Flannery O'Connor O'Connor, Flannery (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Flannery O'Connor 1925-1964

(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on O'Connor's works from 1982 through 2001. See also A Good Man Is Hard to Find Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Short Story 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.

Biographical Information

O'Connor was an only child whose parents were 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 later struck O'Connor. 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 (1952), while living at Yaddo writers' colony in upstate New York in 1947 and 1948. 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 forward, 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.

Major Works

O'Connor’s fiction 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 southern environments, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. The protagonists of both her novels—Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away—experience intense spiritual conflict. Often considered “Christ-haunted” characters, they are tormented by visions of God and the devil and by the temptation to deny the reality of their revelations. Critics have described O'Connor's protagonists as grotesque in personality, inclined to violence, and isolated and frustrated by their spiritual struggle.

Reflecting the religious themes of her novels, a 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.

Critical Reception

The predominant feature of O'Connor criticism is its abundance. O'Connor garnered serious and widespread critical attention for her first short story collection, and since her death the outpouring has been remarkable, including hundreds of essays and numerous full-length studies. While her work has received some hostile reviews, including those that 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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Wise Blood (novel) 1952

A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short stories) 1955; published in England as The Artificial Nigger, 1957

The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960

Three by Flannery O’Connor (novels and short stories) 1964

Everything That Rises Must Converge (short stories) 1965

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (nonfiction) 1969

The Complete Stories (short stories) 1971

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (correspondence) 1979

Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works 1988

James J. Napier (essay date spring 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Napier, James J. “Flannery O'Connor's Last Three: ‘The Sense of an Ending’.” Southern Literary Journal 14, no. 2 (spring 1982): 19-27.

[In the following essay, Napier evaluates O'Connor's literary output in the last few years of her life, focusing on the achievement of her last three stories: “Revelation,” “Judgment Day,” and “Parker's Back.”]

“Ends are ends only when they are not negative but frankly transfigure the events in which they were immanent.”

—Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, p. 175.1

A casual look at the record of Flannery O'Connor's...

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Stanley Renner (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Renner, Stanley. “Secular Meaning in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” College Literature 9, no. 2 (1982): 123-32.

[In the following essay, Renner suggests a secular interpretation of the conclusion of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”]

Just as literature illuminates life, life illuminates literature, sometimes causing a shock of recognition that simultaneously verifies the author's imaginative vision and advances our comprehension of both the vision and the means employed to reveal it. A recent account in a Southern newspaper of developments in a murder trial casts such light on Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that has proved...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date March 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coulthard, A. R. “From Sermon to Parable: Four Conversion Stories by Flannery O'Connor.” American Literature 55, no. 1 (March 1983): 55-71.

[In the following essay, Coulthard considers sin and redemption in four of O'Connor's short stories: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Revelation,” and “Parker's Back.”]

In a 1958 letter, Flannery O'Connor discussed the major theme of her writing: “It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing. … The action of grace changes a character. … All my stories are about the action of grace on a character.”1 Like many of...

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John F. Desmond (essay date summer-fall 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Flannery O'Connor and the History behind the History.” Modern Age 27, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1983): 290-96.

[In the following essay, Desmond examines the role of historicism and the aesthetic of memory in O'Connor's work.]

The question of Flannery O'Connor's place in the tradition of modern Southern letters remains a vexing one for critics. Both the number and the wide ideological range of critical assessments that have appeared since her death testify to the anomalous position she continues to occupy as a Southern Catholic writer. Some may wish to argue that her rare blend of Christian orthodoxy, Southern regionalism, and comic literary...

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M. A. Klug (essay date fall 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Klug, M. A. “Flannery O'Connor and the Manichean Spirit of Modernism.” Southern Humanities Review 17, no. 4 (fall 1983): 303-14.

[In the following essay, Klug maintains that O'Connor's negative attitude towards modernism and the modern writer “sets her at odds with the whole tradition of American fiction in this century and with the type of spiritual hero which that tradition has produced.”]

Flannery O'Connor made no secret of her contempt for the modern age. Her antagonism to it goes far beyond the artist's conventional scorn of science, technology, middle-class values, “the smell of steaks in passage-ways.” She attacks the central assumptions of...

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Nadine Brewer (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brewer, Nadine. “Christ, Satan, and Southern Protestantism in O'Connor's Fiction.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 14 (1985): 103-11.

[In the following essay, Brewer asserts that O'Connor's use of Christ and Satan symbolism in her work proves her thorough understanding of Southern Protestantism.]

In her introduction to Sister Kathleen Feeley's book on Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Gordon reports that O'Connor once remarked “she could wait fifty, indeed a hundred, years to have one of her stories read right.” Unfortunately, it is true that she has been widely misread, despite the probability that no other “Southern” writer has ever written of her own...

