Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories

Flannery O’Connor can most easily be described as one of America’s most distinguished literary artists. She has created a stunning reputation for herself through her novels and the many short stories written during her time. Within each of these pieces of literature are similar styles of writing, techniques, and themes. Each short story or novel written by Flannery O’Connor resembles another piece of her literary work in many different ways. For example, the references to death in her work are extremely abundant as are her use of similes. The reader can find the phrase “as if” in almost every description that O’Connor is trying to shape. Meaning and theme were also very important to Flannery O’Connor as were her stories’ endings. The end is where O’Connor finally reveals the point and the meaning that she had in store.

Flannery O’Connor’s work was very important to her and she worked very hard at it. As a result, she was rewarded and honored for her diligence, hard work, and persistence in her field. Inclusive in her many works, Flannery O’Connor had written many short stories. In the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the characters tend to encounter or experience what can arguably be described as their worst nightmare; however, they all show what her idea of nature and grace is all about. In so doing, O’Connor illustrates that these experiences can either transform or condemn individuals, providing an epiphany of grace or else condemning the protagonist to hell on earth. In other words, her stories are constructed so that the rising “action of conflict between two characters” will either “converge or collide at the climax of the story” (Driskell, 130).

“‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ is considered to be one of Flannery O’Connor’s most controversial and problematic short stories” (Driskell, 131): There are only two characters in this story: the grandmother and the escaped criminal, the Misfit. The rest of the characters are carefully drawn to the “hateful little June Star or the whiny Red Sammy” but they do not enter into the central conflict of the story. (Ming, 57) Also, while the Misfit is not physically a part of the story until the final pages, his presence, nonetheless, his influence “hangs over the story” from the beginning when the grandmother warns her son that the Misfit’s escape from prison constitutes a good reason not to go to Florida. What the grandmother fears are the Misfit; and the Misfit is what she encounters and what she needs most to see past her myopic vision of society.

The major point of contention in this story is the climax and how it should be viewed. “The question is whether or not the grandmother’s act of touching the Misfit should be taken as a “true, divine grace and spiritual insight, or should the story be interpreted on more naturalistic terms'” (Clark, 66). As Sloan points out, prior to her encounter with The Misfit, “O’Connor makes it obvious that the grandmother operated on the assumption that the “examined life is not worth living” (Clark, 69). Her encounter with the Misfit makes her think and consider her relationship to the rest of humanity, probably for the first time in her life this “primes” her for her moment of grace (Bleikasten, 145):

She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest (“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”). O’Connor, herself, wrote that violence is “strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (Clark, p. 66). The grandmother achieved her moment of grace is indicated by the fact that O’Connor writes that her face was “smiling up at the cloudless sky” (“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”).

O’Connor’s short story, “Good Country People,” follows a similar pattern of the protagonist experiencing what she most fears. In this narrative, Joy, who has renamed herself “Hulga,” has retreated away from any real connection with the people around her by considering herself to be the intellectual superior of her mother and everyone else she knows. As her mother points out, she was “brilliant but she didn’t have a grain of sense” (“Good Man Is Hard To Find”). The reader surmises that Joy-Hulga has hidden behind her intellectual accomplishments because she feels self-conscious about the fact that she has an artificial leg. Consequently, what she has avoided through hiding is the possible humiliation she might suffer if she were open with other people.

When a safe, young Bible salesman appears one day, Joy-Hulga assumes that he is one of the “good country people” to whom her mother is constantly referring. Joy-Hulga feels superior and sophisticated compared to the young salesman with the unlikely name of Manley Pointer. As Marshal Bruce Gentry points out “Manley Pointer’s name suggests a ‘male branch’ and is certainly one of the most phallic names in fiction” (Whitt, 79): Joy-Hulga’s loss of her leg is a psychic scar that she connects with “maleness,” since it was shot off in a hunting accident, which is a traditionally masculine activity. When Pointer steals her leg, it is, therefore, a repeat of the original wound (Whitt, 85).

