O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery (Vol. 15)
O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery 1925–1964
O'Connor was an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. A Roman Catholic from the Bible Belt, she liberally laced her fiction with material from her religious backgrounds to create a unique, highly personal vision. Her fictional world is characterized by sudden, bizarre violence and peopled with grotesques whom O'Connor interprets as mirrors for men fallen from grace. She is considered one of the important figures of the Southern Renascence. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
I am sure [Flannery O'Connor's] few books will live on and on in American literature. They are narrow, possibly, but they are clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and odd insights that contain more real poetry than a dozen books of poems.
Elizabeth Bishop, "Flannery O'Connor, 1925–1964," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 111, No. 4, October 8, 1964, pp. 21, 23.
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Flannery O'Connor was a brilliant writer. Her fiction was, above all, unexpected and disturbing and she herself was an unexpected, extraordinary person, not much like other people…. I remember that I found [Wise Blood] somehow difficult to like at the beginning. It was so fierce, so hard, so plainly, downrightly unusual. And yet, of course, I did finally like Wise Blood (you can't easily hold out against Hazel Motes) even if I did like better the marvelous short stories, collected in A Good Man is Hard to Find. But where had all this come from? one was always asking oneself. The author had led a secluded life…. Her work was utterly different; it was Southern, rural, wicked, with a nearly inexplicable knowledge of the deformed and sinful, the all-too-deeply experienced…. She saw everything with a severe humor, local enough in accent, but more detached, more difficult to define than most other Southern writing. You'd have to call "A Good Man is Hard to Find" a "funny" story even though six people are killed in it.
"Good Country People" is an astonishing work which Allen Tate has called "the most powerful story of maimed souls by a contemporary writer." The story starts off with an over-blown, exaggerated cast…. [The] characters are, in outline, fit only for a dirty joke, and the plot continues accordingly…. But the story is a superb success. It is wise and memorable and entirely believable. (p. 21)...
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She was a girl who started with a gift for cartooning and satire, and found in herself a far greater gift, unique in her time and place, a marvel. She kept going deeper (this is a phrase she used) until making up stories became, for her, a way of testing and defining and conveying that superior knowledge that must be called religious. It must be called religious but with no false note in our voices, because her writing will make any false note that is applied to it very clear indeed. Bearing hard upon motives and manners, her stories as moralities cut in every direction and sometimes go to the bone of regional and social truth. But we are not likely to state what they show as well as they show it. We can stay on the safe side by affirming, what is true and usefully borne in mind, that making up stories was her craft, her pleasure and her vocation, that her work from first to last is imaginative writing, often comic writing, superbly achieved and always to be enjoyed as that. (pp. vii-viii)
A catchword when Flannery O'Connor began to write was the German angst, and it seemed that Auden had hit it off in one of his titles as the "Age of Anxiety." The last word in attitudes was the Existentialist one, resting on the perception that beyond any immediate situation there is possibly nothing—nothing beyond, nothing behind, nade. (p. xxvi)
In Wise Blood she did parody the Existentialist point of view, as...
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Frederick J. Hoffman
[Flannery O'Connor's] major subjects are the struggle for redemption, the search for Jesus, and the meaning of "prophecy": All of these in an intensely evangelical Protestant South, where the need for Christ is expressed without shyness and where "prophecy" is intimately related to the ways in which men are daily challenged to define themselves. The literary problem raised by this peculiarity of "place" (though it may be located elsewhere as well, as a "need for ceremony," or a desperate desire to "ritualize" life) is neatly described as well by Miss O'Connor: she must, she says, define in unnaturally emphatic terms what would not otherwise be accepted, or what might be misunderstood. (pp. 81-2)
Miss O'Connor writes about intensely religious acts and dilemmas in a time when people are much divided on the question of what actually determines a "religious act." Definitions are not easy, and, frequently, what is being done with the utmost seriousness seems terribly naïve or simpleminded to the reader. She must, therefore, force the statement of it into a pattern of "grotesque" action which reminds one somewhat of Franz Kafka, at least in its violation of normal expectations.
We have the phenomenon of a Catholic writer describing a Protestant, an evangelical, world, to a group of readers who need to be forced or shocked and/or amused into accepting the validity of religious states. The spirit of evil abounds, and the...
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I find myself regretting … that [Henry James] never had an opportunity to read Flannery O'Connor's short stories and novels. I think that he would have felt a kinship with her that might have transcended his innate conviction that the writing of novels—a difficult and dangerous task, to begin with—is a task for which men are by nature better fitted than women.
