Flannery O’Connor was a Southern Gothic writer who published two novels and 32 short stories, many of which were, however, still long enough to have several chapters. A devout Catholic, O’Connor never married, and she died at the comparatively young age of 39 from Lupus.
Lupus is a horrible disease for which is there was no cure during Flannery’s life. There remains no cure for this disease. Health.com gives a succinct and comprehensive description of Lupus as follows:
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Symptoms vary from person to person and can include fatigue, joint pain, swelling, rashes, and fever. And since no two cases present exactly alike, lupus is notoriously misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, a virus, or something else. The condition can harm the skin, kidneys, heart, nervous system, blood cells, and more (Harding).
O’Connor’s themes were always centered around obscure, extremely flawed characters that were seemingly intended to represent the worst of the Southern populous. In a 2016 article in Bio., one of the A&E television networks, Flannery O’Connor was described as one of the best short story authors of the 20th century. The most intriguing aspect of her works was the violence and mayhem in her stories. Each one filled with what was most often described as “grotesque” plot twists, events, and characters (“Flannery O’Connor”).
There have been many a writing critic that tried to do a literary analysis of O’Connor, and they all seem to want to stuff her into the light of some feminist exposé. It’s true that writers can justify anything they write about anyone if they so desire; however, to look at the historical facts and the context of a writer’s life is a far more accurate way of determining what they were trying to say in their writing. Therefore, when looking at Flannery O’Connor’s body of work, it is this author’s position that historicism and the context of her life, in a broad sense, gives a more accurate glimpse into her mind and her meaning as an artist. The feminist lens doesn’t apply well with O’Connor.
I don’t think O’Connor was a feminist at all, in fact, I believe she was a more of a traditional woman that believed in, and embraced, the most delicate differences that exist between the male and female genders.
In a review of Revising Flannery O’Connor: Southern Literary Culture and the Problem of Female Authorship by Katherine Hemple Prown which appeared in the South Atlantic Review in 2003, author Julie Buckner Armstrong makes the convincing argument that although a couple of former reviewers/writers attempt to approach O’Connor with a feminist lens, this was the result:
A handful of critics have examined the tension between O’Connor the professional
author and O’Connor the southern lady, with Josephine Hendin,
writing in 1970, and Louise Westling, in 1985, providing two of the
more frequently cited works… Religious and regional criticism have
dominated O’Connor studies for more than three decades, and her
seemingly uncomplicated acceptance of patriarchal traditions and
values sends most feminist theorists running for the cover of more
safely radical writers (Buckner Armstrong, p. 129).
Her strong Christian faith was evident in her works as she ultimately conveyed a powerful “moral-to-the-story” writing style in all of her works. Each one seemed to point to the ability to find grace, or to walk of away from God’s Grace. In each story, and especially in my favorite, The Violent Bear It Away, she seems to address the seriousness of sin in her God’s eyes.
In the short novel, The Violent Bear It Away, based on a Bible verse from Matthew 11:12 in the New Testament, O’Connor gives one of her most famous and more classically Southern Gothic stories to her readers. Young Francis Tarwater is the protagonist who is being trained up by his great uncle—a supposed prophet of God—to become a prophet, also. In a gruesome turn of events, as one always expects of O’Connor’s stories, the young Tarwater finds his uncle dead and thus begins his journey to shake off the destiny his great uncle posited on him. Tarwater saw his great uncle as a hypocrite, as so many outside of the Christian religion do, but O’Connor, it seems, seeks to show the true definition of redemption in the end. The disturbing chronicle ends in murder, sexual abuse, and violence, which young Tarwater “bears away” as he comes to see the fragile reality that all human beings fall short in God’s fallen world. His uncle was no hypocrite after all. He was just another poor sap in need of God’s redemption. Tarwater then decides to give in to Providence and follow in the footsteps of his great uncle.
O’Connor was known to be a sort of “workaholic” that would often obsessively edit her works. Stylistically, many of her sentence structures are passive voice, interestingly enough, since most writers are taught to toss this sentence structure away; however, this style lends itself to a feeling that something is coming—almost looming in the future—because the passive voice sentence structures give more credence to the action, or predicate of the sentence, than to the subject.
The Violent Bear It Away (1960) was only one of her two published novels. The other was entitled, Wise Blood, published in 1952. The best collection of her work, published postmortem, is The Complete Stories, a collection of short stories, by Flannery O’Connor.
One of the more surprising aspects of O’Connor’s writings, especially given the modern cry for political correctness, or, “Inclusive Language,” is that a vast majority of her stories—set in the South—contain the “N” word in them. Although her books and stories are found on some of the book banning lists, they have not garnered some of the most vicious attacks and calls for banning as have, say, Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain).
A final thought about her writing. As a fan, I always came away from each of her stories with a sense that I had just encountered a life lesson, or perhaps wise counsel. As her stories unfold, and her characters are revealed, the reader can’t help but look in the proverbial mirror at either themselves, their relatives, or a neighbor who may suffer from either extreme flaws of character, or, a severe case of smugness and hypocritical judgmentalism. Could it have been that Flannery O’Connor hid a sermon of her faith in every one of her stories? I believe that she did, and that is what has made her writings timeless.
Buckner Armstrong, Julie. “Reviewed Work: Revising Flannery O’Connor: Southern Literary Culture and the Problem of Female Authorship by Katherine Hemple Prown.” South Atlantic Review 68.3 (2003): 129-132. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
“Flannery O’Connor.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
Harding, Anne. “Lupus: Celebrities With Lupus.” Health.com. Health Media Ventures, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.