Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Subvert

Few American writers are as deserving of the description iconoclastic as Flannery O’Connor. While often lumped in amongst the multitudinous brothers and sisters who comprise that subgenre known as Southern Gothic which seems to cover an astonishingly broad range of plot and thematic elements, her career—and the sound of the shared letters in her name—has also brought her into direct comparison with Carson McCullers (Friedman 1962). What has perhaps kept Flannery O’Connor from achieving the place within the commercial world of American literary history that has been assumed by many other writers of far lesser talent is perhaps that very inability to easily pigeonhole her work which is certainly no closer to that of Poe than it is to Faulkner or Harper Lee, yet which engages so many of the same issues surrounding what it means to grow up among the often grotesque, but unavoidably fascinating denizens of Dixie.

Despite the similarities between these and certain other writers to which O’Connor is routinely compared, the very ineffectuality of determining a writer’s purpose and intent through her work is exemplified by trying to reach that understanding through the comparison with others. While it may be true that the Homeric motif of the return of the native from a prophetic journey to discover himself that is at the center of the some of the best works by William Styron, Faulkner and McCullers is actually nowhere more “strenuously present as in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor” (Friedman 1962), such a truism is hardly representative of all of her fiction.

Of far greater utility is the observation that O’Connor regularly engages a literary device developed by another writer—James Joyce—to endow in her characters ideas and perspectives that would be utterly untenable within the author herself. Upon learning that O’Connor “uses a limited third-person perspective that at times expresses the authorial voice, but at other times reveals only the protagonist’s” (Paulson 1988) is the type of comparison that can prove actually useful in explicating the work of just the one author without necessarily making a comparison or contrast with the other. An excellent example of how O’Connor puts to use techniques perfected by Joyce in his experiments with stream of consciousness is her highly anthologized short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The element that separates this story from being merely a story of bad timing that harkens back to mythic themes of destiny is the portrayal of that family. While fate intervenes in a way that is perhaps unavoidable, the family certainly does not help their case by allowing one particular member to enjoy free range when it comes to worsening their situation. The most important character here is the grandmother and while extensive sections of the third person narration provide insight into the grandmother alone, the story also contains sections that allow for an interpretation of the character of the author. One of those sections may well be the elegantly simple, yet profoundly important way in which O’Connor foreshadows the emotional tenor which all but guarantees how the story will end while also revealing that the author may well have injected a little bit of her own voice into a character that can only be assumed to possess traits which are decidedly not autobiographical.

O’Connor perhaps tips hand at how much she views herself as an iconoclastic writer by revealing the underlying strain of rebellion—perhaps inadvisable rebellion—that drives the grandmother. Against her son’s order and against all common sense, this woman disobeys her own son’s admonition against bringing her cat along for the trip by furtively smuggling the feline into the vehicle. This relatively benign, but by no means prudent act of defiance, quickly delineates the grandmother’s central character traits: a selfish sort of entitlement that infringes upon others. Because the act is so benign, it connects compliantly with her further demonstrations of wheedling others as a means of achieving dominance over them. This very same character trait will prove to be not only her undoing but the undoing of her entire family when she puts it to use against the Misfit.

That smuggled cat comes into sharp relief as the central player in an event which transforms the forbidden act of bringing it along from one this relatively benign into one that seals the fate of every member of the family in the car. What gives this event special significance is the way it can be read biographically. Indeed, darkly comic turn of events that forces the cat from thematic background player to starring role in the narrative is a concrete example of the way that so much of her writings reflect her own domestic situation by presenting tales of adult children forced into a close quarters with an oppressive or needy mother (O’Connor). When viewed from this light, the passive-aggressive act of smuggling the cat not only provides insight directly into the character, but expands back to present the larger message at work in all of O’Connor’s writing: creating “a set of priorities that made gaining salvation the focus of their lives” (O’Connor). The salvation in this story is sought because the grandmother directly caused their situation in which the Misfit could be in a position to leave the murdered in a ditch.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is highly representative of the work of the author in large part because it features—like so much of her short stories and her novels that she wrote—a distinctly distressing, disturbing and downbeat conclusion. A conclusion that is also, however, characterized by the quality of its ambiguity and its potential for being not quite as tragic and depression as it might seem. While it is certainly tragic in the sense that ever member of an innocent family lies dead by the time it ends, the Misfit may not necessarily be the better off. He does get away with murder on a relatively mass scale, but O’Connor really is writing about salvation here and elsewhere. The dead grandmother lies in that ditch with a wide smile upon her face. Annoying and even unlikable in a way that exceeds the Misfit she may be, but she has found redemption. Meanwhile, there is nothing to suggest that the Misfit will achieve that.

