biographical Information

O'Connor was the only child of devout Roman Catholics from prominent Georgia families. She attended parochial schools in Savannah and public high school in Milledgeville, where the family moved after her father developed disseminated lupus, the degenerative disease that O'Connor later inherited. Soon after her father’s death when she was nearly sixteen, O'Connor entered the nearby Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in social sciences. In her spare time she edited and wrote for school publications to which she also contributed linoleum block and woodcut cartoons. O'Connor then enrolled in the graduate writing program at Iowa State University, where she earned her M.A. in 1947 with six stories, including “The Geranium,” which had appeared the previous year in the periodical Accent. Throughout her career, O'Connor’s stories were readily published, occasionally by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle, but more often by prestigious literary journals including Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Kenyon Review.

O'Connor began her first novel, Wise Blood, while living at Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1947-48. She continued working on the novel while living in New York City and then in Connecticut, where she boarded with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, a young married couple who shared O'Connor’s Catholic faith and literary interests. However, O'Connor’s independent lifestyle ended abruptly at age twenty-five when she suffered her first attack of lupus. From that point onward, O'Connor lived with her mother at Andalusia, a small dairy farm outside Milledgeville. She maintained a steady writing pace, publishing Wise Blood in 1952, followed by the story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Way, in 1960. Each volume attracted significant critical attention, and she was awarded three O. Henry prizes for her short stories in addition to several grants and two honorary degrees. As her reputation grew, she traveled when her health permitted to give readings and lectures. She died in 1964.

Major Works

In her fiction O'Connor frequently criticizes the materialism and spiritual apathy of contemporary society, faulting modern rationalism for its negation of the need for religious faith and redemption. Employing scenes and characters from her native South, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Another recurrent motif in O'Connor’s thirty-one short stories is that of divine grace descending in an often bizarre or violent manner upon a spiritually deficient main character. She often depicts a rural domestic situation suddenly invaded by a criminal or perverse outsider–a distorted Christ figure who redeems a protagonist afflicted with pride, intellectualism, or materialism. In one of O'Connor’s best-known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example, a smugly self-complacent grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer who kills first her family and then her. Critics have noted that O'Connor’s tales, while expressing intense action, are related in concise, almost epigrammatic prose. They have also praised her use of richly complex imagery and symbols, observing that spiritual meaning is often conveyed through vivid descriptions of nature in her work.

Critical Reception

The predominant feature of O'Connor criticism is its abundance. From her first collection, O'Connor garnered serious and widespread critical attention, and since her death the outpouring has been remarkable, including hundreds of essays and numerous full-length studies. While her work has occasioned some hostile reviews, including those which labeled her an atheist or accused her of using the grotesque gratuitously, she is almost universally admired, if not fully understood. In addition to wide-ranging studies of her style, structure, symbolism, tone, themes, and influences, critical discussion often centers on theological aspects of O'Connor’s work. In inquiries into the depth of her religious intent, critics usually find O'Connor to be the orthodox Christian that she adamantly declared herself.

Principal Works

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories 1955

Everything That Rises Must Converge 1965

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor 1971

Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (stories, criticism, letters) 1988

Flannery O'Connor: The Growing Craft—A Synoptic Variorum Edition of The Geranium, An Exile in the East, Getting Home, Judgement Day 1993

Wise Blood (novel) 1952

The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (nonfiction) 1969

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (letters) 1979

The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews (essays) 1983

Criticism

Mitchell Owens (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Owens, Mitchell. “The Function of Signature in ‘A Good Is Hard to Find.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 101-6.

[In the following essay, Owens contends that the grandmother's attachment of excessive significance to signatures in O'Connor's short story is a sign of her adherence to an archaic value system in the face of sweeping social change.]

Sometimes a man says things he don't mean.

(O'Connor 127)

In her fatal encounter with The Misfit, the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” confronts a particularly lethal manifestation of her changing social order. Throughout her life, this woman has been struggling with the shift from the ante-bellum values of lineage and gentility to those of a cash-oriented culture, and with the implications this shift has for the assumptions that underwrite her vanishing system of beliefs. While she does not accept or even fully comprehend these implications, in her behavior she acknowledges them and attempts some adjustment. The grandmother's handling of signatures, while clearly demonstrating the tension involved in this ongoing negotiation of adaptation and denial, also indicates that her difficulties arc related to her failure to recognize fully the arbitrariness of the sign. The story she tells of Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden and his edible initials illustrates this failure. Moreover, The Misfit's subsequent discussion of signature, coupled with his threat of murder, cause the grandmother to repeat this error; she retreats back into the assumptions whose erosion she has been attempting to deny, but these assumptions, which have been dismantled throughout the story, offer her no protection from her killer.

