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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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