Mary Flannery O'Connor (March 25, 1925 August 3, 1964) lived in rural Georgia (born in Savannah, moved to Milledgeville at the age of 15) in the middle of the 20th century and wrote two collections of extraordinarily realistic short stories and two novels in the course of her very short life (she died in 1964 at the age of 39). From the mindset of her deep Catholic faith; her intimate and perceptive knowledge of the culture, mores, and personalities of the Deep South; and shaded by her long battle with lupus (which eventually killed her), she wove tales replete with deeply dysfunctional, highly flawed, and bizarre characters, many adhering to an unconventional or twisted form of fundamentalist Christianity. And many who died realistic deaths.
Though she was quite the orthodox and theologically sound Catholic believer, and a "fish out of water" in the mostly Protestant (and what she called "Christ-haunted") South, her cultish preachers, itinerant evangelists, and lay people were, in her mind, closer to the unadulterated core of the Christian faith than most "institutional" believers. This has often proved befuddling to more secular readers who tend to see these people as mere buffoons in contrast to the more level-headed liberal and irreligious characters, only to learn that, in O'Connor's mind, the "freaks" were the "heroes."
Though her stories were full of symbolism and metaphor, O'Connor had little patience for those who tried to over-analyze what she saw as the clear message of her work. She was once asked, about her short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "what is the meaning of the Misfit's hat?" The question both confused and amused her. "To put on his head," she replied.
Despite her relatively small body of work, O'Connor is regarded as one of the most influential and talented American writers of the mid-20th Century.
Works by Flannery O'Connor with their own pages:
Other works by Flannery O'Connor contain examples of:
- Affably Evil: The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Even though he kills off the entire family of main characters by the end of the story, he is quite polite, apologizing to the Grandmother for his lack of proper attire.
- Atrocious Alias: Hulga (née Joy) in "Good Country People" intentionally chooses the ugliest name she can think of as an act of rebellion against her positive thinking mother.
- Break the Haughty: This is the central trope of nearly every single O'Connor story and novel, and—in her theology—one of God's central missions concerning us. It would be easier to list her works that don't open with a proud, absurdly self-concerned protagonist, and that don't end with the same protagonist broken, pitiful, and ridiculous, maybe even dying or dead.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Her work suggests that God's grace is vital to human nature and the human soul, but can also be horrifying from a human perspective, even dangerous to one's sanity. It draws on implications in Judeo-Christian scripture (fully orthodox implications, moreover) that can make God seem almost Lovecraftian.
- Creepy Child: Eight-year-old Mary Fortune in "A View of the Woods." She's unnervingly similar to her morally bankrupt grandfather in looks and personality. The grandfather dotes on her because he believes she has his business acumen and because he can use their relationship to manipulate Mary's family. But that doesn't explain why Mary denies that her father beats her and threatens to kill anyone who tries. She also puts up a decent fight against her grandfather when he does try to beat her, and he kills her in a fit of rage. But she makes good her word when he dies of a massive heart attack as a result.
- Dark and Troubled Past: The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
- Death of a Child:
- Though "offscreen," this occurs in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Three times.
- "A View of the Woods".
- "The Lame Shall Enter First".
- Deep South: Only one of O'Connor's stories takes place outside the South, and the main characters of that one are transplanted Southerners anyway.
- Dirty Old Man: George Poker Sash in "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" is one of these, being overfond of the 'beautiful guls' who'd fawned over him at the movie premiere he'd attended years earlier.
- Dumb Is Good: "Everything That Rises Must Converge" deals with a conflict between an "enlightened" young man and his more down-to-earth mother. The young man turns out to be an infantile hypocrite who justifies his pettiness with his "education." Some values dissonance may come into play, too, since the relatively sympathetic mother happens to be pretty blatantly racist although the mother's racism is not downplayed or excused, and readers can understand why her son finds her difficult to deal with.
