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Flannery O'Connor, a Revelation in Southern Gothic

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on March 23, 2017
This article was updated on April 3, 2017

Considered one of the greatest American fiction writers, Flannery O’Connor epitomised the Southern Gothic genre, which flourished in the mid-20th century. Born on 25 March 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, O’Connor left the South as she began her career in writing. She went to the University of Iowa in 1946, when she was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she later spent time in Saratoga Springs, New York, as part of Yaddo, an artists’ community. However, she would soon return to the South where she would stay for the rest of her life. In the summer of 1952, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had claimed her father when she was just 15. Following this diagnosis she retired to her family’s ancestral home in Milledgeville Georgia. She was expected to only live five years after this, but she managed to survive for another twelve. She spent her time raising peafowl and writing, until her death in 1964, aged 39. 

Although her life was tragically short, she has continued to be considered to be a writer of great importance. She produced just two novels and two short story collections, yet her work still stands out among her acclaimed contemporaries, which included Truman Capote and William Faulkner. She is perhaps best remembered for her short story collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. In these she stood in contrast to the literary trends of the time. She eschewed Joycean meanderings of introspection, and instead wrote with the full force of the overt and grotesque Southern Gothic genre. She encapsulates the genre’s essential tropes; her stories are filled with derelict landscapes, communities laden with poverty and violence, and characters who are broken, flawed, and even depraved.

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Violence is perhaps the trope that O’Connor’s writings are most famous for. Her stories are nothing if not bleak and they depict scenes that are horrifying in their brutality. Her novel Wise Blood includes a scene in which one character blinds themselves with quicklime, while her short stories contain an unstoppable march of violent events, families are lined up and shot, men are crushed by tractors, and children accidentally drown themselves. As the events of each story build on one another O’Connor establishes a pattern of catastrophe and the reader is drawn into listening for the seemingly inevitable footfall of doom. Rather than being repetitive, this inevitability allows the reader to sit in suspense, waiting for the bolt to strike. O’Connor once quipped, 

“I can’t write about anything subtle...” 

While this elides her careful crafting of characters and settings, there’s no escaping the blunt-force trauma of her writing.

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O'Connor's most famous religious work,  her personal prayer journal kept from 1946-47.

What lends a distinct perspective to the violence of O’Connor’s fiction is her identity as a devout Catholic and renowned theological writer. This perspective, which at first glance seems at odds with the bleak and gruesome writing style of her fiction, instead serves as a source of illumination in the darkness of her stories. She steers clear of moral didacticism, her characters are not used to illustrate judgement or even inspire sympathy, instead in her stories she creates a break in blackening clouds which offer her characters a moment of redemption. In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” she wrote “[t]here is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” In her letters she explains further commenting that “[a]ll of stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.” This religious perspective informs the purpose of her violent stories, in that they are structured so that the characters are brought to a moment of calamity which exposes them at the very essence of themselves and then offers them a chance of self-realisation and self-knowledge. This moment of grace, as O’Connor terms it, sometimes reaches its target. 

In “The River” the young boy at the centre of the story tries to baptise himself in the river until he finds the Kingdom of Heaven, and in doing so unwittingly drowns himself. As he is pulled down into the current, O’Connor describes his moment of clarity: “For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.” Even when the moment of realisation comes, it is seldom in enough time to prevent the violent ends, O’Connor doesn’t provide comfort here, only revelation. However, still more common in her stories, is that the moment of grace slips by, as in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Here the main character Mr. Shiftlet, a one-armed tramp, injects himself into the life of a widow and her mentally challenged daughter. When he has married the daughter, he takes her on honeymoon, but abandons her at the first pit stop, making off with the family’s car. Later he picks up a surly hitchhiker and he is aghast to hear his new companion speak derogatorily about his mother, leading Mr. Shiftlet  to reflect:

Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. "Oh Lord!" he prayed. "Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!" The turnip [cloud] continued slowly to descend. After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car.

The moment of self-realisation arrives and passes by, unnoticed by Mr. Shiftlet, who fails to see that the rain falling around him, is attempting to answer his prayers.

Of course, what gives meaning to these moments is O’Connor’s skilled characterization. She populates her stories with a range of deeply flawed and conflicted characters, capturing the range of human life and experience. The themes of illness and disability are recurrent (although it is worth noting that, perhaps stemming from her own personal experience, she is never in danger of correlating these with failings of morality or virtue). She also represents a variety of religions and faiths, each with their own morally bankrupt proponent. Her devotion to her own religion doesn’t stop her from painting repugnant Christians along with disdainful atheists. As a white woman in the Deep South of the 1950s, O’Connor’s writing of race and racism marks a point of interest. Her stories’ settings are swathed in cultural and incidental racism, and when she represents people of colour, they are usually limited to the roles O’Connor saw around her, they are farm helpers and childminders. Yet she doesn’t diminish these characters, the are given the same scope, the same dereliction of virtue, and the same opportunity for redemption and grace. O’Connor characters, regardless of race, religion, or disability, have a complexity, and a brokenness to them. They are drawn with bold strokes, and their personalities are laid bare for readers to see. O’Connor attributed her style of characterisation to her status as an outsider inside in her own community. As a Catholic in the American South, she stood apart from the Evangelical and Baptist norm. This distance and perspective gives clarity to the world around her, a clarity which she then transfers to her readers. About this process she stated:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

With such incisiveness of character assessment, O’Connor it seems cannot help but satirize her own creations. Her descriptions are often comic, in introducing the character of Mr. Shiftlet she says, “His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel-trap jaw.” She also uses this humor to great effect when highlighting her characters’ foibles and flaws. In the eponymous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, O’Connor highlights the vanity and self-importance of her main character in a darkly comic manner: 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

This darkly ironic humor is at the heart of O’Connor’s voice, in her letters she commented “I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” In fact, she came close to focussing solely on humor in her career. She had spent her childhood creating cartoons, and continued to do so at college, but after considering it as a full-time career she instead turned to writing. These cartoons have, in recent years, been collected and published, giving us fresh insight into her comic mind.

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Her caricatured figures, almost overcome by their black background, represent an intrinsic aspect of O’Connor’s humor, that it always emerges from the darkest of places. One of her most famous lines, coming again from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, is given to a mass murderer called The Misfit, who has just shot a family one by one, ending with the pleading grandmother:

She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

O’Connor tinges her horror with humor and so chooses this moment of violent devastation to have her murderer deliver a punchline. The dark irony of the statement only strengthens the blow of the scene’s depravity, as we the readers are drawn into collusion with the Misfit, appreciating both his truth and his humor.

The most important of her characters, however, is the American South itself. Like her other characters, O’Connor captures the dereliction and decay of her surroundings, her stories are littered with tumbledown farms, soulless suburbs, and fields of dead grass. It is certainly her own South, drawing on her immediate surroundings, peacocks stalk the pages, most notably in her short story “The Displaced Person” where the peacock tail, “full of suns,” becomes as secondary landscape for the narrative’s drama. The South made an indelible mark on all her books and her writing is a revelation of the power of the Southern Gothic genre, and its ability, in the midst of its violence and depravity, to speak to the essence of its characters, and even of its readers.

Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.