Help me understand Flannery O'Connor
March 28, 2009 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a paper on Flannery O'Connor, and am having trouble understanding a lot of the symbolism in her works. Help me understand Flannery.

I'm writing a Multi-Genre paper for my 11th grade AP Lang/Comp class. It's semi-biographical, semi-autobiographical; we are to pick a famous American figure, write about their American Dream, and reveal something about our own.

Flannery O'Connor, okay not that famous. But I didn't want to pick the same people everyone else was doing (MLK, Kennedys, Lincoln, Audrey Hepburn).

I feel a weird personal connection when I read about her and her works, even though I'm not Catholic or terribly brilliant, and so I don't want to write a shitty paper. But unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to really scour The Habit of Being and the pour my soul into this.

Anywho. I have been in a born-Buddhist bubble for all 17 years of my life and have little-to-no knowledge about Christian/Catholic theology. I have a grasp on the basics but MFOC gets real into it, and when I finish reading a story I feel 'oh man' but not quite the 'shit, LOOK AT THAT SYMBOLISM' I could potentially be getting.

ie. Wise Blood--to be fair I read it during my lunch breaks at work, but I had no idea while I was reading it that "Hazel Motes" was a play on "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

I never would have read that line, unless the Internet had fished it out for me.

Anywho--here's my dilemma. I would be prepared to ask you all for sections of the Bible to read and whatnot, but my paper is due in a week and a half I don't have enough time to decipher the Bible, and then all of her stories. I could probably just go ahead and write, but I want to use excerpts from her stories to highlight important moments in her life throughout my paper*, and I fear I might misinterpret her intentions if I don't understand all the symbolism.

I am trying to use the internet, but most of the resources online are enotes or sparknotes or something for students who don't want to read her stories at all, which isn't quite what I'm looking for and perhaps only getting in my way. My local libraries are devoid of any annotated companions and the like...and I've spent a bit of money buying some fantastic biographies online, so I don't want to buy anything either. I just need you to point me in a direction, like "so-and-so was deeply influenced by this," or "this blurb + The River made me shit bricks with understanding."

I am currently having trouble understanding "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" (arm stump puzzles me a bit?) and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost."

Have you any resources, personal interpretations or advice for a simpleton like me?

*I am working through the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories, and probably won't have time to re-read Wise Blood, so any resources having to do with these works in particular would be appreciated. If you haven't touched these in awhile, I think the whole spankin' book is right here.)
posted by mmmleaf to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't personally care much for her writing so I can't help you there, but Flannery lived in Savannah, GA. She was friends with the mom of a high school English teacher of mine, and one day he brought home videos to class that showed a little him and his brother running around Flannery's back yard playing with her peacocks. Oh yeah, she kept peacocks. As pets. In her back yard.

I think she went to Georgia College and State University (nevermind the stupid name of the school)...they have a (small) museum portion of their library devoted to her. I bet if you contacted a librarian there (here is their website), you'll find out everything you ever needed to know about her. Don't be shy about contacting them. Pretty much everyone who goes to GCSU is from Georgia, and if you grew up in Georgia you had enough Flannery O'Connor shoved down your throat to make you gag for life. Um, my point is they're probably not too-too busy Flannery-ing the students and would be glad to help.
posted by phunniemee at 6:35 PM on March 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks! I probably rambled too much, though, to make it clear that 1) I do have a lot of resources and biographical stuffs about the author herself, but 2) Don't know shit about Catholicism, or the Bible for that matter.
posted by mmmleaf at 6:39 PM on March 28, 2009

Best answer: Caveat: I studied O'Connor in college in an independent study ten years ago, and I don't have my notes in front of me, which makes the following a bunch of ten-year-old random numbered Flannery O'Conner paper thoughts.

Thought #1: You've bitten off way more than you need to chew here. You don't need to interpret all of O'Connor's work to write this paper, and trying is just going to overwhelm you. To write this paper, you probably need to read a couple of stories and understand her biography -- without seeing the prompt, it sounds like the rest is your interpretation.

