Some Reflections on Flannery O’Conner

Flannery O’Connor is one of the best known American writers and essayists. She wrote two novels, but she is probably better known for her short stories. I finished reading two collections of these stories entitled A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge.

She only lived to be 39 years old, and died from complications of lupus – the same disease that claimed her father.

Approaching these stories, I knew very little about O’Connor and her writing style, other than the fact that she is often quoted, particularly in religious circles. She was indeed a devout Catholic and from 1956 through 1964, wrote more than one hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Though I have thus far only read her two collections of short stories listed above, I’m glad I have. Here are a few reflections from my end about her writing:

1. She is difficult to read. Not because the writing is tedious or boring in anyway; it certainly is not. It’s because her stories are characterized by the brutal and grotesque. This was not something I was prepared for because I knew very little about O’Conner prior to picking up the books. She is, I have since learned, regarded in writing in the genre known as “Southern Gothic.” And “gothic” it is. Strange, then, that she is quoted in so many religious circles especially in works regarding grace. But that leads to the next reflection:

2. It seems that “grace” is the hero of her stories. But rather than having this attribute embodied by a character in the story, she holds up all the characters in a given tale as having the common need. In these books, it seems that there are two common types of characters that appear: There is the character that is southern and backwardly so. These characters live in the past and hold to racial stereotypes. These are the people that the reader rolls their eyes at because of their misshapen views of the world, and yet they are still strangely likeable. They are like the mother in the story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” who is clearly racist, so much so that she is offended when a woman of color sits down on the bus beside her.

But there is the second type of recurring character: the smug, over educated character who thinks themselves above the first type of character. They are like Julian in the above story – the son of the mother on the bus who regards his mother with abject and complete contempt. These self-righteous characters are the ones that are truly despicable mainly because of their arrogant assumption that they have the world figured out.

Grace, then, is not embodied by either; it is rather a concept that you know, as the reader, is sorely needed in all the characters therein.

3. I am convinced, more than ever before, of the great talent it takes to write a short story. It’s one thing to develop a character in 400 pages. It’s not that it’s easy to do so; it certainly is not. It’s just that you have more room. But O’Conner has the uncanny ability to help you see and feel these people in just a few lines.

Mark Twain once said, “I wanted to write a short letter but I didn’t have time. So I wrote a long one instead.” That’s what you get with Flannery O’Conner. There aren’t any words that fall to the ground. She is concise and descriptive and grabs you by the throat in the first several lines.

4. This is the kind of writing that is prophetic in a way. I don’t mean the way that her writing foretells something in the future, but that it is the kind of radically self-aware writing that cuts to the core immediately. I can picture O’Conner sitting at the same restaurant she was said to dine every day in her hometown, looking with penetrating eyes around the counter and seeing inside the people there what they did not see in themselves. But she is able to express these failings in a way that is confrontational but not presumptuous. It’s likely that if you pick up these books and read, you’ll have the same experience that I had as you see yourself in some uncomfortable lights.

5. Self-awareness comes at a cost. And sometimes it comes too late. This is thematic in several of the stories. These presumptuous, self-assured, smug characters often do have some measure of awakening about themselves, but that awakening only comes through dramatic events. It’s not until Julian’s mother dies in “Everything that Rises” that he finally shows some measure of compassion. Shepperd, the athiest, over-educated father in “The Lame Shall Enter First” only awakens to the truth of his life after the death of his son. As you read these stories, you come out with a sense of urgency. It’s a desire to be awakened to your own need of grace, and the grace you’ve been given, before it’s too late to appreciate it.

I commend Flannery O’Conner to you, but be ready. She will cut you deeply. But, as thematic in her writing, you need to feel the pain to see the grace.

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2 Comments

  • Whit says:

    What a talent. I’m grateful to have been assigned her writing in high school—only to go home and discover my dad wrote his thesis on her work. Your description of how she presents a need for grace reminds me of movies like Magnolia or American Beauty, pieces of gorgeously rendered art that wrecks you and leaves you in a place where your only possible reaction is to cry out to God. I love the way the gospel is revealed when people struggle to reconcile pain and beauty.

  • Andy Blanks says:

    I should preface with saying that I was a Lit Major in college. And short stories (especially from Southern writers) have always been my favorite genre. I read her first as a sophomore in college I think and I was smitten. When I thought I might actually try and be a real writer, I went through a few years of being deeply obsessed with her work, reading and re-reading it. If I could, I would write things that make people feel like I feel when I read her work.
    One thing I was fascinated about was her use of light and darkness to create tension between goodness and badness, and as foreshadowing. When you look for it, it’s in so many of her stories.
    My favorite? Probably Greenleaf, as stunningly tragic as it is. I think she’s at her best there.

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