Grotesque, Catholic, Southern—each of these labels
has been affixed to Flannery O’Connor’s writing, yet none fully captures its
scope. For her work is all of these and more.
did often make use of the grotesque, for instance, but its use was not, as one
critic claimed, gratuitous. She wanted to push the reader to experience a sense
of something beyond the ordinary, a sense of the mystery of life. She wanted to
shock the reader into recognizing the distortions of modern life that we have
come to consider natural: “for the almost-blind you draw large and startling
figures,” she has noted in an essay.
writing was also fueled by her Roman Catholic beliefs. The something beyond the
ordinary that she wanted the reader to experience, starkly, unsentimentally,
was a sense of the sacred. But the reader of her fiction doesn’t need to be
Catholic to appreciate the extraordinary, to experience the mystery of life.
Catholicism probably contributed to O’Connor’s sense of living in a fallen
world. And she also probably absorbed such a sense of having fallen from past
grandeur by growing up white in the post–Civil War South. Yet her characters
are not so much fallen aristocrats as poor or middle-class whites, who often
don’t realize what their lives are lacking. Her portrayal of these characters,
their thoughts, their speech, is true, funny, powerful—and devastating.
most of her characters, Mary Flannery O’Connor grew up in the South—in Georgia.
The only child of Edward Francis O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor, she lived
in Savannah her first thirteen years. Then her father was diagnosed as having
disseminated lupus erythematosis, a disease of the immune system, a disease so
debilitating that he could not continue his real-estate work. The family moved
to Milledgeville, to the house where O’Connor’s mother had grown up, a house
that had been the governor’s mansion when Milledgeville was the capital of
Georgia a century before. O’Connor’s father died three years later. The
following year, when O’Connor was seventeen, she entered Georgia State College
for Women, now Georgia College. There she majored in social science (she would
later satirize social scientists mercilessly) and published cartoons in the
school newspaper (since The New Yorker wouldn’t publish them).
1945 O’Connor left Georgia to study creative writing at the Writers’ Workshop
of the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), where she wrote a
series of short stories and earned a master’s degree in fine arts. She then
embarked on her first novel, working on it at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in
upstate New York, in an apartment in New York City, and while boarding with
friends in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Heading home for Christmas in 1950,
O’Connor suffered an attack of lupus, the disease that had killed her father.
weakened—she was too weak to climb stairs—O’Connor, with her mother and uncle,
moved to the family farm near Milledgeville. Cortisone drugs kept the lupus
largely under control but weakened O’Connor’s bones. During the next thirteen
years she hobbled about with a cane or crutches, raised peafowl, and wrote for
two or three hours a day. Sometimes she was well enough to travel within or
beyond Georgia to give a speech or a reading or to accept an honorary degree;
once she even traveled as far as Lourdes and Rome. But mostly she lived quietly
on the farm—until surgery in February 1964 reactivated the lupus; she died in
August, at the age of 39.
completed two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, but is better
remembered for her two volumes of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and
the posthumous Everything That Rises Must Converge. Several other volumes have
been published since her death: a complete collection of stories and also
collections of essays (Mystery and Manners), letters (including The Habit of
Being), and book reviews (including The Presence of Grace).
Good Man Is Hard to Find” is typical of many of O’Connor’s stories, with its
jolting disruption of the mundane, its satire, its toughness. Yet even more
than O’Connor’s other work, this story provokes extreme reactions: it is funny
but also horrifying.