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O'Connor, Flannery 1925–1964
A Southern American novelist and short story writer, Miss O'Connor was a fundamentalist Christian moralist whose powerful apocalyptic fiction is central to the Southern Renascence. Her treatment of good and evil has been likened to Hawthorne's, her employment of the grotesque to Dostoevsky's and Nathanael West's, her satire to that of Swift and Juvenal. Although often labeled "Southern Gothic," her work has little in common with that of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, writers who define that tradition and whose work she disliked. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Miss O'Connor reserved her finest wrath for those closest to her heart, her co-religionists (a term she would have hated), who like all other Americans with hearts in the wrong place wanted them lifted up. For her part, as a writer and a Catholic, as a Catholic writer, her aim in art was simply put: her "subject in fiction," she wrote, "is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil." But she was a writer and not a theologian, and for a writer that is not sufficient knowledge. The "fiction writer," she wrote, and the statement, which recurs again and again with slight variation throughout the book [Mystery and Manners], is virtually her motif, "presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula." Of course there has to be no such thing. For "fiction writer" read "serious Catholic fiction writer"; but lower the case on Mystery and modify the final phrase, and it can stand as well as any other as a general statement about literary art, and, for herself, as credo. Only the most serious writer, of whatever kind, can venture to talk this way without disgracing herself and creating a scandal; and only a first-rate one can deliver the goods, which she did, again and again. She was simply describing not only the ideal she strove for but the end she actually achieved.
Saul Maloff, "On Flannery O'Connor," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), August 8, 1969, pp. 490-91.
The vision of "true depravity" with which [Flannery O'Connor] works [in her short story "The Artificial Nigger"] is Jansenist, as Jansenism has filtered into and been reinforced by the American Catholic Puritan tradition, which is paralleled by the distortion of Calvinism surviving in the fundamentalist sects of the Southern countryside…. [The] compassion, the mercy that irradiates the entire story and shows us how an all-wise Creator, as Flannery O'Connor wishes us to see Him, judges mankind in Mr. Head, is universal Catholicism at its most appealing, as is the luminousness of grace that moves Mr. Head at the end….
God, as Flannery O'Connor sees him [in The Violent Bear It Away], is not notably endowed with compassion, and this fact may trouble some readers, who feel a certain lack, a certain dryness, a certain harshness. One may feel a keen intellectual interest in seeing so Jansenist a view so vitally alive in modern times, but, if one is an orthodox Catholic who persists in looking beyond the cloak of Flannery O'Connor's delightful humor, one is apt to experience a bit of uneasiness…. Meeting Flannery O'Connor is a little like meeting Francis Marion Tarwater on his mission to arouse the sleeping children of darkness. One is not likely to forget the encounter, whatever one's reaction to the message.
Gene Kellogg, "Flannery O'Connor," in his The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Loyola University Press, 1970, pp. 180-205.
Flannery O'Connor was a passionate critic of her age. As an orthodox and ardent Roman Catholic, she viewed the essentially godless condition of modern times as anathema and the secular society as doomed to depravity by its own wrongheaded refusal to recognize the truth of God and to follow God's commandments. She was particularly critical of the secular notion that men can define moral absolutes for themselves. Man's reliance upon reason to define such absolutes as goodness and compassion leads only to Auschwitz, she believed, for reason in men is by definition corrupt and can only be depended upon to lead to self-deception. Secular humanism, for all its professed unselfish idealism, leads not to the love that it posits as its goal but to the suicide of a whole civilization. Some of Miss O'Connor's best writing blazes with the force of her desire to make society look at the reality that it tries to ignore and to destroy men's illusions and pretenses about themselves and their times by exposing the naked truth. Such a confrontation with truth is all that can save the world in Flannery O'Connor's view, and to this end she wished to persuade her readers to share her critical attitude.
