Flannery O’Connor was an American short story writer of the mid-20th Century who possessed exceptional talent and received high critical acclaim, yet her work today seems obscure if not apocryphal. “Dismissed as a minor writer by some critics, totally rejected by others…” (Lukas 5197) or as eloquently described in 1997 by Joseph Zornado
…[R]ecent scholarship locates O’Connor’s literary achievement on a kind of literary desert island. Seemingly off the main trade routes, her work betrays a terrifying, unruly domain that critical missionaries attempt to civilize with a more accessible kind of Christianity, while the greatest explorers consider the island too wild or already tamed (28).
Volumes of high-powered analysis have largely missed the point of O’Connor’s work. O’Connor herself was aware of this general misunderstanding. She said, “Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc” (qtd. in Yardley). Indeed, many critics have interpreted and attempted to classify O’Connor’s works tangentially. However, O’Connor herself said that her works held a greater meaning than any interpretation could offer. In The Habit of Being, she wrote: “The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation…too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it” (128). O’Connor’s “meaning” which “cannot be captured in an interpretation” is profound, but literary analysis has yet to find it despite its often pedantic efforts. The focus of O’Connor analysis seems to be on specific aspects of the stories, a prime example being the obvious shocking qualities of violence and grotesque imagery in O’Connor’s works.
When critics speak of shock and violence in Flannery O’Connor’s work, they have a good deal of material to draw from. Walter Sullivan points out: “In the 19(sic) stories published in her lifetime… nine end in one or more violent deaths, three others end in physical assaults and bodily injury and, in the remaining seven, one ends in arson, another two theft (qtd. in Kinney).” The quality of insight into O’Connor’s use of violent and grotesque imagery ranges widely between sectarian and secular extremes.
O’Connor’s affirmed Catholicism influenced some critics to derive meaning from her use of violence in a purely religious context. Jean Marie Kann states, “Exploding upwards into God is the action in all Miss O’Connor’s stories. It is always an explosion of violence, generally physical violence, and always resulting from the violent agitation is a revelation, a striking disclosure, sometimes to the characters, always to the reader. This revelation is actually more devastating than the physical violence which preceded it (158-159).” In O’Connor’s “Revelation”, Kann’s view is justifiable. The protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, proudly proclaims her goodness and Christian faith outwardly while holding a condescending view of others internally. “He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! She said. Thank you thank you thank you! (O’Connor 497).” Mrs. Turpin begins to examine her self-deception only after a young woman hits her in the face with a book and attempts to strangle her. The “revelation” Mrs. Turpin receives is indeed more devastating than the physical violence, as the bruise on her face will heal, but her whole worldview is permanently shattered through a vision she all but demands from God.
The use of violence in a religious context is overt in “Revelation”, as well as “Parker’s Back” and “The Displaced Person.” In “Parker’s Back”, O.E. Parker seeks a sense of unity for his tattooed body and his soul with a tattoo of a Byzantine Christ. The unity he acquires is one with the suffering of Christ: “He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ” (529). The description implies a double meaning. O’Connor could mean the welts appeared on the area of Parker’s back where the tattoo of Christ is, or that Parker himself is the “tattooed Christ.” O’Connor uses a similar double meaning in “The Displaced Person.” The priest says that the immigrant, or in local parlance a Displaced Person, Mr. Guizac “came to redeem us” (226), and Mrs. McIntyre says “As far as I’m concerned…Christ was just another D.P.” (229). Mr. Guizac becomes known for his work ethic and his lack of concern about racial boundaries. He represents an ideal that the locals are not ready to strive for, and their mutual negligence causes Mr. Guizac to be killed by a runaway tractor as they stand by and watch. Their failure to act, and thus prevent Mr. Guizac’s death, parallels the Crucifixion of Christ, which also could have been prevented had the mob simply voted for Jesus to live instead of Barabbas.
To secular critics, O’Connor’s violence serves purely literary ends. Discussing Wise Blood, Ben Satterfield states “The Gothic devices are neither extraneous nor melodramatic but serve to underscore the horror of reality, the gross ugliness of living in a godless world. The language is appropriately realistic, naturalistic, earthy; it is concrete and generally free from abstractions; likewise the imagery is always physical and specific, never of the spiritual or intangible (33-50).” The O’Connor story “Enoch and the Gorilla” speaks for this secular view, presenting a grim cityscape of concrete sidewalks, indifferent people, and isolation. When the protagonist Enoch has an opportunity to shake a movie star gorilla’s hand, the soul of the city shows itself. “It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city…The star leaned forward and a change came in his eyes…’You go to Hell’ a surly voice inside the ape-suit said…and the hand was jerked away (111).” Nothing in the story outside of the name Enoch suggests anything but issues that are psychological. The violence of the story, a murder, is only described through allusion: “certain thumping noises … [the] complaint from a hoot owl” (114).
