Warning: Flannery O'Connor Ahead
Flannery O'Connor's short stories have been described as grotesque, shocking, and perverse. They've also been described as brilliant, witty, and deeply Christian. They have taken their place in the generally recognized treasury of modern American classics. Christians should come to know this remarkable fiction writer who saw the world through the lens of her faith.
In a series of three articles we'll dive into O'Connor's writing and get to know her better. Those of you who know her already will surely have comments to offer. O'Connor is one of those writers who seems to stimulate strong comments. Her writing is kind of like a strong drink.
This introductory article will refer to the short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." The next two articles will treat "The Displaced Person" and "Good Country People" (all found in Complete Stories, Collected Works, or A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories). Along with the stories, we'll consider several prose pieces (found in Mystery and Manners). These works are available either in hard copy or ebook. Along with commentary, questions will be provided for further reflection or discussion.
To begin, I'll simply tell you why I love to read Flannery O'Connor—and why I think we all should. In the process I'll refer to her most commonly read story, which you could stop and read (or re-read) right now. (The story will be unfolded but not spoiled if you wait to read it later!) For good reason "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" often represents O'Connor in anthologies of literature; it is perhaps her best story, as far as the shape and sharpness of the telling.
She Makes Us Laugh
Flannery O'Connor makes readers laugh out loud. It's not easy to find a truly witty fiction writer with a piercing yet merciful eye for human foibles. Apparently from an extremely young age, O'Connor "saw into" the ironies of the quite proper Southern society in which she was born (1925) and raised, first in Savannah and later in Milledgeville, Georgia, where her family had family. Brad Gooch opens his wonderful biography (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor) with the visit of a newsman from New York City to 5-year-old Flannery's back yard in Savannah, where she was raising a chicken she had taught to walk backward. It seems the intelligent but always awkward young girl often moved in a direction contrary to the expected niceties of the genteel South. O'Connor later recalled herself as "a pidgeon-toed, only-child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex" (Gooch, 30).
O'Connor grew into a woman who loved the South but always saw its ironies—and exposed them in her stories. You just can't forget the family in "A Good Man," with the "children's mother . . . whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage" and "the grandmother" who, as the story's opening sentence informs us, "didn't want to go to Florida." But her son Bailey loads them all in the car for the family vacation, mother and baby in front with him, and in back sassy June Star and John Wesley on either side of the grandmother, who's smuggled the family cat along in a basket and who's all dressed up with sprays of violets in her straw sailor hat and lace-trimmed navy blue dress: "In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady" (Complete Stories, 117-18).
This story carries the grandmother's cliché-ridden, cheerfully self-righteous, and often hysterically funny chatter right along the road south from Atlanta into a remarkable confrontation with "The Misfit," in whose presence the grandmother finally says and does something true. I won't tell the story; you have to read it—and the reading involves hearty laughter that turns into a sudden silence of seeing. The laughter is a kind of seeing, too, and it opens us up to make us more susceptible to the final seeing.
She Makes It Real
O'Connor makes us laugh because what she writes in her fiction is so true to life. We should read O'Connor not just because her stories are funny but also because they are so real. Writers must write what they know, and O'Connor writes the South. She knows the farm machinery on the dairy farms; she lived on one. She knows how the hired farm workers talk and think. She knows the Georgia landscape the grandmother points out to the children as they drive: "the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled" (CS, 119).
She Connects Concrete Reality to Invisible Reality
That passing, vivid description of a local landscape points us to a related ability of O'Connor: the masterful ability to connect concrete reality to invisible reality, through the telling of a story. We should read O'Connor because she invites us to look deep into things. That last sentence about the silver-white sunlight casually adds itself to the list of what the grandmother sees. But it's a remarkable addition, in the midst of the rather banal family vacation scene, this shining description of the trees and the fact that the meanest of them sparkled. It's a hint, this sentence. It's telling us that the sparkling trees themselves are a hint—that even the ugly or stunted ones shine in a way we should notice.
