The Stories of O'Connor Essay - Critical Essays

Flannery O’Connor

Critical Evaluation

Criticism of Flannery O’Connor’s two novels and two original collections of short stories notes the dramatic power of the nineteen stories in her two collections but is repelled by their shocking conclusions. If readers could narrow their application to the South from whence they come, as they can with TOBACCO ROAD, for example, they would be much happier; but since her stories deal wholly with universals and are pervaded by an irony that seems both to involve and to mock, readers are forced to recognize that her vision encompasses the human condition, the naked spectacle of mortal man. O’Connor is not claiming so much as she is reminding that the human condition is fourfold: people are sinners, people shall die, people are equal in the sight of God, and people cannot expect to understand God’s mercy but must recognize it in whatever outrageous form it appears, which is the beginning of salvation. Her term for that recognition is the “revelation” of sin, or death, or equality, and the beginning of “redemption.” She does not follow the process of redemption, only its initiation through whatever unlikely instrument God chooses. Both O’Connor and her God are ironists, and readers and all her heroes are willful characters who must be humbled in learning that the will of God must prevail. This is the guiding vision in all her work.

Most of the titles in A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND are ironically intended and provide a key to the author’s meaning. Three of the shortest stories show her intention most clearly: “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” The first describes the progress up four flights of stairs of Ruby Hill, who is terrified of having a baby and gradually realizes, as she climbs, that she is four months pregnant. This is the “stroke of good fortune” her palmist foretold; from the most unlikely sources comes the truth about Ruby’s “condition.” The second story shows how death and truth come to “General” Sash of the Confederacy at the late age of one hundred and four; he is no general but he is surrounded by false memories of the Confederacy, especially at the Atlanta premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND, and he joins in the pretense. Death, the enemy, did not get him during the Civil War, but eventually he catches up, even with a Confederate general. In the last of the three stories, both a hermaphrodite and a platitudinous nun are shown to be “a temple of the Holy Ghost”; the outrageous and the comic are also clear signs of the truth for those who can both appreciate the ridiculous and get its message.

The other stories in the first collection fall into two groups: four independent stories that are related by theme; and three stories that use the same setting and similar cast. The latter group contains “A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” and the longest story O’Connor wrote, “The Displaced Person,” which is the culmination of the volume. The common situation is an independent widow running a farm with the help of a succession of tenant farmers and some blacks. In the first two stories, the tenant farmer’s wife acts as cool observer, like the black in THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY, who offers a practical but unacceptable solution to the awkward situation which arises when an intruder arrives at the farm; in the last story, the tenant farmer’s wife dies and becomes the motive for the “accidental” death of the “Displaced Person.” The meaning of the stories seems to be that if one embarks on an act of charity one must be very sure of one’s motives. Mrs. Hopewell, in “Good Country People,” may be mistaken in her notions of country folk; certainly her ideas led her educated daughter astray and thus to a realization of the truth about herself, that she is in no way superior to what her mother calls “good country people.” The play of ambiguity in these two stories is resolved in the last by identifying Christ as a person displaced from Mrs. McIntyre’s heart; when He comes to her in the guise of a Displaced Person, she allows Him to be crucified again. It is not sufficient to be “nice”—a theme that recurs whenever this farm setting is used—one must be saved even at the cost of one’s life. Mrs. McIntyre, like many of O’Connor’s characters, is dying as the result of her revelation, the late reconciliation of word and deed.


(The entire section is 1816 words.)