Miss O'Connor's stance in these matters is that of the satirist, and it is not surprising that she makes extensive use of satire in her fiction. Keenly aware of the indifference of her audience to Christian truth, she consciously and deliberately set out to enlarge, exaggerate, and distort, after what Leonard Feinberg calls the traditional manner of the satirist, and her purpose was to shock the willfully blind into seeing. In her stories and novels she plays with the reader's response and makes him think that the wild prophets and mad saints in her fiction are the objects of her satire; it is not these people, however, but rather the apparently saner men and women of the secular world whom she so devastatingly criticizes. Finally, it should be noted that the strength of this satiric attack against the people who represent the secular mode of thought reflects the power of the Christian belief from which she proceeds.
There are two types of men who are most often the targets of Flannery O'Connor's satire, and both are secular men who do not believe in God. One is the empiricist, who, like Hazel Motes at the beginning of Wise Blood, believes that only what one can empirically prove is true…. The second type of man she satirizes is the rationalist, like George Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away, who believes with Hegel that the real is rational and the rational real, that the universe has order which man by himself is capable of comprehending and of controlling, and that in the animal life of a man there is both dignity and worth. Men of both types believe that truth is objective and that subjectivity is not and cannot be truth. Both types are the products of the secularity that Miss O'Connor hated, and their fates point the lesson: cutting oneself adrift from God leads to despair, to spiritual death and damnation. Only those characters who can make a Kierkegaardian leap of faith are, in her opinion, saved from the spiritual abyss….
The intent of Miss O'Connor's satiric treatment of the two types, the empiricists and the rationalists, is as clear and direct as the intent of Swift in A Modest Proposal. The reader's laughter at these people is meant to spur him into an examination of his own state of being. Unlike Hazel Motes, who was stunned by the nonbelievers of Taulkinham, Miss O'Connor knew altogether too well the spiritual state of the audience to which she spoke. In her view, secular men are fools to think they can deny God; they are fools to think they can define morality; they are fools to think they can play God. Not only is their foolishness ridiculous, it is disastrous for many of them. Because they regard themselves as the source of knowledge and wisdom, they can comprehend only things that are small enough to be dealt with in terms of a rational system.
Jane Carter Keller, "The Figures of the Empiricist and the Rationalist in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor," in Arizona Quarterly, Autumn, 1972, pp. 263-73.
Here together [in Robert Giroux's edition of The Complete Stories] are almost all the inhabitants of Miss O'Connor's earthly city: the restless souls, the displaced persons, the domineering mothers and physically or emotionally maimed children, the freaks, the haunted prophets, the frustrated do-gooders, the prejudiced, the misfits, the impudent children, the comic idiots, the perpetrators and victims of violence, and the spiritually blind….
The first six stories follow the order of her master's thesis, the remaining twenty-five being arranged, says the editor, by the date of composition. As a comparison with the two earlier collections of stories will show, something vital, dramatic impact and emotional counterpointing, is lost in the present arrangement. There are, however, several compensations.
First of all, with increasing admiration for her artistry, the reader can watch Miss O'Connor hone the cutting edge of her satire, add subtler tones to her irony, curb her penchant for caricature, and bring more salt and authenticity to her dialogue as she captures the idioms and rhythms of dialect. Evident also is her growing awareness of the value of symbolic devices, of echoes of biblical and mythic events, and of suggestions of the workings of the supernatural in mundane affairs. All these she leans upon, sometimes too heavily, to lift her stories from a literal to an anagogic level. Further, though the process is not altogether transparent, the reader can see that from "A Stroke of Good Fortune" forward she strives mightily to achieve her goal of blending manners and mystery, reaching it magnificently in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and returning again in "The Displaced Person," "The Artificial Nigger," "The Lame Shall Enter First," and "Revelation," and coming near in a few other tales.
We can see her moving away from stories hedged in by sociological concerns, such as "The Barber," toward stories such as "The Lame Shall Enter First" and "Revelation," deftly fusing her insights into psychology, sociology, and theology. Moreover, after "The Barber" violence as a plot device enters that special realm of the mysterious where awareness of higher moral or religious principles comes to those who inflict or suffer from acts of violence.
