illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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The fiction of Flannery O’Connor has been highly praised for its unrelenting irony, its symbolism, and its unique comedy. O’Connor is considered one of the most important American writers of the short story, and she is frequently compared with William Faulkner as a writer of short fiction.

For an author with a relatively small literary output, O’Connor has received an enormous amount of attention. More than twenty-five books devoted to her have appeared beginning in the early 1960’s, when significant critics worldwide began to recognize O’Connor’s gifts as a fiction writer. Almost all critical works have emphasized the bizarre effects of reading O’Connor’s fiction, which, at its best, powerfully blends the elements of southwestern humor, the southern grotesque, Catholic and Christian theology and philosophy, atheistic and Christian existentialism, realism, and romance. Most critics have praised and interpreted O’Connor from a theological perspective and noted how unusual her fiction is, as it unites the banal, the inane, and the trivial with Christian, though fundamentally humorous, tales of proud Georgians fighting battles with imaginary or real agents of God sent out to shake some sense into the heads of the protagonists.

As an ironist with a satirical bent, O’Connor may be compared with some of the best in the English language, such as Jonathan Swift and George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is the comic irony of her stories that probably attracts most readers—from the orthodox and religious to the atheistic humanists whom she loves to ridicule in some of her best fiction. Thus, as a comedian, O’Connor’s achievements are phenomenal, since through her largely Christian stories, she is able to attract readers who consider her beliefs outdated and quaint.

In her lifetime, O’Connor won recognition, but she would be surprised at the overwhelming response from literary critics that her fiction has received since her death. O’Connor won O. Henry Awards for her stories “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “A Circle in the Fire,” “Greenleaf,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “Revelation.” The Complete Stories, published posthumously in 1971, won the National Book Award for Fiction. O’Connor received many other honors, including several grants and two honorary degrees.

Flannery O’Connor’s art was best suited to the medium of the short story, where her sharp, shocking, and grotesque characterizations could have full impact on the reader. Nevertheless, her depiction of the Christ-haunted Hazel Motes in Wise Blood ranks as the most memorable and piercing postmodern delineation of Western society’s anxiety over God’s absence. O’Connor’s ability to create supernatural tension, to provoke the potentially hostile reader into considering the possibility of divine invasion of the human sphere, is unparalleled by any postwar writer. Seeing “by the light of Christian orthodoxy,” O’Connor refused to chisel away or compromise her convictions to make them more congenial to her readers. She knew that it is difficult to place the Christian faith in front of the contemporary reader with any credibility, but her resolve was firm. She understood, in the words of John Gardner (On Moral Fiction, 1978), that “art which tries to tell the truth unretouched is difficult and often offensive,” since it “violates our canons of politeness and humane compromise.” O’Connor succeeded not in making Christianity more palatable but in making its claims unavoidable.

O’Connor was committed not only to telling the “truth unretouched” but also to telling a good story. This meant rejecting predetermined morals—homilies tacked onto stories and processed uncritically by her readers: “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a...

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very good one.” Instead of literary proselytizing, she offered a literature of evangelism, of incarnation, a fusing of literary form with authorial vision. Her evangelistic mode was not proselytizing, but proclaiming, the ancient and more honorable practice of declaring news, of heralding its goodness to a usually indifferent, sometimes hostile audience. O’Connor had a keen perception of her audience’s mind-set and cultural milieu; her proclamation was calculated to subvert the habitualization of faith and to make such notions as redemption, resurrection, and eternal life seem new and strange to a Western society that had reduced them to commonplaces empty of significance. Readers and critics continue to respond to O’Connor’s clear spiritual vision and piercingnarrative style, a style uncluttered by a false pluralism or sectarian debate. O’Connor, the devout Catholic, neither preached nor compelled; she simply proclaimed.

Discussion Topics

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What evidence is there in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction that its author was a devout Roman Catholic?

According to the title of one of O’Connor’s stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Can you find any good men in her work? What makes them “good”?

How does violence function in O’Connor’s work?

O’Connor’s fiction is often said to be characterized by “black humor.” How does O’Connor create humor in her work?

How does O’Connor use the motif of a journey to organize her fictions?

In what ways does racism show up in O’Connor’s work?

How does O’Connor use the names of characters (for example, Hazel Motes, Francis Marion Tarwater, Mr. Head) to develop themes in her fiction?

O’Connor’s work is often described as “grotesque.” In what ways can her characters and plot be considered grotesque?

Other Literary Forms

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In addition to writing thirty-one short stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote two short novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). A collection of her essays and occasional prose entitled Mystery and Manners (1969) was edited by Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and a collection of letters entitled The Habit of Being (1979) was edited by Sally Fitzgerald. More correspondence is collected in The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and Brainard Cheneys (1986), edited by C. Ralph Stephens. O’Connor also wrote book reviews, largely for the Catholic press; these are collected in The Presence of Grace (1983), which was compiled by Leo J. Zuber and edited by Carter W. Martin.


