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O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery 1925–1964
Miss O'Connor was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work is at the center of the Southern Renascence. The groundnote of Miss O'Connor's fiction was her ardent Roman Catholic—sometimes called Jansenist—wrath, her obsession with godlessness and depravity. Her collected stories were published in 1971. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Miss O'Connor had a mission. She had something to say, and she had an audience who—she felt—needed desperately to hear and to heed her message. Like Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away, she set out to wake the sleeping children of God. And she succeeded.
Miss O'Connor used violence to convey her vision because she knew that the violence of rejection in the modern world demands an equal violence of redemption—man needs to be "struck" by mercy; God must overpower him. And man must reach God through an equal violence (p. 58)
People are reading her fiction as a serious expression of a significant vision; whether or not they can comprehend it is beyond her control. Within her control, however, is whether or not she has convincingly and completely expressed the vision in her fiction. If she has succeeded in doing this, she has completed her mission. (p. 59)
Her satirical humor … clearly illustrates the dichotomy of spiritual awareness and secular blindness in the modern world. That this humor is brutal … is debatable. John Hawkes [in "Flannery O'Connor's Devil," Sewanee Review, LXX (Summer, 1962)] defines her satire as "centralizing a dominant ideal by means of irony and analogy" and as a form "which demolishes man's image of himself as a rational creature." This, then, would seem to fit in both with Miss O'Connor's vision and with her election to use violent means to express it. Man's rationalism will not save him—perhaps the image must be demolished so that he can see beyond it to salvation.
It is here that we encounter the crux of Miss O'Connor's vision: the rational world, that is—the world man can perceive through human reason—has replaced the spiritual world, that is—the Body of Christ which can only be perceived through the Grace and Mercy of God…. And her criminals, her misfits and prophets, are closer to salvation because they are in the spiritual realm: they are Evil and are fighting a religious battle within themselves—their belief or disbelief in Christ is to them a matter of life and death. Her secular grotesques, on the other hand, may be Right, but they are a world away from moral Good. (pp. 65-6)
Thelma J. Shinn, "Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Grace," in Contemporary Literature (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 58-73.
The work of Flannery O'Connor is remarkably free of morbidity because, like Greek tragedy or Christian myth, her attention is less on catharsis and loss than on transfiguration; less on the fact of death than on its attendant circumstance and aftermath—the apocalyptic vision of possibility…. The thrust of Flannery O'Connor's work too is into the heart of paradox, epitomized by serious consideration that man's mortality might be an act of grace and the occasion of death a prophetic sign. (pp. 290-91)
Flannery O'Connor undercuts the more sensational or melodramatic aspects of dying, because she is concerned less with documentary realism than with the aura of understanding effected in the agonist himself or in a bystander. (p. 293)
[She] has retained respect for and responsibility to history as fable of epic possibility; to social order as ceremony of hope; to place and person as concrete precedent for universals. For her—as for Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, and other Southerners—there can never fully be an I unless there is an I-Thou. Much has been made of the existentialist's courage, his limited affirmation in a world that deserves despair. What of the courage to take seriously origin and ends, and so redeem the time between? (pp. 298-99)
For Flannery O'Connor, as for Wallace Stevens, change is the agent of permanence. (p. 299)
Leonard Casper, "The Unspeakable Peacock: Apocalypse in Flannery O'Connor," in The Shaken Realist: Essays in Modern Literature in Honor of Frederick J. Hoffman (copyright © 1970 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University, 1970, pp. 287-99.
The fiction O'Connor lived had its roots in that Southern need to do pretty regardless of what you feel, and in her own remarkable ability to divorce behavior from feeling and even to conceal feelings from herself. Much as she hated the Mrs. Hopewells, Mrs. Mays, and Mrs. Turpins she wrote about, she was, in many ways, like them…. She seems to have gone through the motions of conventional behavior without becoming deeply involved in the conventional world around her and without expecting any deep human contact. She … seems to have been oddly out of touch with those more essential feelings that explode in her work. And it is through her very ability to detach herself from those feelings that she came closest to being what she had never admired: a Southern Lady. (p. 13)
The great strength of O'Connor's fiction seems to me to spring from the silent and remote rage that erupts from the quiet surface of her stories and that so unexpectedly explodes. It appears, for example, when the Misfit with great politeness has the family exterminated, or when he answers the grandmother's "niceness" with a gunshot and thereby suggests that neither Christian charity nor Southern politeness can contain all the darker human impulses. It appears again in the punishment of the vain, self-satisfied Mrs. Turpin, who gets a book thrown at her. Perhaps it has a quieter voice in those sweetly nasty comments Mrs. Turpin's Negroes make as they talk among themselves to comfort her: "You the sweetest lady I know." "She pretty too." "And stout." And perhaps it is there in the impulses of all those resentful sons and daughters in the pages of Flannery O'Connor's fiction who are frozen in an extended, rebellious adolescence where, in a perpetual dependency because of illness or fear, the price they ought to pay for being cared for is silence, acquiescence to an effective, controlling, exasperatingly polite, and very removed mother. (pp. 14-15)
To assume [as some critics do] that her work is merely a monologue on redemption is to see it only in part, to ignore much of its meaning, and to lose sight of the believer behind the belief. My own feeling is that O'Connor never merely wrote about Redemption, but that the very act of writing was itself a redemptive process for her. It may have been the only, and perhaps unconscious, way she could express all the contradictions within her…. I do not think O'Connor's fiction can be explained by her Catholicism alone. (p. 17)
Flannery O'Connor … created an art that is, in many instances, as emotionally flat as Robbe-Grillet's, an art where object and gesture simply are. In Flannery O'Connor's most powerful fiction, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, there are no ideas about things, there are only the things themselves. (p. 23)
O'Connor's characters are, in general, so estranged from their emotional life that they feel their emotions do not even belong to them. They seem to belong to someone else, a stranger who is, nevertheless oddly familiar; a double who, in some way, recapitulates their own experience. Her heroes are so emotionally dead that they can perform the most outrageous acts without any conscious awareness of feelings of elation or despair. It is not surprising that the Misfit corrects his comment that there's "no pleasure but meanness," with "It's no real pleasure in life."
