Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The incomparable Flannery O'Connor

My all-time favorite writer is Flannery O'Connor. If you've never read anything by her, time's a wastin'. Get thee to a library and check her out. At a Christian blog that I visit regularly, jesuscreed.org, I have been participating recently in a discussion about her. For purposes of my own blog, and since my words belong to me, I quote below my own comments only.

#6, #7 (combined): As one who has made Flannery's home state of Georgia his adopted home, I do not find her “too grotesque and bizarre” at all, as does [name withheld]. A Latin phrase comes to mind: de gustibus non est disputandum (there’s no disputing about taste), but let me just say that Northerners often find Flannery’s characters unbelievable and incomprehensible; Southerners (with the possible exception of Atlantans) recognize them as neighbors and friends that they see every day. Flannery’s ear is pitch-perfect and her eye is single to His glory.

I had never heard of her until a corporate transfer (I’ve Been Moved) brought me to Georgia in 1975. One day on my lunch hour I wandered into the West Paces Ferry branch of the Atlanta Public Library and, being a new resident, picked up a magazine called Brown’s Guide to Georgia to peruse. I was intrigued by an article in it by Betsy Fancher about Flannery O’Connor. Since I was now officially a Georgian, I decided to read something of hers. The only thing on the shelves that day was her posthumously published collection of short stories entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge. Later I read her first volume of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, and only after that did I read her two novels, Wise Blood, which is about The Holy Church Of Christ Without Christ, among other things, and The Violent Bear It Away, which should give both paedobaptists and credobaptists pause. Her non-fiction essays (Mystery and Manners) and her collected letters (The Habit of Being), both edited by Sally Fitzgerald, are treasure troves. Let’s just say I love reading stuff by and about Flannery O’Connor.

There are some wonderful essays online (especially those by Stephen Sparrow of New Zealand) at a site called Comforts of Home: The Flannery O’Connor Repository (the internet address is http://mediaspecialist.org/index.html).

Once you “get her,” few other writers are as satisfying.

#10: [name], she may or may not be poking fun at her characters but she finds them redeemable. There’s a customer review of her Collected Works over at Amazon, by a guy named Pliplup, that says it very well:

“Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved this wretched human race. O’Connor writes of God’s love and redemption of humanity. She uses exaggeration to make her point. Her characters are so very silly, obtuse, bigoted, loathsome they become cartoons, yet there is a deep integrity to their shallowness. She’s not making fun of them, but giving them the justice of a pitiless description. Indeed they do not seem judged, but naked — the fruits of their stupid, misguided ideas and actions on display. And these children of God do shocking things to others and themselves. And yet….

And yet God allows them to live and learn, or not learn if that is their inclination. He gives them this freedom. He loves them. How can this be? How?

I love O’Connor for her art, her convictions, her courage, and her love. She is so very true and honest.”

I sincerely hope and pray that I haven’t violated a copyright.

#16: [name], what??!!?? Can anything good be found in a story? I don’t know, can anything good be found in your story? In my story? It’s rather like saying, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’-–isn’t it?

God is Creator, and we, His Eikons, are sub-creators since we are made in His image (see C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien).

Forgive the prose-only readers, Father, they know not what they do.

#17: [name], the humor in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is not as broad as Barry, Keillor, or Grizzard, but it’s far more cutting. For example, the girl who tells Ruby Turpin she’s a wart-hog from Hell is named Mary Grace (she is not the grace itself but perhaps a doorway leading to grace?); the cynical PhD. whose wooden leg is stolen in a hayloft by a Bible salesman she hopes to seduce is named Joy Hopewell (although she calls herself Hulga); and the Bible salesman who does the actual seducing, who has been believing in nothing ever since he was born, is named Manley Pointer. You don’t get any funnier than that.

#33: The first story of Flannery’s that I read was “Everything That Rises Must Converge” from the collection of the same name. Each story in that book jolted me in some way. “Greenleaf,” “A View of the Woods,” “The Enduring Chill,” and on and on. “Parker’s Back,” oh, my word. “Revelation.” “Judgement Day.” “The Comforts of Home.” “The Lame Shall Enter First.” And “Revelation.” This woman’s stories have changed me forever. Everybody needs a kick in the pants occasionally, or a whop upside the head, but over and over and over? (I guess the answer is “yes.”)

I have never advocated “the reading of fiction” in general because you really have to pick and choose. For example, much of the stuff on supermarket shelves is trash. Popular trash, maybe, but trash nonetheless. On the other hand, I have never hesitated to recommend anything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote.

If you don’t “get it,” just keep on reading. Eventually you will.

Her work transcends time and geographical place. Her characters may speak like backwoods Southerners, but that’s only to set the scene. People like them live everywhere. They’re all around you, and Jesus loves them. [End of comments]

I hope you're not too confused. A good read is hard to find.


[Update: An anonymous commenter and I continued the conversation in several comments to this post. If you're not yet bored with Flannery O'Connor, have a look.]


  1. Hello Bob,
    I've been following your discussion on the Jesus Creed. Good thoughts. I was surprised to see her featured on the Jesus creed being a strong RC apologist. She is the only fiction that I read and you have to take her in small doses. Like one story per year. Like you said slow re reading You might like Walker Percy also, another southern writer. My favorite short story of hers is A Good Man is Hard to Find. I can identify with the Grandmother but she dies in a state of grace in the end. O'connor had a high regard for Protestant preachers as in her two novels. Didn't O'Connor say many people die in my stories but nobody gets hurt.

