A Sense of Mystery: The Writing and Style of Flannery O'Connor
"The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it was approached." Flannery O'Connor, Total Effect and the Eighth Grade
As one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated American authors of the modern era, Flannery O'Connors works have, for the most part, been forgotten. The reasons for this are many. Her writing is noted for its Gothic-style depictions of an archaic culture, strange to our modern minds in its obscure Southern ways. Even during her short life, she was far from prolific, producing two novels and thirty-two short stories. But perhaps the most understandable reason that Flannery O'Connor's works lie collecting dust on the shelves of a mere few libraries is her startling, unflinching communication of the "grotesqueness" in us all, coupled with the need for grace.
On March 25, 1925, Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia to Edward and Regina O'Connor. In 1938 the family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, where her father died three years later from systemic lupus, the disease that would eventually take her own life. During her high school years, she attended the Peabody Laboratory School and after attended its affiliate college, Georgia State College for Women (now called Georgia College and State University). After receiving her degree there in Social Studies, she then moved on to the University of Iowa for a degree in Creative Writing. In 1946 her first short story, The Geranium, was published, marking the beginning of her professional writing career.
After her graduation from college, she lived in different areas of the United States as part of the literary community. In 1951, she returned to her mother's dairy farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville after being diagnosed with lupus. She remained there the rest of her life, writing both of her novels, Wise Blood (1952), and The Violent Bear it Away (1960), as well as many of her short stories. She was a prolific correspondent, as well as traveling to give many lectures on writing until succumbing to lupus in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine.
It is worthwhile to note that Flannery O'Connor was a devout Catholic, and as such, her writings has many subtle undertones (and occasionally overtones) of her religious convictions. However, it never slips into the maudlin sentimentality that has marked so-called "Christian" literature for decades. On the contrary, her religious convictions led her to believe that "what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God," and therefore her art had to do all humanly possible to emulate every aspect of His character. This belief is sometimes manifested in ways that would be offensive to most Christians today; her characters wallow in their depravity, thinking themselves to be "good" people until they are brought to the startling reality of their own horror. Almost always, with the moment of self-awareness, when they have no reason to hope, they are offered the grace of God, whether they wish to take it or not. But some would find her descriptions of sin offensive (possibly because they see themselves in it), and her less than tender conclusions can be revolting in a way that could make you turn away in disgust.
She always tried to maintain a sense of what she called "mystery" in her writings, saying that "The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula."
Mystery and Manners
Mystery and Manners is a collection of several of O'Connor's essays and lectures given on writing and reading, compiled and edited by her close friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Appropriately, they begin the book with a non-fiction essay entitled "King of the Birds," a descriptive work about the peacocks she raised on her mother's small farm that provided inspiration, amusement, and imagery that found its way into her writing. The other chapters are devoted to her thoughts on writing and being a writer, delivered with humor, wisdom, and a great deal of wit.
On the whole, the book is something that anyone who reads literature even somewhat seriously will enjoy, even if they have no aspirations of being a writer. There are a few lectures that seem inapplicable to the majority, such as "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction", or "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South". But even these are full of bits of truth that all could learn from, such as "Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can't do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such."
In this compilation, every aspect of the writer's craft and art is covered, including character development, style, and influences on the writer, plus much more. If you'll allow me, here are a few excerpts to give you an idea of the book's general feel:
On characters, their development and use: "Most [stories] don't go inside a character, don't reveal very much of the character. I don't mean that they don't enter the character's mind, but they simply don't show that he has a personality... this goes back partly to speech. These characters have no distinctive speech to reveal themselves with; and sometimes they have no really distinctive features. You feel in the end that no personality is revealed because no personality is there... If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don't have to know what before you begin. In fact it may be better if you don't know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don't probably nobody else will."
"When you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action. The writer's moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense."
On giving meaning and purpose to your stories: "I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."
On the creation of art: "All I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less."
Here is a short list of Flannery O'Connor's short stories that are considered her best:
- A Good Man is Hard to Find
- The Life You Save May Be Your Own
- The Enduring Chill (also my personal favorite)
If you try to read one of her stories and find yourself bogged down in confusion or hating every one of the characters, don't give up! Some of it is the Southern cadence to the dialogue; it can be difficult to understand language so different than our own in its usage, even if it is the same words. Also, her style is somewhat stark and shocking, so don't begin by thinking that you will end with warm feelings of satisfaction. At the end of her novel, The Violent Bear it Away, I came away feeling revolted and sickened by the wickedness of some of the circumstances. But I was also challenged by the reflections of myself I saw in the protagonist Tarwater, with his willful foolishness. In retrospect, I'm grateful that I didn't throw the book down in horror because it truly has been influential in the way I view literature and life. Even if her characters seem stiff and unnatural at the beginning, you quickly become aware of their innate humanity, and the more you read them the more you will understand the nuances of each.
In conclusion, I would just like to say happy reading, or writing, or both if she so inspires you! I do hope that this information was useful and that you will soon come to appreciate the works and legacy of Flannery O'Connor as much as they deserve.