If he had lived to read Miss O'Connor's stories, I suspect that he would also have derived from them the pleasure which any of us feels when he finds his own words coming true. For this young woman, who died in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, comes nearer than anyone I can think of to enacting the role of "the American girl" whom James foresaw as charged with such great responsibilities. (pp. 124-25)
Her task, I think, resembled James's own task in many particulars. I believe, however, that the chief resemblance between the two writers consists in the fact that each was faced with an obstacle which, for a fiction writer, is almost always insuperable in his own lifetime. In order to create the world of illusion—which for him embodied fictional truth—both writers had to use a technique which was revolutionary. (p. 125)
Of [the young fiction writers who write from a Catholic background] Flannery O'Connor seems to me the most talented—and the most professional. My admiration for her work was first evoked when, in the line of duty, I...
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Stephen R. Portch
The ending of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" has received much critical attention. But most critics have failed to realize that spectacles can tell as well as see; that cats can point as well as purr. O'Connor makes good use of such subtle details in the crucial closing lines. Having survived the shock of mass murder, the reader still finds himself face-to-face with the pathological killer, suitably named "The Misfit." Whether his shooting of the grandmother will transform this murderer is, in O'Connor's words, "another story." But she does leave us with two suggestive clues: a dirty pair of glasses and a catalytic cat, Pitty Sing.
Following the shooting, The Misfit "put his gun down on the ground and look off his glasses and began to clean them…. Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were redrimmed and pale and defenseless-looking." Unarmed, unspectacled, and unprotected, The Misfit now perceives life very differently. In a moment of unconscious warmth, he picks up the trouble-causing cat. Previously pampered by the grandmother but largely neglected by the critics …, Pitty Sing slinks into the story. With the benefit of an animal's sixth sense and with the security of a feline's nine lives, the cat was at the time responding to the changed killer by "rubbing itself against his leg." The Misfit articulates his transformation in the last words of the story. Earlier he had snarled that there was "No pleasure but...
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Mrs. May, the central character in Flannery O'Connor's 1956 story, "Greenleaf," is obsessed equally with money and class status. She is disgusted with her "white trash" help, the Greenleafs, but they are a special source of vexation for her in that they have hardworking twin sons who have been successful in life, unlike her own boys.
The Greenleaf bull is a complex symbol. The animal combines his social, sexual, and religious identities in a way that allows him to represent everything that Mrs. May rejects, everything unrestrained or lacking in taste. The bull's tripartite identity is made clear from the beginning of "Greenleaf." The story opens with him eating the hedge outside Mrs. May's bedroom window. Her sleeping and waking impressions of him, combined with O'Connor's descriptions, establish what he represents as her antagonist. Mrs. May's second dream and her death scene further clarify the animal's symbolic functions.
The bull represents his owners as an undesirable. His eating of the hedge outside her window is a destruction of the barrier between them, even as the Greenleaf twins are closing the gap economically and destroying the social lines of demarcation. (p. 233)
Mrs. May does not fear Mr. Greenleaf, but she is afraid of the social threat his upwardly mobile sons present, and she hopes to destroy them by the symbolic destruction of their totem animal, the virile and uncontrollable bull....
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When Flannery O'Connor's first novel was published in England in 1955, the reviews, she said, were 'respectful but not very perceptive'. Since then she has been somewhat neglected here, though there are signs that she is to be given her due as a writer of great originality and power….
That her modest output shouldn't have found a wide readership in England isn't entirely surprising. There's her bizarre-sounding name, which, as with other similarly under-valued American writers of the Deep South—Eudora Welty, Walker Percy—sounds alien to English ears. There's the strange allusiveness of her titles, drawn from local sayings ('You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead'), from Teilhard de Chardin ('Everything That Rises Must Converge'), and from St Matthew ('The Violent Bear It Away')…. And the English reader familiar with Faulkner and Twain is likely to feel that her predominantly rural Georgia settings, her vividly rendered 'poor white' dialogue, provide yet another quaint slice of backwoods Gothic, what O'Connor bitterly called 'the super-grotesque Carson McCullers sort of thing' that she 'couldn't stand'….
In part the Letters emphasise O'Connor's remoteness and peculiarity: it's sometimes hard to believe how recent they are. The infrequent references to politics ('I think King Kong would be better than Nixon', in 1960) stand out against the brisk accounts of quarrelling negro farm-hands and local celebrations...
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