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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Flannery O'Connor

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.

She 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.

O’Connor’s 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.

This 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.

Like 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).

In 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.

Severely 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.

O’Connor 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).

“A 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.

Beverly Lyon Clark
Wheaton College

In the Heath Anthology
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953)

Other Works
Wise Blood (1952)
The Violent Bear Is Away (1960)
Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969)
The Complete Stories (1971)
The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor (1979)
The Presence of Grace, and Other Book Reviews (1983)
Collected Works (1988)

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Books and Writers
An introductory article.

Flannery O'Connor: Mystery through Manners, Grace through Nature
A biographical and literary introduction to O'Connor.

Mary Flannery O'Connor -- Biographical Notes
Offers a succinct biography with a link to a good bibliography.

The Flannery O'Connor Collection
Information about Georgia College and State University's Flannery O'Connor Collection; some content is available on the web.

Secondary Sources