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O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery 1925–1964
O'Connor was an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. A Roman Catholic from the Bible Belt, she liberally laced her fiction with material from her religious backgrounds to create a unique, highly personal vision. Her fictional world is characterized by sudden, bizarre violence and peopled with grotesques whom O'Connor interprets as mirrors for men fallen from grace. She is considered one of the important figures of the Southern Renascence. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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I am sure [Flannery O'Connor's] few books will live on and on in American literature. They are narrow, possibly, but they are clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and odd insights that contain more real poetry than a dozen books of poems.
Elizabeth Bishop, "Flannery O'Connor, 1925–1964," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 111, No. 4, October 8, 1964, pp. 21, 23.
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Flannery O'Connor was a brilliant writer. Her fiction was, above all, unexpected and disturbing and she herself was an unexpected, extraordinary person, not much like other people…. I remember that I found [Wise Blood] somehow difficult to like at the beginning. It was so fierce, so hard, so plainly, downrightly unusual. And yet, of course, I did finally like Wise Blood (you can't easily hold out against Hazel Motes) even if I did like better the marvelous short stories, collected in A Good Man is Hard to Find. But where had all this come from? one was always asking oneself. The author had led a secluded life…. Her work was utterly different; it was Southern, rural, wicked, with a nearly inexplicable knowledge of the deformed and sinful, the all-too-deeply experienced…. She saw everything with a severe humor, local enough in accent, but more detached, more difficult to define than most other Southern writing. You'd have to call "A Good Man is Hard to Find" a "funny" story even though six people are killed in it.
"Good Country People" is an astonishing work which Allen Tate has called "the most powerful story of maimed souls by a contemporary writer." The story starts off with an over-blown, exaggerated cast…. [The] characters are, in outline, fit only for a dirty joke, and the plot continues accordingly…. But the story is a superb success. It is wise and memorable and entirely believable. (p. 21)
No doubt every sort of religious or moral stress might be put upon this story; indeed it seems to demand it. In everything of Flannery O'Connor's we are aware of her intense preoccupation with the ragged remnants of Protestantism, those hungry sectarians, those wandering souls with the Answer, those diviners of Revelations, and receivers of code messages from the Holy Spirit. Nearly every plot development turns in this direction. (pp. 21, 23)
Her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, is about Baptism, the duty to which these mad St. Johns of the Southern wilderness are called. This novel ends in an unbearable immolation scene and is one of the strangest productions in recent American fiction. It is grotesque, painful, again "funny," and entirely original in spirit and theme. Flannery O'Connor's backwoodsmen need God and Faith, and especially revelation; but every mad one of them is on his own….
Flannery O'Connor's brilliant talent was of that sort that has a contradiction in every pore. She was, indeed, a Catholic writer, also a Southern writer; but neither of these traditions prepares us for the oddity and beauty of her lonely fiction. (p. 23)
Elizabeth Hardwick, "Flannery O'Connor, 1925–1964," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 111, No. 4, October 8, 1964, pp. 21, 23.
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She was a girl who started with a gift for cartooning and satire, and found in herself a far greater gift, unique in her time and place, a marvel. She kept going deeper (this is a phrase she used) until making up stories became, for her, a way of testing and defining and conveying that superior knowledge that must be called religious. It must be called religious but with no false note in our voices, because her writing will make any false note that is applied to it very clear indeed. Bearing hard upon motives and manners, her stories as moralities cut in every direction and sometimes go to the bone of regional and social truth. But we are not likely to state what they show as well as they show it. We can stay on the safe side by affirming, what is true and usefully borne in mind, that making up stories was her craft, her pleasure and her vocation, that her work from first to last is imaginative writing, often comic writing, superbly achieved and always to be enjoyed as that. (pp. vii-viii)
A catchword when Flannery O'Connor began to write was the German angst, and it seemed that Auden had hit it off in one of his titles as the "Age of Anxiety." The last word in attitudes was the Existentialist one, resting on the perception that beyond any immediate situation there is possibly nothing—nothing beyond, nothing behind, nade. (p. xxvi)
In Wise Blood she did parody the Existentialist point of view, as Brainard Cheney has said (in the Sewanee Review for Autumn, 1964), but the parody was very serious. In this and in most of her later writing she gave to the godless a force proportionate to the force it actually has: in episode after episode, as in the world, as in ourselves, it wins. We can all hear our disbelief, picked out of the air we breathe, when Hazel Motes says, "I'm going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar." And in whom is angst so dead that he never feels, as Haze puts it: "Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it."
