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Flannery O’Connor is considered one of the foremost short-story writers in American literature. She was an anomaly among post-World War II authors—a Roman Catholic from the Bible-belt South whose stated purpose was to reveal the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life. Aware that not all readers shared her faith, O’Connor chose to depict salvation through shocking, often violent actions upon characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Moreover, her work shows a penchant for employing ironic detachment and mordant humor within compressed, polished prose. She also infused her fiction with the local color and rich comic detail of her southern milieu, particularly through her skillful presentation of regional dialect. A complex system of symbolism and allegory adds further resonance to O’Connor’s writing.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Roman Catholic Upbringing
Born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor was the only child of devout Roman Catholics from prominent Georgia families. She attended parochial schools in Savannah and public high school in nearby Milledgeville, where the family moved after her father developed disseminated lupus, a degenerative disease that O’Connor later inherited. During this time in the Deep South, Roman Catholics were a small minority in an otherwise Protestant region and were often discriminated against. This may account for O’Connor’s fervent identification with the Catholic religion throughout her life and works.
Soon after her father’s death, when she was nearly sixteen, O’Connor entered the nearby Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in social sciences.
In her spare time she edited and wrote for school publications to which she also contributed linoleum-block and woodcut cartoons. After graduation, O’Connor enrolled in the graduate writing program at Iowa State University, where she earned her master’s degree in 1947 with six stories, including ”The Geranium,” which had appeared the previous year in the periodical Accent.
Return to Georgia
O’Connor began her first novel, Wise Blood, while living at Yaddo writers’ colony in upstate New York in 1947-48. She continued working on the novel while living in New York City and then in Connecticut, where she boarded with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, a young married couple who shared O’Connor’s Catholic faith and literary interests. However, O’Connor’s independent lifestyle ended abruptly at age twenty-five when she suffered her first attack of lupus. From that point onward, O’Connor lived with her mother at Andalusia, a small dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia.
During this period she witnessed the effects of segregation and racial tension in a state heavily influenced by the ”Jim Crow” laws that divided Southern society into black and white. She maintained a steady writing pace, publishing Wise Blood in 1952, followed by the story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, in 1960. Each volume attracted significant critical attention, and she was awarded three O. Henry prizes for her short stories in addition to several grants and two honorary degrees. Throughout her career, O’Connor’s stories were readily published, occasionally by popular magazines, such as Mademoiselle, but more often by prestigious literary journals including Sewanee Review, Shenandoah, and Kenyon Review. As her reputation grew, she traveled when her health permitted to give readings and lectures. O’Connor also enjoyed oil-painting and raising exotic fowl—peacocks, her particular favorites, bear significant symbolic weight in some of her stories. Even during her final illness, which was triggered by abdominal surgery, O’Connor wrote devotedly, and she finished her final story, ”Parker’s Back,” several weeks before she died in 1964.
Works in Literary Context
O’Connor’s artistic style and vision were shaped by a variety of influences. Critics have noted that her stark imagery, caustic satire, and use of the grotesque reflects the black humor tradition exemplified by Nathanael West, whose novel Miss Lonely hearts (1933) was among the twentieth-century works O’Connor most admired. While some commentators were eager to align O’Connor with her Southern contemporaries, including Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Erskine Caldwell, she resisted being confined to regional status, and critics now generally recognize that her aims were wholly different from those of her contemporaries. Nevertheless, many critics note the influence of William Faulkner’s fiction on her vision of the southern gothic and her masterful prose rhythms and cadences. Most crucial, however, and underlying all O’Connor’s fiction, is her deep grounding in biblical tradition and Catholic theology, which she nurtured all her life with intense reading in not only early Catholic literature, but also works by twentieth-century Catholic apologists. Particularly significant among modern influences were the French Catholic authors Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose philosophical writings inspired the title of O’Connor’s posthumous 1965 short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge.
