The Complete Stories, by Flannery O'Connor, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, 555 pp., $3.95 (paper-bound).
Flannery O'Connor's fiction has appropriately been called nightmarish. Her stories are full of sadistic geniuses, religious fanatics, redneck imbeciles, malicious children, and grotesque primitives. The stories revolve around such incidents as mass murder, arson, drowning, ritual blinding, and the theft of an artificial limb. The themes include original sin, the anti-Christ, salvation, revelation, and the impotence of reason. All this is told from the point of view of a woman who was a devout Roman Catholic.
What, then, does Flannery O'Connor have to offer the reader who is emotionally secure and mentally sound? She has written nothing that a rationalist won't find disagreeable. There are no larger-than-life heroes in her works or projections of a better world. Many readers, particularly those of the political Left, will find her puzzling if not outrageous. But aside from these considerations, the one thing that has guaranteed her reputation and the one thing that her varied admirers will find themselves in agreement on is that she is an excellent writer. She has few peers in her mastery of the short story medium. If other writers have given us more vivid prose, it is difficult to recall who. And she has no equal in capturing the dialect of the rural South.
Yes, perhaps. But why bother to read Flannery O'Connor? At least four good reasons come to mind, but any one of them is in itself sufficient.
1. Flannery O'Connor has the uncanny ability to make the unreal come to life. (Or is it that she makes life seem unreal? Never mind, her language is something to behold.) Think of how any other writer would have described a raincloud. Now consider what O'Connor does with it:
A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car. Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. (p. 156)
Don't look for any symbolism here. Just observe that the cloud is descending (the very word one would use for a plague) and crouching (as would an animal of prey), and if one has to suffer a downpour, what could be worse than a downpour from a cloud in the shape of a turnip?
The accepted way to write a simile is to find an image that is most like what one is trying to describe. The Flannery O'Connor method is to make the image as unlike the thing described as possible, without losing plausibility, and to exploit the unlikeness by implying that all the seeming differences are really characteristics shared. The result is a kind of surrealism. The reader believes in the image precisely because he hasn't thought of a cloud quite that way before, he doesn't quite realize that it is a simile (he has to picture an actual turnip up in the sky) and the fact that it is all artistry escapes him.
2. O'Connor is fully in control of her naturalism. By that I mean that she does not set out to describe real life but rather to employ real life to suit her thematic needs. Like Joyce in Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, her fiction on a superficial level reads like a straight local color description. Indeed, it is a tribute to the power of her narration and the subtlety of her symbolism that we fall into the belief that O'Connor's world is one and the same with Georgia of the 1950's.
A case in point is the character of Enoch Emery in her novel, Wise Blood. Enoch, a semi-literate zookeeper, has acquired a near religious obsession with a mummified corpse on display in a museum. Enoch reads the Latinate spelling of "MVSEVM" on the wall of the building and pronounces it "Muvseevum." At first glance the mispronunciation seems indicative only of Enoch's laughable ignorance. But on further consideration we realize that the word he is afraid to say aloud more than once has acquired for Enoch the same mystical significance as the dried and shrunken body. What seems at first picturesque on careful examination is revealed as symbolic.
Of course, much of the symbolism in O'Connor is a dead giveaway. The name of a character will often provide a reliable key to his nature. E.g.: Mr. Paradise in "The River," Joy Hopewell, who has her name legally changed to Hulga, in "Good Country People," Mr. Head in "The Artificial Nigger" and the demonic Mr. Shiftlet in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
In the latter story Mr. Shiftlet is a one-armed carpenter whose figure early in the story is said to form a crooked cross (pp. 146-148).