Note the velocity and rightness of these sentences. Many pages and a number of stories by this writer have the same perfection, and the novels have it in sections though they narrowly miss it as wholes. I am speaking now of merits achieved in the reader's interest: no unliving words, the realization of character by exquisitely chosen speech and interior speech and behavior, the action moving at the right speed so that no part of the situation is left out or blurred and the violent thing, though surprising, happens after due preparation, because it has to. Along with her gifts, patient toil and discipline brought about these merits, and a further question can be asked about that: Why? What was the standard to which the writer felt herself answerable? Well, in 1957 she said:
The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with. This is not to say that he doesn't have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with them only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer 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.
This is an open and moving statement of a certain end for literary art. The end, and some of the terms used here, seem to me similar to those of another Christian writer who died recently, T. S. Eliot. I do not propose any confusion between a London man of letters who wrote verse and criticism and a Southern woman who wrote fiction, for indeed they lived a world apart. Only at the horizon, one might say, do the lines each pursued come together; but the horizon is an important level. It is also important that they were similarly moved toward serious art, being early and much possessed by death as a reality, a strong spiritual sensation, giving odd clarity to the appearances they saw through or saw beyond. In her case as in his, if anyone at first found the writing startling he could pertinently remind himself how startling it was going to be to lose his own body, that Ancient Classic. Sensibility in both produced a wariness of beautiful letters and, in the writing, a concision of effect.
When it comes to seeing the skull beneath the skin, we may remark that the heroes of both O'Connor novels are so perceived within the first few pages, and her published work begins and ends with coffin dreams. Her memento mori is no less authentic for being often hilarious, devastating to a secular world and all it cherishes. The O'Connor equivalent for Eliot's drowned Phoenician sailor … is a museum piece, the shrunken corpse that the idiot Enoch Emery in Wise Blood proposes as the new humanist jesus. (pp. xxvi-xxviii)
The state of being as advanced as we are had been, of course, blasted to glory in The Waste Land before Flannery made her version, a translation, as it were, into American ("The Vacant Lot"). To take what used to be called low life and picture it as farcically empty, raging with energy, and at the same time, sub specie aeternitatis, full of meaning: this was the point of Sweeney Agonistes and the point of many pages of O'Connor…. Death is not the only one of the Last Things present in the O'Connor stories; Judgment is there, too. (p. xxix)
Christ the tiger, a phrase in Eliot, is a force felt in O'Connor. So is the impulse to renounce the blessèd face, and to renounce the voice. In her work we are shown that vices are fathered by our heroism, virtues forced upon us by our impudent crimes, and that neither fear nor courage saves us (we are saved by grace, if at all, though courage may dispose us toward grace). Her best stories do the work that Eliot wished his plays to do, raising anagogical meaning over literal action. (pp. xxix-xxx)
The title of [Everything That Rises Must Converge] comes from Teilhard de Chardin…. It is a title taken in full respect and with profound and necessary irony. For Teilhard's vision of the "omega point" virtually at the end of time, or at any rate of a time-span rightly conceivable by paleontologist or geologist alone, has appealed to people to whom it may seem to offer one more path past the Crucifixion. That could be corrected by no sense of life better than by O'Connor's. Quite as austere in its way as his, her vision will hold us down to earth where the clashes of blind wills and the low dodges of the heart permit any rising or convergence only at the cost of agony. At that cost, yes, a little.