Convergence and Redemption
The major theme of Everything That Rises Must Converge is derived from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1955). In this work, Teilhard de Chardin asserts that all matter and spirit will eventually converge at what he refers to as the Omega Point. The stories from O’Connor’s collection are about man’s resistance to this convergence. O’Connor’s characters use different methods to avoid convergence or union with mankind, including isolating themselves in intellectualism like Julian and Sheppard, or by clinging to a romanticized version of the past like Julian’s mother. It is only through the destruction of pride and false identities that O’Connor’s characters have a chance at convergence or redemption, hence the violent climaxes of many of the stories: Julian loses his sense of superiority over and separation from his mother as he watches her die from a stroke; Sheppard realizes the error of his judgment when he finds his son hanging in the attic.
Religion and Spiritual Conflict
In her fiction O’Connor frequently criticizes the materialism and spiritual apathy of contemporary society, faulting modern rationalism and advanced technology for its negation of the need for religious faith and redemption. Employing scenes and characters from her native southern environment, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Hermione Lee in the New Statesman wrote, ”Essentially, O’Connor’s subject is acceptance: the point at which her sinners become aware of the awful unavoidability of Grace. . . . Its masterly realism springs from the life in Georgia, but its intellectual energy, and its penetration of grotesque extremes, derives from the faith.” The protagonists of both of her novels— Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away—experience intense spiritual conflict. Often considered ”Christ-haunted” characters, they are tormented by visions of God and the devil and by the temptation to deny the reality of their revelations. Critics have described O’Connor’s protagonists as grotesque in personality, inclined to violence, and isolated and frustrated by their spiritual struggle.
Reflecting the religious themes of her novels, a recurring motif in O’Connor’s short stories is that of divine grace descending in an often bizarre or violent manner upon a spiritually deficient main character. She often depicts a rural domestic situation suddenly invaded by a criminal or perverse outsider—a distorted Christ figure who redeems a protagonist afflicted with pride, intellectualism, or materialism. In one of O’Connor’s best-known stories, ”A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, a smugly self-complacent grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer who kills first her family and then her.
The New South
A religious writer who defined her ”subject in fiction” as ”the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” O’Connor nevertheless believed good writing begins in a concrete ”experience, not an abstraction.” Her writing reflects this by being firmly rooted in her native South. Her Catholic family lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, since before the American Civil War, and O’Connor herself witnessed and wrote about the racial tensions of the Deep South during the decades of the twentieth century still affected by segregation and the Jim Crow laws. ”Ours is a real Bible Belt,” she once said. ”We have a sense of the absolute . . . a sense of Moses’ face as he pulverized the idols . . . a sense of time, place and eternity joined.” Alice Walker noted that it was for O’Connor’s characterizations ”that I appreciated her work at first … these white folks without the magnolia . . . and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like the Southerners that I know.” John Idol summed up Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as follows: ”In the twelve or fifteen of her best stories Miss O’Connor aptly blended satire and reverence, the concrete and the abstract, the comic and the cosmic, earning for herself a secure place among the writers of the Southern Renascence.”
Works in Critical Context
L. Rowse called Flannery O’Connor ”probably the greatest short-story writer of our time,” and this opinion is not unique among critics. Considering her limited output as a writer, the critical response to her canon has been extraordinary. More than a dozen books, chapters in many more, and hundreds of articles have been devoted to O’Connor’s work. As Josephine Hendin noted in The World of Flannery O’Connor, the author produced ”a body of work of remarkable uniformity and persistent design.” Her themes have been identified by Stanley Edgar Hyman as the ”profound equation of the mysteries of sex and religion … change of identity, transformation, death-and-rebirth … the perverse mother … [and] the transvaluation of values in which progress in the world is retrogression in the spirit.”
A Good Man is Hard to Find
Though Flannery O’Connor’s stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find deal with the violent and grotesque, the collection received almost universal praise. As critic Ted R. Spivey explained, O’Connor dealt with violent and grotesque people because ”man has in his soul a powerful destructive element, which often makes him behave in a violent and grotesque manner. . . . [Her writing is about] the existential struggle with the principle of destruction traditionally called the Devil.” Numerous critics see this preoccupation with the demonic as a central characteristic of O’Connor’s work. In opposition to this evil force O’Connor places a God whose ”grace hits the characters in [her] stories with the force of a mugging,” Josephine Hendin wrote. The climactic moments of grace in her stories and in her characters’ lives have been described by Preston M. Browning, Jr., as ”those moments when her characters undergo a traumatic collapse of their illusions of righteousness and self-sufficiency.” As Washington Post critic William McPherson put it, ”the question behind Miss O’Connor’s stories is not whether God exists—he’s there, all right—but whether men can bear it.”
