In the twenty-first century, Flannery O’Connor seems to have more of a presence in Catholic conversation, though she’s been a prominent figure in the American literary canon for quite some time. Yet, whenever I mention her to fellow readerly Catholics, it seems many have still not read her work. The descriptions of her fiction as dark, Southern-gothic, grotesque, and confounding seem to be a turn-off.
I was introduced to O’Connor by my brother-in-law many years ago in the midst of the resurgence of all things Tolkien thanks to The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Although I greatly appreciated Tolkien’s work, my reading tastes tended to be a bit…darker. My brother-in-law suggested that I might enjoy O’Connor.
O’Connor’s Characters are Really
Many essays I’ve read about O’Connor mention the initial shock, repulsion, and bewilderment often experienced after digesting one of her stories. True, her stories are not preferred by those used to tidy, mainstream, romantic reading. However, O’Connor’s work is essential reading for modern Catholics facing a world that itself has become quite grotesque and hostile to faith. O’Connor seemed to anticipate the post-Christian era we are in, and her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, imparts a unique perspective that is valuable for the modern faithful to understand.
First, let’s get this word, which is the most common description of O’Connor’s work, out of the way…“grotesque.” Many associate the word “grotesque” with horror or monstrosity, but these qualities are not always present in the grotesque. The grotesque is about contradictions. We are reading about people and events that are both ugly and beautiful, horrifying and funny, dynamic and wicked. A grotesque character is both saint and sinner, an irritant and a salve, a monster and a hero.
She’s Writing About Us
O’Connor is a master with these kinds of characters and situations. She introduces us to a charming serial killer, a girl who sees the divine in a hermaphrodite, a little boy whose moment of grace comes through drowning, a predatory Bible salesman, and a woman who’d rather be terminally ill than pregnant, to name a few.
These characters are strange, but don’t they also seem familiar? She is writing about us. When we read O’Connor, we see our own warped, crippled, contradictory selves. We see the ways we rise and fall, and O’Connor emphasizes that sometimes in order to rise, we must fall.
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Christ Meets Us Here
This is where Christ meets us in O’Connor’s stories, for He descended and fell to death on a Cross in order to rise for our redemption. This great contradiction is reflected in every image, every character, and ever story O’Connor crafts, even if Christ is not overtly mentioned.
She doesn’t hold back. O’Connor is honest. Brutally so. The shocking, strange, violent images are there for a reason—to jolt us out of our modern complacency. O’Connor makes us uncomfortable because so much of what impedes grace from working in our lives comes from being too comfortable. O’Connor commands our attention, and once she has it, she reveals the human condition exactly as it is: flawed, earnest, convicted, weak, inspired, burdened, cruel, tender, hardened, and vulnerable. Sometimes all in one person.
Opportunities for Redemption
In O’Connor’s stories, no one is perfect. But then again, no one is a lost cause either. Everyone has the opportunity to grab a hold of grace. Unfortunately, many opt to let grace pass them by to their own peril.
Yet O’Connor is not preachy or judgmental in her writing. She gives her readers an image, a character, a moment, a choice, and either redemption or damnation. Then, she leaves us to ourselves. We are left pondering, wondering what the heck we just read, and reflecting on our own warped—yet redeemed—selves.
How to Start Reading Flannery O’Connor
To get started with O’Connor, I recommend Mystery and Manners. Here we see O’Connor’s astonishing intellect as she explains her perspective as a Southern Catholic writer and warns against the pitfalls of sentimentality and self-righteousness in fiction. She also offers a compelling explanation on how readers, writers, and Christians need to adjust their lenses in order to truly see the world as it is in order to create honest, effective, true art.
Her anthology A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a good start for her fictional work, particularly the short story of the same title. I also highly recommend listening to her work on Audible. I recently downloaded A Good Man Is Hard to Find in order to introduce O’Connor to my husband during our longer car rides, and the reading by Marguerite Gavin is fantastic. Bronson Pinchot also gives a worthy reading of her novel Wise Blood. I’ve come to believe that O’Connor’s stories are only enhanced when heard rather than just silently read, mainly to enjoy the rhythm of her writing and the cadence and drawls of her characters.
And, for a glimpse into the makings of a woman striving to love her Lord, desperate to be a good writer, and wary of the suffering she suspects would lead her to holiness (she would later be diagnosed with lupus, which she would endure and later succumb to at the age of thirty-nine), then pick up A Prayer Journal. This intimate work moves me as much as any of her fiction and reveals the makings of a modern-day literary saint.
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Jacqueline Hollcraft lives in central California with her husband Patrick and their seven vibrant children. She is a lecturer in the English department at Stanislaus State, is an editor and contributor for The Daughters of Mary Blog, and has also written about Flannery O’Connor for Seeds of Truth Ministries, which was founded by her brother-in-law. In her free time, she enjoys serving in hospital ministry with her husband, hiking (especially in Yosemite), drinking craft beer, and reading or watching murder mysteries.