The better a poem or piece of fiction, the more corrective or indeed destructive it is likely to be of any fatuous happiness in abstractions. "Rising" and "convergence" in these stories, as the title story at once makes clear, are shown in classes, generations, and colors. What each story has to say is what it shows. If we are aware that the meaning of the stories is to be sought in the stories and well apprehended in the stories alone, we may try a few rough and cautious statements about them. Thus the title story shows, amid much else in a particular action of particular persons, young and old and black and white to be practically sealed off against one another, struggling but hardly upward or together in a welter of petty feelings and cross purposes, resolved only slightly even by the tragic blow. "Slightly," however, may mean a great deal in the economy of this writer. The story is one of those, like "The Artificial Nigger" in her first collection and "Revelation" in this, in which the low-keyed and calibrated style is allowed a moment of elevation.
What is wrong in this story we feel to be diffused throughout the persons and in the predicament itself, but in at least two of the stories, and those among the latest and most elaborate, the malign is more concentrated in one personage. I do not mean il maligno, as the Italians call the devil. There are few better representations of the devil in fiction than Tarwater's friend, as overheard and finally embodied in The Violent; but in these two stories, "The Comforts of Home" and "The Lame Shall Enter First," the personage in question is not quite that. He need not be, since the souls to be attacked are comparatively feeble. Brainless and brainy depravity are enough, respectively, to bring down in ruin an irritable academic and a self-regarding do-gooder. The latter story is clearly a second effort with the three figures of the novel, Tarwater, Rayber and Bishop, who are here reworked, more neatly in some respects, as Johnson, Shepard and Norton.
Other similarities link various stories to one another and to earlier stories…. The critic will note these recurrent types and situations. He will note too that the setting remains the same, Southern and rural as he will say, and that large classes of contemporary experience, as of industry and war and office work and foreign travel, are barely touched if touched at all. But in saying how the stories are limited and how they are not, the sensitive critic will have a care. For one thing, it is evident that the writer deliberately and indeed indifferently, almost defiantly, restricted her horizontal range; a pasture scene and a fortress wall of pine woods reappear like a signature in story after story. The same is true of her social range and range of idiom. But these restrictions, like the very humility of her style, are all deceptive. The true range of the stories is vertical and Dantesque in what is taken in, in scale of implication. As to the style, there is also more to say.
She would be sardonic over the word ascesis, but it seems to me a good one for the peculiar discipline of the O'Connor style. How much has been refrained from, and how much else has been cut out and thrown away, in order that the bald narrative sentences should present just what they present and in just this order! What counts is the passion by which the stories were formed, the depth, as Virginia Woolf said of Milton, at which the options were taken. Beyond incidental phrasing and images, beauty lies in the strong invention and execution of the things, as in objects expertly forged or cast or stamped, with edges, not waxen and worn or softly moulded.
If we look for pleasure of a secondary kind such as we take in the shadings and suffusions of Henry James, I suggest that this is given in these stories by the comedy. There is quite a gamut of it, running from something very like cartooning to an irony dry and refined, especially in the treatment of the most serious matters. John Crowe Ransom was the first reader known to me to realize and say that Flannery O'Connor was one of our few tragic writers, a fact that we will not miss now in reading "The Displaced Person" in the first volume or "The Comforts of Home" in this. But it is far from the whole story. On the tragic scene, each time, the presence of her humor is like the presence of grace. Has not tragicomedy at least since Dante been the most Christian of genres?
I do not want to claim too much for these stories, or to imply that every story comes off equally well. That would be unfaithful to her own conscience and sense of fact. Let the good critic rejoice in the field for discrimination these stories offer him. (pp. xxx-xxxiii)
Robert Fitzgerald, in his introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1965 by the Estate of Mary Flannery O'Connor), Noonday Press, 1966, pp. vii-xxxiv.
