illustrated portrait of American author William Faulkner

William Faulkner

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How would you compare and contrast Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner?

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The most apparent similarity between the two authors is that they wrote in what is called the "southern gothic" genre. These kinds of stories are set in the American South and usually deal with how the past specifics of the culture there (slavery, antebellum culture, racism, social roles of women, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the tension between different social classes, etc.) continue to affect the modern world.

The lingering effects of the south's past appear in both Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," for instance. Both Emily and the grandmother are relics of a racist, class-obsessed past. They are out of step with the modern world. They look back on the pre-Civil War period as a golden age: Emily refuses to pay taxes and keeps her house as it was long ago, while the grandmother longingly refers to the south's past as "gone with the wind," in reference to the popular novel which romanticized the antebellum south's social mores, from slavery to rigid class differences.

One major difference between O'Connor and Faulkner is their religious perspectives. Faulkner is largely uninterested in spirituality or organized religion in his stories (though he did marry his wife in a Presbyterian church). O'Connor, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic, and this element of her life certainly impacts her work. The theme of grace appearing to the least likely people reoccurs throughout her work, where even the most unlovable people, from the snobby, racist grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" to the faux-nihilists Hulga in "Good Country People" and Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, have their lives touched by a compassionate, forgiving God.

Once again, examine "A Rose for Emily" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Emily dies unredeemed: she clings to the old ways and seems to never regret killing Homer. Religion never enters into the equation, though presumably Emily is buried with religious rites intact since that is most socially acceptable. The grandmother dies right after she tries reaching out to the Misfit, no longer seeing him as riff-raff beneath her but an equally beloved child of God in pain.

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Both writers focus on the American South, a region they knew very well. Faulkner sets most of his fiction in Mississippi, where he was born and lived; whereas O'Connor often sets hers in her home state of Georgia. For both authors, regionalism or a strong sense of place permeates their stories; it is impossible to miss that each is writing about the South. Both authors depict the narrow-mindedness of their home regions as a natural part of life there.

Further, both authors often focus on the grotesque, making repellent or unusual people the centerpieces of their stories. In Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, for example, the central characters are members of the repellent Bundren family, who make a trip to transport the dead body of their mother in a handmade coffin to burial. The corpse begins to smell, and they drop it in rushing water at one point. Faulkner creates central characters out of murderers, ugly, nasty women, and racists.

O'Connor, however, wrote a generation after Faulkner, during a period when the memory of the Civil War was less prevalent in the South. She is primarily remembered for her short stories whereas Faulkner is primarily celebrated for his novels, though each author wrote in both genres. Faulkner writes from a secular perspective while O'Connor's stories are permeated by her Roman Catholic faith and often show how the grace of God comes to the most unlikely of people.

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William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were two of the preeminent Southern writers of the twentieth century. O’Connor felt enormous respect for Faulkner, her predecessor. The two writers have much in common but they are also, of course, distinctive as well.

Typical differences between the two writers include the following:

  • Faulkner’s writings are often gloomy and tragic; O’Connor’s are often funny and ironic, although often shadowed by darkness.
  • Faulkner often writes about the same characters and the same small, imagined geographical location; O’Connor rarely uses the same character twice, although recognizable character types do appear repeatedly in her fiction.
  • Faulkner is most famous for his novels; O’Connor is most famous for her short stories.
  • O’Connor’s fiction is much more obviously Christian in its assumptions and concerns than Faulkner’s.
  • Faulkner’s fiction is often much more experimental and unconventional in style and form than O’Connor’s is.
  • Faulkner’s fiction is far more likely to deal with sex than O’Connor’s is.
  • Faulkner’s fiction is far more likely to deal with relations between the past and present than O’Connor’s is.
  • O’Connor’s fiction is more likely to seem overtly autobiographical than Faulkner’s.

Some similarities between the two writers include the following:

  • Both often deal, within the same work, with different classes of people.
  • Both tend to focus on Southern locales and Southern characters.
  • Both often explore racial tensions within the South.
  • Both often deal with evidence of cultural decadence.
  • Both often deal with conflicts between members of different generations, as in the famous opening lines of O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind.  Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.

O’Connor admired Faulkner very much, but she had enough strength as a writer to chart her own course and not be too affected by the so-called “anxiety of influence.”

For a detailed comparison of the two writers, see the article by Michael W. Crocker and Robert C. Evans (linked below).




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