Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3318
Flannery O’Connor is uncharacteristic of her age. In writing about the pervasive disbelief in the Christian mysteries during contemporary times, O’Connor seems better suited to the Middle Ages in her rather old-fashioned and conventional Catholic and Christian conviction that the central issue in human existence is salvation through Christ. Perhaps...
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Flannery O’Connor is uncharacteristic of her age. In writing about the pervasive disbelief in the Christian mysteries during contemporary times, O’Connor seems better suited to the Middle Ages in her rather old-fashioned and conventional Catholic and Christian conviction that the central issue in human existence is salvation through Christ. Perhaps the recognition that such conviction in the postmodern world is rapidly fading and may soon be lost makes O’Connor’s concerns for the spiritual realm, what she called the “added dimension” in her essay entitled “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” more attractive for a dubious audience.
Although O’Connor completed thirty-one short stories and two novels, she is best remembered for nearly a dozen works of short fiction. These major stories may be classified as typical O’Connor short stories for a number of reasons. Each story concerns a proud protagonist, usually a woman, who considers herself beyond reproach and is boastful about her own abilities, her Christian goodness, and her property and possessions. Each central character has hidden fears that are brought to surface through an outsider figure, who serves as a catalyst to initiate a change in the protagonist’s perception. O’Connor’s primary theme, from her earliest to her last stories, is hubris—that is, overweening pride and arrogance—and the characters’ arrogance very often takes on a spiritual dimension.
Closely connected with the theme of hubris is the enactment of God’s grace (or Christian salvation). In an essay entitled “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable,” O’Connor states that her stories are about “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” and points out that the most significant part of her stories is the “moment” or “action of grace,” when the protagonist is confronted with her own humanity and offered, through an ironic agent of God (an outsider) and, usually through violence, one last chance at salvation. O’Connor’s protagonists think so highly of themselves that they are unable to recognize their own fallenness because of Original Sin, so the characters typically are brought to an awareness of their humanity (and their sinfulness) through violent confrontations with outsider figures.
O’Connor’s six earliest stories first appeared in her thesis at the University of Iowa. The most memorable in terms of O’Connor’s later themes are “The Geranium,” her first published story, and “The Turkey.” “The Geranium,” an early version of O’Connor’s last story, “Judgement Day,” deals with the experience of a southerner living in the North. In the story, an old man is treated as an equal by a black man in his apartment building but longs to return home to the South. More modernist in its pessimistic outlook than the later, more characteristic (and religious) O’Connor works, “The Geranium” shows the effects of fading southern idealism and resembles O’Connor’s later stories concerned with home and displacement—other central themes of her fiction.
“The Turkey” describes an encounter between a young boy named Ruller and a turkey. Receiving little recognition from home, Ruller manages to capture the turkey, only to be outwitted by a leathery confidence woman, a forerunner of O’Connor’s later outsider figures. Thematically, the story concerns the initiation of Ruller into adult consciousness and paves the way for O’Connor’s later concern with theological issues. Ruller, who resembles the prophetlike figures of the novels and several stories, blames God for allowing him to catch the turkey and then taking it away from him.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
The first collection of O’Connor’s fiction, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, consists mostly of previously published short stories and a short novella, The Displaced Person. The title story, which may be O’Connor’s most famous, deals with a Georgia family on its way to Florida for vacation. As the story opens, the main character, the grandmother, tries to convince her son, Bailey, to go to east Tennessee because she has just read about an escaped convict, The Misfit, who is heading to Florida. The next day, the family, including the nondescript mother, a baby, the other children, John Wesley and June Star, and Pitty Sing, the grandmother’s cat, journeys to Florida. They stop at Red Sammy’s Famous Barbeque, where the proprietor discusses his views of the changing times, saying “A good man is hard to find” to the grandmother, who has similar views.
The seemingly comic events of the day turn to disaster as the grandmother, upsetting the cat, causes the family to wreck, and The Misfit and two men arrive. The grandmother recognizes The Misfit, and as a result, brings about the death of the entire family. Before she dies, however, the grandmother, who has been portrayed as a self-centered, judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical Protestant, sees the humanity of The Misfit and calls him “one of my babies.” This section of the story represents what O’Connor calls “the action or moment of grace” in her fiction. Thematically, the story concerns religious hypocrisy, faith and doubt, and social and spiritual arrogance. The Misfit, who strikes comparison with Hazel Motes of Wise Blood (1952), is a “prophet gone wrong” (from “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable”), tormented by doubt over whether Christ was who he said he was.