Noticeable also is a marked improvement in characterization. Standing Old Dudley of "The Geranium" beside Tanner of "Judgment Day" will suggest how much surer her hand was in the work of her final year of life. She learned, too, how to handle a crowded scene, advancing from the shadowy figures in a barbershop to the vividly realized characters in a doctor's waiting room.
It is obvious, also, that she learned to adjust her clean, hard style to accommodate those passages in which manners gave way to mystery, in which the surface features of Southern life were set aside for the evocation of the inner life of her characters in their moments of epiphany. Yet she did not always have to adjust her style, as a glance at the ending of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" will convincingly indicate.
Perhaps the clearest pattern traceable in the present order of her stories is her use of shock to startle her readers into an awareness of "the theological truth of Faith … the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment." No doubt the greatest limitation of her imaginative art was her too frequent reliance upon death as the agency of shock. Part of the problem is her religious zeal.
So intense was her prophetic urge that she often assumed the role of an evangel in order to remind her readers that the gift of grace still comes to the inhabitants of the earthly city when they are ready to receive it. Even as she cast a cold eye on the wickedness of modern man, she felt that, in her native region especially, a "Christ-haunted" people could be made to look toward the City of God. For her, it was indeed a stroke of good fortune that her native region supplied her with an abundant variety of surrogate evangels. She could hold a mirror up to nature and find reflected there the inmost longings of her evangelical spirit. Although it is true that her mirror frequently cast back images of men and women with perverted or twisted forms of faith, most of her characters, like Haze Motes, were Christians in spite of themselves.
As students and critics of her work have often discovered, the labor of dissection has ample returns for the expended energies of soul and mind. For in the twelve or fifteen of her best stories, Miss O'Connor aptly blended satire and reverence, the concrete and the abstract, the comic and the cosmic, earning for herself a secure place among the writers of the Southern Renascence.
John Idol, in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter, 1973, pp. 103-04.
Surely one of the major reasons Flannery O'Connor is held in such high esteem is the success with which she dramatizes religious themes in a fiction for the most part free of the taint of propagandistic motives. Yet the religious concerns are ever-present and have given rise to a bewildering assortment of interpretations. On the one hand, there are still a few among her Christian critics who tend to read Miss O'Connor's fiction as subtle propagation of the faith, and one admirer has seen in Flannery O'Connor's work an expression of the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II. On the other hand, there are commentators who point to an apparent absence of free will which seems to make of her characters mere puppets of Fate or Divine Providence, and one reviewer has gone so far as to describe her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, as "a pointless bit of comic book sentimentality," which is both anti-Catholic and subversive of literature and of human values generally. A more recent critic, Josephine Hendin, writes admiringly of her work, discerning in Flannery O'Connor an American counterpart of the practitioners of the nouveau roman, who, though she "may never have thought about it at all … created an art that is, in many instances, as emotionally flat as Robbe-Grillet's, an art where object and gesture simply are."
With no more than this sketchy summary as background, one can readily appreciate the dilemma Flannery O'Connor poses for the critic. Never has the enthusiasm for her work been at a higher pitch, and never has the difficulty of knowing what to make of her work been greater. In this connection I am prompted to borrow a phrase from a friend who has recently written a book on Freud, one of whose chapter sub-headings is "The Hazards of Reading Freud." There are, I need not emphasize, certain hazards in reading Flannery O'Connor.
The chief among these, I am convinced, is the propensity to read Flannery O'Connor in some sort of reductive manner; for even the most imaginative of her critics can be found categorizing her as "the most radical Christian dualist since Dostoevski" or stating that, as an artist of the surfaces, "she never treats interiors of thought or feeling…." Whether either of these assertions can be substantiated I doubt, but the real point I wish to make is that, in reading her, as in reading any other writer of genuine talent, it is unwise to close off too hastily avenues of approach to the writer's work or to reject dogmatically critical options which possess even a slight degree of plausibility….
My own answer [to the critical problem surrounding Miss O'Connor's work] is to suggest the wisdom of interpreting Flannery O'Connor's work in a more inclusive fashion, allowing for the partial truth of both positions, admitting the opposites in her work and recognizing that it is exactly the coincidence of these opposites which gives to Miss O'Connor's fiction its peculiar flavor and power. Not only is it not necessary to exclude one view in order to espouse the other; it is positively detrimental to a just appreciation of her work to do so.
