Feb

19

2013

Kathleen Nielson|12:01 AM CT

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.

Get Ready

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."

Kathleen Nielson serves as director of women's initiatives for The Gospel Coalition. She holds MA and PhD degrees in literature from Vanderbilt University and a BA from Wheaton College. Author of the Living Word Bible studies, she speaks often at women's conferences and loves working with women in studying the Bible. She shares a heart for students with her husband, Niel, president of Covenant College from 2002 to 2012 and now leading an enterprise developing resources for Christian schools around the world.

  • Jeremiah

    Although I enjoy Flannery O'Connor for her literary works, I do not agree with her spiritually. She was Roman Catholic and believed in transubstantiation and a was a mystic.

    Our Crosses, as heavy as they are, can-paradoxically-lead us to spiritual maturity if carried gracefully; they can lead to spiritual growth, to interior development. Despite her Cross, Flannery's own life-as her personal letters reflect-was filled with a mature spirituality. She believed in the Eucharist, in its truest form, as the physical presence of Christ, having a strong devotion to the Sacrament. Of course, she valued the Mass highly. She loved the Church and was obedient to her teachings, believing that it is Christ himself who speaks through the Church. Priests and religious sisters were friends and often guests at Flannery's farmhouse at Andalusia. They constituted some of her fondest correspondences in her countless letters. She also believed in the miraculous and the mystical elements of the Christian faith.

    In her personal letters, Flannery O'Connor frequently mentioned mystics and mystical writers who have influenced her deeply. From medieval thinkers like Pseudo-Dionysius to modern figures like the Jewish mystic Simone Weil, to the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, not to mention Edith Stein and even Evelyn Underhill, the mystical figures which O'Connor read were various. She had a personal attraction to mysticism that was both spiritual and intellectual, owing to her Roman Catholic faith. In a letter dated November 10, 1955, addressed from Milledgeville, O'Connor wrote to a friend, "You would enjoy this book, Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, a paperbound Meridian book. I read it last spring is howcome [sic] I know all this. It's a mine of information. I would like to read Baron von Hugel's book, The Mystical Element in Religion." http://www.ministryvalues.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1462&Itemid=318

  • http://www.gospelgrace.net Luma Simms

    In the middle of a move so my Collected Works is packed, but I'm very excited about this. I started reading O'Connor three years ago. I recall the first thing it did for me was give me a different understanding of violence. I'm hoping to be unpacked by the weekend. :-) Kitchen and books first! Looking forward to the upcoming articles.

  • David C.

    Jeremiah, please relax and take some time to read her books as I assume you have not. I promise you won't burst into flames. The failure to read and just attack on some misguided idea that goes contrary to your dogma is why real discussions never take place. Once you assume that your way is the only way you put up divisions where dialog should take place. I have read the mystic's and other works by Catholic writers and have gained quite alot.

    • John

      David C., why the snooty, patronizing tone? I found nothing in Jeremiah's remarks to be offensive or narrow-minded, let alone an attack - just some useful observations regarding O'Connor's philosophy. Why do you assume he has not read her works, when in his first line he states that he enjoys them?

      When you use words like "relax", "I promise you won't burst into flames", and impute "some misguided idea" to his motives, isn't that at least a bit arrogant of you?

      Do you really expect snide comments like that to be taken as constructive? Would you take them that way?

      • David C.

        John, you are absolutely correct in your comments. I am sorry as it was rude and offensive of me. Thanks for your comment. Jeremiah I sorry for shooting from the hip without taking the time to think through what I was saying.

        • John

          God bless you, David!

        • Tilly D.

          David C., I know this conversation ended about a year ago, but my eyes just filled with tears here seeing a humble response to a gentle rebuke... a humble, apologetic response! In the comments section of a blog! Maybe I've spent too much time on the lonely highways of the anonymous internet in the last few days, but this seemed like a mini-miracle to me:) I must be forgetting just how sweet the aroma of the Spirit can be.

  • Will

    Flannery herself reads "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" while you can follow along with the full text on this website. A good way to spend a half hour.

    http://www.discerninghearts.com/?p=5142

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    I am an O'Connor fan, and occasionally write reflections on her stories on my blog. I wrote a short article on A Good Man, http://www.housewifetheologian.com/a-good-man-is-hard-to-find/, as well as The Displaced Person, http://www.housewifetheologian.com/gods-grace-displaces-us/. She does help us to observe both God's grace and our depravity through the mundane.
    Looking forward to the future posts. I would love to go deeper in O'Connor's works...maybe a good book club idea.
    And Luma..."books and kitchen first"...love it!

  • Julie

    I, too, am a fan looking forward to the rest of these articles, especially as I will be teaching her works again to some high school seniors this spring. Her story "Parker's Back" is a favorite of mine. She has a laser-like eye and pen for identifying self-righteousness. Perhaps that is her greatest gift to me.

  • Scott Singleton

    Thanks for this article. This is a great introduction to O'Connor. I have been reading her for many years, and I've focused on her writings, especially "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in much of my academic work, including a paper I published comparing O'Connor to Cormac McCarthy.

    http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/kjur/vol2/iss1/3/

  • Clive

    A good Christian author is hard to find. and we found one. :D

  • Mark

    It is too ironic that you wrote this article because lately I have been reading her short stories and have been appreciating the art she displays through her tapestry of words. I am looking forward to the next series of articles on my favorite American author. I first discovered her in college English class in 2004 in our short stories sessions. I read "Revelation," a startling tale of a self-righteous woman who encounters grace through revelation and violence, then comes to be exposed for who she really is: nothing without the Grace of God. From there I have been rediscovering her and how her Christ-centered writing has made a huge impact on me.

    Like the writer of the article mentions, the beauty of O'Connor's work is the juxtaposition of concrete reality and the invisible reality. The symbolism of colors, abstract descriptions of facial features and clothing, the imposing geography that spells doom or grace, O'Connor was gifted by God to write about how daily life meets the spiritual. And she is hilarious.

    Her use of violence in gritty and awful ways was to show that this temporary world is fallen and evil, but grace thru Christ appears in the most unusual and surprising of ways, bringing main characters to become humble and to show that they are not in control of their own lives.

    One of my favorite short stories by O'Connor is "A Temple of the Holy Ghost." It rocked my world.

  • Ron M

    Hope you'll review and/or comment on the short story she wrote called "Revelation."

    At the suggestion of my high school English teacher, I read some of her short stories during the summer of 1968. My head nearly exploded.

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  • http://chsmithjr.wordpress.com/ Chris Smith

    I enjoyed this and look forward to more!

  • Cassidy Street

    Flannery O'Connor is my favorite writer. She has inspired me in my life as well as in my writing. Those that focus too much on her religious views have clearly missed the point.

    Seriously, she's my FAVORITE. I read her stories religiously and I never go anywhere without my "Complete Stories."