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
Another important story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” portrays a drifter named Tom T. Shiftlet, a one-armed man who covets the automobile of a widow named Lucynell Crater and marries her daughter, a deaf-mute, in order to obtain it. He tells the mother that he is a man with “a moral intelligence.” Shiftlet, who is searching for some explanation for the mystery of human existence, which he cannot quite comprehend, reveals himself to be just the opposite: one with amoral intelligence. An outsider figure who becomes the story’s protagonist, Shiftlet leaves his wife, also named Lucynell, at a roadside restaurant, picks up a hitchhiker, and flies away to Mobile as a thunderstorm approaches. The story’s epiphany concerns the irony that Shiftlet considers the hitchhiker a “slime from this earth,” when in reality it is Shiftlet who fits this description. In rejecting his wife, he rejects God’s grace and, the story suggests, his mother’s valuation of Christianity.
“The Artificial Nigger”
The next major tale, “The Artificial Nigger,” is one of O’Connor’s most important and complex. It has been subjected to many interpretations, including the suggestion by some critics that it contains no moment of grace on the part of Mr. Head and Nelson, the two main characters. The most Dantesque of all O’Connor stories, “The Artificial Nigger” concerns a journey to the city (hell), where Nelson is to be introduced to his first black person. As O’Connor ridicules the bigotry of the countrified Mr. Head and his grandson, she also moves toward the theological and philosophical. When Nelson gets lost in the black section of Atlanta, he identifies with a big black woman and, comparable to Saint Peter’s denial of Christ, Mr. Head denies that he knows him. Nevertheless, they are reunited when they see a statue of an African American, which represents the redemptive quality of suffering and as a result serves to bring about a moment of grace in the racist Mr. Head. The difficulty of this story, other than the possibility that some may see it as racist itself, is that O’Connor’s narrative is so ironic that critics are unsure whether to read the story’s epiphany as a serious religious conversion or to assume that Mr. Head is still as arrogant and bigoted as ever.
Of all O’Connor’s stories—with the possible exceptions of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “Good Country People”—“The Artificial Nigger” most exemplifies the influence of the humor of the Old Southwest, a tradition that included authors such as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Johnson Jones Hooper, and George Washington Harris. In “The Artificial Nigger,” the familiar motif of the country bumpkin going to the city, which is prevalent in Southwestern humor in particular and folk tradition in general, is used.
“Good Country People”
The next important story, “Good Country People,” is preceded by two lesser stories, “A Circle in the Fire” and “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” the former being a successful story about a woman’s inability to comprehend the true nature of evil, and the latter being the only O’Connor portrayal of the South’s attitude toward the Civil War. “Good Country People,” which is frequently anthologized, concerns another major target of O’Connor’s satirical fictions: the contemporary intellectual. O’Connor criticizes modern individuals who are educated and who believe that they are capable of achieving their own salvation through the pursuit of human knowledge. Hulga Hopewell, a Ph.D. in philosophy and an atheistic existentialist, resides with her mother, a banal woman who cannot comprehend the complexity of her daughter, because Hulga has a weak heart and has had an accident that caused her to lose one leg.
Believing herself to be of superior intellect, Hulga agrees to go on a picnic with a young Bible salesman and country bumpkin named Manley Pointer, hoping that she can seduce him, her intellectual inferior. Ironically, he is a confidence man with a peculiar affection for the grotesque comparable to characters in the humor of the Old Southwest. As he is about to seduce Hulga, he speeds away with her wooden leg and informs her, “I been believing in nothing since I was born,” shattering Hulga’s illusion that she is sophisticated and intelligent and that her atheism makes her special. As the story ends, Hulga is prepared for a spiritual recognition that her belief system is as weak and hollow as the wooden leg on which she has based her entire existence. Pointer, whose capacity for evil has been underestimated by the logical positivist Mrs. Hopewell but not by her neighbor Mrs. Freeman, crosses “the speckled lake” in an ironic allusion to Christ’s walking on water.