It is at this point that the concept of the demonic becomes relevant to our discussion. Flannery O'Connor once said that she felt no one should attempt to create a work as ambitious as a novel about a subject which was "not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times." If it is true that her primary concern as a writer was to make dramatically plausible this conflict, then her preoccupation with evil, with willful perversity, with the physically and spiritually twisted and deformed—in short, with the demonic—is easily understood since she appears to have apprehended a truth almost lost to the modern, secular mind: that the holy and the demonic stand in dialectical relation to one another….
I believe it is accurate to say that no American author since Hawthorne has made such extensive use of the devil; and it is relevant to recall that when Miss O'Connor commented upon the significance of the devil in her understanding of human reality, she stated: "I want to be certain that the devil gets identified as the devil and not taken for this or that psychological tendency." She was no less explicit about the role of the devil in her fiction: "I suppose," she said, "the devil teaches most of the lessons that lead to self-knowledge." If we further recall that Miss O'Connor referred to those moments when her characters undergo a traumatic collapse of their illusions of righteousness and self-sufficiency as moments of grace, then the dialectic and the coincidence of opposites referred to earlier assume new significance. Which is to say that the devil, or the demonic, seems to be not only an indispensable feature of this writer's fictional technique but also an integral element of her theology as well….
The peculiar insignia of Flannery O'Connor's stories, I suggest, is [the] shock of evil, by means of which an assault is made upon the psyche of the protagonist (and hence upon that of the reader), the intent being to tear away the protecting layers of moralism and rationalization, revealing thereby the spiritual malaise and corruption which infests the unconscious….
The problem to which Flannery O'Connor's fiction addresses itself is … finally ontological, a question of being. In his theoretical writings, Ionesco has spoken of the radical nothingness, the "ontological void," which characterizes contemporary existence. Flannery O'Connor's work appears to provide an alternative to Ionesco's "ontological void." "The divine," says Tillich, "embraces itself and the demonic," and he speaks of "divine holiness" and "demonic holiness." Miss O'Connor's purpose, it would appear, is to resuscitate the notion of demonic holiness in order to recover the idea of holiness itself; and through the affirmation of the reality of holiness (both divine and demonic), she posits Being where many of her contemporaries find nothingness. Her fiction thus assumes the shape of a reassertion of the claims of Being, an affirmation of the grounding of man in something other than an absurd existence cut off from all depth, which appears to many today as our peculiar and inescapable spiritual heritage….
Flannery O'Connor committed herself to a vision which places a positive valuation upon violence, upon "spiritual crime" (the phrase is Thomas Mann's), and upon evil. "The dialectic of good," Dostoevsky believed, "is set in motion through suffering—and often through sin"; the same, I believe, can be said of Flannery O'Connor. Her vision as a writer is founded upon a similar dialectic. Just as Hazel Motes proclaims that "the only way to truth is through blasphemy," Miss O'Connor seems to say that, in a time so well adjusted to itself that reflection becomes superfluous, the only way to the Holy is through the demonic.
Preston M. Browning, Jr., "Flannery O'Connor and the Demonic," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1973, pp. 29-41.
At the risk of having my garage burned (in lieu of a barn) by her faithful admirers, I am going to show why I am convinced that Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a flawed short story. This is not to say that the story is totally without merit. To the contrary, it has several redeeming features, one, from the teacher's standpoint, being the flaw itself. But just as one or two robins do not make a spring, so too an interesting character or fascinating event does not necessarily make a successful story. Before getting down to particulars, I must give my reasons for severely criticizing such a fine writer as the late Miss O'Connor. To be brief: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" does not bear up under close analysis; yet, it has been praised in terms bordering upon adoration, and has been widely anthologized and purveyed to college students as a shining example of—well—symbolism—or something. The flaw in the story has led to many obtuse, confusing, and humorously contradictory judgments….