- "The Enduring Chill" is similar, but Asbury is a fairly obvious poser even within his own social circle and his mother's reactionary attitudes are much less severe. Both are actually a lot more sympathetic than their counterparts in "Everything That Rises Must Converge".
- Enfant Terrible: There are so many dreadful little monsters in her short stories. Steal from you? check. Burn down your farm? check. Talk your son into hanging himself? Brrr.....check.
- Farmer's Daughter: She tends to pop up in Flannery O'Connor's stories, except she's usually damaged in some way, and usually both physically and emotionally.
- Joy Hopewell from "Good Country People" lost a leg in a hunting accident and she has a bad eye-sight. She sees herself as a crippled woman and changed her name to Hulga because it sounds so very ugly. One Travelling Agent takes an advantage of her sexually, though it was voluntary from her side. He collects prosthetics from his lovers/victims and he takes Hulga's leg.
- The girl in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is sweet, blue-eyed and blonde, but she's also mentally handicapped and she can't talk, she just makes weird, realistic noises. Her older mother tries to marry her off to a guy who came to their farm and was hired as a temporary worker.
- Fat Bastard: In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Bobby Lee (one of The Misfit's two henchmen). Really though, it could be applied to Bailey and John Wesley as well.
- Hollywood Atheist:
- The Misfit, from "A Good Man is Hard to Find", is a dangerous, nihilistic atheist. He decided at an early age that if Jesus never died on the cross, then there's no reason to do anything at all but enjoy himself the only way he knew how: killing. The story may have been a reaction to the rise of existentialism in literature.
- "Good Country People" features the protagonist as a grumpy atheist, who mainly does it to annoy people, attempting to "convert" (read: seduce, then crush his beliefs) a seemingly wholesome Southern boy who's got the fire of Jesus in him, selling Bibles for a living. It turns out the Southern boy is much, much more atheistic than her, and is a nihilist who steals disabled peoples' prosthetics For the Evulz. Like the protagonist's fake leg.
- "The Lame Shall Enter First" features a more positive, humanistic atheist faced with a cloven-footed character who claims to be a Satanist. The Satanist comes across as the wiser of the two: at least he knows how the battle lines are drawn.
- A (kind of) positive portrayal of an atheist (sort of) is the title character from Parker's Back, although he's more agnostic, being vaguely spiritual but not believing in gods and basically treating tattoos as his religion. He's married to a shrewish hateful Christian woman who hates things that aren't Christian and if she hates something it isn't Christian. Also, she falls into heresy. It isn't clear if it's Arianism (denying that Jesus is fully God) or Docetism (denying that He is fully human), but one or the other.
- Given O'Connor's unapologetic Roman Catholicism, it's plausible that Parker's wife's downfall also has to do with her iconoclasm, given the fact that she reacted so rabidly to the Byzantine Christ image on Parker's back, as said image is a quintessential Christian icon.
- Impoverished Patrician: The mother and son in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" live in the Southern U.S. in the '60s. They are poor, but she grew up rich in a mansion full of black servants. She tells her son that what matters is who your family is. He's a liberal intellectual who rebels against her. (O'Connor is full of contempt for both of them.)
- Incurable Cough of Death: Subverted in "The Enduring Chill". Joke's on you, Asbury.
- Intentionally Awkward Title: The Artificial Nigger.
- It's All About Me: Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is a hypocritical version of this. His concern for equal rights is purely about getting back at his mother.
- Karma Houdini: In "A Good Man Is Hard To Find", The Misfit murders a family in cold blood with no consequences whatsoever (physically, anyway).
- Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" fancies himself to be well-educated, but has a narrow, closed-off view of the world that prevents him from doing anything with that education.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Mrs May in "Greenleaf" is annoyed by her neighbour's bull and when it escapes onto her property, she orders its owner to kill it. He doesn't kill it, and much to Mrs May's surprise, it gores her to death.
- Manchild: Julian in "Everything That Rises Must Convierge" and Asbury in "The Enduring Chill." Despite their education, they seem petulant and childishly dependent on the mothers they resent.