Thought #2: There's not going to be a 1:1 O'Connor:Bible connection for most of her work; it sounds like you think if you read II Corinthians you'll unlock something, and I don't think that's true. O'Connor herself wrote:

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.

That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

Compare that depth to the tinniness of the phrase "a moral intelligence" as the carpenter uses it in The Life You Save.

Thought #3: You're a born-and-raised Buddhist trying to understand Flannery O'Connor without even the average secular American's knowledge of the Bible. Does that tell you anything about "your American dream?"

Thought #4: I don't like this essay topic one bit.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:52 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

(Thought #3 was a genuine question, btw. The answer might be no, I have no idea but it struck me as interesting.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:54 PM on March 28, 2009

All I have is advice: if you really don't want to write "a shitty paper" you should choose a different topic, one which you can reasonably research in a week. It's going to be impossible to write a good paper based on what you read off the internet and based on what random strangers tell you about Christian symbolism in Flannery O'Connor. Just my two cents' worth, based on having read and graded countless papers in my day. Good luck.
posted by agent99 at 6:57 PM on March 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks.

-yea, it's mostly my interpretation, but I'm sort of determined to include some stuff about her literature into my paper. It's mostly going to be about her life anyway, so I think I might just be using this as an excuse to read a lot. Either way I keep getting a feeling that I should understand Catholicism a bit more to be able to understand how or why faith drove so much of her life, when one would think she would be more progressive.
-The essay prompt is pretty shoddy. We're tied to an "American Dream" theme for most of the school year, so my supposed American dream has been chasing me for a semester-and-a-half.
-I definitely don't have time to change a topic, because we have been doing some intensive research for two weeks. I just finished scraping through biographies and am doing some extra reading-up this weekend, before I sit down to write a draft tomorrow.
posted by mmmleaf at 7:09 PM on March 28, 2009

First, good pick. I love Flannery O'Connor.

Second, forget the Bible. A Good Man is Hard to Find is not a roman à clef. There are definitely allusions to Christian ideas in her work, and they absolutely do enrich your understanding of her work, but that aspect is not the only possible focus of your paper. I suggest you think about it this way: you say that your assignment involves writing about O'Connor's American Dream. To begin to answer that question, you would start by looking at how she represents her American reality. What are people like, according to her? How are they flawed? What is it in her stories that sets the machinery of tragedy in motion? If you read her stories, do you come away with an idea of what she thinks is wrong with people, with how they treat each other?

To that end, “The Artificial Nigger” seems to be a particularly useful story for your purposes. It features a clash between rural characters and an urban setting. Are the characters capable of change? If not, what would make change possible for them?

O'Connor writes about people. You don't need the Bible to think about and write about how she sees people, how she believes they think, what she thinks is precious in them, what she thinks is tragic in them, what she fears in them, and what she loves in them.

You ask about "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." It's been a few years since I've read it, but from what I remember, perhaps you can think about the role that the automobile (as in institution) plays in the story. What effect does it have on Shiftlet, and how is it used as a metaphor, and what does that tell you about the way that Shiftlet sees the world?

I am not sure how long your paper is supposed to be, but my advice is not to attempt to talk about every single short story and novel that you read. It will be impossible to do them justice if you try to cover all of them. I suggest that you pick one or two and focus on them to illustrate your thesis.
posted by prefpara at 7:22 PM on March 28, 2009

Best answer: If you want to understand her better it would help to read as much of Mystery and Manners as you can. If you're really crunched for time, then just read the chapter "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction"--you'll have a muchmuchmuch easier time understanding her writing, particularly her short stories.

I'm not going to tell you what to think, because that's your assignment. Some things you might want to consider when reading her work:

-The cost of grace/redemption in O'Connor's stories
-The grotesque in general

Understanding her symbolism without the knowledge of Christianity that the average American has will be hard.

