illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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How did Flannery O'Connor's life influence her writing?

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Flannery O’Connor’s writings were influenced by both her Southern location and her Catholic upbringing. Unlike some writers whose adventurous lives are as exciting as the stories they tell (such as Hemingway), O’Connor lived a simple and unadventurous life. Her greatest trials were likely the early death of her father to lupus and her own struggles with the same illness, which eventually claimed her life before she was middle-aged. Before she died, she graduated from a women’s college and launched her writing career as a young adult in her early twenties, completing much of her writing while living at her mother’s peaceful farm in Georgia. On the whole, O’Connor was a highly introspective and deeply spiritual person, and her approach to writing was shaped by her worldview.

First, O’Connor was influenced by Southern cultural (and literal) landscapes. Her short stories are regionalist in many regards, including details that accurately capture landscapes, dialects, customs, religion, history, and other elements of local color common to the south. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example, references southern history when it describes a house with a secret panel that a Confederate, plantation-owning family had supposedly hidden in while William Tecumseh Sherman pillaged their house. Cultural landscape is also realistically reflected in O'Connor's stories. For example, she wrote many protagonists who hold bigoted, elitist views of themselves based upon their race, family lineage, class, or education. Southern regionalist writers often include such characters because racism and classism are issues the south has had to fight to overcome. Turpin, in “Revelation,” is a dynamic character in that she realizes her own bigotry in relation to race and class by the end of the story. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is also dynamic in that she redefines “good” outside of the context of family lineage and race by the end of the story. Hulga, in “Good Country People,” is also forced to realize her assumptions about the goodness of people and religion.

Second, O’Connor’s Catholic upbringing influenced the characters and content of her works. She was raised with the Catholic perspective that all human beings are born with a sinful nature but are in the process of redemption. She was taught to believe in the very real presence of evil in the world and in the power of grace. So, she wrote main characters who were largely flawed. She transcended normal southern regionalism by amplifying the flaws of her main characters by putting them in extreme situations where their flawed “inner landscapes” would be forced to come out. Consider how moments of extreme danger in real life are opportunities for bravery and selflessness, or cowardice and selfishness, to be drawn out. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor’s spiritual worldviews of redemption and grace are showcased by the grandmother. Conversely, the hypocritical Bible salesman in “Good Country People” exposes the presence of people sold out to evil and how their actions can impact others. In the story, the Bible salesman takes advantage of a disabled girl. This is an amplified characteristic of the type of hypocritical religious person that sells vulnerable people on religion and then takes advantage of them, leaving them more vulnerable than before. Consider, for example, television preachers who have “sold” Holy Spirit healing by asking for the money of desperate people.

While O’Connor’s protagonists often embody reprehensible flaws, such as racism and elitism, they are often able to overcome these flaws because of the shocks they have experienced. For example, Mrs. Turpin, who thinks herself above all black people and the “white trash” class, has a book thrown at her and is choked. While she is processing being attacked earlier that day, she looks out onto the horizon and has a vision of people of all races and classes being pulled up to heaven. She even sees herself, with all her “virtues being burned away.” In this vision, she realizes that in heaven, race, class, and virtue will not matter; everyone will be equal in every regard. The “book” that the girl threw at her earlier is symbolic for the “revelation of sense” that strikes her at the end of the story.

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Born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, Mary Flannery O’Connor, who dropped the Mary from her name when she started to publish her work, was an only child. Her parents, Edward Flannery O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor, were both devout Roman Catholics and brought their daughter up in their faith.  When Flannery was a teenager, in 1938, her father developed lupus, and the family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia to be closer to her mother's family. Her father died in of the disease in 1941. After graduating from a local college, Flannery received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, and was awarded a residency at Yaddo. In 1950, Flannery developed lupus, and moved home to Milledgeville to live with her mother, who cared for her until her death in 1964.

The first element of her life that affected her writing was religion. She remained a Roman Catholic throughout her life, and many of her stories reflect ethical and spiritual concerns influenced by her faith.

Next, her stories are usually set in the deep south, and reflect her deep personal knowledge of rural and small town Georgia life.

Another major element of her life that affects her writing is disease and disability. As someone who saw her father die of lupus when she was a teenager, and then developed the disease herself at the age of 25 and needed crutches to walk after 1955, she often included characters suffering from some disability or illness in her stories, such as Hulga, the protagonist of "Good Country People," who has a prosthetic leg.

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