O’Connor, Mary Flannery
American novelist and short-story writer; b. Savannah, Georgia, March 25, 1925; d. Milledgeville, Georgia, August 3, 1964.
Life and Education. Mary Flannery O’Connor was the only child of Edward Francis and Regina Cline O’Connor. At age thirteen, she moved with her family to Milledgeville, the Civil War capital of Georgia, where she lived in a house that had once been the governor’s mansion. In 1941, her father died of disseminated lupus erythmatosus, the hereditary disease that would later claim the life of his daughter. O’Connor’s childhood prankishness proved prophetic of her adult sense of humor: She trained a chicken to walk backward, wrote “Throw the Ball to St. Cecilia” in the third grade, and sewed clothes for a bantam hen in her home economics class. The young O’Connor also developed a strong liking for the macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe, even as she created and illustrated “books” of her own, usually concerning geese. Early in life O’Connor came to recognize and insist on her otherness:
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When I was twelve I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older. I don’t remember how I planned to stop it. [….] I was a very ancient twelve [ … ]. I
am much younger now [at age 26] than I was at twelve, or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I’m sure of it. (O’Connor 1988, p. 985)
After graduation from Peabody High School in 1942, O’Connor entered Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, receiving a degree in sociology and English in 1945. She wrote poems and stories for the college literary magazine, as well as creating linoleum-block cartoons for the college yearbook. Nearly all of her early creative work had satirical and comic intent. With the aid of a scholarship, she studied in Paul Engle’s celebrated Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1945 to 1947. During these graduate school years, she began to publish short stories in small literary magazines, to call herself not Mary Flannery but simply Flannery O’Connor, and to attend Mass daily—having become a thoroughly convinced and not only a cradle Catholic. At Iowa, she also encountered the works of Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, James JOYCE, and other modern writers (especially T.S. ELIOT) for the first time.
Awarded the M.F.A degree in 1947, O’Connor remained at the University of Iowa for a postgraduate year of study before winning a fellowship to spend a year at the Yaddo Foundation, a writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. There she encountered Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren, among other notable authors-in-the-making. After spending a short time in New York City, O’Connor lived in Connecticut for more than a year with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, her future literary executors. Stricken with lupus in late 1950, she gave up her independent existence and lived out her remaining fourteen years in Milledgeville under the care of her mother. Except for a brief series of lecture tours in the United States and a pilgrimage to LOURDES and ROME, O’Connor remained very much at home, declaring that she could see more from her Georgia front porch than on any European tour. She died at age thirty-nine and is buried in Milledgeville.
Works. During her lifetime, O’Connor published two novels and a collection of short stories: Wise Blood (1952), A Good Man Is Hard to Find & Other Stories (1955), and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). A second collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published posthumously in 1965, and all of her published short fiction was combined into the National Book Award–winning The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor in 1971. O’Connor’s essays and speeches were edited and collected by Robert and Sally Fitzgerald under the title Mystery and Manners in 1969, and in 1979 Sally Fitzgerald edited a generous selection of O’Connor’s wide-ranging correspondence into another recipient of the National Book Award, The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Finally, in 1988, Fitzgerald gathered most of O’Connor’s important writings into a volume for the prestigious Library of America series: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works.
Though O’Connor’s literary output was small, it has generated large and sustained interest. More than forty books have been devoted to the explication of her work. There is general consensus about the high quality of her writing, but considerable dispute about its nature and significance. O’Connor wrote from an unapologetically Roman Catholic angle of vision. “My stories have been watered and fed by Dogma,” she declared (O’Connor 1988, p. 930). “The Mass,” she confessed, “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable” (O’Connor 1988, p. 977). She also acknowledged that she was “a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist” (O’Connor 1988, p. 930). Yet Page 620 | Top of ArticleO’Connor was far from smug in her faith, as she declared in a letter to an atheist friend: “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe” (O’Connor 1988, p. 949). O’Connor thus sought to give literary embodiment to her fierce and angular vision by means of the grotesque, the macabre, the willfully exaggerated. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she famously declared, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (O’Connor 1988, p. 806).
Themes and Characters. From this drastic viewpoint, O’Connor wrote some of the most original and arresting fiction in the whole of American literature. In her work, for example, one encounters a clubfooted delinquent who lies and steals because he says that he’s good at it, a little rich boy who drowns himself in search of the salvation his suave parents hold in contempt, a baptizing backwoods prophet who has spent time in an insane asylum and who deafened his own nephew with a shotgun blast, a failed white-liberal writer who contracts a lifelong disease while seeking to celebrate a secular communion with black dairy hands, a mass-murdering misfit who spiritually awakens a complacent grandmother while also complaining that Jesus has “thown” everything off balance, and a self-satisfied farmwife who thanks Jesus daily for making her both white and prosperous—until she is slugged in the head with a psychology textbook thrown by a Wellesley student.