O’Connor responded to critics’ interpretations of her use of violence in various ways and in one instance attempted to clarify her literary intentions while speaking to her professed religious outlook:
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one that is implicit in the Christian view of the world (qtd. in Feeley).
Interpretation of any work of art is highly subjective, and there are no clear-cut answers to every question. The situation becomes more difficult when O’Connor’s own statements about her texts shift depending on the audience (Zornado 28). In a letter published in The Habit of Being she defines herself as a Catholic writer “depending on who the visitor is” (Habit 353). Without a consensus from critics or the author, the reader is left with no option but to read and enjoy O’Connor’s writing on its own merits.
The opportunity to experience O’Connor’s work straightaway, without applying externally generated judgments, allows one to discover O’Connor’s meaning beyond interpretation. Critical analysis cannot help in this process, a fact O’Connor knew well. Speaking to a group of students, she said, “I realize that a certain amount of this what-is-the-significance has to go on, but I think something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students, the story becomes simply a problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.[…]Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate “(Mystery 107). To O’Connor, critical scrutiny is of no consequence, as her vision is the kind “that is able to see different levels of reality” (qtd in Lukas), and this mystical vision is the nature of her fiction.
O’Connor succeeds at the seemingly impossible task of describing transcendence using purely literary means. Panthea Reid Broughton wrote, “It is the moral orientation which places Flannery O’Connor outside the mainstream of American life” (Broughton 1507), but this oversimplification only serves to reinforce the notion that O’Connor wrote as a religious proselytizer. Although Catholicism was her admitted vehicle, O’Connor’s faith grew beyond Church dogma. She had experienced an awakening to true faith, and worked to convey it through her writing. O’Connor knew, as most great writers do, that faithless humanity exists in a state of sleep, easily manipulated and conditioned to accept an earthly reality that is inharmonious with the greater, more mysterious purpose of existence.
O’Connor’s characters are representative of all humanity, perpetually sleepwalking through life, oblivious to the fact that there is much more to them than they know. When they experience a great emergency or otherwise life-altering event as described through O’Connor’s use of violence, the shock to the psyche is intended to introduce another side of the self, the side of the human self that is buried under faulty teaching and unfortunate circumstances. In “The River”, the character of Harry/Bevel is O’Connor’s encapsulation of all mankind. He is young, innocent, alone, and has no guide to help him make sense of his life. His parents, other adults, and other children are too neglectful, too ignorant, or too cruel to help him become someone who “counts.” In Harry/Bevel, O’Connor is alluding to the desire to “count” as man’s instinctive desire for transcendence, and in the setting and other characters, she is alluding to the earthly forces that confound this desire. Harry/Bevel’s other side appears to him as “what he didn’t know he’d been looking for” (O’Connor 172), and as is the case with a true epiphany it occurs “all of a sudden” (O’Connor 172). Harry/Bevel, like mankind, makes his own way to transcend the earthly misery, and like mankind, learns too late that his desire was correct but the method needs work. The story’s end also offers an insight into O’Connor’s vision and method.
The violence in O’Connor’s stories is proportional to the degree “required” by the characters, allowing for a greater insight into both the characters and the nature of grace. O’Connor tempers the violence of little Harry/Bevel’s transcendence, as he is merely swept away by the river. Harry/Bevel is innocent, has no false worldview to be rectified, and receives swift, painless transcendence as a result. In “The Comforts of Home”, the character of Thomas feels “a sense of devils” (386) towards his mother’s charity and transcendent belief in the basic goodness of people, oblivious that he has benefited from the selfsame charity his entire life. His definition of virtue falls under the rubrics of college education and adherence to municipal codes. Transcendence for Thomas will have to occur in prison, as his monist cynicism leads him to kill his mother by accident with the sheriff present, who unfortunately does not see the accident part of the scene. O’Connor is saying that Thomas needs this more violent impetus toward transcendence because his worldview is considerably more distorted than Harry/Bevel’s is, and this attention to detail shows O’Connor’s mastery of craft throughout all of her works.
Flannery O’Connor’s works have earned a more distinguished place in the American literary canon than they now have. O’Connor designed her works to be enjoyed, rather than analyzed for a meaning. Modern literary criticism has for the most part failed to help O’Connor’s readers appreciate her brand of storytelling. There is one way to view O’Connor’s work that the critics have missed. Readers can think of Flannery O’Connor’s stories as episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
Most O’Connor’s stories would be right at home there, with their skillful interplay of the known, the unknown, and the bizarre, as well as their presentation of deep moral and philosophical issues. Furthermore, the short story genre is ideally suited to television adaptation owing to its condensed format. If Rod Serling were alive, he would no doubt ask permission to adapt stories such as “The Displaced Person” to use as episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” To wit, picture Rod Serling narrating such an adaptation:
Mr. Guizac. A refugee from his home country, displaced by war. Now, in the American South he works to rebuild his family’s life. The neighbors like his work, but talk behind his back. Mr. Guizac is a handy man, but even he cannot be handy enough to fix what’s broken in this bucolic hamlet. It’s a place with no name and no future, but it is the capital of a state that doesn’t exist on a map, a rural area in the hinterlands…of The Twilight Zone.