However, it is her false pride that has brought her to his moment of humiliation and disgrace, it was the fact that she considered herself to be the young man’s superior, her concept of who he was, that led her to misjudge him: ‘Aren’t you,’ she murmured, ‘aren’t you just good country people…’ yeah,’ he said…’ but it ain’t held me back none. I’m as good as you any day in the week’ (“A Good Man Is Hard To Find”). We see here how he was misjudged and how he felt he was as good as her any day in the week. It shows how he felt and how she was not superior to him in any way. The climax to the story brings upon a different view and concept: The climax of the story not only brings Joy-Hulga face-to-face with what she most feared, but the story’s tacit Freudianism has “brought home to Joy-Hulga the fact that neither she not the ostensibly innocent Bible salesman is what she thought they were. (Marks, 88).

In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Julian, like Joy-Hulga, is college-educated and, therefore, feels himself to be intellectually superior to his doting mother. Also, like Joy-Hulga, Julian has done nothing with his highly prized cultural sophistication and still living with his mother. Despite his obvious dependence on her, Julian prides himself on his emotional “detachment.” He had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. “He was not dominated by his mother” (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”). Ironically, Julian’s pompous assumptions about himself prove to be just as wrong as did those of Joy-Hulga. While accompanying his mother to the YWCA, he takes petty satisfaction in annoying her in every way possible.

As the trip continues, O’Connor makes it clear that despite Julian’s posturing as a liberal, he is just as much a bigot as his mother. It soon becomes clear that Julian’s “liberalism” is even more dehumanizing than his mother’s casual brand of Southern prejudice. Julian appears to be concerned with racial issues only in so far as they substantiate his misanthropic attitude that “with a few exceptions there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles” (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”):

O’Connor makes it clear that while Julian scorns his mother’s pretensions and her attachment to dreams of her ancestral mansion, he, too, privately dreams of a leisure life that could only be rooted in the institution of slavery (Ming, 54). The climax to the story comes when a black woman, who is accompanied by her young son, gets on the bus. Using irony again, O’Connor points out that the woman is wearing the same grotesque hat that Julian’s mother is wearing. It had a “purple velvet flap” that came down on the side and stood upon the other (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”). “Both women are overweight, concerned for their sons, and insensitive to each other” (Ming, 60). The black woman sits down by Julian, and the boy sits next to Julian’s mother. Feeling smug because of his insight, Julian immediately sees that the women had symbolically switched sons.

Julian makes sure that the significance is not lost on his mother when he tells her: Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman…that was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies…The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn. (“Everything That Rises Must Converge”) This proves to be too psychologically and physically jarring for the old woman, who collapses. It is at this point that Julian realizes that he was completely dependent on his mother as he cries over her body:

O’Connor zings us again with the story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” In this story, she takes on the subject of racism, which was, of course, a very volatile one in Georgia in the mid-1960s. Like Hulga, the intellectual Julian is self-righteous and arrogant; but unlike Hulga, who has largely given up on “Good Country People,” Julian feels that his well-bred but racist mother needs to be redeemed into the fraternity of racial equality: He began to imagine various unlikely ways by which he could teach her a lesson. He might make friends with some distinguished Negro professor or lawyer and bring him home to spend the evening. He would be entirely justified but her blood pressure would rise to 300″ (O’Connor, p. 1092).

Fate, however, provides a solution. A large black woman wearing precisely the same hat as his mother – a hat of which his mother is inordinately proud – boards the bus they are riding and sits next to Julian. His mother begins to treat the woman’s little boy the way she treats all blacks – kindly, but extremely patronizingly. When she tries to give him a penny, the woman hits Julian’s mother in the head with her purse. Julian triumphantly takes this opportunity to expound his philosophy on political correctness vis-à-vis black people:

Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman…. That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black double. She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure… it looked better on her than it did on you. What all this means… is that the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn.” Then he adds the clincher: “You aren’t who you think you are. (O’Connor, p. 1096)

If we find it difficult to see any of these endings as happy, however, it is because we are looking at O’Connor’s work through the eyes of humanism, which stresses the dignity of all people. O’Connor is not a humanist. She is not trying to assert man’s dignity, but rather to strip it away, and show how craven and worthless and ugly and stupid we are without the benefit of the grace of God. She chooses as her victim’s people about whom our society feels especially protective – widows, children, the disabled – simply because no one is exempt. In her letters, O’Connor writes:

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement…. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed” (O’Connor, p. 90).