One critic has examined the nature of the ambiguity present throughout the entirety of Flannery O’Connor’s body of work and has arrived at as succinct an encapsulation of the goal she set for herself across the length and breadth of this massive outpouring of words as is likely to be found. Claire Katz is not encumbered by any ambiguity of meaning at all when she asserts that “O’Connor’s conscious purpose is evident enough, and has been abundantly observed by her critics: to reveal the need for grace in a world grotesquely without a transcendent context” (54). Admittedly, that is a rather grandiose statement one on hand while being almost glibly simplistic as an application toward a writer’s entire body of work on the other. Within those two boundaries, however, there is something definitely to be said for the insight of Katz. Where the critic may fall short of covering the thematic output of the writer in its entirety is that contention that O’Connor’s characters populated a work without transcendent context.

Consider that not just “Greenleaf” but “The Partridge Festival” as well, O’Connor’s characters in a grotesque world (or grotesque characters in a normal world) reveal the surprising capacity to discard the intellect in favor of emotion as a means of connecting with others. The skepticism that drives the Misfit directly toward psychopathology is refreshingly absent here, thus exhibiting that O’Connor is entirely capable of retaining her iconoclastic qualities even when providing a context for transcendence. Ambiguity is put on display toward the end of “Greenleaf” when it is applied directly to the intellectual underpinning of Mrs. May’s belief in revelations, but ultimately the ambiguous nature of that skepticism only serves to confirm O’Connor’s trust in grace that results from a distrust of a purely intellectual leap of faith such as the skeptical nature of the Misfit.

Flannery O’Connor’s ability to provide a transcendent context within her world in which the grotesque seeks grace extends beyond character and into the very imagery of that world. An almost fairy tale quality is at play in “A Circle in the Fire” where the woods once again take their place in fiction as the topographical dividing line between the rules of society and the freedom of natural desires. If one were to seek for meaning in one writer’s works by comparing them to another, one might well point out how in so many fairy tales the woods become a place where the imagery defines them as a place filled with fear and the unknown. By contrast, O’Connor creates in the woods described in “A Circle in the Fire” a contextual location that endows them with contractual issues having more to do with economics than witchcraft and debate over private ownership than the site of weird rituals. How much more iconoclastic can a writer get than contravening the long tradition of the woods as a place of freedom unbound than by making them seem to be a place where modern rules are far more important than ancient rituals?

Clair Katz is right: Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is a place where the world is more grotesque and ambiguous than what is expected. Just as James Joyce uses stream of consciousness techniques to present a world that is familiar and strange at the same time, O’Connor engages point of view perspective to provide insight both into her own motivations for writing and the motivations of her characters in ways that are at times perfectly aligned and other times disjointed. Throughout both examples, however, one can discover the context for transcendence in the search for grace that Katz fails to uncover. The context, put as plainly as possible, is one that combines both the writer’s authorial voice and the oppositional voices of characters like the Misfit and the old woman he murders that speak not for the writer: it is one where everything that rises must subvert. It is the goal of every true iconoclast who views their identity as one shaped by being the outsider even among those with whom they seem to share so much.

Works Cited

Friedman, Melvin J. “Flannery O’Connor: Another Legend in Southern Fiction.” The English Journal 51.4 (1962): 233-43. Web.

Katz, Claire. “Flannery O’Connor’s Rage of Vision.” American Literature 46.1 (1974): 54-67. Web.

O’Connor, Margaret Anne. “Flannery O’Connor.” The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 641-642.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Print.