It is high time to look beyond analysis that portrays itself as “serious” and instead, focus on enjoying O’Connor’s writing, which is what she sincerely wished for her audience to do.
Broughton, Panthea Reid. Survey of Contemporary Literature Rev. Ed. Ed. Frank Magill. Vol XII. New Jersey. Salem Press. 1977. pp 1507,1508.
Panthea Broughton tries in this article to suggest reasons why Flannery O’Connor’s work is not well-known in mainstream America. Her contention is that O’Connor’s works are overly oriented in morals. The effect on readers, she says, is that the “typical modern reader is simultaneously attracted and repelled, fascinated and outraged by Flannery O’Connor’s fiction.” This insight was a very vital piece of the puzzle, but refutable in that the focus on “moral” is an oversimplification.
Feeley, Kathleen. Voice of the Peacock. : Fordham University Press, 1982.
Feeley discusses O’Connor using “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as material to discuss her take on the two sides clashing in the story. She views the clash as being between a “romanticist creating her own reality,” the Grandmother, and “an agnostic cut off from spiritual reality,” the Misfit. She analyzes more specifically the specific violence of this clash and how O’Connor uses it to mark a moment of grace. The article made a useful reference to O’Connor’s own view of reality, and the difference between “casual readers” and the Christian view of reality.
Kann, Jean Marie. Catholic World Dec 1966: 158-159.
Kann writes for a Catholic publication about O’Connor’s use of violence in a strictly religious context. The article, though predictably slanted toward the religious, states the role of violence and grotesque images in O’Connor’s work as a Godly force. The description is useful in understanding how this aspect of O’Connor’s work can be viewed as a key component in moving the stories’ characters toward the divine, and affirms O’Connor’s status in the ranks of Catholicism.
Kinney, Arthur F. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. First ed. 1994.
Kinney provides an overall view of the violence contained in O’Connor’s short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find. He provides a reference to Walter Sullivan’s previous commentary on the story, which was the source of the full statistical breakdown of the numbers and types of violent acts that occur at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (those published during her lifetime). The reference was helpful in gaining a purely objective perspective of the violence inherent in O’Connor’s work.
Lukas, Dorothy A. Survey of Contemporary Literature Rev.Ed. Ed. Frank Magill. Vol VIII. New Jersey.
Salem Press. 1977. pp 5197-5199.
Lukas provided a valuable confirmation that Flannery O’Connor and her works were viewed negatively by many critics, in varying degrees of severity. Lukas seems to adopt the perspective of these criticizers, and justify their views. She provides a valuable O’Connor quote about the nature of fiction, and her negative commentary about O’Connor’s view as “not one which produces universal acceptance.” This insight provided more valuable support for the suspicion that O’Connor’s work is not as widely known as it should be.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation”, “Enoch and the Gorilla”, “The Comforts of Home”, “The River”, “Parker’s Back”,
“The Displaced Person”. The Complete Stories. New York. HarperCollinsCanada Ltd. 1999.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York.
Satterfield, Ben. “Wise Blood, Artistic Anemia, and the Hemorrhaging of O’Connor Criticism.”
Studies in American Fiction Spring 1989: 33-50.
Satterfield holds a view of O’Connor’s work that runs contrary to much traditional thought up to that point. He rejects the sectarians’ ideas about the quality of O’Connor’s fiction, and believes that it should be judged according to its own literary merits as fiction, where, according to him, it is merely “bad art.” His viewpoint is useful for creating an overall objective viewpoint about O’Connor’s work, and gaining insight into how both critics and readers could misread O’Connor’s intent.
Yardley, Jonathon. “The Writer Who Was Full of Grace.” The Washington Post 7 Jun 2005. 18 Oct 2005 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/05/AR2005070501680.html
Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, discusses Flannery O’Connor’s life as part of a series t reconsidering “notable and/or neglected books from the past.” He quotes extensively from a previous review and second reading of The Habit of Being. He notes that “her gifts were quickly recognized and her works were received enthusiastically,” but also notes that critics overlooked the “deeper currents that flow through her work,” namely grace’s role in character development, and that O’Connor understood that many readers as well overlooked this in her work.