Focus on names.
posted by Autarky at 7:32 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's been a really long time since I ready any of her stories, so I can't help with you with specific suggestions or cite any particular passages that would help you. From what I recall 'through a glass darkly', though, is that she was big on Original Sin. If you don't have a firm grasp on that notion, get one. Then re-read one or two of her stories looking for a wounded or damaged character. Usually, they're not too hard to find (unlike those Good Men). Think of the wound or damage as a symbol of Original Sin--a dark stain on their soul which has manifested physically.
posted by aperture_priority at 7:32 PM on March 28, 2009

If you take prefpara's [good] suggestion, then "Good Country People" would also be a good story to read and think about.
posted by Autarky at 7:34 PM on March 28, 2009

Best answer: One of the big deals is that she was a Catholic in the South. That's not a great starting place - at least you're Christian, but you're an idolator and the Klan still isn't particularly happy with you living in town. (She also had a bad case of an autoimmune disease, which even now isn't fun to live with.)

What you might want to focus on is less on her writing itself - short version: it's about suffering - and possibly more on the conflict between Catholicism and non-Catholic American Christianity.

If you're a Californian Buddhist you're looking at unravelling two sets of symbols that are dwelling in her books. Not only Catholicism is more symbol-laden than American Protestantism/Calvinism (which is much more into the literalism of the Bible as Word [so reading the Bible is not what you want right now anyway,]) but the South has its own set of symbols to draw on.

Drop the symbolism side, examine the history of American religious conflict, and you're probably headed in a slightly less painful and more focused esssay.

Now, regarding suffering. She loves it. It's kind of a Catholic martrydom thing, but at the same time has this whole 'doing it yourself doesn't make it proper suffering for God' angle. There's, historically, Catholic martyrdom, but otoh, many forms of Christianity go in for the suffering. Some of the stuff her charactesr do are things reminiscent of forms of 'mortification of the flesh' of penitents - again historically Catholic but echoes can be found in most later forms of Christianity, especially in the South, where you have a lot of charismatic and theatrical manifestations of religion.

Oh, man, there's a lot there. That's why I'm saying let up on her works a bit. There's some major themes that recur, and you don't, not right now, need to dissect them more than that.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 7:34 PM on March 28, 2009

These two lectures on Academic Earth [previously] about Wise Blood will tune you in to many of O'Connor's thematic preoccupations.
posted by Rykey at 10:11 PM on March 28, 2009

mmmleaf, how long does your essay have to be? Your question makes it sound like you're preparing a 4th year university paper. You probably don't have to get this involved.

Flannery O'Connor had a very unique, very brief life. She is strongly identified with the American South and Catholicism. Southern themes in her writing included race (although subtly) and rural vs. urban life. Uniquely Catholic themes in her writing included the Catholic concept of Grace and suffering. She died at the age of 39 from lupus. Speaking as a total internet stranger, I think she's one of the best writers of the 20th century.

So you're about half as old as she ever was. Now write about what part of the US you live in. Write about your religious background and the part religion plays in your life. Do you find any personal connection to the issues of race, rural vs. urban life, Grace or suffering. How is America different now from the way it was in the American South in the first part of the 1900s?

I think you can easily get 10 or 15 pages from this. The hardest part of the paper, I think, will be coming up with what exactly was the American Dream of Flannery O'Connor. I'm not being facetious, I just think it's difficult to distill.

Bottom line: ease up. Don't overthink it.

Good luck.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 11:45 PM on March 28, 2009

Don't overthink it, I say, after using the word 'think' three times in three consecutive sentences.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 11:47 PM on March 28, 2009

Yeah, your paper is too big a topic for a week and a half and a passing familiarity with a few stories. And yet...