The purpose of O’Connor’s fiction, therefore, is not to entertain, enlighten, or inspire, and least of all to be politically correct. She wants to shock us into a sense of our desperate need for God. In addition to the themes throughout the stories, there is a common theme throughout all the stories. Although shown with different characters and different situations, the common theme is grace. Therefore, more than anything else, Flannery O’Connor’s point in all of her work is that the grace of God is immeasurable. She feels as if the grace of God comes naturally to God and He gives it to everyone.

Upon in-depth analysis, it becomes evident that in Flannery O’Connor’s works, arrogant, conceited, egotistical and overly prideful characters receive the unbearable manifestation of their shallow, petty and superficial selves. O’Connor’s characters are tragically unaware of their egoism. The characters’ excessive pride blinds them to their flaws. When characters finally acquire some level of rationality, it is always at the cost of the life of someone else; hence death becomes a manifestation of their ruthless ego. It seems that O’Connor goes beyond good and evil and leaves the definition of these terms as an open question.

Evil almost always sets the stage and furnishes the props for O’Connor’s Christian parables, just as the actors who played the devils in medieval comedy often doubled as stagehands. No matter how moving or harrowing the main action of a story may be, she often gives it a fiendishly funny frame. The devils in medieval mystery play form a mock chorus to prevent the performance from becoming bland and sanctimonious. The raucous laughter of O’Connor’s devils purges her stories of sentimentality and piety. This pattern is evident during the baptism in “The River.” Mr. Paradise, who heckles the young minister, literally looks like a gargoyle as he sits on the embankment above the stream:

“Pass the hat and give this kid his money. That’s what he’s here for.” The shout, directed out to the boy in the river, came from a huge old man who sat like a humped stone on the bumper of a long ancient automobile. He had on a gray hat that was turned down over one ear and up above the other to expose a purple bulge on his left temple. He sat bent forward with his hands hanging between his knees and his small eyes half-closed. The boy in the river glanced at the old man quickly and raised his fist.

The blasphemy and grotesqueness of “The River” serve the same satirical purpose. As Bevel prepares himself for immersion, he composes himself, and the tone of the story becomes solemn. t is the grinning imp that reminds us of our vanity even amid religious ecstasy. This humorous quality, however, also serves an anti-aesthetic function. The satirical streak in Christian art prevents faith from being mistaken for its pictorial or verbal representation. In other words, satire is Christian art’s built-in safety device against its potential idolatry. The broken pieces of sun, which we hear knocking the water in “The River” are the shards of our aesthetic expectations. By indulging our emotions in the scene, our pious sentimentality about baptism, we have momentarily confused faith with feeling, grace with form. We have turned belief into a construct, a stained-glass window when it is an ever-changing process that can never be contained. (Grimshaw, 345-50)

The only “hero” in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the bogus “General” Tennessee Flintrock Sash, the senile Civil War veteran in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” who is the creation of cheap public relations. O’Connor’s amusement at human vanity and stupidity, even when she is being profound, offends those readers who yearn for idealized heroes. This reaction is understandable. The chief attraction of the heroic, as William Pfaff points out, is its denial of the ludicrous, the banal: “The appeal of heroism is that it represents the same impulse to unreasonable perfection which leads men and women into monasteries and convents, or, on the other hand, to improbable physical feats in sports, or to art: that one can pare from oneself everything unnecessary, vulgar, self-indulgent, and become one of life’s exceptions, so as to achieve a kind of immortality”

“A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is the only one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories to directly deal with the Civil War, and its mock-heroic gusto is as obvious as it is irresistible: “General Sash was a hundred and four years old. He lived with his granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and who prayed every night on her knees that he would live until she graduates from college. The general didn’t give two slaps for her graduation but never doubted that he would live for it.

