Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Everything That Rises Must Converge

by Flannery O'Connor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 269 pp., $4.95

On and off these last months I have been fussing in my mind with Miss O’Connor’s stories, unable to reach that certainty of judgment which, we all know, is the established trade mark of the modern critic. The skill and ambition of these stories are not lost upon me, yet I hesitate fully to join in the kind of praise they have won from respected critics.

At first I feared my distance from Miss O’Connor’s religious beliefs might be corrupting my judgment, but while one cannot, in the nature of things, offer guarantees, the trouble does not seem to reside in the famous “problem of belief.” Miss O’Connor was a serious Catholic, and what she called “the Catholic sacramental view of life” is certainly a controlling force in her stories. But it is not the only nor always the dominant one, since she could bring into play resources of worldliness such as one might find in the work of a good many sophisticated modern writers. Miss O’Connor’s religious convictions certainly operate throughout most of her stories, but at so deep a level, as so much more than mere subject matter of fixed point of view, that the skeptical reader is spared the problem of an explicit confrontation with “the Catholic sacramental view of life.” Except for an occasional phrase, which serves partly as a rhetorical signal that more than ordinary verisimilitude is at stake, there are no unavoidable pressures to consider these stories in a strictly religious context. They stand securely on their own, as renderings and criticisms of human experience.

And as such, they merit a considerable respect. The writing is firm, economical, complex: we are engaged with an intelligence, not merely a talent. Miss O’Connor has a precise ear for rural colloquialism and lower-class mangling of speech; she can be slyly amusing in regard to the genteel segments of the Southern middle class, partly because she knows them with an assurance beyond sentiment or hatred. She has brought under control that addiction to Gothic hi-jinks which to my taste, marred her early work (though it won her the applause of critics for whom any mode of representation they take to be anti-realistic is a token of daring and virtue). Touches of Gothic survive in these late stories, but no longer in a programmatic or obsessional way, and no longer on the assumption that to proclaim the wonders of the strange is to escape the determined limits of familiar life. What these touches of Gothic now do is to provide a shock in the otherwise even flow of narrative, thereby raising its pitch and tensing its movement.

What then is wrong? For most of Miss O’Connor’s readers, nothing at all. For this reviewer, a tricky problem in method and tone, about which there is no need to pretend certainty.

Miss O’Connor’s title story has been much admired, and with reason. An aging Confederate lady, fat, rather stupid and crazed with fantasies of status, keeps battling with her emancipated son…

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