Believing that the only relation possible between men and between men and things is "strangeness," Robbe-Grillet claims to record the distance between objects and reified men without an emotional sense of loss. While O'Connor sometimes achieves a similar detachment in isolated scenes, she usually displays a certain joy in human isolation, a perverse relish for it. She may resemble Robbe-Grillet in style, create characters as emotionally flat as his, and stress the mechanical quality of life, but she never merely reproduces a neutral universe or records the distance between men. O'Connor does not reflect the real world; she reduces it.
Many of O'Connor's stories move by a process of constriction in which abstract, spiritual, or expansive longings shrink into a concrete act, an act that is with remarkable frequency akin to murder or suicide. Since she never treats interiors of thought or feeling, these acts are forced to bear the entire meaning of the story. As I have suggested, they are usually effected quietly and without apparent emotion. Yet,… action erupts from an emotional void so frequently in O'Connor's work that you are forced to see the peculiar combination as one of her preoccupations. (pp. 24-5)
O'Connor's heroes rarely want to feel compassion because they fear human contact more than they fear emotional death…. O'Connor's heroes can never connect with themselves or with others. They come closest in momentary acts of violence in which they murder or commit suicide. For the duration of the destructive act, for the moment in which they annihilate some human tie, they are able to come most powerfully alive, to transcend the otherwise engulfing emotional "ice." Yet O'Connor reduces and diminishes the significance of their acts by a variety of stylistic devices. As I have said, she not only simplifies and objectifies her hero's psychological state at the moment of his most "passionate" act, she places that act near the end of her story, where it expresses the final step in the progressive reduction of symbolic meanings. Her reductive impulse is embedded in the structure of her stories, which, in general, move from the symbolic toward the objective. (p. 27)
O'Connor will often begin with an abstraction or metaphor that becomes more and more concrete as she continues. This is a way of destroying the significance of symbols, of making them specific and concrete or, in other words, of making the spiritual physical or the abstract literal…. (pp. 27-8)
O'Connor not only destroys all transcendent qualities by burying them in the body, she regards the body itself as repulsive. In her love for the material, her obsession with animal reality—perhaps best shown by the ubiquitous hogs that fill her world—she resembles the creators of what has been called the literature of disgust, best known from the work of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. Considering the absence of visceral prose in O'Connor's work, such a comparison may seem unlikely at first. Yet her work has a similar impulse and direction. Burroughs' image of ultimate reality—the junkie naked in the sunlight—is not unlike Mrs. Turpin's final vision of her pigs luminous at sunset…. Burroughs, Selby, and O'Connor write about people trapped within their own bodies, figuratively drowning in their own juices. O'Connor describes visually what they describe tactilely and, substituting an obsession for violence and religion for their concern with sex and drugs, makes a similar statement in a less "sensuous" way. Like so many American writers of the last century, O'Connor substitutes a concern for deformity, murder, and religion for violent sexuality. In this she is traditional, but the affectless, mechanical quality of violence in her world, and the lack of profound human involvement, give her work a peculiar modernity. While the primary themes of her fiction are traditional…, O'Connor's development of what could be called the affectless grotesque makes her work remarkably new. (pp. 28-30)
[Conflict], most generally stated as one between the present and the past, appears in all O'Connor's work in different forms: psychological, social, religious. Its recurrence contributes to a body of work of remarkable uniformity and persistent design. O'Connor consistently expresses her themes as conflicts or embodies them in images of opposites. Whether she exalts her alienated hero (as she does in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost") or burlesques him (as she does Motes in Wise Blood), all her heroes alternate between the same peculiar, almost contradictory forces: emotional death and violence, confusion and certainty, detachment from human contact and domination by it. (p. 30)
[Strife] finds a social and religious expression as a conflict between a secular, relativistic sense of life in which man is perfectible through reason and technology, and a religious belief in absolutes in which human evil and human suffering are unredeemable. The conflict between a secular and a religious sense of life appears in nearly all O'Connor's fiction, but it is expressed most powerfully when it is added to a social conflict between rural and urban life….