The purpose of symbolism is neither to perplex nor impress the reader. O'Connor uses symbols as an economy, a literary shorthand, in the same way one uses one word instead of six. Rather than devote several pages to the development of a character, O'Connor can with a brief and memorable description of a face and a few lines of dialogue provide the reader with unerring clues to whether a character has fallen from grace or found salvation. The danger in this, of course, is characterizations that come too easy and border on the stereotypical. True, the reader often has the feeling that he has encountered this particular fanatic or that particular imbecile before—but only in another O'Connor story. The fact is, O'Connor's people may sometimes be predictable, but they are never tiresome. It is a credit to her vision that the recurrence of one type of character fails to dull the reader's fascination with him. Parker in "Parker's Back" may resemble Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, but then we never got enough of Hazel Motes in the first place.
3. Outside of Mickey Spillane (the Jehovah's Witness) and Ayn Rand (the Objectivist), Flannery O'Connor (the Roman Catholic) is probably the only modern writer who believes in sharp distinctions between good and evil. Indeed, O'Connor is one of the few modern writers who believes that there is such a thing as evil. Marion Montgomery, one of her most astute readers, has written in The Georgia Review:
Flannery O'Connor writes from a position that insists that a very particular, rather than vaguely abstract, evil does indeed exist in our world. She insists as well that, unless one face the evil and recognize it as personal, he is doomed continually to that dark night. In other words, she denies the comfortable belief, prevalent among us, that by supposing ourselves personally unrelated to evil, we thereby become good.
In other words, reality is not something to be faked, although reality means something quite different to O'Connor than to the non-Christian. In her world one keeps body and soul together by first recognizing that evil is not something we manufacture; it is with us from the beginning. Evil is not a social disease, as Rousseau would have it, but the force that resides in every person irrespective of his environmental context.
We modern freethinkers would like to stop O'Connor right here with our very rational objections to this repugnant medieval view of human nature. But more is to be gained, I believe, by suspending judgment for the moment, giving the author her donnee, and just watching what O'Connor the writer does with her Manichean doctrines.
We could say that O'Connor is a great artist in spite of her dogmatism. But perhaps closer to the truth is the possibility that O'Connor's greatness is because of her dogmatism. What ties the images in an O'Connor story together, what justifies her artistic selection, what makes the outcome of events seem so right, is that in her fiction everything has a purpose unto heaven and Flannery O'Connor. Every scene, every sentence, every word is subordinated to her total vision. In this regard she has said, "The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth." The term allegorical comes to mind, but it fails to do justice, because the purpose in her writing is not to bring the reader to a specific understanding so much as to make him, like Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation," look at the "very heart of mystery."
4. Lastly, one should read O'Connor because she was an extremely gifted comic writer. It is not without significance that Miss O'Connor was in her college days a cartoonist. One finds this skill as a caricaturist in her graphic physiognomies. Take, for example, the preposterous visage of Mr. Head with his "long tube-like face with a long rounded open jaw and a long depressed nose" (p. 249). Or the General in "A Late Encounter with the Enemy": "He had white hair that reached to his shoulders behind and he would not wear teeth because he thought his profile was more striking without them." (p. 135)
And then there is the hilarious "Good Country People" about the attempts of Dr. Joy (Hulga) Hopewell to convert a Bible salesman to atheism only to discover too late that he is a nihilist and will steal her artificial leg and leave her abandoned in a hay loft.
O'Connor did not view her comedy as having an end separate from her theological purposes. She did not use the grotesque simply to shock or amuse. On one of the occasions when she described her literary theory she said, "Certainly when the grotesque is used in a legitimate way, the intellectual and moral judgments implicit in it will have the ascendency over feeling." Knowing her ulterior motives, of course, does not keep us from enjoying the humor, no more than knowing that she was a Catholic prevents an atheist from appreciating her literary genius.
The major and best part of the literary output of her brief life is to be found in this new complete collection of her short stories. It and the novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, are her only fictional works. Lamentably, there will be no more.
David Rosinger attended the University of Georgia and graduated with an A.B. in English. He has been active in libertarianism for several years, contributed articles to the Abolitionist and New Libertarian Notes, and formerly edited the Southern Libertarian Messenger. At present he is managing a theatre and writing short stories.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Complete Stories".