Friday’s Flannery: The Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Introducing a new series on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, a perennial favorite among Catholic American authors, this series of posts will look at each of her short stories from a Catholic point of view.

Flannery is one of the most misunderstood American authors, so it will be helpful to look at some aspects of her writing and biography which are keys to her work.

Biographical

It is important to note that Flannery at age 16 watched her father die of the terrible disease lupus.  As a still young woman she learned she would share his fate.  She regarded her miseries as a mysterious gift, a preparation for heaven which may explain to some degree her fascination with suffering and death not as morbid but as a window into the purging beatific vision.

She who had left the south to live in New York among the literary set was forced to return home where her mother cared for her.  She wrote most of her stories from this home in rural Georgia which may illumine several of her stories in which a young son superior in knowledge and sophistication is trapped by circumstance or temperament living with his old fashioned and socially crude mother.

Southern Gothic

Three words are often applied to Flannery’s writing which she did not entirely appreciate, gratuitous, grotesque and Gothic. Her stories are replete with unsympathetic characters, hideous details and often end in violence. In a radio program broadcast from the University of Chicago, Flannery addresses these descriptions with an explanation of her literary aim, which is “to make people who do not want to see, see.” See what? The movement of the Holy Spirit.

Modernity

Flannery considered the modern world with its many distractions and constant obsession with the material, to be such an obstacle to the spiritual life that often spiritual breakthroughs only happen when one is faced with a crisis, particularly death. Like a callous which renders the skin insensitive, the spiritual indifference engendered by modernity needs to be shed, often by force, to expose one’s soul to divine action.  This is certainly true of her characters, but she also believed it to be true of her readers as well,  who needed to be shocked into insight.  In other words her readers whether southern or not, inhabit the same world and are inflicted with the same spiritual sicknesses as her characters.  The violence and strangeness of her stories was as necessary to reach her readers as they were to bring her stubborn characters to conversion.

Christianity

It has often been quoted that Flannery called the American South “Christ haunted.” By this she means no compliment. Rather than a society imbued with a love for Christ, she regarded her region as maintaining a veneer of Christianity which played with the consciences of believers without actually penetrating their spirits or informing their words or actions. This veneer of Christianity itself is part of the callous which covered the Southern soul.

Insight

If Flannery’s stories have no heroes, are filled with unattractive characters and violence, where is the light? The light of her stories is often a challenge to pick out, but it is there! Often it comes in a flash of insight or is a matter of harsh circumstances meeting out the justice of God, or appears as a sign with religious significance. Like much modern fiction the stories are largely a medium for a subtle and indirect but driving communication. In this case it is a communication of the spiritual perspective of the author to her reader.

The South

A major theme of Flannery’s writing is the now nearly vanished idea of the old South. It comes through in the holding to pretense, classism and racism of many of her characters who despite circumstances believe themselves superior to others based on the social station of their ancestry. Racism and classism are explored in detail in a number of her stories, but not from a politically correct or preachy point of view. As her aim is to demonstrate the action of God in our world, her racist characters typically meet divine justice through a bad end, or come to spiritual insight. As some of this kind of thinking on social standing has now nearly disappeared, some of her stories are historically valuable depictions of her place and time.  But, more than this, they are timeless moral parables which address timeless human sin through Catholic eyes.

Catholicism

It might be assumed that Flannery as a devout cradle Catholic would make at least some of her heroes Catholic. In fact, her Catholic characters are few and seldom offer any more light to her stories than any of her other characters. He stories, in fact, seldom have heroes.

But her Catholicism is the essential key to understanding Flannery’s writing.  As a well read and deeply thoughtful Catholic, she saw the doctrines of the Church, heresies, sin and redemption through the panoply of scriptural figures, stories, Catholic devotional and liturgical images.

To fully understand the messages of her stories, one has to approach them on her terms, that is, with a keen eye for often hidden Catholic religious images and concepts which provide the hermeneutical key for unlocking her parables.

It is with her stories as Catholic parables in mind, that I offer my thoughts on Flannery’s stories.  So much of the literary analysis of her writing that I have read nearly completely misses the mark.  No amount of references to local color, dialect, regional references, or mere plain reading of the text can do justice to Flannery without a fundamental understanding of the theological world she inhabited.  That is, the point of her stories is often not fully conveyed in the story arc but in the images described.

Thus a story like “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” can make absolutely no sense without peering directly at the turnip shaped cloud and with an eye for Catholic imagery to see the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  This story can in no way be resolved satisfactorily without this insight.

Personal Note

I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor’s stories in college, one of which was essential to my reversion to the Catholic faith. Her insightfulness has been an inspiration which has drawn me back to her again and again over the years. I am no literary expert and I will miss references or meanings. It is my hope that we as fellow readers can enrich one another’s readings of our dear Flannery.

Short Stories examined in the Friday’s Flannery series

Revelation

A Late Encounter with the Enemy

The Life You Save May Be You Own

Parker’s Back

A Stroke of Good Fortune

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13 Responses to Friday’s Flannery: The Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor

  1. Rob says:

    “She would have been a good woman if there ha dbeen someone there to shoot her every two minutes.”

    Name that story!

  2. Fr. J. says:

    Ha! Easy. Spoken by the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Really great quote–and one that sticks with you and rattles around in your soul. It’s one of my true favorites.

    Thanks for commenting, Rob. The post on Revelation is taking a tad longer than I had thought, but hope to get it out tonight, yet.

    One of my favorite descriptions in Flannery is, “She was plain, plain. And the skin on her face was thin and drawn tight like the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks.”

    Can you name that story?

  3. Rob says:

    No, sorry. I’ve only read alittle Flannery O’Connor. In fact, I am one of those rare birds that has not read Everything that Rises Must Converge. Not all of it, anyway. Give me time! (as the Hobbit once said).

  4. Fr. J. says:

    Rob, you should be able to find a Complete Short Stories of Flannery OConnor at any second hand bookstore or online for cheap. I haven’t seen the book Everything that Rises Must Converge in a lot of years.

    The quote, btw, is from the short story, Parker’s Back which is a real dousy.

  5. [...] Friday’s Flannery is a series of posts on Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. [...]

  6. John Joachim says:

    “To [him], the opportunity to insult a famous gorilla could have only come from the hand of providence.”

    Name that story (or, if you know that – and technically, there are two correct answers for that – name the character being described).

  7. Fr. J. says:

    J. J. Enoch Emory in Wise Blood comes to mind. I know there is a short story with a similar theme, but I cant recall which one it is.

  8. Stephen Sparrow says:

    Hello Fr J. I was interested in your facebook comment (Nov?) regarding that speeded up recording of O’Connor’s reading two items at Notre Dame. Is there a place/link where it can be listened to without that distortion?
    Cheers
    Steve

  9. Stephen Sparrow says:

    Your Nov 1st ? re “she was plain, plain … “The life You Save Might Be Your Own”?

  10. Stephen Sparrow says:

    No I got that wrong didn’t I. Yep Parker’s Back.

  11. [...] One of a series of occasional commentaries on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Friday’s Flannery. [...]

  12. [...] Friday’s Flannery is an occasional series of commentary from a Catholic point of view on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. [...]

  13. [...] literary flair (as the Brideshead Revisited allusion in their blog name suggests). Their series Friday’s Flannery, on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, focuses on the Catholic sensibility of those [...]

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