Among so many writers in this world, Flannery O’Connor’s work has turned out to be one of admirable talent and full of fascinating techniques. She is a woman of Christian belief and does not fail to include this belief in her work. Each story has a meaning that she has in mind and constructs from the very start. To get this meaning across, O’Connor feels that it is necessary to include an extensive usage of references to death and destruction. Violence fills her short stories to help her audience to understand her vision of the real world. Her vision, as it appears in her work, is a world with a violent society and full of unenlightened people. O’Connor will always be remembered for her use of violence along with religion and will always be regarded as one of the most remarkable literary writers of her time. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Stroke of Good Fortune” perfectly illustrates this particular principle of the grotesque. It is far from O’Connor’s best effort. She said that it is too much of a farce to bear the weight of its theme, the rejection of life at the source. Still, its stringently unsentimental depiction of pregnancy is creative and inventive.

Ruby’s humiliation on the stairway is directly related to her body. She is forced to accept the fact that she is a wholly material creature. This devastating revelation is not unique to “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” O’Connor stresses corporeality throughout her work. Her emphasis on the body – on its needs and vulnerabilities, its sheer fleshiness – undermines all forms of pride and abstraction in her characters. This puncturing of arrogance and self-delusion through the workings of human biology links O’Connor’s work to the medieval fabliau. Howard Bloch claims that the real “scandal” of this genre is not its bawdiness or scatology but its aggressive materiality. This materiality is the humus of the fabliau’s grotesque humor because it degrades all airy idealism.

O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” is yet another story in which the main characters are changed by an experience that alters their self-perception. This change comes as a result of a religious experience that shocks them into caring more for each other than themselves. In the story we witness two men, one very young and one old, journeying from their small backward community into the city where their values and concerns are turned upside down. Mr. Head believes that he has power and influence over those around him. We can see this by the way he puts Nelson and the dinner car waiter down to make himself feel superior. Nelson doesn’t believe Mr. Head is superior, thinking that because he was born in the city he should know just as much about life. The point of the journey is for Mr. Head to show Nelson that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks, but by the end of the story both men will have realized this.

When Mr. Head and Nelson separate Nelson realizes that he needs Mr. Head very much, becoming very scared when he thinks he is alone in the strange city. Mr. Head’s denial of Nelson in the street can be compared to biblical denials of faith. Even though Nelson needs Mr. Head he too has refused to make that fact known, showing his stubborn nature. When the two come across the statute differences and contempt are washed away. O’Connor explained the significance of the statue as representing the Negro’s suffering for all of us like Christ’s suffering for all humans. Mr. Head sees the statue as miserable, unable to distinguish its age (O’Connor, 124). The vision of this figure has brought the two men down to the same level and has shown them both that they need each other very much. Mr. Head’s final quotation shows that he still needs to be superior to someone even though blacks are no longer slaves.

Upon returning home Mr. Head judges himself through the eyes of God and sees that his denial of Nelson to save himself from trouble was wrong (a sin). The appearance of the Christ representation has made him see this and he is forever altered, caring more for the suffering of Nelson instead of himself (O’Connor, 126). Although the journey may have not brought about any changes in their racist perceptions, we can see that it has brought the two closer together and made them more concerned with each other than themselves.

By analyzing stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” “The Artificial Nigger”, and “Good Country People” we can see the representation of religion hidden behind grotesque elements that force the characters towards introspection and change. Another important connotation towards the title implication is also significant. It can be said that she has an optimistic note on life when she uses the word “good” in many of her stories titles like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and “Good Country People”. We can see that the word “good” is common in these three short stories.

Works Cited

  1. Clark, Michael. “Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: The Moment of Grace.” English Language Notes (1991): 66-69.
  2. Driskell, Leon V., and Joan T. Brittain. Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O’Connor. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1971. 129-33
  3. Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988.
  4. Grimshaw, James A., Jr. The Flannery O’Connor Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981. 345-50
  5. Marks, W. S., III. “Advertisements for Grace: Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find.'” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Ed. Frederick Asals. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993. 83-93.
  6. Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O’Connor. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1995. 78-85
  7. Bleikasten André. “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor.” Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark. Boston: Hall, 1985. 138-58.
  8. Ming Zhong. “Designed Shock and Grotesquerie: The Form of Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 17 ( 1988): 51- 61.

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