The Parables of Flannery O’Connor

Spiritual Writings

by Flannery O'Connor, edited by Robert Ellsberg, with an introduction by Richard Giannone
Orbis, 173 pp., $15.00 (paper)
Estate of Joseph De Casseres/
Flannery O’Connor at Andalusia, her family’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, 1964; photograph by Joseph De Casseres

Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable…. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

—Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.

—Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”

Short stories, for all the dazzling diversity of the genre, are of two general types: those that yield their meanings subtly, quietly, and are as nuanced and delicate and without melodrama as the unfolding of miniature blossoms in Japanese chrysanthemum tea, and those that explode in the reader’s face. Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) came of age in a time when subtlety and “atmosphere” in short stories were fashionable—as in the finely wrought, understated stories of such classic predecessors as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce, and such American contemporaries as Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, and Jean Stafford.

But O’Connor’s plainspoken, blunt, comic-cartoonish, and flagrantly melodramatic short stories were anything but fashionable. The novelty of her “acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages”—as Brad Gooch puts it in his new life of O’Connor—lay in their frontal assault upon the reader’s sensibility: these were not refined New Yorker stories of the era in which nothing happens except inside characters’ minds, but stories in which something happens of irreversible magnitude, often death by violent means.

An escaped convict called the Misfit offhandedly slaughters a Southern family in back-country Georgia (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”). A conniving old woman marries off her retarded daughter to a sinister one-armed tramp named Shiftlet, who immediately abandons the girl and drives off with the old woman’s car (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”). An embittered young woman, crippled by the loss of a leg (in a “hunting accident” when she was ten), who has changed her name from Joy to Hulga, is seduced by a hypocritical young Bible salesman who steals her wooden leg (“Good Country People”). Boy arsonists set fire to a wooded property out of pure meanness, like latter-day prophets “dancing in the fiery furnace” (“A Circle in the Fire”). A widowed property owner who imagines herself superior to her tenant farmers is gored to death by their runaway bull (“Greenleaf”). A mentally disturbed girl reading a textbook called Human Development in a doctor’s waiting room suddenly throws the book at the head of a garrulous middle-class woman who holds herself above “poor-white trash” (“Revelation”).

In the novella-length Wise Blood

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