Tag Archives: Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O'Connor, Faith, and a Wooden Leg

O'Connor means to shock us into seeing: that's what we've observed in the previous posts. In this third and final article (see the introduction and follow-up) on O'Connor, again we'll match some prose from Mystery and Manners with a short story, "Good Country People." And once again we'll be called to see a bit more clearly.

'Novelist and Believer'

We're coming to recognize O'Connor's voice and themes, which are well represented in this talk published in Mystery and Manners, originally given in 1963 at Sweetbriar College in Virginia. I will highlight several key quotations for consideration and discussion.

We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual . . . an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. (M&M, 159)

O'Connor spends the first pages diagnosing the modern world of unbelief in which she created art. Consider the ways her diagnosis applies or does not apply today, and whether you would address these issues similarly now, 50 years later.

All my own experience has been that of the writer who believes, again in Pascal's words, in the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not of the philosophers and scholars." This is an unlimited God and one who has revealed himself specifically. It is one who became man and rose from the dead. It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over this specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought. This God is the object of ultimate concern and he has a name. (M&M, 161)

I include this quotation just because it's so shockingly direct, and I love to imagine O'Connor speaking it in the setting of an academic symposium where she had clearly been asked not to be so direct. How do you respond to her directness?

The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. (M&M, 163)

What an indictment of much contemporary "Christian literature"! Consider the import of this statement for our reading as well as writing habits and for our nurturing of strong, honest fiction among Christians today.

[T]he maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. (M&M, 167)

Is this true, and why? (And, if it's true, why is it wonderful?)

'Good Country People'

You've met the grandmother ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre ("The Displaced Person"), so you'll recognize Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell in the opening scene of "Good Country People." They live in the world of self-satisfied Christian-sounding clichés. "Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings. Another was: that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their opinions too" (CS, 272-3).

But in this story the focus is on another character, Mrs. Hopewell's daughter Hulga, who lives surrounded by and raging against such stupidity. We meet several versions of this character throughout O'Connor's stories, but Hulga is perhaps the most memorable, with her PhD in philosophy, her defiant atheism, her wooden leg, and her weak heart that keeps her living at home. In some ways she's a bit like O'Connor herself, who because of her failing health returned to life with her devoted but not literarily sensitive mother on the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

This story is anything but a railing against Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, unseeing as they are. It's Hulga who most clearly needs and experiences the moment of seeing, given to her in the most painful (for her) and bizarre (for the reader) way. Let's get at that moment by summarizing the before, during, and after of that moment.

Before the Moment of Seeing

The majority of the story takes place before the moment of seeing, building up to it. In the process we don't experience any one perspective so much as the juxtaposition of Hulga's with the others'. What defines Hulga is her violent contempt for the world of her mother and her mother's hired help. Hulga (who changed her given name, Joy) considers herself released from religious delusions and inhabiting a more intellectual world, in which her eyes have been opened to the philosophy of nihilism and from which she looks with scorn on "good country people."

What precipitates the story's climactic moment is the arrival of Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman with black suitcase, bright blue suit, and yellow socks, perfectly playing the part of "good country people" who earnestly seek a life of "Chrustian service." Many critics take Hulga's plot to seduce Manley as a desire to emancipate this young believer from his religious delusions. Indeed, she envisions herself as his liberator. I have always seen in Hulga a suppressed desire to connect with true faith like that of a child—for she is utterly taken in by the young man's earnest show. She is drawn to him. Perhaps both desires are at work, on different levels.

Moment of Seeing

That brings us to the moment in the hayloft, during which Hulga is stripped of her hardness, her nihilism, her pride . . . her wooden leg! At first the seduction is a mental game, but finally Hulga surrenders to her feelings, drawn to this innocent boy who "had touched the truth about her" (CS, 289). She lets him remove what has become for her a kind of symbol of her identity: "she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away" (CS, 288). Too late Hulga meets the real Manley Pointer (or whatever his name really is), with his liquor and lewd cards hiding under the Bibles in his suitcase. He runs off with her leg, her glasses, and a great parting line: "You ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!" (CS, 291) But it is not too late for Hulga to have experienced a moment of crumbling, in which her own nihilistic illusions are all stripped away.

After the Moment of Seeing

After this moment of losing her leg and her hard soul (and her glasses), the story leaves Hulga straining to see out across the landscape, perhaps for the first time. When Manley first removed her glasses, she hardly noticed, for she "seldom paid any close attention to her surroundings" (CS, 287). But now she sees that she can't see, and she strains, just glimpsing "his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake." Walking on water, as some have suggested? A strange kind of savior for her? Perhaps, in a way. There was grace in this devastation.