  2. Hello, anonymous, and thanks for reading my blog and for commenting! Like you, the only fiction I have read in a very long time read is Flannery O'Connor. I think she spoiled me for anyone else. Her writing never gets old to me.

    I tried reading Walker Percy once but bogged down and quit. Same thing with Joyce Carol Oates.

    It would be difficult to name my favorite Flannery O'Connor short story--I like so many.

    Please tell me you were speaking tongue-in-cheek when you said "she had a high regard for Protestant preachers as in her two novels"! My opinion is just the opposite, actually. But her ear, as usual, was spot-on and she captured the shallowness and hypocrisy all around her in society, especially among the clergy. And she didn't confine her wit to Protestants even though she was cetainly Roman Catholic through and through. For example, I love the two completely different personalities she created for the two priests Asbury encountered in "The Enduring Chill."

  3. Bob,
    I was the one that responsed earlier to your post. O'Connor had a very high view on the efficacy of the Sacraments. In The Violent Bear It Away Tarwater baptizes that boy believing that will cause him to be right with God. Same with the preacher in the River. She once remarked that if the Bread and wine are symbols then to h--- with them. Her two novels were about preachers that believed that they had an important message to give. A positive view of the sponken word of Christ. O'CONNOR believed there is no gray area between belief and unbelief. You are either the Misfit or Hazel Motes, she would try to move people towards either position. It's funny though she thought she would at the end of her life spend some time in purgatory sort of a middle ground. I think purgatory becomes kind of a second chance.
    I grew up Catholic and then was rebaptized as a Baptist.

  4. Hello again, anonymous (Bob). Writing that suddenly reminds me that back around 1969 or 1970 there was a Swedish movie called "I Am Curious" that was made in two versions, and because Sweden's national colors are blue and yellow, the two movies were called "I Am Curious (Blue)" and "I Am Curious (Yellow)" -- but that is completely irrelevant to our current discussion and our mutual admiration for all things Flannery!

    I have mixed emotions about Hazel Motes. In Flannery's introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Wise Blood, she said, "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to." What makes my emotions mixed is wrapped up in several things things Hazel Motes said to his landlady, Mrs. Flood, in the last chapter of the book, after he has blinded himself. For example (and this is abbreviated):

    Mrs. F.: "I believe that what's right today is wrong tomorrow and that the time to enjoy yourself is now so long as you let others do the same. I'm as good, Mr. Motes, not believing in Jesus as a many a one that does."

    Haze: "You're better. If you believed in Jesus, you wouldn't be so good."

    Mrs. F.: "Why, Mr. Motes, I expect you're a fine preacher! You certainly ought to start it again. It would give you something to do. As it is, you don't have anything to do but walk. Why don't you start preaching again?"

    Haze: "I can't preach any more."

    Mrs. F.: "Why?"

    Haze: "I don't have time."

    And later, after she discovered the stones in his shoes:

    Mrs. F.: "Mr. Motes, what do you walk on rocks for?"

    Haze: "To pay."

    Mrs. F.: "Pay for what?"

    Haze: "It don't make any difference for what, I'm paying."

    And then:

    Mrs. F.: "Do you think, Mr. Motes, that when you're dead, you're blind?"

    Haze: "I hope so."

    Mrs. F. "Why?"

    Haze: If there's no bottom in your eyes, they hold more."

    And later, when she discovered three strands of barbed wire wrapped around his chest, and she told his it wasn't normal, that people had quit doing it, his reply was, "They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it."

    So his self-imposed penance, was it for having not believed, or was it for believing even when he tried with all his might not to believe? I think it is the latter, based on what Miss O'Connor said in that tenth-anniversary introduction to Wise Blood

    What prompted this rather long comment was your statement that "you are either the Misfit or Hazel Motes,she would try to move people toward either position."

  5. (continuing from Anonymous (Bob)'s previous comment)

    You are certainly right about her view of the sacraments. That's part of what makes The Violent Bear It Away so grotesque and even distorted to many Protestants, to believe that baptism is crucial to salvation (although Church of Christ people certainly believe so). Her "If it's a symbol..." comment referred to the Eucharist only, but Violent reflects her similar view on baptism.

    What Flannery didn't have time for was the liberal, intellectual, modern approach so perfectly seen in Rayber, Old Tarwaters's nephew in the city. Also by characters in many of her short stories. And this is what shocks so many readers; they see themselves in her stories, and not in a good light.

  6. Bob,

    Hope Scot McKnight has more posts on FC. Her's is the only fiction I have come across that keeps stirring my soul long after it's read.
    Wise Blood used to bother me because I thought it was a works salvation that FC was advocating, until I read her own commentary on Haze's action at the end was out of gratitude. You also bring out that point. There is grace working even in Mrs. Flood because she is perceiving the light behind Hazel's eyes. I think she was starting to "see" herself. I also identify myself in Mrs. Flood, like Christianity is an addendum to my American middle class life "Lord have mercy" or I believe help me in my unbelief. Enoch is another strange character. I don't know what to make of him yet.

    I wish I could believe like FC did with the Sacraments. I'm somewhere in the middle Real Presence.......symbolic. O'Connor also had problems with folks who would go to mass to receive the Sacraments without any lifestyle change.

    FC's writing sure does work itself on one's spirit. It agitates the soul like rocks in your shoes. It moves me to be more radical in walk with God.

    thanks again for the website that has more info on her.