That's how O'Connor feels about every inch of concrete reality: the meanest, dirtiest little spot of it, when you look closely, reveals something about the reality you can't see. Flannery O'Connor was a believer in spiritual, invisible reality, which in her view cannot be comprehended by looking away from physical reality but rather by looking closely, deeply in. This is why O'Connor's collection of prose is titled Mystery and Manners: the mystery is the invisible reality, and the manners are the local realities of the physical world where we live. For O'Connor, mystery and manners are connected, deeply connected—so that the meanest tree sparkles in order to invade our understanding with invisible truth. The artist, by letting us see manners clearly, reveals mystery. "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet," O'Connor said. "His problem is to find that location" (M&M, "The Regional Writer," 59).
She Sees with Christ at the Center
We've gone as far as we can without mentioning a further point, which many people cite first but which is perhaps best grasped by finding it in the manners of her fiction. The point is that for O'Connor the great mystery at the heart of all reality is centered in Jesus Christ. O'Connor was a deeply committed Catholic. I would not claim that we in the Protestant world would check off all her theological views. But we can see clearly in her fiction and non-fiction that O'Connor's soul was steeped in the truths of creation and sin and redemption in Christ and final judgment to come—truths that infuse all the manners of her landscapes, characters, and actions. "I see," she said, "from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that" (M&M, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," 32).
Right after that comment, O'Connor added another one that should give us pause. At this point we might be thinking we want to read O'Connor to see how she sees the world in relation to Christ. That's good. But what comes next is a warning that this seeing might not be an utterly happy sort of experience. "I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction" (M&M, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," 32).
O'Connor's writing is full of violence and what has been called "grotesquerie." What happens to the grandmother and her whole family in this story is pretty awful. You don't want to read these stories to your children. Then again, some stories in the Bible are pretty hard to read to children. That's because of the reality of sin and evil in our world, and the desperate need for grace. And that's what O'Connor writes about. O'Connor offered a typically incisive summary of her work: "I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil" (M&M, "On Her Own Work," 118). We'll delve into her thoughts on this subject more fully in the next article.
For now, as you contemplate reading O'Connor and as you perhaps take up "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," get ready to laugh, to enter an amazingly real world of concrete details, to connect those details to a huge invisible reality, and to recognize that reality as a universe created by God, broken by sin, and redeemed by Christ. If you want to hear O'Connor herself explain the climactic moment of grace and the violence that surrounds it in "A Good Man," read "On Her Own Work," in Mystery and Manners. I recommend reading the story first.
One final comment about the shape of O'Connor's life, which always humbles me: O'Connor took her calling as a writer utterly seriously and pursued that calling with intensity until she died at the age of 39 due to complications relating to lupus. Her remarkable network of friends and literary acquaintances can be seen in The Habit of Being, a massive collection of her letters. O'Connor lived the majority of her adult years with her mother at Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where you can still visit the farmhouse, see her bedroom with the desk where she worked and the crutches she used, and perhaps even find a feather from the many peacocks she raised there.
One final warning: Flannery O'Connor's racial themes and use of the "N-word" are prominent and much discussed. Be aware that she includes such language in her fiction, as she shows with realism the characters who peopled her world. O'Connor was sensitive both to the humanity of all people and to the self-righteousness of many white reformers who would come in to resolve racial strife. Ralph C. Wood has a thought-provoking chapter on this issue in his Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, an excellent discussion of O'Connor's thought and work. You are warned, then, especially as you approach "The Displaced Person," but you are also invited with this story to glimpse O'Connor's approach, which treats the issue not just from the perspective of America's South but also from the perspective of that "true country" we'll consider in the next article.
Editors' note: The next article will treat the short story "The Displaced Person," as well as two selections from Mystery and Manners: "The King of the Birds" and "The Fiction Writer and His Country."