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[Flannery O'Connor's] major subjects are the struggle for redemption, the search for Jesus, and the meaning of "prophecy": All of these in an intensely evangelical Protestant South, where the need for Christ is expressed without shyness and where "prophecy" is intimately related to the ways in which men are daily challenged to define themselves. The literary problem raised by this peculiarity of "place" (though it may be located elsewhere as well, as a "need for ceremony," or a desperate desire to "ritualize" life) is neatly described as well by Miss O'Connor: she must, she says, define in unnaturally emphatic terms what would not otherwise be accepted, or what might be misunderstood. (pp. 81-2)
Miss O'Connor writes about intensely religious acts and dilemmas in a time when people are much divided on the question of what actually determines a "religious act." Definitions are not easy, and, frequently, what is being done with the utmost seriousness seems terribly naïve or simpleminded to the reader. She must, therefore, force the statement of it into a pattern of "grotesque" action which reminds one somewhat of Franz Kafka, at least in its violation of normal expectations.
We have the phenomenon of a Catholic writer describing a Protestant, an evangelical, world, to a group of readers who need to be forced or shocked and/or amused into accepting the validity of religious states. The spirit of evil abounds, and the premonition of disaster is almost invariably confirmed. Partly, this is because the scene is itself grotesquely exaggerated (though eminently plausible at the same time); partly it is because Christian sensibilities have been not so much blunted as rendered bland and oversimple. (p. 82)
Another truth about Miss O'Connor's fiction is its preoccupation with the Christ figure, a use of Him that is scarcely equalled by her contemporaries. (p. 83)
In almost all of Miss O'Connor's fiction, the central crisis involves a confrontation with Jesus, "the Christ." In the manner of Southern Protestantism, these encounters are quite colloquial and intimate…. The so-called "grotesques" of Flannery O'Connor's fiction are most frequently individual souls, imbued with religious sentiments of various kinds, functioning in the role of the surrogate Christ or challenging Him to prove Himself. Not only for literary strategy, but because such manifestations are surreal, Miss O'Connor makes these acts weird demonstrations of human conduct: "irrational" in the sense of their taking issue with a rational view of events. (p. 84)
The basic struggle is with "Adam's sin," or—to put it in less portentous terms—the natural tendency of man to sin, against his conscience, a disapproving society, or whatever metaphor he chooses to identify with his aberrant ways. The Christ figure is liberally used, and there is little true identification with theological explanations of Him. He is a weight, a burden, a task, even an enemy. Miss O'Connor's first novel-length portrayal of His effects is Wise Blood (1952). Here, Jesus is the object of attack when He is subject to exploitation along the lines of a "con man," collecting fees for salvation from easy victims.
The novel is charged with death and burial imagery. Hazel Motes, returned from the War to a town that no longer exists, goes on to the city of Taulkinham, there to start a new Church, "Without Christ." On the train, he lies in an upper berth, which reminds him of coffins in his past…. He dreams, or half-dreams, of his grandfather, a circuit preacher, "a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger." Then he thinks of his father's burial: "He saw him humped over on his hands and knees in the coffin, being carried that way to the graveyard." (pp. 85-6)
Last things are with him as he moves toward Taulkinham, and "prophecy." Because his grandfather had always associated Jesus with sin, Motes decides that "the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin."… Hazel Motes is one of a series of religious rebels whose rebellion and contrition are deeply personal. He must convince his fellow-men that there is no Jesus, or at least that Jesus is not necessary to the moral life, in accents similar to those in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. (p. 86)