When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor replied that southerners “are still able to recognize one.” In her stories, a secular psychologist or social worker may be far more freakish than a woman who clips news stories about calamities, buries them in a hole, and then prostrates herself over them, beseeching God’s mercy upon the victims. To discern both bizarre and subtle deviations from the norm, O’Connor explained, one must first have a clear conception of human wholeness. What she called the “Christ-haunted” South had retained such a conception, she added, because its regional outlook and imagination remain essentially biblical. When the popular mind is shaped by the biblical narrative—of CREATION and fall, of Israel’s election and Christ’s INCARNATION, of the CRUCIFIXION and the resurrection, of the Church as God’s own people and the Second Coming as history’s consummation—then even the barely literate possess the ultimate criterion for measuring themselves and everything else.
There is an enormous paradox, therefore, that characterizes the career of Flannery O’Connor. This ardent Catholic writer who was deeply read in the giants of the twentieth-century Catholic renascence—Étienne GILSON and Jacques MARITAIN, Romano GUARDINI and Pierre TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, Georges BERNANOS and Gabriel MARCEL—found her countrified Protestant milieu to be a perfect setting for her fiction. Rather than directing her scorching wit at shouting evangelists and street preachers, she satirized secular sophisticates and cultured despisers of religion. She treated her rabid believers—despite their virulent anti-Catholicism and their violent anti-intellectualism—with honor rather than contempt. She also offered sympathetic portraits of cornpone Sartrean nihilists. In their vehement determination to deny God and to live as if all things were permitted, they wrangle with the large and hard questions that the merely civilized and urbane often seek to ignore. The benighted and murderous hero of Wise Blood, for example, gains a Sophoclean vision only in his self-inflicted blindness, finally understanding that his relativized world without ultimate significance is a treacherous lie.
That O’Connor’s narrators speak with the directness and authority of biblical prophets, and that her characters come to gruesome and seemingly unredemptive ends, has caused considerable disagreement about the larger import of her fiction. A few critics regard O’Connor as a nihilist writer unawares; others read her as a racist author because her white characters are unabashed in their use of the word nigger; a handful complain that her narrative descriptions are often mean-spirited and uncharitable; a small number suggest that O’Connor suppressed her feminist impulses by submitting obsequiously to the allegedly patriarchal tradition of Roman Catholicism; while one or two have found internal tensions and contradictions between her professed Catholic orthodoxy and the brutal content of her fiction. Most readers, by contrast, have regarded O’Connor as a splendid comic artist whose work is imbued with a far-seeing Christian vision. However great the disagreements among interpreters, no one has ever come away from her fiction either bored or indifferent, either unamused or unmoved.
The international attention accorded to O’Connor demonstrates that she was not a regional but a universal writer. Insofar as there is a single pattern in the carpet of O’Connor’s stories, it entails a movement from moral and spiritual ignorance to painful but redemptive illumination. Her characters usually begin in a state of consummate self-satisfaction, either religious or secular. Whether they are churchgoing practical atheists believing that the word Jesus should be confined to the church as other terms are kept within the bedroom, or whether they are proud unbelievers determined to live entirely on their own terms, O’Connor’s protagonists await an awful comeuppance. Its agent is usually an antagonistic character or a catastrophic event. In either case, the result is the same: a searing revelation that strips away Page 621 | Top of Articletheir protective veneer of self-sufficiency and leaves them naked with self-knowledge.
O’Connor gave a name to this inexorable encounter: She called it the “moment of grace.” It is the gun hanging over the mantel of all her stories, the rifle that, as Anton Chekov said, must be fired before the story ends. In her lexicon, divine grace is never synonymous with human graciousness. On the contrary, it is often abrupt and rude and disrespectful of the ordinary proprieties, for the skin of human resistance is exceedingly thick. When asked why her characters meet such violent self-awakenings, O’Connor replied that it is because their heads are so hard. Grace must wound before it can heal, she often declared, and her fiction is filled with both woundings and healings. O’Connor also wryly consoled readers that, while a lot of folks get killed in her fiction, nobody gets hurt. In her unsentimental reckoning, there are states of moral and religious vacancy that are far worse than the grisliest of deaths. Thus is O’Connor’s fiction comic in a precise Dantesque sense: It does not close down toward tragic and final defeat, but opens out toward drastic, even eternal, hope—often at the threshold of total ruin.
Yet while O’Connor’s work is redemptive to its core, she never leads her characters to the altar of any church. She was not a Christian apologist seeking to make aesthetic converts to the faith, nor did she desire to be known as a Catholic or even as a religious writer. She was a craftsperson who wanted her work to be honored for its own intrinsic excellences. The endings of her stories are often ambiguous and suggestive, requiring readers to draw conclusions that O’Connor’s narrators refuse to provide. She insisted that, if her fiction served merely to illustrate some abstract truth, no matter how salutary, there would be no need for the stories. Hence their enduring quality. That O’Connor’s art gives convincing life to scandalous faith may make her the most deeply Christian writer that the South—indeed, that the nation—has yet produced.
Frederick Asals, Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity (Athens, Ga. 1982).
John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History (Athens, Ga. 1987).
Richard Giannone, Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Urbana, Ill. 1989).
Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (New York 2009).
Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York 1988).
Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids, Mich. 2004).
Ralph C. Wood
University Professor of Theology and Literature
Baylor University, Waco, Tex. (2011)