Thoughts on O'Connor's Stories
Any individual who works with the fiction of Flannery O'Connor for any length of time cannot help but be impressed by the high degree of mastery she displays in her production of what must ultimately be considered a type of religious propaganda. In story after story, she brings her characters to a moment when it is no longer possible for them to continue in their accustomed manner. The proud are repeatedly humbled, the ignorant are repeatedly enlightened, the wise are repeatedly shown that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God," and the materialists are repeatedly forced to recognize that the treasures of this world are theirs to possess for a short time only. Most frequently, as we have seen in the stories, the characters gain their new awareness as a result of having undergone an epiphanal experience.
In many of the stories, the epiphanal moment is accompanied by violence and destruction. In ten of the nineteen stories which appear in her two short-story collections, the death of one or more of the characters is used to produce the epiphany. This reinforces O'Connor's comment, "I'm a born Catholic and death has always been a brother to my imagination. I can't imagine a story that doesn't properly end in it or in its foreshadowings." In the remaining stories, the character's epiphany is produced by the destruction of a beloved possession or by the rending of an intellectual veil which has protected the character from the knowledge of his true ignorance.
In none of the stories, however, is the violence used as anything but a logical extension of the action of the story. Never is it used for its own sake. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, is the degree of restraint which O'Connor uses in presenting scenes of violence which, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been capitalized on for mere shock effect.
For example, the death of the grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is handled in a short statement: ". . . and [he] shot her three times through the chest." The emphasis is immediately shifted then to the effect of the shooting, which is emblematically used to portray her probable salvation. This same tendency to underplay the violence and to accentuate the positive result of the violence on the character is illustrated in the goring to death of Mrs. May in the story "Greenleaf." The charging bull "buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression had changed," and she is left at the end of the story appearing "to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal's ear." This tendency to rely upon the intellectual rather than on the emotional involvement of the reader in the character's epiphanal moment is characteristic of O'Connor's fiction in general.
O'Connor's tendency to repeat her basic themes with variations from story to story eliminates the possibility that anyone who is familiar with a number of her works is apt to misread them even though she frequently relies on a rather personal system of symbolism and color imagery to conceal them from the casual reader. That she does so is not unusual given her view of literature. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she argues "that for the fiction writer himself, symbols are something he uses as a matter of course." She goes on to argue that they have an essential place in the literal level of the story but that they also lead the reader to greater depths of meaning: "The fact that these meanings are there makes the book significant. The reader may not see them but they have their effect on him nonetheless. This is the way the modern novelist sinks, or hides, his theme."
O'Connor's tendency to conceal or "sink" her major themes may, in part, be explained by the attitude which she takes toward her audience. It is this same attitude which may well explain her tendency to deal with grotesque figures. In "The Fiction Writer & His Country," she comments, "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these distortions appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural." She also suggests that an audience which holds views in harmony with those of the author will not need to be violently awakened, but if the audience does not hold similar views, "you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
Those readers and critics who see the grotesqueness of a Shiftlet but fail to see in that character a tendency common to all who would bilk the widowed and betray the innocent for the attainment of their own materialistic ends, or look with amazement at a Manley Pointer and choose to ignore all those who likewise pretend to beliefs and lifestyles that are not their own in order that they may pursue their own particular fetishes, provide ample evidence to justify O'Connor's opinion that modern man has generally lost the ability to recognize the perversions which are so much a part of modern society. Thus, when faced with a reminder of his condition, he finds it intolerable. As she notes, "it is only in these centuries when we are afflicted with the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature by its own efforts that the freak in fiction is so disturbing." This is the case, she argues, "because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state. The only time he should be disturbing to us is when he is held up as a whole man." She goes on to comment, "That this happens frequently, I cannot deny, but . . . it indicates a disease, not simply in the novelist but in the society that has given him his values."
O'Connor's concern with the creation of a Christian fiction leads her to recognize that her basic problem will be "trying to get the Christian vision across to an audience to whom it is meaningless." She is aware, however, that she cannot write for a select few. Her insistence that a work of literature must have "value on the dramatic level, the level of truth recognizable by anybody," has made it possible for her to produce a body of literature which contains some stories capable of standing with the best literature written during her era.
In her best stories, then, O'Connor's characters are presented with such fidelity that they become — even when they act in the most outrageous of manners — thoroughly believable. Their actions are those which one would expect from them. Part of her success must be attributed to her ability to select those details and environments which are appropriate to each character. Part, at least, must be attributed to her fine ear for natural dialogue and to her ability to sketch a character with a few deft strokes. In the majority of her stories, the reader is left with the impression that each character — even if one omits the religious aspect of the story — receives exactly what he deserves. The inclusion of the dogma involved provides, as she herself argues, an added dimension to the stories. Thus, O'Connor's greatest achievement as a writer is her ability to arrive at a blend of the religious and the secular in her stories without making apparent, too frequently, the creaking of the machinery from which the God descends.