Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)
Contributing Editor: Beverly Lyon Clark
With thanks to LynnAnn Mastaj and her classmates for comments on these questions.
Classroom Issues and Strategies
My students have trouble dealing with the horror that O'Connor evokes--often they want to dismiss the story out of hand, while I want to use it to raise questions. Another problem pertains to religious belief: Either students lack any such belief (which might make a kind of sense of O'Connor's violence) or else, possessing it, they latch onto O'Connor's religious explications at the expense of any other approach.
I like to start with students' gut responses--to start with where they already are and to make sure I address the affective as well as the cognitive. In particular, I break the class into groups of five and ask students to try to build consensus in answering study questions.
In general, the elusiveness of O'Connor's best stories makes them eminently teachable--pushing students to sustain ambiguity, to withhold final judgments. It also pushes me to teach better--to empower students more effectively, since I don't have all the answers at my fingertips. My responses to O'Connor are always tentative, exploratory. I start, as do most of my students, with a gut response that is negative. For O'Connor defies my humanistic values--she distances the characters and thwarts compassion. Above all, O'Connor's work raises tantalizing questions. Is she, as John Hawkes suggests, "happily on the side of the devil"? Or, on the contrary, does the diabolical Misfit function, paradoxically, as an agent of grace? We know what O'Connor wants us to believe. But should we?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
One important context that I need to provide for my students is background on O'Connor's Christianity. The most useful source here is O'Connor's own essays and lectures, which often explain how to read her works as she would have them read. Certainly O'Connor's pronouncements have guided much of the criticism of her work. I'll summarize some of her main points:
She states that the subject of her work is "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil" (Mystery and Manners 118). She tries to portray in each story "an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable" (118), often an act of violence, violence being "the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially" (113). Through violence she wants to evoke Christian mystery, though she doesn't exclude other approaches to her fiction: she states that she could not have written "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in any other way but "there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read" (109).
In general O'Connor explains that she is not so much a realist of the social fabric as a "realist of distances" (44), portraying both concrete everyday manners and something more, something beyond the ordinary: "It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners . . ." (124). She admits too that her fiction might be called grotesque, though she cautions that "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic" (40). And she connects her religious concerns with being southern, for, she says, "while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted" (44).
I also find it important to address the question of racism in the story. Is the story racist? I ask. Is the grandmother racist, in her comments on cute little pickaninnies and her use of "nigger"? Does the narrator endorse the grandmother's attitude? And what do we make of her naming a cat Pitty Sing--a pseudo-Japanese name that sounds less like Japanese than like a babytalk version of "pretty thing"? Is O'Connor simply presenting characteristically racist attitudes of not particularly admirable characters? I find Alice Walker's comments helpful here, on O'Connor's respectful reluctance to enter the minds of black characters and pretend to know what they're thinking.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
O'Connor is usually compared to writers who are southern or gothic or Catholic or some combination thereof: e.g., William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Graham Greene. Louise Westling (in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor [University of Georgia Press, 1985]) has made fruitful comparisons with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, though most critics seem to find it difficult to discover points of comparison with other women writers.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
The following questions can be given to students in advance or used to guide discussion during class:
1. What qualities of the grandmother do you like? What qualities do you dislike? How did you feel when The Misfit killed her? Why?
2. How would you characterize the other members of the family? What is the function of images like the following: the mother's "face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit's ears" and the grandmother's "big black valise looked like the head of a hippopotamus"?
3. How does O'Connor foreshadow the encounter with The Misfit?
4. What does the grandmother mean by a "good man"? Whom does she consider good people? What are other possible meanings of "good"? Why does she tell The Misfit that he's a good man? Is there any sense in which he is?
5. What is the significance of the discussion of Jesus? Was he a good man?
6. What is the significance of the grandmother's saying, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children"?
7. What is the significance of The Misfit's saying, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"?
There are, of course, no absolute answers to these questions; the story resists easy solutions, violates the reader's expectations.
Other O'Connor stories well worth reading and teaching include "The Displaced Person," "The Artificial Nigger," "Good Country People," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Revelation," and "Parker's Back" (all in The Complete Stories [Farrar, 1971]). O'Connor's essays have been collected in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, 1969). The fullest collection of works by O'Connor is the Collected Works (Library of America, 1988).
As for secondary sources, the fullest biography so far, at least until O'Connor's long-time friend Sally Fitzgerald completes hers, is Lorine M. Getz's Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews (Mellen, 1980).
For discussion of O'Connor's social, religious, and intellectual milieux see Robert Coles's Flannery O'Connor's South (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). A fine companion piece is Barbara McKenzie's photographic essay, Flannery 0'Connor's Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Four collections of essays provide a good range of criticism on O'Connor:
1. The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (1966; rpt. Fordham University Press, 1977).
2. Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Hall, 1985).
3. Flannery O'Connor, edited by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, 1986).
4. Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund (Aarhus, 1987).
The Friedman and Clark collection, for instance, includes the Walker and Hawkes essays alluded to above: John Hawkes, "Flannery O'Connor's Devil," Sewanee Review 70 (1962): 395-407; Alice Walker, "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Harcourt, 1983.
Overall, criticism of O'Connor has appeared in more than forty book-length studies and hundreds of articles (including those published annually in the Flannery O'Connor Bulletin). Most criticism continues to be either religious or formalist. But for a discussion that situates O'Connor's work historically, in the postwar era, addressing its intersections with liberal discourse, see Thomas Hill Schaub's chapter on O'Connor in American Fiction in the Cold War (Wisconsin, 1991).