(Mary) Flannery O'Connor 1925–1964
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
O'Connor was by birth and by faith a Roman Catholic who lived much of her life in the heart of the Southern Protestant Fundamentalist Bible Belt. Most of her fiction is set in the small towns and backwoods areas of that region. It is not, however, "southern" in its concerns. Rather, her work is gounded in the theology of orthodox Christianity, and its major concerns are spiritual and religious.
O'Connor was disturbed by what she saw as the contemporary Christian's loss of spiritual consciousness. She attributed this loss mainly to increased materialism and to an unqualified acceptance of modern rationalist thought. In theology, rationalism's doctrines state that human reason, without the assistance of divine revelation, is capable of discerning religious truths. In practice, rationalists believe that reason alone can determine correct behavior. In O'Connor's orthodox Christian view, modern rationalism diluted dogma and negated the need for faith and redemption. Material concerns, she felt, took precedence over spiritual ones.
In her fiction, O'Connor uses scenes and characters from her native environment to comment on the issue of modern spirituality. In the intense and often violent religiosity of Protestant Fundamentalists, she sees spiritual life, however bizarre and extreme its manifestations, struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away are involved in such a struggle. However much they try to believe otherwise, the devil and God are real to them. They are examples of what have come to be known as O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" protagonists: souls torn between their vision of God and the devil and the temptation to deny the reality of that vision. Because of their spiritual struggle they are isolated, and in their frustration and isolation they commit violent acts. They are grotesque in personality and behavior. Nonetheless, O'Connor's sympathies lie more with these characters than with the smug and confident Christians of their society. In her view, spiritual consciousness is, regardless of its distortions, battling for life in a world that has become spiritually numb.
Most critics believe that O'Connor's vision is unique and compelling even to readers who may not share her religious beliefs. Ironically, some of the severest criticism that has been written about her fiction has come from Catholic critics. Interpretations vary in detail, but critics consistently acclaim her as a brilliant spokesperson for a complicated theology, and many consider her untimely death a great loss to American literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)
It may well be asked … why so much of our literature is apparently lacking in a sense of spiritual purpose and in the joy of life, and if stories lacking such are actually credible. The only conscience I have to examine in this matter is my own, and when I look at stories I have written I find that they are, for the most part, about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little—or at best a distorted—sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life.
Yet how is this? For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that...
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There is the Paul Bowles—Flannery O'Connor cult of the Gratuitous Grotesque…. Flannery O'Connor tells us that she writes out of a "deep Christian concern." The story of hers which, in Allen Tate's view, best exemplifies this concern is the tale of an embittered, virginal Southern bluestocking with a wooden leg who accompanies a young Bible salesman into a barn to seduce him ["Good Country People"]. Her "victim" produces, out of a dummy Bible, whiskey, contraceptives and dirty playing cards. In the end he runs off with her wooden leg in his suitcase. All of these overingenious horrifics are presumably meant to speak to us of the Essential Nature of Our Time, but when the very real and cruel grotesquerie of our world is converted into clever gimmicks for Partisan Review, we may be forgiven for reacting with the self-same disgust as the little old lady from Dubuque. (p. 588)
William Esty, "In America, Intellectual Bomb Shelters," in Commonweal (copyright © 1958 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 23, March 7, 1958, pp. 586-88.∗
Miss O'Connor's work … has a characteristic which does not occur in the work of any of her contemporaries. Its presence in everything she writes, coupled with her extraordinary talent, makes her, I suspect, one of the most important writers of our age. (p. 3)
Miss O'Connor writes lean, stripped, at times almost too flatfooted a prose, and her characters … move always in the harsh glare of every day. But they, too, are warped and misshapen by life—in short, freaks. The difference between her work and that of her gifted contemporaries lies in the nature and the causes of their freakishness. (p. 5)
The affair between Haze Motes and Sabbath Lily Hawks [in Wise Blood] proceeds to a logical and … terrifying conclusion…. She will go to almost any lengths to get her man and to even greater length to fulfil another womanly function, maternity. Haze yields to her blandishments partly as a way of proving his faith in the Church of Christ Without Christ. They set up housekeeping in a rented room. Haze's friend—or enemy—Enoch Emery, obeying a compulsive impulse, or, as he would put it, his "wise blood," steals a mummy from a city museum. He hears Haze preaching his gospel: "The Church Without Christ don't have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus"—and he rushes home, wraps the mummy up and deposits it at Haze's door. Haze is lying on the bed, a bandage over his eyes. Sabbath receives the bundle,...