One of the more interesting facts of Wise Blood is its literally taking into account the necessity of redemption. In fact, in its own way, the novel describes in detail three stages of the journey to death: 1) the recognition of death (images of coffins and of long dark corridors and the "dark tunnel" … are corroborating evidence); 2) the rebellion against grace, against the idea of depending upon some figure or ikon, or supernatural being (this is, of course, as much as a rebellion against his grandfather as it is an act of violence against religion); and 3) self-immolation, or the individual move toward redemption. (p. 87)
Wise Blood presents a powerful, mad resistance to the familiar pathways to redemption. The intensity of Motes's personal reaction is a deliberate underscoring of the religious story. Motes must eventually give way, and he does so, but not before he has had several very shocking and absurd experiences. He is proved to be unequal to the task of controlling his own fate; and his death is a parody of the death of Jesus. (pp. 87-8)
There is so much of the extreme, the absurd, in Wise Blood, that it appears at least to be disjointed and all too simply plotted. Actually, every detail is part of a plan to portray the journey toward redemption in the setting of an extremely individualistic Protestant scene. (p. 89)
We must eventually discover the meaning of her quotation from Saint Matthew, used as an epigraph of her most brilliant work, The Violent Bear It Away: "From the Days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." Violence is, virtually, a quality of the religious act in Miss O'Connor's fiction; it is also a signature of her characters' own personality, to testify to their approaching Jesus on their own initiative, after much and vigorous resistance, and their finally making a personal symbolic act in accepting him. In all of her fiction the way to salvation is dangerous, thorny, rocky, and devious; but there is this distinction, that her heroes put their own barriers in the way of achieving it. (p. 90)
Frederick J. Hoffman, "James Agee and Flannery O'Connor: The Religious Consciousness," in his The Art of Southern Fiction: A Study of Some Modern Novelists (copyright © 1967 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 74-95.∗
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I find myself regretting … that [Henry James] never had an opportunity to read Flannery O'Connor's short stories and novels. I think that he would have felt a kinship with her that might have transcended his innate conviction that the writing of novels—a difficult and dangerous task, to begin with—is a task for which men are by nature better fitted than women.
If he had lived to read Miss O'Connor's stories, I suspect that he would also have derived from them the pleasure which any of us feels when he finds his own words coming true. For this young woman, who died in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, comes nearer than anyone I can think of to enacting the role of "the American girl" whom James foresaw as charged with such great responsibilities. (pp. 124-25)
Her task, I think, resembled James's own task in many particulars. I believe, however, that the chief resemblance between the two writers consists in the fact that each was faced with an obstacle which, for a fiction writer, is almost always insuperable in his own lifetime. In order to create the world of illusion—which for him embodied fictional truth—both writers had to use a technique which was revolutionary. (p. 125)
Of [the young fiction writers who write from a Catholic background] Flannery O'Connor seems to me the most talented—and the most professional. My admiration for her work was first evoked when, in the line of duty, I contemplated the structure of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and found it written "in the one way that is mathematically right"—to borrow a phrase from James's notebooks. (p. 127)
Her best work, however, whether in the novel or the short story, has an outstanding characteristic. It is never "promiscuous." [Gordon earlier defined "promiscuous" in the Jamesian sense to mean a fiction that is not constructed so that every incident contributes to a "single impression."] Her story is never "jerry-built"—if I understand James's use of that term. Indeed, it seems to me that she has a firmer grasp of the architectonics of fiction than any of her contemporaries. She has written four short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Good Country People," "The Displaced Person," and "The River," which seem to me nearly to approach perfection. "The Enduring Chill," "A Circle in the Fire" and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" do not seem to me as successful.