As Jonathan Rogers writes in his recently published spiritual biography of O'Connor (The Terrible Speed of Mercy), "In O'Connor's unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout" (Rogers, xviii).

The other part of after is the story's conclusion, which takes us back with a kind of symmetry to Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, the bookends who shape Hulga's story. In the end they're out in the pasture digging up "evil-smelling onion shoot[s] from the ground" (CS, 291), glimpsing that nice Bible salesman in the distance, squinting but not able to see the spiritual seismic shift that has just occurred.

Further Reflection or Discussion

1. How in this story does O'Connor fulfill the writer's "obligation to penetrate concrete reality"? What makes this story not abstract, but vivid and real?

2. Do your own character analysis of this character Hulga/Joy. What is going on inside her in this story, and what lines reveal that activity most clearly to us?

3. We've read painful moments of seeing in these O'Connor's stories. Contrast and compare these moments. What kind of seeing is O'Connor after in her fiction?

4. Which of O'Connor's works will you read next?

Flannery O'Connor, Peacocks, and Displaced People

My previous article introduced Flannery O'Connnor, 20th-century Southern writer of strange and amazing short stories—including her most well-known, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." We'll get to know her better here, through two short selections from her collected prose and one short story, "The Displaced Person." I'll offer commentary and then questions for further reflection or discussion.

'The King of the Birds'

When you're getting to know people, you want to find out how they think and what they're interested in. There's hardly a better way to get to know Flannery O'Connor than by reading the first essay in Mystery and Manners, "The King of the Birds."

It's a great essay simply to enjoy, while you're introduced to O'Connor's voice, and her ear and eye for the voices and concrete details of her world—including her peacocks. (If you've never seen or heard peacocks, this short video might help.) The essay lets you taste O'Connor's liking for the humor to be found in bizarre, unusual creatures—a liking that definitely extends to human beings. O'Connor doesn't ever get sentimental, of course, but you'll catch her awe at the magnificence of such a creature and its ability to let us glimpse something mysterious. My favorite sentence in this essay comes in the passage where O'Connor describes the peacock's cry: "To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade" (M&M, 15).

'The Fiction Writer and His Country'

Here O'Connor explains clearly how she viewed her calling as a writer. This essay originated as a response to a Life magazine editorial that called for happier American novels, ones with redeeming qualities that communicate the joy of the good life we have achieved.

O'Connor's response is shaped at every point by her Christian beliefs. Her true country "covers considerable territory," she says, starting with her own region and stretching not just to her nation but much farther, to "what is eternal and absolute" (M&M, 27). Hailing from such a country, O'Connor sees our good American life with rather different eyes, eyes that involve "moral judgment" as part of the very act of seeing (M&M, 31). O'Connor is talking about a whole moral framework that starts with God's existence, centers in redemption by Jesus Christ, and stretches into eternity. When she says she sees "from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy," O'Connor means she sees everything with Christ-soaked eyes—everything from a peacock to a Georgia dairy farmer.

Here's where the "grotesque" comes in. This essay contains perhaps O'Connor's most quoted words on the subject:

My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. . . . The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. (M&M, 33-34)

In a world where we've accustomed our eyes to evil and lost our desperation for redemption, O'Connor believed she was called to write what she truly saw. O'Connor's writing helps us see.

'The Displaced Person'

This is a story that invites us in on many levels. Is it about how we treat immigrants? Is it about the need for racial equality? Is it about the difference between Catholics and Protestants? I'd say no to all those questions, but those questions all connect with the story. We'll begin to "get into" the story with some comments on the setting, the characters, and the shape of the plot.

A Setting to Notice

The story's setting is obviously meant to be noticed, by the reader if not by the two main female characters. By this story's "setting" one must mean not just the dairy farm but also (and perhaps more importantly) the sun in the sky and the peacock reflecting its light. Mrs. Shortley, who appears large and stolid at the start, seems almost defiantly oblivious to the "white afternoon sun which was creeping behind a ragged wall of cloud as if it pretended to be an intruder" (Complete Stories, 194). This seeming "giant wife of the countryside" makes her own mountainous landscape, rather than noticing the one around her. But what's around her is pictured as actively pursuing her, with the sun acting like an intruder—and the peacock, of course . . . the peacock following her in the opening sentence. But Mrs. Shortley's arms are folded, not open, and her eyes end up fixed only on the red clay road.

"The Displaced Person" makes you glad to have read "The King of the Birds"! One way to study this story's development is to follow the peacock through it, tracing the various responses to the mysterious beauty this bird displays. The peacock is pervasively there, in the background, invading this muddy dairy farm with alien mystery. Perhaps that's what this story is ultimately about: an alien invasion, one that would totally dismantle (and yet renew) the poor, unproductive lives we work so hard to defend.

