The Political Economy of Flannery O'Connor

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Date: Winter 2021
From: Independent Review(Vol. 25, Issue 3)
Publisher: Independent Institute
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,960 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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Fiction writer Flannery O'Connor would strike economists as someone engaged in a positive, rather than normative, examination of human nature. She observes the conditions arising from systemic racism, xenophobia, and inequality of opportunity in America's post-World War II South, vividly illustrating the material and intellectual impoverishment that follow when humans act within the logic of that social order. Her stories demonstrate a coherence in society resulting from rational "human action, but not human design" (Ferguson [1767] 1996, 187): her characters reject cooperation with others, even when the benefits of cooperating are clearly demonstrated, just so that they can maintain the rigid racial and class hierarchy in which they have been raised, but the outcome is financial and spiritual suffering.

Though her stories are set more than half a century ago, they remain relevant to our time as records of the conditions from which our current culture arises but also as illustrations of the evils brought about by prejudices we have not yet entirely put behind us: de facto segregation (Lichter, Patisi, and Taquino 2015), fewer educational and employment opportunities for the poor and/or black (Chetty et al. 2014; Chetty et al. forthcoming), and lingering disparities in health (Communities in Action 2017) and wealth (Thompson and Suarez 2019). O'Connor leaves her readers to decide how best to move forward, but she makes it clear that clinging to the old ways leads only to our physical and metaphysical peril.

Flannery O'Connor's Cold War South

Considered an "elder statesman" of literature as a thirty-something (Gooch 2009, 352) and eulogized by a New York Times obituary as "one of the nation's most promising writers" (New York Times 1964), Flannery O'Connor was a four-time National Book Award nominee and received the honor posthumously for her collection Complete Stories. O'Connor's Southern Gothic "grotesque" characters and the brutal ends they meet are generally interpreted as violating "our notions of reality by combining the dissimilar elements of horror and humor" to illustrate "an individual's or a society's distortion, that is, its distance from some ideal state" (Reesman 1996, 41, 40).

O'Connor, however, insisted her characters were true to life: "Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic" (O'Connor 1957,40). The climactic violence of her tales is necessary, she believed, to shock and humble her protagonists into epiphanies about their fallible nature and lead them toward God: "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that nothing else will work" (O'Connor 1957, 96).

If spiritual insights were O'Connor's primary purpose for writing, her stories also provide commentary on the mundane: how racism and bigotry inhibit prosperity, discourage geographic mobility in search of education and work, and stilt the imagination. Though her stories unfold against the backdrop of the post-World War II South, they remain relevant to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A652364018