Flannery O'Connor 1925–-1964
(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short fiction writer, novelist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of O'Connor's short fiction works from 1996 to 2002. See also A Good Man Is Hard to Find Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6, 13, 21.
O'Connor is considered one of the foremost short story writers in American literature. She was an anomaly among post-World War II authors–a Roman Catholic from the Bible-belt South whose stated purpose was to reveal the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life. Aware that not all readers shared her faith, O’Connor chose to depict salvation through shocking, often violent action upon characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Moreover, her penchant for employing ironic detachment and mordant humor prompted some critics to classify O'Connor as an existentialist or nihilist. She also infused her fiction with the local color and rich comic detail of her Southern milieu, particularly through her skillful presentation of regional dialect. A complex system of symbolism and allegory adds further resonance to O'Connor’s writing.
O'Connor was the only child of devout Roman Catholics from prominent Georgia families. She attended parochial schools in Savannah and public high school in Milledgeville, where the family moved after her father developed disseminated lupus, the degenerative disease that O'Connor later inherited. Soon after her father’s death when she was nearly sixteen, O'Connor entered the nearby Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in social sciences. In her spare time she edited and wrote for school publications to which she also contributed linoleum block and woodcut cartoons. O'Connor then enrolled in the graduate writing program at Iowa State University, where she earned her M.A. in 1947 with six stories, including “The Geranium,” which had appeared the previous year in the periodical Accent. Throughout her career, O'Connor’s stories were readily published, occasionally by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle, but more often by prestigious literary journals including Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Kenyon Review.
O'Connor began her first novel, Wise Blood, while living at Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1947-48. She continued working on the novel while living in New York City and then in Connecticut, where she boarded with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, a young married couple who shared O'Connor’s Catholic faith and literary interests. However, O'Connor’s independent lifestyle ended abruptly at age twenty-five when she suffered her first attack of lupus. From that point onward, O'Connor lived with her mother at Andalusia, a small dairy farm outside Milledgeville. She maintained a steady writing pace, publishing Wise Blood in 1952, followed by the story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Way, in 1960. Each volume attracted significant critical attention, and she was awarded three O. Henry prizes for her short stories in addition to several grants and two honorary degrees. As her reputation grew, she traveled when her health permitted to give readings and lectures. She died in 1964.
In her fiction O'Connor frequently criticizes the materialism and spiritual apathy of contemporary society, faulting modern rationalism for its negation of the need for religious faith and redemption. Employing scenes and characters from her native South, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Another recurrent motif in O'Connor’s thirty-one short stories is that of divine grace descending in an often bizarre or violent manner upon a spiritually deficient main character. She often depicts a rural domestic situation suddenly invaded by a criminal or perverse outsider–a distorted Christ figure who redeems a protagonist afflicted with pride, intellectualism, or materialism. In one of O'Connor’s best-known stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example, a smugly self-complacent grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer who kills first her family and then her. Critics have noted that O'Connor’s tales, while expressing intense action, are related in concise, almost epigrammatic prose. They have also praised her use of richly complex imagery and symbols, observing that spiritual meaning is often conveyed through vivid descriptions of nature in her work.
The predominant feature of O'Connor criticism is its abundance. From her first collection, O'Connor garnered serious and widespread critical attention, and since her death the outpouring has been remarkable, including hundreds of essays and numerous full-length studies. While her work has occasioned some hostile reviews, including those which labeled her an atheist or accused her of using the grotesque gratuitously, she is almost universally admired, if not fully understood. In addition to wide-ranging studies of her style, structure, symbolism, tone, themes, and influences, critical discussion often centers on theological aspects of O'Connor’s work. In inquiries into the depth of her religious intent, critics usually find O'Connor to be the orthodox Christian that she adamantly declared herself.