Sunday, September 26, 2010

Optional Author: Flannery O'Connor Part I

I am actually pretty excited about this one. All of my other blog posts on either writers I have to read or writers I have chosen have been full of snide remarks and comments questioning their merit as literary. And while that will continue here, at least this time I am doing it with the author and not at them. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are unapologetically southern and fall into that category where they are both funny and horrifying…but mostly funny. And for some reason, that appeals to me.

This is “Part I” because the class only got to discuss one of the four stories that are on the list. I’ll discuss “A Good Man is Hard to Find” after I post the usual business of genre, themes, and history.


O’Connor’s writing has been thrown into the genre of southern gothic along with other southern authors, such as Harper Lee and William Faulkner. Southern gothic novels contain grotesque and fantastic incidents that are set in the south. What is interesting about this genre when it comes to O’Connor is how she felt about the term “grotesque.” She felt that any writing by a southern author will appear to be grotesque by any northern reader, except when it is actually grotesque, and then the northerner will read it as “realistic.” O’Connor wrote about experiences that the reader would not normally encounter in everyday life. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” an annoying grandmother inadvertently causes a car accident that results in the death of her entire family (not from the actual car accident thought); in “Good Country People,” a woman gets her fake leg stolen by a Bible salesman; in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a woman is hit and suffers a stroke after offering a child a nickel; and in “The Artificial Nigger,” a grandfather coldly denies being related to his grandson after the boy finds himself in trouble in the big city. None of these incidents are “everyday,” but they are slightly horrifying. And when O’Connor writes them, they become humorous. Of course, what makes O’Connor southern gothic is also what causes her stories to be categorized as dark comedy.

O’Connor’s stories could also be satire. The people she writes about and subsequently makes fun of (and sometimes judges and condemns) are unmistakably southern. In her stories, there are details and images included that would only be found in the south. She exposes the deep rooted racism of the south, and usually her most racist, bigoted, and hypocritical characters are the ones who meet the worst end – usually death or some other violence. And while O’Connor was proudly southern, she was also proudly Roman Catholic. The characters in her stories that fail to keep Jesus in the center meet with either humiliating or emotionally devastating circumstances (sometimes they’re the same). Basically, if you’re a character in an O’Connor short story, you better love Jesus as well as ALL of his children.


Southern is obvious, so let us move on.

And although she was very Roman Catholic, she mostly wrote about Baptists. This could be because Catholics were scarce in her part of Georgia. And as far as the southern reader goes, Baptists were probably more relatable.

Racism is also obvious, but the first time you read O’Connor (or at least the first time I read her), is appears that she is racist. But once you realize that all of the racist characters, overtly or otherwise, do not meet a favorable ending, it is clear that she is making a point here. Most of her characters are white, but the presence of black people is felt through how the white characters feel about them.

Disabilities and missing limbs are also common, sometimes for the sake of humor. And the ones with the disabilities or missing the limbs are not always sympathetic.

O’Connor also shows no mercy to the educated. O’Connor went to college herself, but she shows absolutely no mercy to those in her stories that went to college, but do absolutely nothing with it. Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” went off to college only to return to live in his mother’s house and sell typewriters. Hulga in “Good Country People” got a Ph.D. in philosophy, but she also lives with her mother and does nothing with her knowledge.

Final thing about themes (although this really isn’t a theme): the titles of O’Connor’s stories tend to be declarative statements. Other story titles include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” and even “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Another commonality about her titles is that they are hard to connect with her stories. Try it…you’ll see what I mean.


Most of O’Connor’s short stories were written in the 1950s. This is the age that projected the idealized nuclear family (Leave it to Beaver). All houses looked the same, and Eisenhower was seen as a symbol of complacency and conformity. Interestingly enough, some of the best art, film, literature, and music that came out of the 1950s were usually the kind that went against this conformity. This was also when censorship was challenged, and by the end of the 1950s, Nabokov’s Lolita was available in the U.S. Another kind of important note about the 1950s: it was the decade that started with Jim Crow laws, and ended without them.

O’Connor wrote at the tail end of the short story age. She did also write novels, but her greatest contribution to literature was definitely her short stories. In the present day, short stories have become like poetry: they have a limited readership and very few writers (as in none) can make a living off of it. Sad but true.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Grandma is the center of the story, which is right where she wants to be…and then it gets her entire family killed. She is self-centered, selfish, manipulative, racist, sneaky, proud, and super annoying. The car accident the leaves her family stranded as sitting ducks in a ditch is all her fault, no if, ands, or buts about it. But even as her family (which includes her son, his wife, their son, daughter, and baby) is killed off by criminals who actually may have stopped to help until she opened her mouth and identified who they are, she is only thinking of herself. She never admits her mistake, never apologizes, never even says goodbye as they are taking her son away to shoot him. What she does say is “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” Nothing about her son, nothing about her grandchildren, nothing about the baby. It appears that the killer finally shot her only because she talked too much. Absolutely awful and horrifying.

So why is it funny? Because the woman subsequently gets herself and her entire family killed because she hid her cat in the car. The grandma is so awful, but in reality, we all know someone like her. It is funny because it is true, but it is also funny because it reaches that point where it is so terrible that you can either laugh or cry. And somehow, O’Connor gets the reader to choose laughter.

So that is Flannery O’Connor for now. Next week will cover the final three stories on the M.A. exam list, including my personal favorite, “Good Country People.”

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