The grandmother's value system is founded upon particular notions of aristocracy and heredity. According to this system, there is a specific, superior class of people, the gentility, in which one can locate certain finer qualities. This class and its attributes cannot be separated from each other by a change in outward appearances, even one as severe as the Confederacy's crippling defeat in the Civil War: these qualities are fixed in the blood and are passed directly from one generation to the next. A certain social order follows from the assumption that blood is the guarantor of worth, an order in which ladies are treated as ladies, gentlemen behave as gentlemen, and those of less fortunate lineage remain in their appropriate, subordinate places.

By attaching such great importance to heredity, this social structure reflects a logocentric foundation. According to the structure, the gentility possess certain admirable qualities, and these qualities have a point of origin: presumably, God's bestowal of them. Through blood, these attributes have been communicated, directly and without any deterioration of the original signal, through the many generations that have followed from this starting point. The accuracy and reliability of this communication are guaranteed by the one-to-one relation that exists between the information being transmitted and the mechanism of that transmission. The blood that carries value is comprised of that value: blood and worth are one.

This connection is echoed and supported by a similar relationship, the one-to-one signifier/signified correlation upon which the logocentric viewpoint rests. just as blood has carried forward the superior qualities of the southern aristocracy, so too has language: the logocentric linkage of signifier and signified sustains an identically direct line back to the Word with which God created the aristocracy. A southern gentlemen is therefore as good as his word, because his word is as good as his blood; his blood is his worth, and that worth is the Word.

The logocentric relationship of word and worth is reflected in the grandmother's approach to her environment. In her efforts to preserve the values of an aristocratic tradition, she devotes as much attention to the maintenance of that tradition's outward signs as she does to its less visible aspects. She is very conscious throughout the story of what people are wearing, because to her it is through such things as clothing that one can externally reflect internal worth, even when this worth is otherwise obscured by surrounding conditions. While her son Bailey chooses an alarmingly loud, parrot-patterned shirt for the family outing, and while her déclassé daughter-in-law remains in slacks for the duration of the trip, the grandmother wears an elaborately cuffed and collared dress, so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118). The clothes make the woman: to the grandmother, sign and signified seem one and the same.

No outfit, no matter how carefully chosen, could provide an adequate line of defense against the drastic shift occurring within the grandmother's culture. The terms of the grandmother's value system are being rapidly undercut by a mercantile order in which blood is displaced by money. The worth transmitted by the sign of the dollar differs greatly from the value transmitted by the sign of the breed, and in the grandmother's eyes it is vastly inferior. Within this new mercantile world, women think nothing of wearing slacks in public, children feel free to openly malign their native states, and honest-looking young men can somehow bring themselves to defraud unsuspecting gas station proprietors. There seems to be no place in this system for the polite behavior of gentlemen and ladies; there seems tO be no place for the grandmother.

The link between the ascendancy of the mercantile and the decline of gentility is demonstrated most clearly by June Star, the granddaughter who combines appalling rudeness with an obvious cash fixation. The insults she thoughtlessly delivers to her grandmother and to Red Sammy's wife focus on money, specifically on the power of “a million bucks.” Even this great amount, she accusingly says, could not curtail her grandmother's busybody impulses (118), nor could it persuade June Star to accept a joking invitation to move into “a broken down place” (121) like Red Sammy's.

If the ante-bellum system of values were actually underwritten by all that...

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Stephen C. Bandy (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Bandy, Stephen C. “‘One Of My Babies’: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 107-18.

[In the following essay, Bandy disputes O'Connor's interpretation of her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as one not of grace and salvation, but rather deeply pessimistic and contrary to Christian doctrines.]

Criticism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, under the spell of the writer's occasional comments, has been unusually susceptible to interpretations based on Christian dogma. None of O'Connor's stories has been more energetically theologized than her most popular, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” O'Connor flatly...

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Wyatt Prunty (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Prunty, Wyatt. “The Figure of Vacancy.” Shenandoah 46, no. 3 (fall 1996): 38-55.

[In the following essay, Prunty investigates the role of vacancy in the stories of Peter Taylor and O'Connor.]

In Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother is the first to comment upon the blankness of the sky. Later the Misfit says, “Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither.” In Peter Taylor's less familiar but equally masterful “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen Ruth stands silently behind a tea cart and looks into the dark recesses of her living room as she prepares to explain to the men of her family why Jess McGehee had to lie about...

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Betsy Bolton (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Bolton, Betsy. “Placing Violence, Embodying Grace: Flannery O'Connor's ‘Displaced Person.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 87-104.

[In the following essay, Bolton examines the relationship between vision and the violence experienced by the characters in “The Displaced Person.”]

Several years ago, Slavoj Zizek, considering the notion that “we live in a post-ideological society,” proposed instead a redefinition of ideology. The most elementary definition, he suggests, is a phrase from Marx's Capital: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“they do not know it, but they are doing it”). In place of this...