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Arthur F. Kinney (essay date spring 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kinney, Arthur F. “Flannery O'Connor and the Fiction of Grace.” Massachusetts Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1986): 71-96.

[In the following essay, Kinney considers the role of grace in O'Connor's fiction.]

Flannery O'Connor claimed always to be writing fiction about the extraordinary moments of God's grace, when it touches even the most maimed, deformed, or unregenerate of people—especially those; proper Christian literature, she remarked, is always “an invitation to deeper and stranger visions.” Yet however willingly the most devoted and admiring reader might listen to her talk about her art, precisely those extraordinary moments have always been, at the...

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Bill Oliver (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oliver, Bill. “Flannery O'Connor Compassion.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 15 (1986): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Oliver analyzes O'Connor's unique sense of compassion in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgment Day.”]

Compassion is the quality O'Connor's fiction is supposed to lack. John Hawkes, in an early and still influential essay, said that her characters “are judged, victimized, made to appear only as absurd entities of flesh” (399). Jesse Hill Ford suspected that she hated human kind. “Her fiction,” he said, “has an axe-murder feel to it” (Martin 216). More recently,...

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Ted R. Spivey (essay date April 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Spivey, Ted R. “Flannery O'Connor, The New Criticism, and Deconstruction.” Southern Review 23, no. 2 (April 1987): 271-80.

[In the following essay, Spivey encourages various critical perspectives on O'Connor's work, contending that relying on only one will result in a limited and one-sided view of her fiction.]

Since Flannery O'Conner's death in 1964, her work, like Faulkner's, has attracted the attention of critics and scholars throughout the world. In fact, she is now generally acclaimed as the modern South's greatest novelist after Faulkner. Yet we may well ask if both Faulkner and O'Connor, for all the excellent criticism their work has received, do not...

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John Byars (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Byars, John. “Prophecy and Apocalyptic in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 16 (1987): 34-42.

[In the following essay, Byars underscores the importance of prophecy in O'Connor's work and asserts that “in a real sense her fiction is a form of prophecy, both revelatory and admonitory, telling a modern secularized world of the presence of grace and the imminence of judgment.”]

Critics have often noticed the crucial role prophets and false prophets play in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. She names characters Enoch and Obadiah; she transforms three adolescent vandals into “prophets dancing in the fiery furnace”; she assigns...

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Helen S. Garson (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garson, Helen S. “Cold Comfort: Parents and Children in the Work of Flannery O'Connor.” In Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarps and Jan Nordby Gretlund, pp. 113-22. Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Garson regards the theme of parents and children as an important one in O'Connor's fiction.]

Her world was narrow, said the poet, Elizabeth Bishop, of Flannery O'Connor's stories. A limited number of themes interested O'Connor; and certain character types and relationships appear and reappear to form a pattern in the two novels and the two short story collections. More than half the...

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Martha E. Cook (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Martha E. “Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: Forms of Entrapment.” In Modern American Fiction: Form of Function, edited by Thomas Daniel Young, pp. 198-212. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Cook offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Wise Blood.]

On May 18, 1952, the Sunday New York Times had the following as its predominant headline: “20,000 parade on fifth avenue to hail armed forces day.” The major sports headlines proclaimed, “giant rally tops cubs, 9-8; dodgers rout pirates, 12-7.” And the cover story for the Book Review was a large article on George Orwell's Homage...

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Kathleen G. Ochshorn (essay date spring 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ochshorn, Kathleen G. “A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Studies in American Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1990): 113-17.

[In the following essay, Ochshorn explores the contradictions between readers' interpretations of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and O'Connor's intentions regarding the story.]

Flannery O'Connor was often shocked to find how people interpreted her stories. Some readers of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” believed the grandmother was evil, even a witch. Soon O'Connor set out, quite explicitly, in letters and lectures to detail the theology of the story and the importance of the grandmother as an agent of...

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Lisa S. Babinec (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Babinec, Lisa S. “Cyclical Patterns of Domination and Manipulation in Flannery O'Connor's Mother-Daughter Relationships.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 19 (1990): 9-29.

[In the following essay, Babinec examines mother-daughter relationships in O'Connor's fiction from a feminist perspective.]

Flannery O'Connor's fiction is witty, grotesque, and entertaining, and, at the same time, complex, ambiguous, and undefinable. Since her death in 1964, many scholars have attempted to analyze O'Connor's fiction in a variety of ways; specifically, they have focused on the representation of Christian values and the issue of grace and redemption, psychological and...

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Nancy T. Clasby (essay date fall 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy T. “‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’: Flannery O'Connor as a Visionary Artist.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 4 (fall 1991): 509-20.

