|Born:||March 25, 1925
|Died:||August 3, 1964
|Occupation(s):||Novelist, short story writer|
|Literary genre:||Southern Gothic|
|Magnum opus:||Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, short stories|
Mary Flannery O'Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) was an American author, born in Savannah, Georgia. She is generally seen as an example of a style of writing known as "Southern Gothic." Southern Gothic is a subgenre of the Gothic writing style, unique to American literature. Like its parent genre, it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Unlike its predecessor, it uses these tools not for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.
The Southern Gothic author usually avoids perpetuating Antebellum stereotypes like the "contented slave," the "demure Southern belle," the "chivalrous gentleman," or the "righteous Christian preacher." Instead, the writer takes classic Gothic archetypes, portraying them in a more modern and realistic manner.
One of the most notable features of the Southern Gothic is "The Grotesque" This includes situations, places, or stock characters that often possess some cringe-inducing qualities, typically racial bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness, but enough good traits that readers find themselves interested nevertheless. While often disturbing, Southern Gothic authors commonly use deeply flawed, grotesque characters for greater narrative range and more opportunities to highlight unpleasant aspects of Southern culture, without being too literal or appearing to be overly moralistic.
A life-long Roman Catholic, O'Connor's writing was deeply informed by the sacramental, and by the Thomistic notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she would not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer's meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that, in O'Connor's view, brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain and violence. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as they might be touched by divine grace—not in the Protestant sense of total absolution of sins, but rather as an incremental growth of character.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born into an Irish Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. She was the only child of Edward F. O'Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor. Her father was diagnosed with lupus in 1937; he died on February 1, 1941. The disease was hereditary in the O'Connor family. Flannery was devastated, and almost never spoke of him in later years.
Flannery described herself as a "pigeon-toed only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex." As a child she was in the local newspapers when she taught a chicken that she owned to walk backwards. She said, "That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. It's all been downhill from there."
O'Connor attended the Peabody Laboratory School, from which she graduated in 1942. She entered Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University), where she majored in English and Sociology (the latter a perspective she satirized effectively in novels such as The Violent Bear It Away). In 1946 Flannery O'Connor was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.
In 1949 O'Connor met and eventually accepted an invitation to stay with Robert Fitzgerald (translator of Greek epic plays and poems, including Oedipus Rex and both the Odyssey and the Iliad) and his wife, Sally, in Redding, Connecticut.
In 1951 she was diagnosed with disseminated lupus, and subsequently returned to her ancestral farm in Milledgeville. There she raised and nurtured some 100 peafowl. Fascinated by birds of all kinds, she raised ducks, hens, geese, and any sort of exotic bird she could obtain, as well as incorporated images of peacocks often in her books. She describes her peacocks in one essay.
Despite her sheltered life, her writing reveals an uncanny grasp of the nuances of human behavior. She was a deeply devoted Catholic living in the mostly Protestant American South. She collected books on Catholic theology and at times gave lectures on faith and literature, traveling quite far despite her frail health. She also had a wide correspondence, including such famous writers as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. She never married, relying for companionship on her correspondence and on her close relationship with her mother.
She died on August 3, 1964, aged 39, of complications from lupus at Baldwin County Hospital and was buried in Milledgeville, Georgia. Regina Cline O'Connor outlived her daughter by many years, finally dying in 1997 at the age of 99.
An important voice in American literature, O'Connor wrote two novels and 31 short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She was a Southern writer in the vein of William Faulkner, often writing in a Southern Gothic style and relying heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. Her texts often take place in the South and revolve around morally flawed characters, while the issue of race looms in the background. A trademark of hers is unsubtle foreshadowing, giving a reader an idea of what will happen far before it happens. Finally, she brands each work with a disturbing and ironic conclusion.
Her two novels were Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She also published two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge, published posthumously in 1965.
A life-long Roman Catholic, her writing is deeply informed by the sacramental, and by the Thomist notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she would not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer's meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that to O'Connor's mind brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain, violence, and ludicrous behavior in the pursuit of the holy. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as they might be touched by divine grace. This ruled out a sentimental understanding of the stories' violence, just as it did of her own illness. O'Connor wrote: "Grace changes us and change is painful." She also had a lively, sardonic sense of humor, often based in the disparity between her characters' limited perceptions and the awesome fate awaiting them. Another source of humor is frequently found in the attempt of well-meaning liberals to cope with the rural South on their own terms. O'Connor uses such characters' inability to come to terms with race, poverty, and fundamental religion, other than in sentimental illusions, as an example of the failure of the secular world in the twentieth century. However, she was not a reactionary: several stories reveal that O'Connor was familiar with some of the most sensitive contemporary issues that her liberal and fundamentalist characters might encounter. She was aware of the Holocaust, touching on it closely in one famous story, "The Displaced Person." Integration comes up in "Everything that Rises Must Converge," and O'Connor's fiction became more and more concerned with race as she neared the end of her life.