The Displaced Person
The final piece in the collection, a novella entitled The Displaced Person, portrays the most positive of O’Connor’s outsider figures, Mr. Guizac, a Pole. The story is divided into two sections. In the first part, to escape incarceration in the refugee camps after World War II, Mr. Guizac agrees to work for Mrs. McIntyre, a widow who runs a dairy farm. Unknown to him, Mr. Guizac arouses jealousy and fear in the regular tenant farmers, the Shortleys, and the black field hands. Because Mr. Shortley is lazy and lackadaisical, he particularly resents the productivity of Mr. Guizac. The story moves toward the spiritual dimension when Mrs. Shortley, who considers herself a model Christian, begins to see Mr. Guizac and his family as agents of the devil. After Mrs. Shortley learns that her husband is to be fired the next morning, the Shortleys drive away, and Mrs. Shortley dies of a stroke and sees her “true country,” which is defined in one of O’Connor’s essays as “what is eternal and absolute” (“The Fiction Writer and His Country”). At the time of her death, Mrs. Shortley, displaced like the poor victims of the Holocaust, which she has witnessed in newsreels, is redeemed through displacement and enters her spiritual home.
The story’s second part concerns Mrs. McIntyre’s growing fear of outsiders. Mr. Shortley reappears after his wife’s death and learns that Mr. Guizac is arranging a marriage for, and taking money from, Sulk, a Negro field hand, so that Mr. Guizac’s niece can earn passage to the United States. The southern racial taboos are portrayed as fundamentally inhumane when confronted with the reality of human suffering, as seen in the niece, who is in a refugee camp. Father Flynn, the priest who has arranged for Mr. Guizac and his family to come to the United States to work for Mrs. McIntyre, tries to teach Mrs. McIntyre the importance of Christian charity and the fine points of Catholic theology. Unconcerned with these matters, which she considers unimportant, Mrs. McIntyre becomes neurotic about Mr. Guizac’s inappropriateness and overlooks the spiritual for the material. Throughout the novella, O’Connor links the peacock, a symbol of Christ’s Transfiguration, with Mr. Guizac, and in the end, Mr. Shortley “accidentally” allows a tractor to run over Mr. Guizac while Mrs. McIntyre and the other field hands watch. As the human race is complicit in the persecution and crucifixion of Christ, so are Mrs. McIntyre and the others in the death of Mr. Guizac, a Christ figure. At the story’s end, Mrs. McIntyre, losing her dairy farm and all the material possessions in which she has put so much faith all of her life, becomes displaced, as do the others who have participated in the “crucifixion” of Mr. Guizac.
Everything That Rises Must Converge
The second collection of O’Connor’s short fiction, Everything That Rises Must Converge, shows the author’s depth of vision as she moved away from stories rooted primarily in the tradition of Southwestern humor to heavily philosophical, though still quite humorous, tales of individuals in need of a spiritual experience. Most apparent is the influence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist and Catholic theologian, on the title story as well as the vision of the entire collection. Teilhard de Chardin argued that through the course of time, it was inevitable, even in the evolution of the species, that there was a process moving toward convergence with God.
“Everything That Rises Must Converge”
This idea, though perhaps used ironically, appears as the basis for “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which is considered one of O’Connor’s greatest works. O’Connor once said that this story was her only one dealing with the racial issue; even so, the tale still transcends social and political commentary. The main character, Julian, is another typical O’Connor protagonist. Arrogant and unjust to his more conventional southern and racist mother, the adult college graduate Julian angrily hopes that his mother will be given a lesson in race relations by having to sit next to a black woman wearing the same hat that she is wearing. Outwardly friendly to the black woman’s child, Julian’s mother, with characteristic O’Connor violence, converges with the oppressed black race after she offers a penny to Carver, the child. After the black woman hits Julian’s mother with her purse, Julian is as helpless, lost, and innocent as Carver is. He recognizes that his mother is dying and enters the world of “guilt and sorrow.” Through this story, O’Connor reflects on the rising social status of blacks and connects this rise with a spiritual convergence between the two races.