Through O'Connor's cities stalk those bêtes noires she loves to thwart, the social worker and the teacher who advocate the examined life, human commitments, and the bonds of human compassion. (p. 31)
O'Connor's heroes, the saints and martyrs of her fictive world … are generally murderers, psychic cripples, sometimes freaks, always brutal men who have a sense of sin and think about God, sometimes. The Misfit's despair, murder of his "father," and imprisonment suggest one of O'Connor's pervasive metaphors for life: a prison in which man suffers for a crime he cannot remember. From a theological point of view, the crime may be original sin. But from a human standpoint, it is "ice in the blood." O'Connor's heroes have lost all sense of human kinship…. Having taken the right to act as inexplicably as God, O'Connor's hero finds himself in godlike isolation, alien to human suffering and joy. He can kill without pleasure or remorse. (pp. 35-6)
If violence in the social realist novels in the Thirties reflected the horror of life in Marxist terms, violence in O'Connor's work reflects a more modern brutality. O'Connor's most violent men have been so crushed by life that they suffer with remarkable passivity the alarming pity or open contempt of a society that does not value the "sanctity" of hermaphrodites or psychic freaks. They can never fully shout out their rage at any of the Authorities who shut them up in asylums, jails, or on isolated farms; who demand they analyze themselves, and whose pity or compassion render them still more impotent. It is only in acts of violence that they give voice to their mute fury.
Even in their violence O'Connor's heroes are estranged from their inmost rage. O'Connor always gives their fury a detached, oblique quality. (p. 36)
Images of burial or entrapment define every kind of human relation in O'Connor's incredibly hostile universe. It is not only social institutions, social workers, other people in general, and controlling parents in particular who can trap you; the very fact of growing up can do it. Images of entrapment often define adult life to a child…. [The] most prevalent relationship between people of all ages in O'Connor's fiction [is] oppressors and oppressed, murderers and victims. (p. 39)
I think O'Connor describes man's piggish qualities while ignoring his spiritual ones. That Holy Spirit dwelling within the hermaphrodite does not allow him to transcend his deformity, it conforms to its shape much as Joy-Hulga's identity took the shape of her artificial leg. Making her see her soul in terms of her body, and not her body in terms of her soul, it welds her further to her flesh. Like her description of the convent, O'Connor's treatment of the Holy Spirit seems to be ironic, undercutting, as it does, its power as a traditional symbol of transcendence. All the outward signs of invisible grace shown by her characters are signs of mutilation, marks of deformity they cannot transcend. It may be that God can only be found in O'Connor's world in connection with finite, unredeemable human ugliness. Yet this seems unlikely to me.
What explodes from these stories is the sense that the Misfits, Shiftlets, Manley Pointers, and hermaphrodites are O'Connor's God. Their godliness resides precisely in their ability to escape from the chain of human involvements that binds Mrs. Crater to her daughter, Mrs. Hopewell to Hulga, and the child to her cousins. O'Connor's brutal heroes detach themselves from human problems by detaching themselves from life in human, familial terms.
O'Connor's heroes are gods because they have won freedom from the nexus of human needs and longings that always, for O'Connor's characters, ends in overpowering frustration and rage. They are beyond sexual desire, love, or compassion. As the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge … explicitly show, the enduring crucifixion, the endless agony is close human contact. God, like the Misfit, is a force that can obliterate anguish, that can destroy all the "grandmothers" of the world—all the forces of tradition and family that bind people to each other. (pp. 94-6)
When her work is compared to such Southern contemporaries as William Faulkner, William Styron, and Truman Capote, its distinctive qualities become clear.
Those habitués of Southern fiction, the one-horse farmer, the outlaw, the peddler, the itinerant workman, and the black appear in the work of all four writers. Like other Southerners, they write about fundamentalist religion, display that distrust of intellect and abstraction claimed for the South by Robert Penn Warren, and show a world with violent contrasts filled with men doing violence to each other and to the land. Those animals, pecans, chicken coops, and trees that have become the furniture of postbellum Southern fiction can be found in the work of all four authors. Here the resemblances end.
Faulkner and Styron build their work on a different scale from O'Connor and Capote. Writing about man mythologizing himself, Faulkner and Styron give the least of his acts the greatest magnitude. The humblest of Faulkner's creations, that idiot Isaac Snopes in The Hamlet who falls so passionately in love with his cow, achieves a depth of feeling no one in O'Connor's work ever reaches. Popeye and Temple Drake, whose closest analogue in O'Connor's work is the wooden Sarah Ham of "The Comforts of Home," pursue their sexual violence with such pleasure and devotion that their sordidness achieves a cosmic stature, far exceeding the capacity of O'Connor's heroes, who find "it's no real pleasure in life." Styron's Nat Turner, like so many of the violent heroes of Southern fiction, from William Gilmore Simms's Guy Rivers through Bayard Sartoris, is a romantic transcending himself in his acts, mythologizing them even as he performs them. Like Joe Christmas of Light in August, Turner is an American Manfred, a Byronic hero of the Southern backwoods. Both Faulkner and Styron write poems about violence in which action disappears into lyricism, into the legend it creates.