Her best friend, Betty Hester, received a weekly letter from O'Connor for over a decade. These letters provided the bulk of the correspondence collected in The Habit of Being, a selection of O'Connor's letters that was edited by Sally Fitzgerald. The reclusive Hester was given the pseudonym "A.," and her identity was not known until she died in 1998. Much of O'Connor's best-known writing on religion, writing, and the South is contained in these and other letters.
The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, named in honor of O'Connor, is a prize given annually to an outstanding collection of short stories.
Wise Blood (1952) was O'Connor's first and most famous novel.
Hazel Motes begins the novel having returned from serving in the Army, traveling by train to the city of Taulkinham having just found his family home abandoned. His grandfather was a tent revival preacher, and Hazel himself is irresistibly drawn to wearing a bright blue suit and a black hat. He is told repeatedly that he "looks like a preacher," though he despises preachers.
In the United States Army, presumably in World War II, Hazel came to the conclusion that the only way to escape sin is to have no soul. In Taulkinham, he first goes to the home of a Miss Leora Watts, a casual prostitute, who tells him "Mamma don't care if you ain't a preacher," takes his $2, and provides her services.
The next night, he comes across a street vendor hawking potato peelers and Enoch Emery, a sad and manic 18-year-old who was forced to come to the big city after his father abandoned him. The huckster is interrupted by a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks. Motes is attracted to the girl, and the preacher says that he has really been attracted to him for repentance. In attempted blasphemy, Hazel says to Hawks, "My Jesus!" He turns to a crowd Hawks is attempting to reach and begins to announce his "church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified," but no one seems to be listening.
Enoch Emery is attracted to Hazel's new "Church Without Christ," and the legendary Asa Hawks (and his daughter, Sabbath Lily) takes Hazel under his wing. Ostensibly, Asa Hawks had supposedly blinded himself, and his daughter is his only aid as he preaches the joys of redemption. It turns out, however, that Asa had promised the public to blind himself but did not carry through on his promise. Hawks is a raptor who is preying upon those who pray. His daughter, Sabbath Lily, is far from pure. She has a wild sex drive, using the semblance of purity and virginity to heighten her sexual allure. Asa encourages his daughter to seduce Hazel so that he can leave her with him, and Hazel initially intends to seduce her as well, but despite their mutual intentions their "relationship" is not initially consummated.
The Church Without Christ staggers along with Hazel as its only follower, until one day when a Christian evangelist named Hoover Shoats (his preaching name is "Onnie Jay Holy") adapts the message for himself, intending to use it as a moneymaking scheme by having potential members pay a dollar to join the renamed "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ." The new preacher explains, "It's based on your own person interpitation (sic) of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited." Hazel declines to participate in the scheme, instead watching as Shoats's church gains followers. Shoats hires a man as his "Prophet" who dresses and looks strikingly similar to Hazel.
Meanwhile, Enoch believes that he, like his father, has "wise blood" that tells him secrets about things. After hearing Hazel's message that the Church needs a "new Jesus," Enoch's blood tells him that a mummy in a museum is the one, and so he steals the corpse. Enoch delivers the "new Jesus" to Sabbath, who cradles it in her arms like a baby, and when Hazel returns he destroys the corpse by throwing it against the wall of his room and then dropping the remains out the window. Enoch later steals a gorilla costume and puts it on, burying his old clothes in the woods. The novel's last image of Enoch is him approaching a couple in his gorilla suit, frightening them away.
Hazel watches as his rival, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, turns a profit in its second day, then follows the "Prophet" home and confronts him. He orders the man to take off the blue suit, but before the man can finish, Hazel runs him over in his car, killing him, and backing over the body to make sure it is dead.
The next day, Hazel's car is destroyed. His response is to blind himself with lime and become somewhat of an ascetic. Hazel invests his passionate belief in suffering, binds himself with barbed wire, and puts stones and glass in his shoes. His landlady falls in love with him and becomes preoccupied with caring for him, but when she tells him of her plans for them to marry, he wanders off and dies soon afterward.
Like all good novels, Wise Blood should be read on many different levels. It presents itself most obviously as a simple comedy of grotesques (the so-called "Southern Gothic" genre). But it can also be read as a philosophical novel, presenting opposing views of reality and asking the reader to resolve the conflict. It can even be read as a social commentary about the growing tensions in the South after World War II as the rural and cosmopolitan populations were clashing, and tent-revival preachers encountered big city marketing techniques. Finally, Wise Blood can also be read as an unusual case study of heresy and redemption. O'Connor frequently creates heretical characters and victims of spiritual confusion; however, Wise Blood offers a complete biography of one such character, explaining the psychological and spiritual crises that have brought her character to such a state of "grotesqueness."