But when Miss O'Connor falls short of her best work, the flaw is always in the execution of the story, not in its structure. In her architectural creations a turret may loom indistinctly or a roof line will slant so steeply that the eye follows it with difficulty but turret and roof and even battlements indistinctly limned are nevertheless recognized as integral parts of the structure. All her work is based upon the same architectural principle. This principle, fundamental but in our own times so fallen into disrepute that it has actually come to be thought of as an innovation, is, I think, the fact that any good story, no matter when it was written or in what language, or what its ostensible subject matter, shows both natural and supernatural grace operating in the lives of human beings. Her firm grasp of this great architectural principle is, I believe, in large part, responsible for Miss O'Connor's successes. A variety of causes may account for her failures or near-failures. Chief of them, of course, is the immense difficulty inherent in her subject matter. The chasm between natural and supernatural grace is sometimes an abyss, so deep that only the heroes—in fiction as in real life—can bear to contemplate it. (p. 128)
The serious student of Miss O'Connor's stories will find it profitable, I think, to compare her life's work with that of Henry James. The novels of his "later" period deal with the imposition of supernatural grace upon natural grace. (p. 132)
I do not know that Miss O'Connor was consciously influenced by the novelist Henry James's work. I am inclined to think that the affinity between the two writers is instinctive and unconscious. One of Miss O'Connor's "prophets," Hazel Motes, who preaches the "Church Without Christ," strongly resembles the elder Henry James. Both men have one lifelong preoccupation: theology. In the case of both men it is coupled with an inability to believe in the divinity of Christ. Both men are indifferent to worldly goods. (p. 134)
James left us, along with the prodigious body of his work, a complete, detailed record of his life as an artist. Those of us who still cannot read his novels, cannot plead in self-defense that he has not given us any clue how to go about reading them, for he has given us explicit directions.
Miss O'Connor is almost as well documented as to her artistic intentions. (p. 135)
During his lifetime, Henry James never found the reader he so ardently desired but I think that in Flannery O'Connor there was a disciple of whom he could have been proud. (p. 136)
Caroline Gordon, "An American Girl," in The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (reprinted by permission of the publisher; copyright © 1977 by Fordham University Press), Fordham University Press, 1977, pp. 123-37.
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The ending of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" has received much critical attention. But most critics have failed to realize that spectacles can tell as well as see; that cats can point as well as purr. O'Connor makes good use of such subtle details in the crucial closing lines. Having survived the shock of mass murder, the reader still finds himself face-to-face with the pathological killer, suitably named "The Misfit." Whether his shooting of the grandmother will transform this murderer is, in O'Connor's words, "another story." But she does leave us with two suggestive clues: a dirty pair of glasses and a catalytic cat, Pitty Sing.
Following the shooting, The Misfit "put his gun down on the ground and look off his glasses and began to clean them…. Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were redrimmed and pale and defenseless-looking." Unarmed, unspectacled, and unprotected, The Misfit now perceives life very differently. In a moment of unconscious warmth, he picks up the trouble-causing cat. Previously pampered by the grandmother but largely neglected by the critics …, Pitty Sing slinks into the story. With the benefit of an animal's sixth sense and with the security of a feline's nine lives, the cat was at the time responding to the changed killer by "rubbing itself against his leg." The Misfit articulates his transformation in the last words of the story. Earlier he had snarled that there was "No pleasure but meanness."… [But at the end] The Misfit changes his conclusion about meanness: "It's no real pleasure in life." However, the casebook that O'Connor compiles on The Misfit previous to the resolution suggests that his maladjustment is too deeply ingrained for a whole and permanent change. When he puts the cat down and his glasses back on, his perception of life will revert back again—though the glasses will be cleaner, as perhaps will his life. (pp. 19-20)
Stephen R. Portch, "O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1978 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 19-20.
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Mrs. May, the central character in Flannery O'Connor's 1956 story, "Greenleaf," is obsessed equally with money and class status. She is disgusted with her "white trash" help, the Greenleafs, but they are a special source of vexation for her in that they have hardworking twin sons who have been successful in life, unlike her own boys.
The Greenleaf bull is a complex symbol. The animal combines his social, sexual, and religious identities in a way that allows him to represent everything that Mrs. May rejects, everything unrestrained or lacking in taste. The bull's tripartite identity is made clear from the beginning of "Greenleaf." The story opens with him eating the hedge outside Mrs. May's bedroom window. Her sleeping and waking impressions of him, combined with O'Connor's descriptions, establish what he represents as her antagonist. Mrs. May's second dream and her death scene further clarify the animal's symbolic functions.