- Meaningful Echo: A subtle example occurs in "The Lame Shall Enter First." Sheppard's teenage ward Rufus is arrested and openly resents his benefactor's attempts to "save" him, but Sheppard justifies himself by saying "I did more for him than I did for my own son." When Rufus is gone, Sheppard repeats the sentence back to himself, realizing that he actually neglected his son Norton, and goes to console the child. It's too late.
- Meaningful Name: In "Good Country People", guess what traveling bible salesman Manley Pointer's ulterior motive is?
- In "Revelation," the narcissistic protagonist is brought to her senses when she is slapped by a character named Mary Grace, and thereby comes to realize her own sinfulness.
- The protagonist of the novel Wise Blood is named Hazel Motes, likely referencing the King James Version translation of Matthew 7:3, in which Christ says, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" The relevance of this verse is that it ties into the recurring theme of blindness vs. vision; for example, the blind Preacher Man Asa Hawks later turns out to have been faking his blindness the whole time, and at the end of the story, Hazel actually blinds himself and then begins doing penance for his sins. Hazel is also referred to by the nickname "Haze", which similarly suggests the "haziness" of his vision.
- My Beloved Smother: Asbury's mother in "The Enduring Chill": so much so that he is disappointed when he learns that he is not mortally ill but will live the rest of his life as a semi-invalid.
- N-Word Privileges: Prolific use of the n-word in dialogue, but as a realistic depiction (in every sense of the word) of the vernacular of the era and region. Even makes the title of one of her short stories ("The Artificial Nigger").
- Racist Grandma: Played very seriously in "Everything That Rises Must Converge", which centers around a young man who recently graduated college taking his elderly old-fashioned mother on a bus ride to the YMCA. While on the bus, the old woman condescendingly offers a little black boy a penny, and gets struck with a heavy purse and insulted by the boy's mother. After getting off the bus, the woman's son confronts her about her racism and she is implied to have a stroke in response.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: As Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away will testify.
- Redemption Equals Death: In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the grandmother in a genuine moment of kindness calls the Misfit one of her own children and touches him on the shoulder. He immediately shoots her in the chest three times.
- Right-Hand Cat: Pitty Sing, the grandmother's cat, becomes this to the Misfit at the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
- Proper Lady: Subverted in several stories. A number of middle class matrons such as Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation" and the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" sees themselves as this, but they are clearly smug and hypocritical.
- Serial Killer: The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find".
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Averted in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find". The family introduced at the beginning of the story is all dead by the end of it, but it's implied that the grandmother at least went to her death in a state of grace, so from the religious point of view, the pointlessness implied by this trope is entirely averted.
- Somebody Doesn't Love Raymond: In "Revelation", smug Ruby Turpin is the well-bred wife of a successful farmer and highly respected by her town and church; she seldom lets anyone forget how blessed by God she is. Everyone goes along with this and with her constant passing judgments until a girl from a white-trash background insults Mrs. Turpin and hurls her philosophy book at her. (It's implied the girl is mentally disturbed.) Shaken, the older woman returns home, refusing any consolation, shouting at her black farm help who keep saying they admire her. Ultimately the girl's words leave Mrs. Turpin severely upset, recoiling at the unpleasant truths she sees about herself and railing at God.
- Southern Gothic: O'Connor is probably the most famous posterchild for the genre after William Faulkner, though she herself sometimes expressed resentment that her work was viewed as "grotesque." (See, for instance, the page quote.)
- Spoiled Brat: John Wesley and June Starr in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." (Just try to think of two more rude or hateful children in literature.)
- Talking Your Way Out: How the grandmother tries to save herself in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
- What the Hell, Hero?: In "The Lame Shall Enter First", the widowed main character, a cold, unsympathetic, rationalist Hypocrite, brings a charismatic, teenaged, club-footed tearaway Soul Saver into his own home, and treats the kid with more respect than he treats his own numb-with-grief son. Big mistake, pal. The kid with the club foot persuades the protagonist's son to join mommy in heaven.