"A Good Man is Hard to Find" fails as a short story because of its structure. Specifically, the point-of-view shifts from the grandmother to the Misfit and the reader is suddenly left holding the bag, as it were, or—to be more technical—without a focus of narration….
The shift takes place soon after Bailey Boy loses control of the automobile and the family is plunged into the ditch….
Up to the moment at which the point-of-view changes, the family is, indeed, all we have to work with….
Enter now from nowhere the Misfit; exit the point-of-view….
Whether the meeting be by coincidence, or fate, or whatever one chooses to call it, the rest of the story focuses on the Misfit; and, in the conclusion, we suddenly realize that we probably know (or think we know) more about him than the grandmother, whom initially we were led to accept as the main character. The Misfit shoots her, and the last word is his.
This, then, is the shift in point-of-view that I believe causes much confusion in understanding the story….
[We] find that as a result the Misfit becomes the main interest. Coming as he does out of nowhere in the latter portion of the story, and strongly characterized as a grotesque figure, it is understandable that so many critics hold differing views of him. He is variously termed a Jesus figure, a murderer, an embodiment of evil, a good man, a Pascalian gambler, a lapsed idealist, a tragic figure, an agent of God, and a Hamlet and a Raskolnikov who becomes independent of nature….
To be honest, I once believed that the best explanation [for the point-of-view problem] was that Miss O'Connor either had two stories (one about the grandmother, the other about the Misfit) that she spliced together, or that she wrote the first part (up to the accident), put it aside, came back to it—perhaps by chance—several years later, and added the Misfit. These conjectures explained not only the point-of-view switch, but also the lack of proportion between the Misfit's large character and his slight foreshadowing.
That is what I used to believe. Now, however, I realize that there is another explanation for the great emphasis the Misfit receives; while it does not—cannot—fully justify the change in point-of-view, at least it gives a reason for Miss O'Connor's technical liberty. "Grace" is the key here, grace and the Catholic view of sin and good and evil. Ironically, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a Catholic story by a "born Catholic" which imposes a Catholic view on decidedly non-Catholic characters. (I wonder, is it kosher to confront fundamentalist Protestant characters with Catholic theology?) In other words, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" might best be considered an "inside" story understandable only to confirmed initiates. Miss O'Connor points to this idea when, after having mentioned the grand-mother's "acceptance of grace" by recognizing that "the Misfit is one of her children," she discusses sin and freedom from the Catholic writer's standpoint: "The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it that way. There is not much possibility of understanding between the two." And one paragraph later she makes this telling generalization: "In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of ground work that seems to be necessary before grace is effected."
Obviously, when a writer undertakes to deal with the devil her work is cut out for her. And when she chooses to dramatize the Catholic view of grace as well, she seems bound to confuse the uninformed. Explication then becomes exegesis and technical aspects are overlooked. But when one sees that the awareness of grace requires a face to face encounter with evil in all its malicious splendor, then he can understand the necessity for the Misfit (who represents this evil) to be strongly characterized. Once this point is established, one can comprehend—even though one may not condone—the consequent necessity for the author's taking liberties with technical aspects, such as, in the case of "A Good Man in Hard to Find," point-of-view.
I must conclude, then, much in the same manner as a diplomat agreeing to a treaty which he knows is necessary, but which, for ingrained reasons, he cannot accept without admitting to himself that he is compromising his basic values. Regardless of what the reason, a shift in point-of-view in a short story is confusing, as I believe I have demonstrated. When one understands the reason for it, however, one might just be able to comprehend, at last, a story which till then has been, for some inexplicable reason, causing much confusion. Such, I am convinced, is the case with Miss O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
William S. Doxey, "A Dissenting Opinion of Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find," in Studies in Short Fiction, Spring, 1973, pp. 199-204.