The bull represents his owners as an undesirable. His eating of the hedge outside her window is a destruction of the barrier between them, even as the Greenleaf twins are closing the gap economically and destroying the social lines of demarcation. (p. 233)
Mrs. May does not fear Mr. Greenleaf, but she is afraid of the social threat his upwardly mobile sons present, and she hopes to destroy them by the symbolic destruction of their totem animal, the virile and uncontrollable bull. Instead, she becomes his victim. With her gone, the Greenleafs can thrive, symbolically and otherwise. In killing her, the bull acts for his owners. (pp. 234-35)
The violence Mrs. May finally suffers destroys her class pride and impious self-sufficiency. She dies not when she is "good and ready," but when God chooses. The ultimate violence, furthermore, is dealt her by an inferior. She cannot control the Greenleafs or their bull just because she scorns their bloodlines, and she cannot control her fate, either. For her, this is a staggering revelation. The scrub bull is the agent for God, nature and the Greenleafs as he completes his charge. He is Jesus stabbing her in the heart, the pagan lover possessing the maiden, the lower class destroying the obstacle to their advancement; he is the "bullet" of divine wrath and Greenleaf vengeance. (p. 235)
Kathleen Rout, "Dream a Little Dream of Me: Mrs. May and the Bull in Flannery O'Connor's Greenleaf," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1979 by Newberry College), Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 233-35.
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When Flannery O'Connor's first novel was published in England in 1955, the reviews, she said, were 'respectful but not very perceptive'. Since then she has been somewhat neglected here, though there are signs that she is to be given her due as a writer of great originality and power….
That her modest output shouldn't have found a wide readership in England isn't entirely surprising. There's her bizarre-sounding name, which, as with other similarly under-valued American writers of the Deep South—Eudora Welty, Walker Percy—sounds alien to English ears. There's the strange allusiveness of her titles, drawn from local sayings ('You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead'), from Teilhard de Chardin ('Everything That Rises Must Converge'), and from St Matthew ('The Violent Bear It Away')…. And the English reader familiar with Faulkner and Twain is likely to feel that her predominantly rural Georgia settings, her vividly rendered 'poor white' dialogue, provide yet another quaint slice of backwoods Gothic, what O'Connor bitterly called 'the super-grotesque Carson McCullers sort of thing' that she 'couldn't stand'….
In part the Letters emphasise O'Connor's remoteness and peculiarity: it's sometimes hard to believe how recent they are. The infrequent references to politics ('I think King Kong would be better than Nixon', in 1960) stand out against the brisk accounts of quarrelling negro farm-hands and local celebrations for Bible Week or the Civil War Centenary….
O'Connor is impressively tough and matter-of-fact about her [lupus], which was not easily accepted: 'When I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death. I thought it would mean the end of any writing.' On the contrary, the work was shaped by it, and is much occupied with an orthodox stoicism modelled on Teilhard de Chardin's notion of 'passive diminishment': adapting to 'those afflictions that you can't get rid of'. Some of the finest stories used handicapped figures—a girl with an artificial leg, a youth who comes back South from literary New York with a 'wasting' disease, an idiot daughter, a near-paralysed old man—not, Carson McCullers-like, for baroque effect, but in order to contemplate, often ironically, the discipline of suffering. Her physical and social confinement bursts through, too, in the magnificent treatment of intractable hostilities within families.
Essentially, O'Connor's subject is acceptance: the point at which her sinners become aware of the awful unavoidability of Grace. All the stories drive towards an appointed end, often of horrifying violence, like the self-mutiliation of the unwilling saint Hazel Motes in Wise Blood….
The power of the work lies in its suppression of this severely orthodox subject beneath a brilliantly commonplace surface. ('Everything has to operate first on the literal level.') Its masterly realism springs from the life in Georgia, but its intellectual energy, and its penetration to grotesque extremes, derives from the faith…. The letters are most interesting for their discussion of the Catholic writer's problems—'It's almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction … My audience are the people who think God is dead.'—and for their fiercely uncompromising arguments on behalf of a difficult discipline…. (p. 895)
Hermione Lee, "Resigned to Death," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2542, December 7, 1979, pp. 895-96.
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