To understand Flannery O’Connor’s short stories is understand the rural South that she was familiar with in the pre-1970s. Her stories focus on aspects character in human, every-day situations all revolving around her South, dealing with race relations, Christianity, rural versus city living, parent-child relationships, etc. She brings the reader into the settings by capturing thought processes, a style I found engaging. I enjoyed reading her stories, although they illustrated a lack of hope in human nature.
Race and Class
I found the most common theme in Flannery O’Connor’s stories is race and class, looking at conflict between generations. A great example is “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” In this story, a progressive young man must ride the bus with his older mother to the YMCA because she is “afraid” of the blacks on the integrated buses. He wants to teach her a lesson, but in the end he realizes he still needs his mother, as “old-fashioned” as she is.
Race and class often mix in O’Connor’s stories. In “Revelation,” a self-satisfied judgmental woman is baffled when a young girl calls her a rude name; in the end, she (maybe) realizes the folly of her judgments.
Other stories clearly dealing with race and class also include rural versus city conflicts. Some of these stories are “The Artificial Nigger” (a father and son visit Atlanta); “The Displaced Person” (a Jewish refugee family joins the farm); “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” (Grandpa fought in the civil war); and “The Geranium” and “Judgment Day” (an old man, living in New York City with his daughter, longs to return to the South to die; these are essentially the same story, one written at the beginning and one at the end of O’Connor’s career).
Isolated, Lonely People
Some of my favorite stories were about lonely, isolated individuals seeking for a place. In “The Crop,” a lonely woman sits down to write a short story-and forgets where she is. I love this story because I can relate to this writer: she can’t figure out how to get the story from her head to paper. In “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” the woman ponders a fortune teller’s message, and the reader, following her thoughts, knows what it is. I loved how clueless she was as I followed her thought process.
While others weren’t favorites, they were also about lonely, isolated people: “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead” (14-year-old must bury his grandfather); “Good Country People” (a lonely girl with a wooden leg finally trusts someone, the good country man selling bibles); “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (mother gets her mute daughter married to a nice, good country man); “A View of the Woods” (a lonely, selfish grandfather idolizes his granddaughter); and “The Enduring Chill” (a lonely, unsuccessful writer returns to Georgia to die).
Christianity (Good versus Evil)
Flannery O’Connor’s stories also deal with Christianity and good versus evil in general. Her view of good and evil in the face of Christianity is intriguing.
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is probably the most familiar O’Connor story, but I really don’t like it. Grandma gets her family lost on a side road. They meet a murderer, who Grandma is sure she recognizes as a good man. I think it’s a look at how everyone has good, and yet, we’re all missing good too; we’re all condemned. I find it a bit disturbing.
In other stories, people try to save each other through religion and because of religious training. In “The River,” the boy’s caretaker, Mrs. Conin, wants to “save” him with religion. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker gets one more tattoo that he thinks his religious wife will appreciate. In “The Comforts of Home,” Thomas’s mother thinks she can save a loose woman from corruption. In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” Sheppard thinks he can redeem a criminal boy who shows more promise than his own son.
Compared to the Others
I found Flannery O’Connor’s stories to be completely unlike the others I’ve read in the past few months. And yet, I still try to compare and contrast.
As did Chekhov, O’Connor focuses on specific characters in a specific setting, keeping the scenarios tight. Somewhat like Maupassant, O’Connor’s stories focus on base human desires and situations. In contrast to James Joyce, who was careful to develop a scene, O’Connor throws us into it to a scene and we must feel our way until we understand the setting (and yet it is still marvelously developed). Also, while Hemingway captured scenes mostly through dialog, O’Connor captures her scenes through incredibly realistic thought processes.
Unlike O. Henry, her stories are not “feel good.” In fact, I almost hated reading some of the stories, because I knew, following her style, that just before the character finds redemption, something would go wrong and they’d be damned, or killed, or otherwise without hope. In subject matter, then, I think her stories most closely resemble Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories in Interpreter of Maladies, which capture the isolation immigrants feel. While O’Connor’s characters aren’t immigrants to the United States, they seem similarly confused by their loneliness in a changing Southern environment.
I didn’t agree with a lot of Harold Bloom’s comments in How to Read and Why on the specific stories he discusses, but his general comments on O’Connor’s style are interesting. He focuses on the religious aspect of her work, how everyone ends up damned as I mentioned above, and how O’Connor doesn’t expect anyone to be redeemed.
…the best way to read her stories is to begin by acknowledging that one is among her damned, and then go on from there to enjoy her grotesque and unforgettable art of telling.
Harold Bloom captures what my main gripe was with O’Connor’s stories, although he thinks it’s a beautiful trait. It is, but it’s still a bit annoying in bulk:
…readers need to be wary of her tendentiousness: she has too palpable a design upon us, to shock us by violence into a need for traditional faith.
I sometimes didn’t like the violent shock at the end of each story: but that may be because I was reading all of her short stories in the same week. If you read Flannery O’Connor, read her in installments.
In the end, Flannery O’Connor certainly has a marvelous but morbid story telling ability.
Have you read Flannery O’Connor? What do you think of her stories? Did you like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?