Flannery O'Connor is a satirist in the savagely indignant tradition of Juvenal and Swift. Like most satirists, she is a conservative writing in an apparently radical idiom. She assumes standards against which the accepted daily absurdities of human pretension and grotesquery are measured—and found sorely wanting. A sternly uncompromising moralist writing in our anti-heroic age, Ms. O'Connor's mordantly comic, yet violently apocalyptic, fictions have never been fashionable. Her depictions of modern man's complacent self-damnation are much too uncomfortable—and accurate—to be popular. Hers has always been a small coterie audience, which may account for the frequent mining of Ms. O'Connor's "true country" by literary critics….
In her stories, the grotesque impinges upon the apparently normal and the faintly respectable, who think of themselves in terms of Sunday goodness. Miss O'Connor's sharpest indictment is of the self-righteous, especially of the Southern woman who preserves appearances at all costs….
If Miss O'Connor's humor seems black indeed; if she lacks compassion, it is because of her commitment to faith as an urgent necessity. Distrusting Southern assimilation of the old moral order into the permissiveness of Northern urban society, in fact feeling that the South is not alienated enough, Miss O'Connor refuses to sentimentalize her characters and their perpetual self-justifications. The force of spirit struggling with the force of society is at the hub of her novels and her short stories…. Ms. O'Connor's fictions revolve about Dostoyevskian-possessed characters who must accept their religious fate, are scorched by revelation or—like many of the demonic antagonists (such as the Misfit) must not merely glimpse revelation, but must struggle for revelation to the end—and beyond. Rarely do her stories involve a sudden Joyceian epiphany. It is the need for the constantly recurring struggle itself that obsesses Miss O'Connor, and links her so closely to Dostoyevsky and the American grotesque of Nathanael West.
Still, like the satirists of old, despite her violently despairing accents of doom, Miss O'Connor is an idealist, using her tragi-comic situations and epigrammatic language as an astringent comic corrective. Unlike Capote, Williams, Faulkner and Carson McCullers, whose "Southern Gothic" she abhorred …, she presents "men as they are," so that they will become what they must be—and soon. Her comic horrors are a prophetic warning that we must live as though there is somebody there to shoot us every minute.
Nancy Y. Hoffman, in Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1973, pp. 294-95.
Flannery O'Connor's gentle background and her close identity with it—these are facts generally obscured in the critical fuss made over her Southern Gothicism and her Catholicism in a Protestant stronghold. She came to early prominence in part because of the anomaly of her position, a fact which she acknowledged and exploited. Catholics seized on her as one of their own (with an uncomfortable difference, however), while the Southern flavor added piquancy for those readers who were eager to swallow anything preposterous about her region. She caught on. Her hillbillies took on meaning for readers of Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard, and she became an attraction on college campuses, where "interleckchuls," as she liked to call them, made owlish reflections about the Misfit and Hulga's wooden leg. The merit of her work was overrated—Thomas Merton could think only of Sophocles. In her fiction of the early fifties which established her reputation, she makes her one great point with jolting effect—and then repeats it endlessly with only slight variation. Moreover, her literary manner is brusque to the point of carelessness, her humor self-conscious and aggressive. Her lectures before academic groups were filled with straight-from-the-hip language that brought splutters of laughter, but the fine distinctions of comedy were beyond her range, or interest. She lacked the manner of the mature artist.
Of course, her aim was not comedy nor verisimilitude but—to her—the most important event in human experience, man's confrontation with Jesus Christ. The protagonists of her two novels and most of the early short stories are Christ-haunted, even though their obsession takes violent and sometimes criminal form….
The stories of her last years, published for the most part in Everything That Rises Must Converge, indicate that a shift in interest was already under way. Though she holds on to religious theme, the nightmarish world of the early work gives way to something closer to the realities of home. Once a reporter asked her if she tried to experience the matter of her fiction. If she did, she replied, she would wind up in Reidsville—the state penitentiary. In her last stories she seems to be coming back within the range of ordinary experience, back to the homey and traditional as a source of sanity in a world given over to innovation.
The theme that runs most persistently through her last work is that the liberal mind, convinced of its own rationality and self-righteousness, cannot possibly comprehend the depths of human nature….
