Social Concerns / Themes / Characters

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151

In O'Connor's short stories, the classic plot line involves some un-Christian person who undergoes a terrible and shattering experience that may even kill him, and at the same moment has an insight into his own selfishness or vanity or deludedness or greed that has warped his soul all along, but...

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In O'Connor's short stories, the classic plot line involves some un-Christian person who undergoes a terrible and shattering experience that may even kill him, and at the same moment has an insight into his own selfishness or vanity or deludedness or greed that has warped his soul all along, but has never been acknowledged. As the Misfit says of the Grandmother in one of O'Connor's best-known stories "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

It is usually clear to the reader what the failing of the character is, and uncomfortably so, for these are not really evil figures; most of the people she depicts are, like the grandmother, more blind and self-centered than diabolical, more unconsciously racist than crazed with a Hitlerian lust for genocide, more smug than vicious. Some even think they are atheistic humanists, although to O'Connor this is supreme irony, since no humanist could really lead someone to the loss of his immortal soul.

O'Connor is different, and she is so because of what she herself called her peculiar "vision," that held the same priorities always uppermost and saw that insofar as others did not do so, insofar as they had things other than Christ central in their lives, they were, in her word, "grotesque." The difficulty for her as a Catholic writer was to communicate that vision to an audience that saw the same sort of person as perfectly normal. For this reason she ran to the extreme situation or character, to the shattering and violent climaxes that would strike a person as Saul was struck on the road to Damascus. As she put it in an essay, ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures." One can see why Alice Walker was moved to comment, "Not one of her stories... could have been written by anyone else."

O'Connor's social concerns overlap with theme and character extensively. Her idea was to hold up a mirror to society, especially white Southern society, and reveal it to itself as grotesque in all the ways she thought it was. Her intent, in the short run, could be called social justice, but in the long run she felt even more than that was at stake.

In 1960, she read Teilhard de Chardin's book The Phenomenon of Man and became thereafter more involved in the social rather than purely personal effects of one's creed. Chardin was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who combined his two disciplines to arrive at a theory about God's plan for the universe. Chardin believed that at the end of time all creation will have returned to its creator through Christ, the Omega point. It would not be merely the spirits of men that would blend with God's as with an Oversoul, but all the created world would somehow move, or revert, back to God in an upward and outward direction, complete with a united human race.

It follows, then, that mankind must first be united if this plan is to be effective, and that anything that divides people must be wrong, as are any erroneously held ideas that prevent large segments of humanity from understanding and therefore cooperating in God's plan. Without acceptance and understanding of both end and means, progress is impossible; the leadership must come from the most educated part of the race.

O'Connor sees a world of grotesquely "out of whack" people who, as "intellectuals," are secularized and devoted to the relativistic values of social science; as common people, they are materialistic, arrogant, smug, self-congratulatory, condescending to the poor and racist. They offer only impediments to God's purpose. All of them ought to be stunned into seeing themselves as they are, and for those few who read, O'Connor's stories are designed as therapy. For this reason, many complain that her stories are not "religious" and lack a depiction of Christianity in people's lives. What impressed O'Connor was precisely its absence.

A case in point is "The Displaced Person," a long story that concerns a Pole and his family who arrive on a Georgia dairy farm as D.P.'s (displaced persons) after World War II. The owner of the farm, Mrs. Mclntyre, is one of a group of widows who appear throughout O'Connor's fiction who run dairy farms and who complain constantly, and she is one of the best drawn. Her sidekick and employee, Mrs. Shortley, is a false prophet who represents the extreme of warped fundamentalism; she believes the Pole, who is clearly linked with Christ, has "come to destroy," which in a sense he has, although all unwittingly. Because he does not understand Southern racism, he contracts with the one young single male on the place, who is black, to marry his cousin in the concentration camp in Poland, so that she will be allowed to come to the United States ("She no care black. She in camp three year.") Suddenly he falls from being Mrs. Mclntyre's "salvation" (since he saves her so much money) to being her cross to bear; he "upsets the balance" on the farm, disturbs the status quo, and he will have to leave. Thus, Mrs. Mclntyre rejects her salvation because He required her to drop her racism and regard the black hand as just another person.

In the post-World War II South, this would have been no less than a revolutionary act, and neither Mrs. Mclntyre nor, in fact, the black hand, is up to it. But she hesitates to reject her salvation out of hand; she says she feels an obligation to the priest who brought the family. When the opportunity to get rid of Mr. Guizac presents itself, she and the hand and Mr. Shortley join in collusion to permit his death by their inaction. Thus he dies, as it were, for the sins of others. Mr. Guizac is not exactly a Christ-figure, which is a greatly abused term, but more of an analogue for Christ, since while he is a good man, he does not voluntarily sacrifice himself for others and in fact does not even realize he is going to die. Neither is his death redemptive, necessarily, since it puts Mrs. Mclntyre into a stroke and causes all the help to find other places to work, which does not necessarily mean that they reject the society that the farm represents altogether, but only that they have collectively ruined themselves. The farm, then, is a microcosm of America: racism and greed, false religion and xenophobia, characterize the people and keep them from true Christianity. When justice exists, everything will rise and converge upon the Omega point; indeed, everything that rises must converge, as Julian and his conservative mother discover in the story by that name.

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