In A Good Man is Hard to Find, I think the truly simplest addressing of the American dream and O'Connor's interpretation of the role of God and of Grace in human ambition can be found in "A Stroke of Good Fortune," but just about every one of the stories touches on those points in one way or another. If you have her other stories, I'd also look at "Revelation," "The Lame Shall Enter First," or maybe "The Enduring Chill" or "Greenleaf." In Wise Blood, is there a connection between Hazel and the American dream? Where does God come in?

"Original sin" and the fallen nature of man was mentioned above.

"Grace," as is meant in a Christian/Catholic context. Understand what it has to do with recognition of one's original sinful nature and the meanness, weakness, smallness of one's self (or the failure to recognize them), repentance/penance (or the lack of it), and redemption (or damnation).

The abrupt descent of Grace, frequently through some kind of sudden epiphany ("epiphany" being another term you might want to think about). It shows up all over the place in her stories. So does God, or Grace, breaking through the wall of glass that separates the gross material world from the sacred when He (as she would put it) is least expected by we humans; He is not bound by the fences we place between the two realms, He can make use of either. (There is another term for this, analogous to "epiphany," that escapes my mind right now.) An encounter with Grace is not necessarily supposed to be pleasant or gentle. It can be the most absolute, transcendent demonstration of God's omnipotence. It can descend like a snowflake or like a sledgehammer.

The term "Christ-haunted," used by O'Connor to describe the American South. You might remember Jesus moving from "tree to tree" in the back of Hazel's mind in Wise Blood. In many Christian minds, God's presence and power are basic. They underlie everything. God even can and has become human (the "Incarnation") to insinuate Himself more deeply into our lives. God is the Borg of Perfect Love. You can decide what she might have meant to connote with "Christ-haunted," and how that might affect daily life or the American dream.

Violence. One of her novels is even called The Violent Bear It Away, a reference to Matthew 11:12. Who is using violence? To what end? What is the relevance of violence to American ambition? Again, who is using violence, and to what end? Maybe you see connections or divergences.

Catholic sacraments. Baptism, taking communion (the "Eucharist"), anointing the dying or very ill (part of the "last rites," sometimes called "extreme unction"), confession ("penance"), you can look up the rest of the list. Do any of the sacraments show up in her work, literally or symbolically?

Autarky's and prefpara's suggestions are excellent. By contrast, I have no education in literature or theology, so don't take anything I've said as gospel. (Heh.)
posted by jeeves at 3:55 AM on March 29, 2009

I'm a high school English teacher (at a Catholic school, natch) but I haven't read O'Connor in years so I'm not able to be of much help there; however, I think there are some weaknesses in the way you're researching your topic. You shouldn't just float around the internet, because then you're right that you'll just find all the Sparknotes style cheat sheets, but that doesn't mean there's nothing useful online. Does your school library offer access to any databases like Gale Literature Resource Center? If your school doesn't offer such resources, your public library surely will, and you can usually access them from home with your library card. That's where you'll find the kind of critical analysis you're looking for without having to buy any more books. Also, your time frame might not allow for this, but you can arrange to get books from other libraries through Interlibrary Loan (aka ILL); you should ask your public librarian about it. Even if it won't be useful for this paper, it might be helpful in the future.
posted by katie at 5:48 AM on March 29, 2009

Google Scholar is your friend. In your shoes, I'd toss Flannery O'Connor christian symbolism in there and peruse the results. Maybe replace christian with catholic.
Ultimately, though, I think you might be best served by really mulling over chesty_a_arthur's question.
posted by willpie at 6:01 AM on March 29, 2009

I've come to think of Flannery O'Connor as Evelyn Waugh with an incurable case of Southern Gothic, characterized by persistent fever-dreams reminiscent of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, followed by uncontrollable bouts of laughter verging on the hysterical.

These Catholics and their appetite for the grotesque! Still, if Mother Teresa had been blessed with O'Connor's immense talent for the absurd, she might truly have been a Saint rather than a monster who battened upon a spiritual intoxicant distilled from the suffering of others without doing much to alleviate that suffering or redeem its victims.