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Flannery O'Connor's phenomenal power of giving life to her characters is due to a complete mastery of her art which renders with rapid precision their psychological makeup. What Mr. [William] Esty mistakes for the gratuitous grotesque [see excerpt above] is, much of the time, none other than this realism in picturing living, breathing, sweating humanity…. Flannery O'Connor, a Catholic by conviction as well as by birth, writes from a deep Christian concern for the spiritual. Her stories, the characters that live in them, the excellencies of her style, are not ends in themselves but rigorously subordinated means of showing us reality, the quality of goodness and the subtle malice of sin, either of which have power to determine our destiny.
One of the first things which strike us in these stories [in A Good Man Is Hard to Find] is the peculiar rigor with which the author limits her canvas to things of her own direct and intimate knowledge—people with whom she has grown up, against the countryside of her own native Georgia…. Yet, within these self-imposed limits, she has created characters of extraordinary depth, originality, and color; with all the strength of mind, prejudices, fears—fears of shame, of poverty, of the foreigner—which go to make a Southerner.
Miss O'Connor is admittedly influenced by the writers of the Catholic revival of France and England, notably Bloy, [François] Mauriac, and Greene. Like them she is deeply concerned with the palpable reality of sin, of the blight it can bring to human existence, and of its mysterious communication from one generation to another. Her stories often show that God-fearing, humble parents, no matter how ignorant and shiftless, will generally produce psychologically and morally sound children; whereas the children of the proud and contemptuous, whatever natural gifts they may otherwise have, are likely to turn out warped in some way. (pp. 286-87)
[A] penetrating study of children is "A Circle in the Fire."… In the swelling psychological conflict which … moves steadily toward disaster there is such perfection of balance and restraint in the narrative that the reader finds it hard to take sides either with the self-righteous woman as she strives to maintain her dignity and the semblance of benevolence in the face of [the boys's] encroachment, or with the delinquent boys whose insolence soon grows to lawlessness. Implicitly the root causes of social strife are laid bare as the envy and violence of the have-nots contend with the pharisaical pride and avarice of the haves. We find here a fully developed tragedy of character and circumstance, written with an astonishing command of details, in barely seventeen pages.
"The River" is the best example of Flannery O'Connor's remarkable talent for creating children characters, and of molding them, as it were, from the inside out, exploring with tenderness, but without a trace of sentimentality, the mysterious processes of their thought and motivation. (p. 287)
The extraordinary quality of Miss O'Connor's humor and the ease with which she puts it into a compressed yet lucid prose come from a thorough knowledge of the people of whom she writes, of the bits of wisdom, truths and half-truths—and downright prejudices—which make up their mental equipment. "The Artificial Nigger" will one day be considered a classic of American humor….
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Flannery O'Connor's [The Violent Bear It Away] has a number of immediately striking resemblances, in its religious theme, its Southern setting, its frequently violent or macabre action, and its spiritually tortured characters, both to her short stories, especially those collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), and to her first and only other novel, Wise Blood (1952). (p. 11)
Disregarding both the more and less obvious matters for the time being, there are several parallels between [The Violent Bear It Away] and some of Miss O'Connor's other works. Haze Motes in Wise Blood, like Tarwater here, was obsessed first with denying and then with accepting Christ....
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The promotion of The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor's second novel, plus the recent promotion of her career indicate that she is being groomed as A Current Great Writer…. Where she has succeeded and how raise several questions in both literature and public relations.
At an increasing rate since World War II judgment has dwindled in literary criticism, academic and non-academic, and prestige in letters has come proportionately to rest on personality. As with Hollywood figures, we now learn about the writer, and by inference his writing, through his public image. (p. 147)
Must we acknowledge that she is writing literature simply because her stories are...