Both O'Connor and the mature Capote write about a world without myths. Even ultimate acts have no power to suggest that feeling of meaning, that sense of overpowering significance that legends are made of. While Styron and Faulkner expand the dimensions of reality, O'Connor and Capote reduce or reflect them. (pp. 131-32)
O'Connor's fiction lacks that sense of the interpenetration of the past and present that such a traditionalist as Allen Tate considers essential to the writer with a sense of his homeland. The present and the past do not merge in her work but confront each other like monoliths. Where Faulkner could say, "The past is never dead. It is not even past," O'Connor's characters emerge almost historyless from the backwoods with no sense of the historical past and little of their own. (p. 133)
O'Connor's heroes are neither human, nor symbolic, nor heroic in any traditional sense. On one level, they are projections of O'Connor's fantasies of revolt; on another they are heroes of our time. O'Connor made fiction out of their emptiness, tragedies out of the ice in their blood. She cut so deep into that ice that she reached the general American tragedy of living in cold blood. This is the tragedy of being totally incapable of tragedy, of pervasive emotional death, of minimal human involvement. In committing herself creatively to characters who have neither soul nor depth, O'Connor made poetry out of the surface of reality. (pp. 153-54)
O'Connor's world has lost its symbols. It is filled with objects and acts which become signs of what things might mean, if they had significance, or what men might feel, if they felt at all. Her reductive, leveling impulse may be part of the demythologizing process in American fiction, a process usually associated with Northerners like William Carlos Williams or the more urbane Wallace Stevens. The career of O'Connor's fellow Southerner, Capote, from his neogothic Other Voices, Other Rooms through In Cold Blood may indicate a similar process in Southern fiction. That both an avowed Catholic and a purveyor of rococo fantasies should be fascinated by the meaningless violence of men flat as the Kansas prairies may show that Southern literature is becoming as "Americanized" as the economy of Atlanta. But it is impossible to say for sure whether O'Connor's work anticipated or foretold the sensibility that would create In Cold Blood, or whether it suggests the direction Southern fiction will take in the future. (p. 156)
Josephine Hendin, in her The World of Flannery O'Connor (copyright © 1970 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1970.
[Flannery O'Connor] saw life from many perspectives, but … also believed that what she saw was a whole that demanded complex and integrated responses from the writer. Throughout her essays and lectures Miss O'Connor repeatedly claimed that the novelist writes "with the whole personality" and that "great fiction involves the whole range of human judgment." She insisted that the ultimate concerns of her art transcended the natural but that her art was primarily of the concrete world in which the transcendent was manifested. To paraphrase Maritain, I believe that she sought a more than worldly knowledge, not by knowing the world badly but by knowing it well, by seeing more of it than we usually permit ourselves to see. If such vision is characteristic of the prophet, the seer, it is also characteristic of the true humanist, what Maritain calls the "theocentric humanist," who considers man in his full complexity without being compelled to elevate or debase him by closing one eye. Such a humanist considers man in his finite and infinite extensions, as a creature of religious, psychological, and social depths. And, since he considers existence to be a whole, he finds these dimensions necessarily related. (p. 11)
Even a casual reader … can hardly ignore the overt religious metaphors that suggest sacramental vision (a sun that looks like a blood-drenched host, a peacock that suggests the transfiguration), or the authorial comments that grace has been given to a character, or even the elaborate structures of symbols through which the reader's vision is forced to deepen from social to metaphysical levels. One does not have to know her comments on Hawthorne and romance to recognize that the often extreme stylization of her work suggests allegory. In fact, anyone who has read more than a half-dozen of her stories will recognize recurring types and relations of characters, the common themes, the similarity of plot structures—all of which suggest that the literal is being manipulated for allegorical ends. (p. 12)
[At] least in theory, she knew the dangers inherent in such allegory. She repeatedly warned students that stories do not begin with problems or issues that the writer feels a need to illustrate in some way; they begin with concrete situations, and the author's beliefs will determine how he sees the situation but they should not determine what he sees…. Thus, she cited the impressionistic Conrad ("before all, to make you see") as often as she did the allegorical Hawthorne. There seems to be a conflict here between the allegorist's use of the natural to signify something beyond it and the impressionist's concern for the natural itself. But for the Christian humanist this is a false conflict arising from a false dualistic understanding of existence…. For the anagogical writer,… especially the writer whose religious faith is centered on the Incarnation, the natural and the supernatural contain each other; the different levels of meaning are intrinsic to the image. The allegory of such a writer is more than a technique of discourse; it is a way of seeing the concrete situation most fully. He does not try to find more meaning in the situation he creates, for that would suggest that the situation contained hidden kernels of meaning and that the reader's job was to husk the story to get the messages out of it—an attitude against which Miss O'Connor often warned her readers. Instead, the religious humanist writes allegory to see more of the situation. His task is extraordinarily difficult, since it requires a wholeness of vision which theologians have associated with prophecy and which literary critics, following Blake and Coleridge, have associated with the poetic imagination at its highest, with the ability to represent multëity in unity. Furthermore, such a writer will be distrusted by all sides since he will be too robustly profane for the religious idealist and too dogmatically spiritual for the naturalist who confounds skepticism with wisdom.
