illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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What unique characteristics define Flannery O'Connor's writing style?

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A writer in the Southern Gothic style, Flannery O'Connor departs from other writers of this genre in several ways.

  • Violence as a means of redemption

While Gothic writers of the South often necessarily allude to religion in what O'Connor termed the "Christ-haunted South," her style has been termed a "morbidly Catholic mindset." Nevertheless, her Christian fiction is non-didactic and subtle, albeit bizarre as violence is a conduit of redemption. In his essay "The Dark Side of the Cross:  Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction," Patrick Galloway observes,

The man in a violent situation reveals those aspects of his character that he will take with him into eternity.

For example, in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," after the Misfit's men have killed her family, the grandmother finds him standing over her threateningly.

She saw the man's twisted face close to her as if her were going to cry and she murmured, "Why, you're one of my babies; you're one of my own children!"

The grandmother recognizes the sin in all of them as the violence of the situation reveals the facets of her character that will carry her to eternity. Galloway remarks that this approach reflects the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and his concept of Dasein, (being-there) in which a man's experience becomes complete at the moment of death.

Even if the character does not die, he/she finds redemption through violence as in the equally ironically titled "Good Country People" in which Ulga loses her faith in "the Nothing" and is afforded the opportunity for grace and redemption if she will grow spiritually as a result of her humiliation.

  • The use of a mysterious, unexpected turn in the narrative

O'Connor's narrative distortions are often of an abrupt, even explosive nature. For instance, in "Revelation," in the waiting-room of a doctor's office, Mary Grace suddenly dives on Mrs. Turpin and tries to strangle the self-righteous woman. However, this bizarre and disturbing act jars Mrs. Turpin into an opportunity for redemption as she does begin to wonder if she might be "a wart hog from hell" after all.

  • The consistent use of unresolved endings

In "Good Country People" there is uncertainly as to whether Ulga will redeem herself as a result of her experience; similarly in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" abandons Lucynell at the lunch counter.

  • Distinctive elements of style

As noted by Galloway, O'Connor is not a "lyrical" as Faulkner, nor as "colorful" as other Southern Gothic writers; in fact, some critics find her writing "too bare" and "her experiments with structure not eccentric enough." But, Galloway holds that her "secret weapon" is her simplistic style as it disguises the undercurrent beneath that will "spew forth" at the precise moment, and then be all the more disturbing.

Another distinctive element of O'Connor's style is her penchant for assuming a character's point of view in the narrative while at the same time retaining the omniscient third-person. This technique, Galloway perceives as having the effect as "more of a mirror than an advocate" for the character.  Thus, O'Connor's narratives hold their objectivity and impartiality, but at the same time, they provide insight into what goes through the minds of the characters. For instance, in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," the actions of Mr. Shiflet are devious and unconscionable, yet he is not as insensitive as a reader would expect because O'Connor's narrative juxtaposes his actions with his inner thoughts of feeling "depressed" after he cruelly abandons Lucynell and "oppressed" when he pickup a boy in overalls who "thumbs a ride." 

O'Connor's use of character names for her Christian themes and for ironic use are also noticeable in her fiction. One very obvious name for the opportunity of redemption is that of Mary Grace in "Revelation," while Joy Hopewell for the embittered young woman with the wooden leg who believes in "the Nothing" is certainly ironic as well as paradoxical. Some names reveal true character, such as "Mr. Shiftlet." Galloway remarks,

The fact that the names are most usually a mockery of the characters adds to the cryptic Christianity that characterizes O'Connor's work.

  • The use of the grotesque to develop thematic elements

O'Connor's use of grotesque characters to develop her Christian themes is certainly distinctive.  She explains, " is when the freak can be senses as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature." This trope of "displacement" is prevalent in O'Connor's fiction as is usually a theological displacement as exemplified by such characters as the Misfit and Ulga. And, the literally displaced is the Polish immigrant Guizac whose foreignness makes him a freak to the rural types in the story "The Displaced Person." Oddly, enough these grotesques often become Christ-types in O'Connor's fiction as reminders of the mysterious presence of God.

  • The symbolism of the peacock

Certainly not subtle is O'Connor's use of the peacock, whose feathers contain "the eye of God." They are symbolic of the Holy Ghost and immortality and the incorruptible soul.

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