Flannery O'Connor O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery (Vol. 15) - Essay

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Elizabeth Bishop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Elizabeth Hardwick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

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Robert Fitzgerald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frederick J. Hoffman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Caroline Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Stephen R. Portch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Kathleen Rout

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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