If Miss O'Connor's fiction is successfully anagogical, as her critical comments show she intended it to be, then some form of anagogical reading of it would be necessary. The reader who responded to a single level of meaning would be responding not only partially but wrongly; he would be denying her central assumptions about existence. For example, it would be a basic distortion not to realize that in her work to be estranged from God is necessarily to be estranged from one's essential self, which involves a form of psychological imbalance and neurotic compulsion. This spiritual and psychic estrangement also causes an estrangement from other men, thus some form of anti-social, or more precisely "anticommunal," behavior. These "levels of meaning" are actually not distinct levels at all; they become so only for the convenience of critical description; and as we assume temporarily the point of view of any one discipline, it must be to see more of the fictional work by moving around it and seeing it in new relationships. (pp. 12-14)
I find it surprising that critics who have found irreconcilable conceptions of man in her work have not paid more attention to the story "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," where such conflicts are not only explicit but are the thematic centers of the story. (p. 20)
The central theme of the story is Paul's teaching that man is a temple of the living God. No matter how deformed in body or soul, he is a habitation of the Spirit. The theme is developed primarily through the discoveries of a twelve-year-old girl who, in a symbolic initiation into adulthood, learns that this lesson applies even to a sideshow hermaphrodite, who becomes associated with the sacramental presence of Christ in the Host. As is often the case with Miss O'Connor's fiction, however, such a brief statement of theme seriously distorts the work, in itself a good indication of how fully concrete her fiction is. First, the story is not as sentimental as the moral ("We are all God's children") suggests. In fact, the authorial tone and the characterizations produce a strongly complementary theme: although man is a temple of the Holy Ghost, he certainly is grotesque…. Even those characters who present the most valid religious points of view are comic…. The slight ambivalence toward such characters shows that the author believes man to be an amphibious creature: on the one hand, the image of God, the temple of the Holy Ghost, an infinite and divine being; on the other hand, a defaced image, a ruined temple, a grotesque freak, continuously mutilating the divine image through his pride and feelings of self-sufficiency. (pp. 20-1)
Flannery O'Connor persistently represents cities as the domain of the devil (with similarities to Sodom and Gomorrah and to Augustine's earthly city), as a nightmare world, and as an insipid place full of lonely or flat people. Correspondingly, in keeping with the Southern agrarian tradition, she often represents the farm as a place of complex and deep loyalties, where one feels related to the land and one's work and where the relations between people are vitally important and therefore elaborately formalized through manners. The difference is essentially the contrast between the urban collective and the rural community. Miss O'Connor does show at times that attachment to the farm can be a form of estrangement, an attempt to reduce one's concerns within manageable limits and find a hiding place. But more often she uses it to suggest greater complexities of being or the greater possibility for completeness or even the greater difficulty of man's pretending that he is already complete. (p. 29)
One commentator has objected that Miss O'Connor "seemed to find in man a drive to believe in Christ as universal as the hunger or sex drive" and that her use of an allegorical Everyman as hero of each novel shows a tenuous assumption that man is innately religious. This description seems quite valid, but I do not agree that it should be an objection to her work. Miss O'Connor joins many excellent philosophers and theologians in assuming that man is a spiritual creature and that human problems cannot be adequately considered without regard to his full being. Her assumption is not merely a personal or sectarian aberration too peculiar to serve as a premise for fiction; it is quite as tenable, I think, as the Freudian or Jungian assumptions that have served, intentionally or not, as the beliefs behind much twentieth-century literature. Any author who is concerned with man rather than just with individuals will have to have some basic assumptions, no matter how unobtrusive, about man's essential nature…. The main characters are the protagonists, in effect, because they do experience the self-revelations which are possible for all men although not accepted by all…. (pp. 73-4)
Wise Blood … has often been criticized for being an exotic book. Even some of its readers who recognize allegorical outlines have objected that it is the story of an unrepresentative Everyman on a special, not universal, quest. I think that the main problems of the novel are quite the opposite. Despite the heavily exotic and grotesque incidents, descriptions, and minor characters, Miss O'Connor has been too ambitious in her themes and has tried to write almost a survey of major spiritual, psychological, and social problems. Consequently, her novel is too diffuse; it sometimes is too ambiguous as it tries to make situations serve conflicting purposes; and it is several times too pat in its use of social and religious platitudes. Nevertheless, these weaknesses, which are common to first novels, come not from regional or religious parochialism, but from a broad and complex interest in mankind. (p. 101)
But the book does have literary weaknesses that are related to an uncertain authorial point of view. Apart from some sociological triteness and a tendency at times to stuff in too much, Miss O'Connor falters in her authorial attitudes…. (p. 114)
The Violent Bear It Away presented little trouble with point of view. Perhaps through the stories Miss O'Connor had worked out more fully the relation between natural and supernatural grace; perhaps she had clarified her attitudes toward the backwoods religion about which she wrote; and perhaps she had come to a fuller and more precise understanding of the ways in which men may both love and hate God. But whatever the cause, her second novel is precise and subtle in its main themes. (pp. 114-15)
This novel, like Wise Blood and most of the stories, is built upon parallel sets of opposites: a fear of Christ and a longing for Him, self-righteousness and the conviction of sin, hatred and love, aggression and self-destruction, pride and humility. Miss O'Connor believed that these opposites are inherent in human existence and that they need not be destructive…. (p. 139)
Although her range of settings and social groups is small, she is a significant chronicler of the human mind and spirit.