Initial reviewers of Wise Blood praised O’Connor’s rich imagery, powerful symbolism, and skillful rendering of Southern dialect, but found her characterizations two-dimensional and shockingly monstrous. Later critics generally discussed the book’s satirical, theological, and ironic elements, the quest motif, and whether the protagonist, Haze, is finally redeemed. Obsessed with Christ and the notion of original sin, Haze has a mechanical rigidity and monomaniacal obsession with beliefs that are absurdly comic. While some commentators found O’Connor’s portrayal of Haze cartoonish, others argued that realism was not her intention in Wise Blood. Lewis A. Law-son explained that Haze was conceived ”as an exemplum, as a vehicle whose attitudes and actions would personify a spiritual view which [O’Connor] wished to reveal.” Law-son added that Haze represents an example ”of the deadly effect that Southern fundamentalism could have on the soul, warping and terrorizing it so completely with its perversion of Christian doctrine that the soul in rebellion rejects entirely the idea of orthodox Christianity.”
Some commentators have considered Haze a madman unable to redeem others or to be redeemed himself. While most believe that he is saved, others concur with Ben Satterfield: ”Those who claim Haze is redeemed mistake his acts of penance, if that is what they are, for the goal they are employed to achieve; they mistake the means for the end. But atonement is not redemption and should not be confused with it.” Satterfield has accused some critics of guilelessly accepting O’Connor’s own comments about her work and of being too eager to find redemption in everything she wrote. Richard Giannone stated: ”[In] his own mental way Haze is a martyr in the original sense of the word as giving testimony to the truth, sealed in his own suffering and unwise blood.”
Everything That Rises Must Converge
Most critics discuss the relationship of Everything That Rises Must Converge to the ideas of Catholic theologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who believed that all spiritual and physical matter would eventually converge and that the soul would be redeemed. The title’s obvious allusion to Teilhard de Chardin’s work is commonly accepted. However, reviewers disagree about O’Connor’s intentions. Some argue that she accepts Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas, and the stories are her attempt to portray true convergence. Others, including Robert Fitzgerald in the introduction to the work, assert that O’Connor uses the title ironically. As Fitzgerald wrote, ”There is quite a gamut of [comedy,] running from something very like cartooning to an irony dry and refined, especially in the treatment of the most serious matters.”
- Baumgaertner, Jill P. Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 1998.
- Bloom, Harold, ed. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
- Driskell, Leon V., and Joan T. Brittain. The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O’Connor. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1971.
- Enjolras, Laurence. Flannery O’Connor’s Characters. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998.
- Hendin, Josephine. ”The Enduring Conflict: Parents & Children in Everything That Rises Must Converge.” In The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970, 97-130.
- Lawson, Lewis. ”Flannery O Connor and the Grotesque: Wise Blood.” In Flannery O’Connor, edited by Robert Reiter,52.St.Louis:B.HerderBooks, 1968.
- McMullen, Joanne Halleran. Writing Against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. ”The Visionary Art of Flannery O’Connor.” In New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature. New York: The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1974, 174-76.
- Spivey, Ted Ray. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995.
- Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 1995.
- Satterfield, Ben. ”Wise Blood, Artistic Anemia, and the Hemorrhaging of O’Connor Criticism,” Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 33-50.
- Lee, Hermione. Review of Flannery O’Connor. New Statesman, December 7, 1979.
- Howe, Irving. ”Flannery O’Connor’s Stories.” In The New York Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 4, September 30, 1965, pp. 16-7.
- Rosenfeld, Isaac. ”To Win by Default.” In New Republic, July 7, 1952, pp. 19-20.
- Schott, Webster. ”Flannery O’Connor: Faith’s Stepchild.” In The Nation, Vol. 201, No. 7, September 13, 1965, pp. 142-44, 146.
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