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In the light of a disturbing abdication of responsibility among major critics with respect to the continuing importance of reading our modern writers, the recent critical neglect of Flannery O'Connor should not be surprising….
Since the appearance of her first novel, Wise Blood, over ten years ago, Miss O'Connor has not exactly overwhelmed either critics or readers with her gifts. There has not been merely neglect, however, but hostility as well…. Even her professed friends have often damned her with the faint praise of continuing the great modern tradition of "Southern Gothic." One barrier to her acceptance has surely been that, rather like the farmers in her region who are paid not to...
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The shock of Flannery O'Connor's death came not in its unexpectedness but in the startling realization that her work is done….
There must be recognition that the two novels, less than twenty short stories, and fewer essays are the work complete of the fiction writer, in my opinion, most significant in our time. But is her work done, indeed? (p. 555)
She began with the Woe, Woe to you who are filled, for you shall hunger, as theme, given embodiment in her novel Wise Blood, in 1952. It was satire; it was bitter parody on the atheistic Existentialism then pervading the literary and philosophical scene. But it was more. Haze Motes, with his self-mutilated sightless eyes...
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We now have all the work by which Flannery O'Connor will be remembered in the world. Of her last stories, collected in Everything That Rises Must Converge, it is certainly the just praise, and maybe the highest after all, that they are up to her first ones. She wrote best in the short story and has left a handful of them at least that are likely to last as long as literacy. When she died at thirty-nine last year, it was with her work done, I think, and work of an imaginative order and brilliance rare in the world at most times, perhaps always in American writing…. [A Good Man Is Hard to Find and] Everything That Rises Must Converge,… contain some of the surest and most original comic writing...
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A perusal of Miss O'Connor's fiction will reveal that Christ-haunted figures furnish the author her principal subject matter. Through the conflicts, often violent ones, of these protagonists who oscillate between belief and unbelief, between self-will and submission, the author presents her view of reality. This grotesque drama that she presents takes place in a discernible theological framework in which there is an implicit acceptance of the concept of a created universe, "with all that implies of human limitations and human obligations to an all-powerful Creator."… Such a view heightens man's every action, for his every action is seen "under the aspect of eternity."… Thus, Miss O'Connor's fiction is primarily...
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The fiction of the late Flannery O'Connor … poses a unique problem. Unlike some contemporary Christian writers, she makes no concessions to the non-Christian world: on the whole, she refuses to make her ideology palatable to non-Christian readers by suggesting any philosophical frame of reference other than that of Christian orthodoxy. And today this is an extremely big risk to take: such a theme and such methods inevitably deny the Christian writer many readers. Significantly, many of those same readers find Dante and [John] Milton as rewarding as ever. But one suspects that they may be reading Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy simply as "poetry" and discounting what they believe to be the...
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All the characters in the very powerful stories of Flannery O'Connor are abnormal: that is to say they are normal human beings in whom the writer has discovered a relationship with the lasting myths and the violent passions of human life. It would be fashionable in America to call [Everything That Rises Must Converge] Gothic: it certainly has the curious inner strain of fable—replacing the social interest—which is a distinguishing quality of the American novel…. The Southern writers have sometimes tended to pure freakishness or have concentrated on the eccentricities of a decaying social life; but this rotting and tragic order has thrown up strong, if theatrical themes. Flannery O'Connor was born too late...
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At her death in 1964, Flannery O'Connor left two novels and nineteen short stories and on these her literary reputation finally must rest. The novels, however, are not finished works of art. Both are structurally imperfect, but, of more importance, the very devices and perceptions that are the hallmarks of Flannery O'Connor's skill as a short story writer wear thin and brittle in the larger ambiance of a book-length work. The incisive dialogue loses some of its sharpness: detail and gesture become stylized: even violence, seen in the broader context, fails to shock. This is not to say that the novels are bad novels. But they are not as good as the short stories, and in any effort to delineate the achievement of...