[In the following essay, Clasby offers a Jungian reading of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”]

Flannery O'Connor's reservations about psychoanalytic readings of her work have not deterred several critics from producing interesting Freudian and Lacanian studies. Some of these studies attribute O'Connor's rejection of psychoanalytic commentary to her unacknowledged fear of the unconscious as “a material realm that threatens to displace the domain of ‘spirit’” (Mellard 628). It may be,...

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Mark Walters (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walters, Mark. “Violence and Comedy in the Works of Flannery O'Connor.” In New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, edited by Regina Barreca, pp. 185-92. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1992.

[In the following essay, Walters views O'Connor's fiction from a feminist perspective in order to examine the relationship between violence and comedy in her work.]

Flannery O'Connor is not often read from a feminist perspective. This is not surprising; she herself made clear that she was largely concerned with spiritual matters, with the “demonstration of God's mystery at work in the world.” Understandably, then, much O'Connor criticism has centered on the...

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Henry M. W. Russell (essay date 1995-96)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, Henry M. W. “Racial Integration in a Disintegrating Society: O'Connor and European Catholic Thought.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 24 (1995-96): 33-45.

[In the following essay, Russell maintains that O'Connor's ideas about race were profoundly influenced by her Catholic faith.]

Flannery O'Connor's thoughts on race are more informed by her Christian faith than by her geographic roots. American critics have long acknowledged the importance of her statements about being a Catholic writer in the South, but the dismal failure of the American church to communicate orthodox Catholic teaching since the 1960s has obscured to many what such a commitment...

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John F. Desmond (essay date autumn 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Flannery O'Connor and the Idolatrous Mind.” Christianity and Literature 46, 1 (autumn 1996): 25-35.

[In the following essay, Desmond investigates O'Connor's view of the modern idolatrous mind through an analysis of her story “An Artificial Nigger.”]

It was Flannery O'Connor's fellow Southern-Catholic writer Walker Percy who defined central features of the modern idolatrous mind in his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World.” Speaking of our present-day diminished religious capacities, Percy said:

The question is not whether the Good News is no longer relevant, but rather whether it...

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Joseph Zornado (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zornado, Joseph. “A Becoming Habit: Flannery O'Connor's Fiction of Unknowing.” Religion & Literature 29, no. 2 (summer 1997): 27-59.

[In the following essay, Zornado explores the relationship between O'Connor's Roman Catholic faith and her art and finds parallels between her literary sensibilities and those of Thomas Merton.]

Its almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively.

—Flannery O'Connor, Habit [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor] 144

Much of Flannery O'Connor's fiction undermines the...

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Cindy Beringer (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Beringer, Cindy. “‘I Have Not Wallowed’: Flannery O'Connor's Working Mothers.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Salle Wolff, pp. 124-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Beringer elucidates the mother-child relationship in three O'Connor short stories: “The Enduring Chill,” “Greenleaf,” and “Good Country People.”]

The distinctive characters of Flannery O'Connor's stories are drawn masterfully from the red clay of southern agrarian life. The author blends humor, irony, and satire to create characters whose lives are thwarted and...

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Rachel Carroll (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carroll, Rachel. “Foreign Bodies: History and Trauma in Flannery O'Connor's ‘The Displaced Person’.” Textual Practice 14, no. 1 (2000): 97-114.

[In the following essay, Carroll asserts that repressed memories of crisis surface through the unconscious in “The Displaced Person.”]

We must presume … that the psychical trauma—or more precisely the memory of the trauma—acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must be continued to be regarded as an agent that is still at work.

(Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud)1

History and the irrational are revealed to exist...

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Hilton Als (essay date January 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Als, Hilton. “This Lonesome Place.” New Yorker (29 January 2001): 82-8.

[In the following essay, Als considers the defining characteristics of O'Connor's fiction.]

The two niggers, a man and a woman, cutting across the field are looking for a little moonshine when they spot the white boy, Francis Marion Tarwater—the teen-age antihero of Flannery O'Connor's startling second novel, The Violent Bear It Away—who is digging a grave for his great-uncle Mason. Mason, a self-titled prophet who spent his life denouncing the world for having forsaken its Saviour, believed that Tarwater might have the calling, too, but the boy is not feeling his religion...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Burke, William. “Fetishism in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 22 (1993-94): 45-52.

Examines the fetishistic characters in O'Connor's fiction.

Cash, Jean W. “O'Connor on ‘Revelation’: The Story of a Story.” English Language Notes 24, no. 3 (March 1987): 61-7.

Traces the origins and writing of O'Connor's “Revelation.”

Crocker, Michael W., and Robert C. Evans. “Faulkner's ‘Barn Burning’ and O'Connor's ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’.” CLA Journal 36, no. 4 (June 1993): 371-83.

Finds parallels...

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