Friday, March 2, 2018

How to Appreciate Flannery O'Connor: 7 Tips for Catholic Readers

When I was a senior in high school, I opted out of taking AP English and instead took a course on short stories. I was assigned many stories to read during that semester, including "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. My father had spoken to me of Flannery O'Connor many times during my teen years, citing her faithfulness as a Catholic and her talent as a writer as reasons I might admire her. When I read this story, though, the thing that struck me the most was how completely funny it was. In that story, O'Connor demonstrates a deep understanding of the annoying quirks of small-town people and the way in which sour know-it-alls can sometimes receive their comeuppance simply as a result of their own behavior. I was a cynical seventeen-year-old, and the surprise humor of the story's twist ending really resonated with me.

Four years later, I was a reluctant English major at the end of my college career seeking a thesis topic. I read a few articles suggesting that it was perfectly possible - and indeed, even preferable - to read Flannery O'Connor without any regard for her faith. I was so irritated by this argument that it became the focus of my thesis. I read one of O'Connor's novels, Wise Blood, as well as several O'Connor short stories, and analyzed them to prove how central the Catholic faith was to O'Connor's writing, and how foolish it would be to view her work through any other lens. I was a terrible English major, completely opposed to literary analysis of any kind and frequently annoyed by my inability to see symbolism and other literary devices where others found them quite easily. But because of my own Catholic beliefs, I was able to see things in O'Connor's work that I couldn't see in other works, and I wrote the only academic piece of my college career that I enjoyed writing and that I thought was any good.

There are still many Flannery O'Connor stories I have never read, and there is much about her life I don't know, so I'm far from an expert, but I am enough of a fan that I feel qualified to make a case for reading her work. I know a lot of people find her difficult to stomach, or to understand, but I hate to see potential readers give up on her without finding something to appreciate in her sense of humor, her worldview, and her staunch Catholic faith. So, in the interest of helping O'Connor to find more fans, here are my seven tips for appreciating her work.

Don't try too hard to understand everything. 

I think the biggest favor you can do for yourself when you first  start reading O'Connor is to not read too much into anything. Most Catholics know that O'Connor was a faithful Catholic and that her stories are meant to reflect this worldview, and I think some have a tendency to scour every story looking for a straightforward moral or lesson. O'Connor's writing, however, is more nuanced than that. Her stories have a definite worldview founded in her own morality, but it is often subtle, couched in an entertaining story about the flaws of human nature. If you try to make sense of every word and seek to find the symbolism behind every character, event, and bit of dialogue, you will make yourself crazy, and you will completely miss the forest for the trees.

Don't expect to find perfect allegories. 

It's also a mistake to expect a Flannery O'Connor story to be a perfect allegory of any Biblical event or Catholic tradition. There are allusions to the Bible in many of her stories, but none so elaborate that they consume the whole work. Her stories hint at Biblical truth, and they have a Catholic point of view, but often nothing in the story is explicitly Biblical or Catholic, and seeking that kind of one-to-one correlation where everything in the story represents something else is an exercise in futility.

Sympathize with O'Connor, not with her characters.

O'Connor's stories are unusual in that you're not really meant to get inside her characters' heads and get to know them. Rather, your sympathy is meant to lie with the author and her point of view, and observing her characters' behavior is how you gain insight into what that point of view is. Each story is a meditation on bad human behavior, often perpetrated by people you would never want to spend time with in real life. They are not likable, and you're not meant to like them. Instead, they are meant to illustrate for you what O'Connor recognizes as the non-Catholic world's ills and the consequences of those problems. In these stories, you are very much laughing at these characters, not with them.

Look for moments of grace. 

Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal." It is true that there are a lot of disturbing, violent, and unsettling moments in O'Connor's works, and without the proper context, they can seem gratuitous. But O'Connor points out: "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work." These "moments of grace" that O'Connor gives to her characters are only as violent and disturbing as her characters are stubborn. And once you begin to look for the moment at which each of her characters loses everything and therefore must turn to the truth because it's all that's left, her work begins to make more sense. (Catholic Education Resource Center has a great piece about "mean" grace in O'Connor's work that is worth a read.)

Don't read one work in isolation.

O'Connor's work also makes more sense the more you read of it. One story on its own is only a small piece in the puzzle of the larger worldview O'Connor puts forth in her entire body of work. Read in collections, or even just in pairs, these stories begin to help each other make sense. If you've only read one Flannery O'Connor story and you didn't like it, it might be that you haven't had a sufficient taste of her writing to understand what it's all about. There are also some stories that are less straightforward than others and disliking one doesn't mean you will dislike them all. 

Consider O'Connor's intended audience. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that Flannery O'Connor was not really writing stories for the sole enjoyment of Catholics. Rather, she was primarily writing stories for an American South that she saw as enemy-occupied territory, filled with people who didn't really know Jesus Christ, and who often rejected the truths of Christianity for their own convenience. Her writing was an odd form of evangelization, filled with grotesque characters whose experiences were exaggerated in order to make unsympathetic readers understand the error of their ways. She used dark Southern gothic humor to tell her stories because she knew her audience would understand it, and that if she spoke to them in terms they understood, they might be more likely to listen to her message.

Read some of O'Connor's essays and letters.

Finally, if nothing else, I  recommend reading O'Connor's other writings, published in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, as well as in her Collected Works. Even if you have read none of her fiction, the Catholic reader can still find much to latch onto in her writings about being a Catholic writer in the Protestant south. I also find that once you get to know O'Connor as a person in her essays, speeches, and letters, you are better prepared to make sense of her fiction. And even if you don't come to appreciate her fiction, you can still gain an understanding of why so many Catholics feel a kinship to her.

Are you a Flannery O'Connor fan? What advice do you have for readers who struggle with her work? 

I'm linking up today with Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum for Seven Quick Takes. 


  1. Great suggestions! I agree with them all, especially #5 which is where I think most people get hung up. They read one story in a lit class and write O'Connor off altogether. It's so worth it to make the effort! I wish more people knew about Mystery and Manners as reading it really opens the door to her work.

  2. I LOVE this post! Especially because it's Lent, and I think Lent is a particularly appropriate time to read O'Connor (because her works are such a good reflection on sin and grace). I definitely agree that her stuff should not be read in isolation. Echoing Kelly, Mystery and Manners is fantastic, and I WISH we would have read it in my undergraduate writing courses (I went to a Catholic college, so this would have been perfect). I'm currently working my way through The Habit of Being right now, and it's making me love Flannery O'Connor even more :) I think I've read about a third of her collected stories ("Parker's Back" is my favorite, though there are so many of them I enjoy). And my goal is to finish those and read one of her actual novels this fall.