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Flannery O'Connor's stories, though varied as to setting and characters, give even the casual reader a single impression. They all seem to say that she does not have a very great regard for her fellowmen….
Going deeper, the reader discovers that, disturbingly, more than contempt for the human race is involved. Running through the stories is one dominating theme: that of innocence versus evil, innocence victimized by evil.
A good illustration of this may be found in the story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Here, plainly underscored, we see the vivid allegory of unabashed Innocence destroyed by unabashed Evil. And here also the allegory is given depth and color by a companion...
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[Flannery O'Connor] brought a vision as accurate and piercing as any Old Testament prophet; and her work, like the prophets', was aimed at quickening the conscience and calling an estranged people to the tragic glory of God's chosen…. In the fiction of Flannery O'Connor one finds a … preoccupation with the woes and evils of a decaying civilization—a civilization in which the law and fervor and even fanaticism of the backwoods prophets test the metal of the prophets of the secular city, the mouth-wash liberals and Northern do-gooders, and warns them, in the words of Isaiah …: "Woe to you that are wise in your own eyes, and prudent in your own conceits … for they have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts,...
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To even the casual reader it would appear that Miss O'Connor really had only one story to tell and really only one main character. This principal character is, of course, Jesus Christ; and her one story is man's absolutely crucial encounter with Him—an encounter so crucial that it is literally a matter, quite often, of life-or-death, Heaven-or-Hell. There is, furthermore, very little about her Savior that seems comfortable and even less that is sweet, in the invidious sense of that word. He is certainly not the sentimental, effeminate Christ too often depicted in funeral-home or Forest Lawn iconography: He is hairy and sweaty, in many ways a quite literal holy terror, Who often terrifies before He can bless. And...
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The great strength of O'Connor's fiction seems to me to spring from the silent and remote rage that erupts from the quiet surface of her stories and that so unexpectedly explodes. It appears, for example, when the Misfit with great politeness has the family exterminated, or when he answers the grandmother's "niceness" with a gunshot and thereby suggests that neither Christian charity nor Southern politeness can contain all the darker human impulses. It appears again in the punishment of the vain, self-satisfied Mrs. Turpin who gets a book thrown at her. Perhaps it has a quieter voice in those sweetly nasty comments Mrs. Turpin's Negroes make as they talk among themselves to comfort her: "You the sweetest lady I know."...
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Flannery O'Connor's preoccupation with the spiritual condition of modern man … led her to write fiction of a peculiar cast, but her religious concerns fortified rather than weakened the artistic integrity of her creations. (pp. 9-10)
Her fiction abounds in grotesque situations and many of her most memorable characters are driven, "possessed" individuals. Freaks, fanatics, and psychopaths stalk the unfriendly streets and desolate clay roads of her fictional world, which often appears designed to simulate as nearly as possible a chamber of horrors. Thus can one explain the confused and sometimes hostile reaction of those who, in the early and middle 1950s, saw in Flannery O'Connor a disciple of the...
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[The] shocking or violent incidents in [Flannery O'Connor's] stories strike chords that reverberate loudly and lengthily regardless of a reader's own bias.
In most of O'Connor's major stories, these moments of violence or death occur on or near the last page: the Misfit shoots the Grandmother, Sheppard discovers Norton's body, Julian's mother dies on the pavement, Mr. Guizac is run over by a tractor, Hazel Motes is found in a ditch. But not all of O'Connor's violent endings require a death to render them shocking. In fact, some of her best shocks are created by an assault on the psyche. This is what happens to Asbury, who comes home to die, but doesn't; to Mrs. Cope, who can't, as she watches her...
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Flannery O'Connor is often billed as a Southern writer, or as a Catholic writer. But, however helpful, these are confining terms. For she was an artist of the most exacting and universal perception….
Almost a dozen books and innumerable articles have been published since 1964 on her small but intense oeuvre…. But far the longest and most important posthumous publication is that of her letters, a collection of more than 600 pages spanning the years 1948–64. For wealth of anecdote and intellectual variety and emotional depth, The Habit of Being too will prove an incomparable American work.
Its keynote is joy. Confined to hospital in 1950, with what was then...
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