Furthermore, as a humanist, Miss O'Connor sensed that man's various problems were interconnected, that a serious distortion in one dimension of man's spiritual, psychological, and social nature would cause distortions in the other dimensions. And, as a devout Christian, she believed that the fundamental causes of these distortions were religious, centering on man's proper relation to God. She could therefore sustain an integral view of human life and describe the human comedy without despair or cynical amusement. She could achieve a balanced attitude that produced her finest literary qualities: satirical tough-mindedness combined with compassion, concern for transcendence tempered by delight in human gestures, and stylistic exuberance controlled by sureness of structure. These literary qualities, for which Miss O'Connor has often been praised, seem but the expression of her Christian humanism. (p. 140)
David Eggenschwiler, in his The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1972 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1972.
From the moment the reader enters O'Connor's backwoods, he is poised on the edge of a pervasive violence. Characters barely contain their rage; images reflect a hostile nature; and even the Christ to whom the characters are ultimately driven is a threatening figure, "a stinking, mad shadow" full of the apocalyptic wrath of the Old Testament.
O'Connor's conscious purpose is evident enough, and has been abundantly observed by her critics: to reveal the need for grace in a world grotesque without a transcendent context…. It would seem that for O'Connor, given the fact of Original Sin, any intelligence determined on its own supremacy was intrinsically evil. For in each work, it is the impulse toward secular autonomy, the smug confidence that human nature is perfectible by its own efforts, that she sets out to destroy, through an act of violence so intense that the character is rendered helpless, a passive victim of a superior power. Again and again she creates a fiction in which a character attempts to live autonomously, to define himself and his values, only to be jarred back to what she calls "reality"—the recognition of helplessness in the face of contingency, and the need for absolute submission to the power of Christ. (pp. 54-5)
Yet the conventional readings ignore the deeply private nature of O'Connor's vision, the inner necessities which dominate her fictional world. Her peculiar insistence on absolute powerlessness as a condition of salvation so that any assertion of autonomy elicits violence with a vengeance, the fact that she locates the means of grace repeatedly in the sexually perverse as in Tarwater's rape, or in the literally murderous rage of characters like the Misfit, suggests that at the center of her work is a psychological demand which overshadows her religious intent, shaping plot, image and character as well as her distinctive narrative voice. (p. 56)
If we look at the characters O'Connor chooses to pillory—children who rebel against parental control, women, intellectuals—what becomes startingly clear is that she addresses rage and contempt to characters who at least partially represent herself. She was a woman, an intellectual, a writer with meticulous concern for words, a child forced by illness to depend on her mother. Yet her fiction turns her world upside down, and these aspects of herself become the objects of her hatred. "To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks"…, she suggestively remarked [in Mystery and Manners]; and that idea resonates through her fiction. That is the knowledge she forces upon the reader, upon her characters and, through her relation to them, upon herself, with a violence that strips away all pretension to power.
What makes Flannery O'Connor's fiction so compelling to the contemporary imagination is that her personal conflict precisely reflects a major twentieth-century dilemma. The central struggle between parent and child, defined by the child's relative helplessness and anger, by his fear of engulfment by omnipotent figures, is paradigmatic. It parallels our subsequent struggle to assert the magnitude of the individual against the engulfing enormity of a technological society which fragments social roles, shatters community, and splits off those qualities of warmth, intimacy and mutual dependence which nourish a sense of identity. The violence in American life which punctuates and relieves the tension of that struggle is like a mirror projection of the violence with which O'Connor's characters respond to frustration. Searching for an identity in an isolating context, her characters bring to bear on that search all the psychological components of the desire to create oneself, of the impulse in the American character to become one's own parent, to break away from the limits of the past. But in O'Connor these moral impulses become confused with a literal conflict with the parent; her fiction must satisfy the unconscious level of conflict as well as the moral dilemma. O'Connor's Christian theme provides that double solution: by submitting themselves to Christ, her characters acknowledge their powerlessness, yet share in the power of the parent-God.
But the obsessive nature of her concerns imposed limitations on her work, limitations which critics with a theological perspective seem not to recognize. Haunted by the encounter between parent and child, she could not deal with adult relations; torn by a desire for independence but by fear of the essential estrangement it involves, she could not portray the responsibilities of the autonomous personality in a social context. She was compelled to undercut the power of reason, making her intellectuals a limited, infantile lot; to deny to the secular world either dignity or value of the possibility of nourishing human involvement. Instead, she presents us a closed universe, fixed by infantile conflict—irrational, destructive, grotesque—in which adult interrelations do not—can not—exist. Yet her fiction draws us into the agonizing world of childhood anxiety. The violence she depicts allows us to experience the gratification of raging against the limits imposed on us, raging with all the fury of our common childhood fantasies, while she forces us to submit to those limits, to turn the rage back on ourselves. Because of her extraordinary fictional talent, she could so shape and project her inner vision that, against our rational, progressive wills, we identify with freaks, equate human with grotesque, and renounce our humanistic heritage and the desire to grow up. (pp. 66-7)
Claire Katz, "Flannery O'Connor's Rage of Vision," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1974, pp. 54-67.