Characters Tell the Story

In the midst of such an invasion, the characters might be grouped according to those who open their arms, those who keep them closed, and the one who stands in the middle to divide. Just a few pages into the story, after Mrs. Shortley has squarely set herself on the side of the closed, her employer Mrs. McIntyre joins her. As the peacock again appears, Mrs. McIntyre sends only a glance its way and says, "Another mouth to feed" (CS, 198). But her comment comes in answer to a character clearly on the other side, the priest, who is stunned by the peacock's beauty: "'So beautiful,' the priest said. 'A tail full of suns,' and he crept forward on tiptoe and looked down on the bird's back where the polished gold and green design began. The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all" (CS, 198).

In the middle stands the character who acts out the invasion, the literal alien who brings the challenge of his foreign ways into this quite local-feeling dairy farm.  The Displaced Person is a Polish refugee named Mr. Guizac, whom the priest has brought over from a European refugee camp (with his wife and children) to work on Mrs. McIntyre's farm. Much of the story's early dialogue will make us laugh, as the women chatter on in complacent ignorance but certain judgment of anything from as far away as Europe. "They can't talk," Mrs. Shortley says. "You reckon they'll know what colors even is?" (CS, 196). Mr. Guizac doesn't talk much, but he turns out to be a skilled, hard-working man who offers not only a better way of running a farm but even more a whole new way of thinking about human beings. The blind, self-righteous women cannot imagine welcoming such alien ways. Each in her own way refuses to open her arms. Each comes to a violent, death-filled moment of seeing.

Following the Plot to the Ends

The story's plot develops in two matching parts, one for each woman. In the first half of the story we share Mrs. Shortley's perspective—a perspective developed not through seeing anything right in front of her, but through her own wild imaginings concerning the evil of anybody not like her or not part of her world. Mrs. Shortley is an unlikely prophet, but she begins to read the Bible and eventually has a visionary experience inspired by a combination of heart palpitations, verses from Ezekiel, and vivid recollections of a World War II newsreel showing a grotesque heap of tangled dead naked bodies. She prophesies the butchering of "children of wicked nations," but not until the moment of her own death, as she enacts her own prophecy, does she appear to understand that her vision applies to herself. It is a strange moment of seeing. Being finally "displaced in the world from all that belonged to her," Mrs. Shortley "seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country" (CS, 214).

Mrs. McIntyre, whose perspective we share in the second half, is much more practical and just as closed, rejecting the advances of both peacock and priest mainly because she's looking for something "serious," something that will benefit her farm. She at first views the hard-working Mr. Guizac as her "salvation" (CS, 213) but finally is unable to embrace the alien kind of salvation embodied by this dangerous little man from another world. In conspiring to destroy him Mrs. McIntyre destroys her own life. Seeing Mr. Guizac carried away dead, "she felt she was in some foreign country" (CS, 235). We cannot follow her there; we lose her in the end to a sightless, voiceless, bedridden existence on a deserted farm.

Is there hope? It is important to recall that, as we read, the narrator gives us the chance to notice the white sun. Through the story's words we get to see the magnificence of the peacock. During one earlier dialogue between the priest and Mrs. McIntyre, the peacock appears in all its glory, the priest begins talking about Christ, and oblivious Mrs. McIntyre is talking about Mr. Guizac. "He didn't have to come in the first place," she says. "He came to redeem us," says the priest (CS, 226). The sentences wind around each other in that scene, leading us to see more and more of what this story is about.

The story in the end leaves the priest and the peacock there with Mrs. McIntyre—leaving also, I think, a thread of hope that in the foreign country where Mrs. McIntyre finally finds herself displaced and poor, she might perhaps be able to see the way home.

Further Reflection and Discussion

1. If someone asked you why Flannery O'Connor liked peacocks so much, what would you say? To what passages might you point?

2. Some view Christian writers as ones who tack on or teach a moral in their literature. By contrast, how does O'Connor view the relationship between faith and writing? How might you support your answer both from her non-fiction and her fiction?

3. Violence and evil in books and movies are controversial today in our world full of violence. How might O'Connor's writing help us evaluate when and how violence and evil might or might not be justifiable to portray in works of art?

4. O'Connor's style is terse and compact; she shows rather than tells. In "The Displaced Person," what details of descriptions or dialogues stand out to you, making the story vivid and alive?

5. Discuss the ways this story is infused with Christian truth. Consider also the ways it has been possible for such literature to be embraced by many people who are not Christians.

6. This is not a happy story. What light do you find in it, if any? What hope do you think it leaves the reader in the end?

In the final article, we'll consider the short story "Good Country People," as well as the prose selection "Novelist and Believer" from Mystery and Manners.

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."