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Michael Raiger (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Raiger, Michael. “‘Large and Startling Figures’: The Grotesque and the Sublime in the Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor.” In Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Literature and Religious Experience, edited by John L. Mahoney, pp. 242-70. New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Raiger explores O'Connor's use of modern forms, particularly the grotesque and the sublime, in her short fiction.]

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers...

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Gary Sloan (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Sloan, Gary. “O'Connor's ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’ The Explicator 57, no. 2 (winter 1999): 118-21.

[In the following essay, Sloan challenges popular assessments of O'Connor's The Misfit and instead depicts him as a primitive and dangerous character.]

The Misfit, the bad seed in Flannery O'Connor's short story [“A Good Man is Hard to Find”], is commonly deemed a logician of no mean wit. He has been pictured as a modern Pascal who wagers wrong (Cobb), a rigorously empirical Doubting Thomas (Scouten 63), a mental “thoroughbred with a curious and active nose” (Currie 149), and an instinctive scholar plumbing reality (Jones 837). Other critics...

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Susanna Gilbert (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Gilbert, Susanna. “‘Blood Don't Lie’: The Diseased Family in Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge.Literature and Medicine 18, no. 1 (spring 1999): 114-31.

[In the following essay, Gilbert investigates the way in which O'Connor's illness informs her last collection of short fiction, Everything That Rises Must Converge.]

Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness. … Stories are antibodies against illness and pain.

—Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness

Asbury lay with a rigid outraged stare while the privacy...

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Cindy Beringer (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Beringer, Cindy. “‘I Have Not Wallowed’: Flannery O'Connor's Working Mothers.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff, pp. 124-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Beringer considers the depiction of working mothers in three of O'Connor's short works.]

The distinctive characters of Flannery O'Connor's stories are drawn masterfully from the red clay of southern agrarian life. The author blends humor, irony, and satire to create characters whose lives are thwarted and misguided. They believe they have progressed along the path of success,...

(The entire section is 6958 words.)

Matthew Fike (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Fike, Matthew. “The Timothy Allusion in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000) 311-22

[In the following essay, Fike explores the moral and spiritual significance of O'Connor's allusion to Paul's epistles to Timothy in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” as well as demonstrates how the evangelist's related experiences enhance a reading of the story's climax.]

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the family stops at Red Sammy Butts's place “for barbecued sandwiches.” “The Tower,” as Flannery O'Connor calls his establishment, “was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall...

(The entire section is 4687 words.)

Farrell O'Gorman (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: O'Gorman, Farrell. “The Angelic Artist in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 53, no. 1 (fall 2000): 61-79

[In the following essay, O'Gorman analyzes O'Connor's and fellow southern-Catholic writer Walker Percy's “satirical portraits of the twentieth-century romantic artist—portraits that entirely fuel several of O'Connor's short stories.”]

Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy have been briefly linked in a number of articles exploring their affinities as Catholic authors of the American South. But their relationship deserves further consideration in light of their common immersion in a vibrant...

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Melita Schaum (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Schaum, Melita. “‘Erasing Angel’: The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 33, no. 1 (fall 2000): 1-26.

[In the following essay, Schaum examines the archetype of the trickster in O'Connor's short fiction and argues that she provides, through this archetype, a multi-faceted caricature of Lucifer.]

“A dimension taken away is one thing; a dimension added is another.”

Flannery O'Connor,“The Fiction Writer and His Country”

“The origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures,” writes cultural historian Lewis...

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Mary Neff Shaw (essay date June 2001)

SOURCE: Shaw, Mary Neff. “Responses to God's Grace: Varying Degrees of Doubt in Flannery O'Connor's Character Types.” CLA Journal 44, no. 4 (June 2001): 471-79.

[In the following essay, Shaw utilizes Michael Polanyi's theological work in order to provide a religious interpretation of O'Connor's short fiction.]

Even though Flannery O'Connor is a Roman Catholic who affirms certain spiritual verities—faith, grace, sin, the devil, and death—“[t]hese pre-occupations are … not bound up with Catholic doctrine, but rather reflect deeply spiritual entities,” according to Sister Kathleen Feely.1 Sister Mariella Gable concurs with Feely as she refers to...

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John V. McDermott (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: McDermott, John V. “O'Connor's ‘The Train.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 168-69.

[In the following essay, McDermott analyzes O'Connor's early short story “The Train.”]

It has been said that Flannery O'Connor's “creative and technical powers [are] scarcely foreseeable in ‘The Train’, […] a seldom read story […] not included in either of her celebrated collections” (Harrison 287). The story, according to the criticism, “produces no character change, and there is little if any decisive action or even inclusive comment” (Harrison 290). But a close examination of the story reveals O'Connor's more than subtle artistry in both her...

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