Wise Blood [is] a novel without the signposts of conventional realism, without the character's mind laid bare…. O'Connor, like Hawthorne, is concerned with the deeper psychology. In O'Connor's fiction, as in Hawthorne's romances, that psychology is not discovered in character alone but in the total dialogue between character and image. Indeed, the more character conceals motive, the more imagery discloses it. [Anyone committed] to a conventional realism of character … does not read the imagery and fails to appreciate the extent to which O'Connor relied upon it to convey the inner dimension of her fiction…. [At] its best, O'Connor's fiction balances the serious and the comic, and tones down the horror. (p. 242)
Claire Katz, in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1974.
[The] fact that reality now seems to satirize itself does not mean that the modern satirist is out of business. It simply means that the … satirist must create his own world in order to make the fantasy work, that is, in order to maintain the necessary distance and the necessary difference between the content of his work and the object of his attack. This world must be related to our world and yet distinct from it, not necessarily more fantastic than our world but fantastic in a different way. The itinerant preachers, Bible salesmen, and "good country people" of Flannery O'Connor's fiction constitute just such a world, and through these people O'Connor brilliantly satirizes contemporary man. (p. 139)
O'Connor is not generally thought of as a satirist. This is not because people have misunderstood her attitudes toward man, but is due, rather paradoxically, to the fact that as satire her work is much more successful than it should be. O'Connor's satire is not based on the kind of moral standard her readers might readily accept but on a religious perspective that should, theoretically, render her satire ineffective among all non-believers. If God does not exist, then there is nothing perverse about man's rejection of God and, therefore, no real ground for O'Connor's satire. But the satire is effective, and the reason for this is that quite surprisingly and quite against our will O'Connor manages to convert us. O'Connor is no gentle Christian lady; she drags us forcefully into her world and makes us believe by the very nature of that world. The conversion may be short-lived, but it is none the less real; for the more we read of O'Connor, the more we see the startling similarities between ourselves and her grotesque atheists and hypocrites. We must believe in God simply in self defense; for to reject God, once we have been drawn into O'Connor's world, is to reveal the same kind of perversity that strikes us as so ludicrous in her characters.
Frye defines satire as "militant irony," and this is a perfect description of O'Connor's work. Her anger should not be overlooked. She is furious at "those stupid idiots" and is compelled to expose their perversity, our perversity, in rejecting a god who is so obviously there, and also to expose what such a rejection makes us…. What O'Connor tells us over and over again is that man without God is nothing but meanness and perversion, that the only values he can have are materialistic or sensual ones, that the only beliefs he can have are prejudices or hypocrisies. When the Bible salesman steals Hulga's artificial leg, we laugh, of course, but we are also shocked. "How could a man do such a thing?" we ask, and O'Connor's implied answer is "Why shouldn't he? There's nothing in man to stop him from doing it."
O'Connor satirizes both man's perversity and his perversion; he is grotesque both in the act of turning away from God and as a result of that act. (pp. 140-41)
In O'Connor's world the rejection of God always causes perversion, for not only is man naturally mean, but he also feels compelled to worship something. When he does not worship God, the impulse is directed toward the material world or toward himself, and O'Connor's satire points out for us just how foolish and grotesque such perversions of worship are…. Our neighbor's pride in his new Mercedes may be just as silly as Hazel's pride in the old Essex [in "Wise Blood"]; but the former is so familiar to us, so close to us, that we can no longer really view that pride critically. We know it is wrong, but we cannot really believe that it is wrong. O'Connor shows us the same phenomenon in a new context; she startles us, wakes us up by the strangeness of her world, and thus her satire affects us almost as though it were something we had never heard before. (p. 142)
Through her satire, Flannery O'Connor shows us that man's worship of himself, his pride in his own power, is as unfounded as Hazel's pride in his automobile. Mr. Head, in "The Artificial Nigger," feels that "his physical reactions, like his moral ones, were guided by his will and strong character"…; and he feels very confident in his ability to guide his grandson through the dangers and temptations of the big city. But Mr. Head himself responds like a panicked child when he and his grandson become lost. The "head" cannot control nor even understand the chaotic experience of modern city life; and, in a minor crisis, Mr. Head's "strong character" fails him so completely that he deserts his own grandson and denies that they are related. (pp. 142-43)
O'Connor's only unsuccessful satire is her satire on the "modern parents" in "The River," and the reason for her failure is that the parents seem to be much more members of our world than any of her other characters…. They are too obviously bad, and, at the same time, too close to our own lives, too literal a reflection of the modern cult of selfishness; and so the simultaneous detachment and identification necessary for satire cannot be achieved. We are not interested in these people, paradoxically, because they are too real, only slightly exaggerations of boring people that we are all overly familiar with. Such people satirize themselves, and O'Connor's attack seems totally superfluous. The satirical attack on parental selfishness is carried out much more successfully in "A Stroke of Good Fortune," where the woman's desperate attempt to ignore the fact that she is pregnant because she is so terrified of her life being interrupted and "wasted" by children, is both more amusing and more horrifying than the parental neglect in the other story. (pp. 143-44)
O'Connor is successful as a satirist because she does surprise us consistently by the very peculiarity of her characters. She does not try to show man his own face but the face of a stranger, a comic and grotesque face that bears a disturbing resemblance to his own. (p. 144)
Mark G. Edelstein, "Flannery O'Connor and the Problem of Modern Satire," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Spring, 1975, pp. 139-44.