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Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. In one of the best books on O’Connor’s fiction, Asals focuses on the use of the Doppelgänger (double) motif in the novels and short fiction, the most thorough and intelligent treatment of this subject. Asals also concentrates on O’Connor’s religious extremity, which is evident in her fiction through her concern with polarities and extremes. Contains extensive endnotes and a good bibliography.

Asals, Frederick. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: Flannery O’Connor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Critical essays on O’Connor’s story from a variety of perspectives. Critics discuss the pros and cons of O’Connor’s shift in point of view from the grandmother to The Misfit, the nature of grace in a materialistic world, and the theological significance of the story’s concluding confrontation.

Bacon, Jon Lance. Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Reads O’Connor’s stories in relation to social issues of their milieu. Discusses the context of Cold War politics, popular culture, media, and consumerism that form the backdrop to O’Connor’s stories.

Cash, Jean W. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002. A painstakingly researched portrait of O'Connor. Includes a bibliography and index.

Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Desmond’s argument is that O’Connor’s fictions reenact Christian history and Catholic theology through an art O’Connor herself saw as an “incarnational act.” Discussing several major stories and the two novels, the book focuses on the metaphysical and the Christian historical vision as observed through reading O’Connor’s fiction and emphasizes that The Violent Bear It Away represents the fullest development of her vision. Includes an extensive bibliography and useful endnotes.

Enjolras, Laurence. Flannery O’Connor’s Characters. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998. Chapters on O’Connor’s descriptions of the body, of wicked children, of “conceited, self-righteous Christians,” of “intellectuals and would-be artists.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972. A useful though somewhat early study of O’Connor’s fiction from a theological perspective. Contains analyses of almost all the stories and novels and focuses on the connection between the books in O’Connor’s library and her works. Feeley’s primary fault is that the works are sometimes oversimplified into religious messages without enough emphasis on the humor, the sarcasm, and the satire. A bibliography of primary and secondary works is included, as is a list of some possible sources of O’Connor’s fiction found in her library.

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Drawing upon letters that O’Connor wrote to friends and family, and interviews with those who knew her, Gooch develops an in-depth picture of O’Connor. Her views on race and religion are discussed, as well as her relationships with men, her family, and her community. Includes sixteen pages of black and white photos.

Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Although this study is an early one in O’Connor scholarship, Hendin’s case that O’Connor may be read in other than religious ways makes the book worth consideration. Hendin offers effective analyses of most of the major O’Connor stories. While her interpretations should be approached with caution, they are nevertheless convincing as they attempt to show that O’Connor was an artist rather than a polemicist. Select bibliography and rather useful endnotes.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Chapters on the novels as well as explorations of O’Connor’s treatment of the South, of belief, of art, of the American romance tradition, of prophets and failed prophets, and of comedy. Appendices include a chronological list of the fiction, book reviews by Flannery O’Connor, notes, and bibliography.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A useful resource for the beginner. Paulson’s book includes primary and secondary material on O’Connor’s fiction and concentrates on the predominant issues, themes, and approaches to O’Connor’s fiction. Paulson divides O’Connor’s stories into four categories: death-haunted questers, male/female conflicts, “The Mystery of Personality” and society, and good/evil conflicts. Supplemented by a chronology of O’Connor’s life and a bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. The new perspectives illustrated in this collection of essays are primarily feminist and Bakhtinian, with one essay using discourse theory and one focusing on race and culture. Stories discussed include “A View from the Woods,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “The Crop.”

Seel, Cynthia L. Ritual Performance in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. A Jungian approach to the religious imagery and themes in the work of the novelist.

Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995. Attempts to understand O’Connor first as a southerner, then as a modernist intellect, and finally as a visionary thinker. Argues that O’Connor reflects the personal and social issues of the last decades of the twentieth century.

Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. Boston: Twayne, 1973. This effective but early introduction to the works of O’Connor includes analyses of the short fiction and the novels. Walters argues perceptively and conventionally that O’Connor is predominantly a religious writer whose works can be classified as Christian tragicomedy. Walters also makes some useful observations about O’Connor’s connections with earlier literary traditions. Includes a chronology of O’Connor’s life, useful endnotes, and a select bibliography.

Westling, Louise Hutchings. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A useful book for those interested in critical perspectives other than religious readings of O’Connor’s fiction as well as for those curious about O’Connor’s relationship with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, two of her rivals as masters of short fiction. This book is the first feminist study of O’Connor’s fiction. Westling discusses the female characters and emphasizes that O’Connor often shows female protagonists as victims of male antagonists. Contains an extensive bibliography as well as useful endnotes.


Critical Essays