Hazel Motes (whose name recalls the parable of [Jesus of Nazareth|[Jesus]] that warns the listener not to criticize the mote in another's eye while tolerating the beam in his own) is trapped in a "haze" of motes. He is a man in religious crisis. His own grandfather was a revival preacher, yet he has rejected not only faith, but the entire story of Jesus as "a trick on niggers." In particular, he rejects guilt and redemption. He is, as O'Connor said of the South, "not Christ-centered, but Christ-haunted." Motes is tormented by belief, rejecting it violently but also recognizing that it is part of his makeup. Hazel begins as many O'Connor characters do, a victim of a misunderstanding of the radical Calvinism prevalent in the South. His evangelical grandfather taught him that Jesus died for the sins of mankind and that Jesus would always "get you." His "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" view of Christ leads Motes to view salvation as a form of punishment, so he decides that he can be saved from being evil by believing in nothing. That is, he can save his soul by having no soul at all. However, his nihilism becomes a positive belief. He is not an atheist, for his nothingness takes on the power of salvation. Motes believes in a vacuum as an alternative to a hunting, predatory Jesus.
Enoch Emery, in contrast, believes readily but cannot see beyond the body. Like other O'Connor characters he wants and demands a physical Jesus. He is a creature of clay, a man whose blood speaks to him. It was his "wise blood" (inherited from his father) that led him to Hazel, whom he latches onto as a candidate for the "new Jesus." The character Asa Hawks, on the other hand, is one of O'Connor's mountebanks. He has no belief in anything but himself. He takes no pleasure in evil or good, only in gratification of himself. His daughter Sabbath also believes only in self-gratification.
Hazel is a believer without belief and a seer without vision. Each of O'Connor's stories has, she said, a moment of grace, but it is a Roman Catholic grace–grace that brings a person to the brink of belief, but not grace that saves by itself. It is transformative, but those to whom the grace is given must choose to either accept it or not. Hazel's own moment of grace comes with his destruction of the "new Jesus" that Enoch Emery has discovered (a mummified body he steals from a museum). Whether Hazel's mote is removed or not is not made clear in the novel.
O'Connor herself said that a chief theme of the novel was "integrity." For those people who think belief in Christ is "a matter of no great consequence," O'Connor writes, "Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind," but for her "Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to." Free will, she says, "does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man," and freedom is a mystery that cannot be reduced to a simple definition.
Wise Blood began with four chapters published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review in 1948 and 1949. She then published it as a complete novel in 1952, and Signet advertised it as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption."
In the novel, O'Connor revisits her recurring motif of a disaffected young person returning home and the theme of the struggle of the individual to understand Christianity on a purely individualistic basis. O'Connor's hero, Hazel Motes, sneers at communal and social experiences of Christianity, sees the followers of itinerant, Protestant preachers as fools, and sets out to deny Christ as violently as he can. Hazel is obsessed with preachers, with salvation, and with denying redemption. He seeks to save people from salvation, eventually becoming an anti-priest of The Church Without Christ, where "the deaf don't hear, the blind don't see, the lame don't walk, the dumb don't talk, and the dead stay that way," and, in the end, becoming a hallowed ascetic.
Some critics have argued that what Flannery O'Connor consistently writes about is not salvation, but heresy. Each of her "heroes" encodes one or another of the classic heretical movements, whether Chartist in "The Enduring Chill" or Jansenist in Wise Blood. At the same time, O'Connor's heretical heroes often flirt with existentialism (e.g. the Misfit from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find") and its demands that only the solitary individual's experiences can provide a basis for belief. O'Connor saw these ancient heresies blooming in a post-Reformation world, and particularly in the fertile fields of the decentralized evangelical realm of the South.
Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic living in the American South, and her fictions consistently illustrate not merely religious, but theological points of view. By the time of Wise Blood, O'Connor was herself diagnosed with lupus and was receiving treatment with hydrocortisone therapy at Emory University hospitals in Atlanta, Georgia.
O'Connor's first major attack of lupus had occurred in 1950, and she had been forced to return home to Milledgeville, Georgia to live with her mother on the family farm. Since O'Connor's father had died of lupus, she was under no illusions about her prospects. Having been a writer, previously living in Iowa and New York City, she found her mother's company and the general area of Milledgeville to be difficult. The smart-aleck child coming home, and resentment of mother figures and parents in general, permeates all of O'Connor's fiction, and Wise Blood is one example.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Flannery O'Connor. She has cast a very long shadow over Southern literature, in particular. Imitators are common.
In her own day, O'Connor was accused of writing about "grotesques." Her image of the south as populated with religious fanatics and the malformed has influenced a great many writers to emphasize Southern eccentrics. From John Kennedy Toole to Harry Crews, novelists have focused on the South as home of curious people who put belief into action. However, O'Connor's characters are as much theological embodiments as descriptions of real people. Wise Blood, in particular, is a novel of philosophical debate.
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