In O'Connor we see the masterful presentation of the universal through the particular, the provincial. Consider, for example, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," where the evil in human hearts, and the possibility of grace, the gift of love, are made terrifyingly and magnificently real in the lives of ignorant and limited people on a Southern backwoods roadside.
In this sense, then, we must rejoice when our writers are provincial and parochial. (p. 23)
Ellen Douglas, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 5 & 12, 1975.
I discovered O'Connor when I was in college in the North and took a course in Southern Writers and the South. The perfection of her writing was so dazzling I never noticed that no black Southern writers were taught. The other writers we studied—Faulkner, McCullers, Welty—seemed obsessed with a racial past that would not let them go. They seemed to beg the question of their characters' humanity on every page. O'Connor's characters—whose humanity if not their sanity is taken for granted, and who are miserable, ugly, narrow-minded, atheistic, and of intense racial smugness and arrogance, with not a graceful, pretty one anywhere that is not at the same time, a joke—shocked and delighted me.
It was for her description of Southern white women that I appreciated her work at first, because when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like Southerners that I know.
She was for me the first great modern writer from the South, and was, in any case, the only one I had read who wrote such sly, demythifying sentences about white women as: "The woman would be more or less pretty—yellow hair, fat ankles, muddy-colored eyes."
Her white male characters do not fare any better—all of them misfits, thieves, deformed madmen, idiot children, illiterates, and murderers, and her black characters, male and female, appear equally shallow, demented, and absurd. That she retained a certain distance (only, however, in her later, mature work) from the inner workings of her black characters seems to me all to her credit, since, by deliberately limiting her treatment of them to cover their observable demeanor and actions, she leaves them free, in the reader's imagination, to inhabit another landscape, another life, than the one she creates for them. This is a kind of grace many writers do not have when dealing with representatives of an oppressed people within a story, and their insistence on knowing everything, on being God, in fact, has burdened us with more stereotypes than we can ever hope to shed. (pp. 102, 104)
[Essential] O'Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be "about" anything, then it is "about" prophets and prophesy, "about" revelation, and "about" the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it.
An indication that she believed in justice for the individual (if only in the corrected portrayal of a character she invented) is shown by her endless reworking of "The Geranium," the first story she published (in 1946), when she was 21. She revised the story several times, renamed it at least twice, until, nearly 20 years after she'd originally published it (and significantly, I think, after the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement), it became a different tale. Her two main black characters, a man and a woman, underwent complete metamorphosis.
In the original story … [the] black characters are described as being passive, self-effacing people…. The story's final title is "Judgement Day."
The quality added is rage, and in this instance, O'Connor waited until she saw it exhibited by black people before she recorded it….
Her view of her characters pierces right through to the skull. Whatever her characters' color or social position she saw them as she saw herself, in the light of imminent mortality. Some of her stories, "The Enduring Chill" and "The Comforts of Home" especially, seem to be written out of the despair that must, on occasion, have come from this bleak vision, but it is for her humor that she is most enjoyed and remembered. (p. 104)
It mattered to her that she was a Catholic. This comes as a surprise to those who first read her work as that of an atheist. She believed in all the mysteries of her faith. And yet, she was incapable of writing dogmatic or formulaic stories. No religious tracts, nothing haloed softly in celestial light, not even any happy endings. It has puzzled some of her readers and annoyed the Catholic church that in her stories not only does good not triumph, but it is not usually present. Seldom are there choices and God never intervenes to help anyone win. To O'Connor, in fact, Jesus was God, and he won only by losing. She perceived that not much has been learned by his death by crucifixion, and that it is only by his continual, repeated dying—touching one's own life in a direct, searing way—that the meaning of that original loss is pressed into the heart of the individual. (pp. 104-05)
Whether one "understands" her stories or not, one knows her characters are new and wondrous creations in the world and that not one of her stories—not even the earliest ones in which her consciousness of racial matters had not evolved sufficiently to be interesting or to differ much from the insulting and ignorant racial stereotyping that preceded it—could have been written by anyone else. As one can tell a Bearden from a Keene or a Picasso from a Hallmark card, one can tell an O'Connor story from any story laid next to it. Her Catholicism did not in any way limit (by defining it) her art. After her great stories of sin, damnation, prophesy, and revelation, the stories one reads casually in the average magazine seem to be about love and roast beef….
She destroyed the last vestiges of sentimentality in white Southern writing; she caused white women to look ridiculous on pedestals, and she approached her black characters—as a mature artist—with unusual humility and restraint. She also cast spells and worked magic with the written word. (p. 106)
Alice Walker, "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), December, 1975, pp. 77-9, 102, 104-06.
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