The early work is only stylized Southern because her first intention was to communicate certain truths which have nothing to do with geography. She continued to pursue a religious end, but as mind and art matured, she gave up the flights of allegory and settled on the surface of life, as if there were a special grace there that she had overlooked. "The image of the South is so strong in us that it is a force which has to be encountered and engaged, and it is when this is a true engagement that its meaning will lead outward to universal human interest."
Elmo Howell, "The Developing Art of Flannery O'Connor," in Arizona Quarterly, Autumn, 1973, pp. 266-76.
The fascinations of Flannery O'Connor's work to me are many. She is one of the few Catholic writers of fiction in our day—I omit the convert Evelyn Waugh as being too ideological—who managed to fuse a thorough orthodoxy with the greatest possible independence and sophistication as an artist. Her parish priest in Milledgeville once told me that she was constantly berating him for admiring conventional fiction. Yet her stories show that the Church—which as an institution she used rarely in her work, and then in a relaxed mood of satire at her own expense—was so supreme in her mind as to be invisible. The world of "guilt and sorrow," the light that has been restored but is unbearable—these ultimates are almost Platonic in their severity. The "real" world is the Bible Belt, an allegory. Reality is sin and error, multiplied by hillbilly fanaticism.
No wonder that the situations are hypnotic, the characters synonymous, the time of the drama anytime. The place is the bull that kills, the river in which you drown, not a place you remember for its tragicomic unsuitability to grace, like the rectories in J. F. Powers's quietly brilliant stories of American priests. Flannery O'Connor's severity is an intrinsic view of the world, the style by which she sees. Her stories remain in your mind as inflexible moral equations. The drama is made up of the short distance between the first intimations of conflict and the catastrophe. They are souls driven into this world and so forced to crash. They rush to their fate in the few pages needed to get them going at all. I am fascinated by O'Connor's severity—by its authority, its consistency, and wonder at its personal source. She inherited the dread circulatory disease of lupus, died of it before she was forty, knew she had it from the time she began to write. Her short career was a progress by dying—the sourness, the unsparingness, the constant sense of human weakness in her work may not need as many translations into theology as they get in contemporary American criticism….
On the other hand, she was so locked up in her body that one can understand why life as well as her faith made her think of this is my body, this is my blood. Christianity was sunk in her own flesh. She was a doomed young woman who had nothing to do in her short life but write fiction. There are recurrent examples of The Mother and the precocious, peculiarly neutral figure of The Child who so early sees all, knows all, and forgives no one. The psychological sources of her fiction are so neglected by her closest friends that one might think that Flannery O'Connor wrote fiction only to explain the true religion to the heathen. Yet these are less important than the criticism she makes, as a woman more reduced to inaction than most women, as a Southerner even more suspicious of "America" than most Southerners, of power.
She links power, ownership, authority to violence. People move into violence by a disposition to treat the world as entirely theirs. What Flannery O'Connor is most severe about is the uselessness of mere doing—she is severe about the illusion, not just the traditional male vanity, involved in the despotic show of will. Again and again her stories turn on fights over land and children. People go mad with temper trying to sustain ownership that is supreme—in their own minds. Often the characteristically resentful protagonist is a widow alone in middle age, whose dream is the preservation of property as her authority. The illusion ends in physical smashup. The human quality, at once dull and savage, is as expectable as the animals to which O'Connor goes for her characteristic similes. But what people are most is their disproportion to the world. Human beings are nothing but their moral natures, which sit in them like sacks waiting to be emptied into the world of action. The world is necessarily an empty place for O'Connor; the external is just a trigger. Her art is unhistorical. The only real issue is the primal fault. What people do is always grotesque.
To see life with such detachment from the bustling all-consuming power world, the world that dominates and so often hypnotizes the American novelist, is not to satirize the power but to turn one's back on it. Only a Southerner born to the tradition of being "different," off the main road of American progress, could have faced so much relinquishment. In the face of so much glut after 1945, only a woman of an austerity so scriptural as by our present standards to seem made could have done it. Perhaps Flannery O'Connor owed this "madness" to her sense of many disadvantages. To herself, certainly not to us, she felt like an afterthought even in the most brilliant period of Southern writing. "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 57-60.
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