In looking around for resources about O'Connor to help answer your question, I found an essay that I think captures her approach wonderfully well:


...In the service of this anagogical function, O'Connor looks to make the concrete image do "double time," (Mystery and Manners 96), to "suggest both the world and eternity" (Mystery and Manners 111). In her comic grotesque, she seeks a single "image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye . . . but just as real" (Mystery and Manners 42). The anagogical vision sees "different levels of reality in one image or one situation" (Mystery and Manners 72). Neither a dogmatist nor a moralist, O'Connor was in the business of seeing and trying to make others see what is there but is invisible to the secular eye. How is it then, with this serious artistic agenda, that O'Connor chose comedy as her vehicle?

...Her animus against emotion amounted to a virtual campaign against sentimentality and sappy compassion. She was dogged by readers who wanted to feel compassion for her cripples and idiots while she wanted "intellectual and moral judgments . . . [to] have ascendancy over feeling" (Mystery and Manners 43). She levels her aim at pious readers and writers, people "afflicted with sensibility" (Mystery and Manners 84), who produce and reward "soggy, formless" literature (Mystery and Manners 31).

I'd read this essay and glean from it some of the Biblical references it talks about, but use it mainly as a touchstone (or a cloth monkey mother, if you will) to which you can return from forays into the literature devoted to O'Connor's symbolism per se.

It strikes me that Buddhism also makes use of laughter and the absurd as a kind of short circuit to spiritual enlightenment, but in a way very different from O'Connor and her Jesuit mentors, and if I were your teacher, I think I would be fascinated to read what you might consider the differences and similarities of these almost antipodean yet oddly convergent traditions to be.
posted by jamjam at 10:07 AM on March 29, 2009

Just a couple more thoughts--definitely narrow your topic. Less is more. Pick one story that strikes you most strongly, perhaps one that is striking but leaves you thinking WTF?

Next, look for an epiphany; a sudden realization or change in a character's understanding of the world. In O'Connor they often take the form of orientation/disorientation/reorientation. Character has firm beliefs, becomes confused, gains new understanding; often violence is involved. Think of the Grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find--she has an epiphany when she reaches out and says, "You're one of my own babies." (And then is shot dead by the Misfit.) How does that compare to your own belief system? Are there similar concepts in Buddhism? Satori, perhaps? Does the Misfit's statement that "there ain't no pleasure" tie into any Buddhist beliefs about the nature of reality and suffering?

Finally, what do you mean not that famous?!? ;-)
posted by fogovonslack at 11:40 AM on March 29, 2009

Response by poster: Yes, thank you all for your input. I am doing some serious mulling. I just got home from work and am a little flustered. The essay will be about 10-12 pages long; most of the content is based on semi-artistic pieces that involve writing poetry/prose/other such genres about important moments in MFOC's life, with some stuff in between. That said, I don't really need to do a lot of outright "here's what this and this means" but yes, I'm overthinking it. I just got frustrated reading everything, and not knowing what to think of all of it at times, and then having to write a paper and explain the author's American Dream. As if I know what's going through the woman's head. Or as if its obvious. It's weighty.

The paper isn't as complicated as I make it seem. I'm stuck and was hoping reading more stories and studying them a little more closely would strike a chord, and I'd make a connection with something else in her life, and have a marvelous place to start.

Anywho, I go to write a rough draft. The prompt is her American Dream, and then a bit of mine, so I was thinking maybe writing about her "nontraditional" American dream despite being steeped in a bit of a feminist, not a stereotypical Southern gal, writing rather 'grotesque' things, but living in a world still stuck in the Civil War, being a devout on and so forth. WELL I DON'T KNOW. I will go with it for now. I have a draft to start, so with that I thank ye all.
posted by mmmleaf at 10:17 PM on March 29, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you for the good answers; I rather liked how my paper turned out. not that anyone cares all too much but I ended up writing about personal concepts of suffering. I learned a lot about myself.
posted by mmmleaf at 11:38 PM on April 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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