“Greenleaf,” also a major work, portrays still another woman, Mrs. May, attempting to run a dairy farm. Her two ungrateful bachelor sons refuse to take her self-imposed martyrdom seriously when she complains of the Greenleafs and their bull, which, at the beginning of the story, is hanging around outside her window. The Greenleafs are lower-class tenant farmers whose grown children are far more productive and successful than the bourgeois Mrs. May’s. O’Connor moves to pagan mythology as she characterizes the bull as a god (compared to Zeus) and unites the Greenleaf bull symbolically with peculiarly Christian elements. The coming of grace in this story is characteristically violent. Mrs. May is gored by a bull, who, like the ancient Greek gods, is both pagan lover and deity (although a Christian deity).
“The Lame Shall Enter First”
The next significant story in the collection, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” strikes comparison with the novel The Violent Bear It Away, for the main character, Rufus Johnson, a sociopathic teenage criminal, reminds readers of Francis Marion Tarwater, the hero of the novel. There is also Sheppard, the intellectual social worker who, like Tarwater’s Uncle Rayber, is a secular humanist and believes that if he takes away the biblical nonsense that the adolescent protagonist has been taught, he will be saved.
Ironically, Sheppard spends all of his time trying to analyze and improve Rufus while at the same time neglecting his own son, Norton. While Rufus is clearly a demonic figure, he nevertheless believes in God and the Devil and convinces the child that he can be with his dead mother through Christian conversion. The child, misunderstanding, kills himself, and Sheppard is left to recognize the emptiness of his materialist philosophy. O’Connor’s attitude toward the secular humanist is again satirical; without a divine source, there can be no salvation.
O’Connor’s last three stories, according to most critics, ended her career at the height of her powers. “Revelation,” one of the greatest pieces of short fiction in American literature, is O’Connor’s most complete statement concerning the plight of the oppressed. While her fiction often uses outsiders, she seldom directly comments on her sympathies with them, but through Ruby Turpin’s confrontation with the fat girl “blue with acne,” who is named Mary Grace, O’Connor is able to demonstrate that in God’s Kingdom the last shall be first. Mary Grace calls Mrs. Turpin, who prides herself on being an outstanding Christian lady, a “wart hog from hell,” a phrase that Mrs. Turpin cannot get out of her mind. Later, Mrs. Turpin goes to “hose down” her hogs, symbols of unclean spirits, and has a vision of the oppressed souls entering heaven ahead of herself and her husband (Claud). Critical disagreement has centered largely on whether Mrs. Turpin is redeemed after her vision or whether she remains the same arrogant, self-righteous, bigoted woman she has been all of her life.
“Parker’s Back” is one of the most mysterious of O’Connor’s stories. Obadiah Elihue Parker, a nonbeliever, marries Sarah Ruth, a fundamentalist bent on saving her husband’s soul. After a mysterious accident in which he hits a tree, Parker gradually experiences religious conversion and, though tattooed all over the front of his body, is drawn to having a Byzantine tattoo of Christ placed on his back, thinking that his wife will be pleased. She is not, however, accusing him instead of idolatry. In reality, she is the heretic, for she is incapable of recognizing that Christ was both human and divine. Beating welts into her husband’s back, Sarah Ruth fails to recognize the mystical connection between the suffering of her husband and that of the crucified Christ. By this point in her career, O’Connor was using unusual symbols to convey her sense of the mystery of God’s redemptive power.
O’Connor’s last completed story, “Judgement Day,” is a revised version of her first published story, “The Geranium.” The central character, a displaced southerner living with his daughter in New York City, wishes to return home to die. Tanner, while an old and somewhat bigoted man, remembers fondly his relationship with a black man and hopes to befriend a black tenant in his daughter’s apartment building. This story concerns Tanner’s inability to recognize differences in southern and northern attitudes toward race, and, as with earlier O’Connor stories, “home” has more than a literal meaning (a spiritual destiny or heaven). Unlike almost all other O’Connor works, this story portrays racial relations as based on mutual respect. Also, Tanner, while attacked violently by the black tenant, is portrayed as a genuine believer and is sent to his eternal resting place (heaven), the destiny of a Christian. By the end of her life, O’Connor considered a return to a heavenly home much more significant than any other subject.