What to Do with Flannery O’Connor?

FOCLet me start by saying that I was a huge fan of Flannery O’Connor in college. I loved her writing style, I loved her odd characters, and I picked several lit classes simply because they included her work. Fast-forward 15 years and the item on the Back to the Classics challenge (hosted by Karen) that calls for re-reading a classic we read in high school/college. Pair that with my resolve to only read classics written by women for this challenge, and here I am with my old copy of 3 by Flannery O’Connor. (Don’t ask me how much I paid for this little paperback! I purchased it before Amazon became a thing and foreign-literature students were at the mercy of university bookstores.)

I tried to read Wise Blood for last year’s Novellas in November, but quickly put it aside when it didn’t grab me. I thought I simply had too much on my mind at the time. Then I picked it up again in January, and it’s been almost a torture to read this ever since. I was actually ready to give up, just 20 pages from the end, but then I pushed through last night. But I can’t say it did much for me, and it’s killing me.

I still enjoy O’Connor’s style, but I cannot connect to her characters. According to the foreword, readers have always had a problem seeing the “folks” in O’Connor’s stories, looking at them instead as “freaks.” And goodness, it is true, all I am seeing this time around are freaks. Early on, I thought that if O’Connor’s characters in Wise Blood walked into Carson McCuller’s Sad Café, even there they would stand out as freaks.

There’s Hazel Motes, a young man returned from war caught in a forceful struggle against his innate faith. He eventually blinds himself, puts rocks in his shoes, and wears barbed wire as part of his repentance of ever having doubted God’s existence. (Or is it punishment for not being able to completely shake his belief? I’m not sure.) There’s Asa Hawks, a “preacher” who pretends to have blinded himself as proof of his faith, and his good-for-nothing daughter, who tries to make a life with Motes against his will. And there’s Enoch Emery, a young man who is convinced that the mummy of a child is holy and steals it as a gift for Motes. I remember that I looked at this story as parody during my first read, but this time around, the characters and their plight just left me cold. Why did I find this fascinating at one point?

Even though O’Connor hated the term “Southern Gothic,” I think it fits well. I can see the grotesque in the broken, delusional characters, but I can’t see much else. Above all else, I can’t see why Flannery O’Connor would call a story with such strange creatures a “hopeful book.” So I will pat my little paperback on the spine and set it back onto my shelf. I’ve had enough of it for now. Maybe in another 15 years, I will give it another try.

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Tell me, do you have a favorite Southern Gothic story?

 

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28 comments

  1. I haven’t read Flannery O since school when we read her collection of short stories A Good Man Is Hard to Find — there’s plenty of the grotesque in there. I think I liked it at the time but thought it was weird. I haven’t read Wise Blood and it seems a bit like torture from what you said. I sympathize b/c I’m sure I couldn’t relate it with it either. Maybe A Good Man is all one needs of her writings?

  2. I haven’t read anything by O’Connor, but I love your idea of reading classics only by women. That seems like it would be much more of a challenge for me than simply reading books by women in general. I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t enjoy this as much as you did before.

  3. Favorite Southern Gothic? Yes: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. But regarding Flannery O’Connor, I am about half way through her complete short stories, and I was wondering about “what to do with her” myself. The stories are marvelously written and the characters bizarre and fascinating, but I seldom think I get her point. Until just last night I was reading The Displaced Person…and a character said to herself “I am not responsible for the world’s misery” I may be wildly off the mark, but it was like an epiphany. It seems to me that most of O’Connor’s characters are responsible for their own misery, though they often think the world is responsible. It seemed to me, that is what Ms O’Connor was writing about.

  4. I still love O’Connor, but her novels never did grip me the way her stories do. I think that, like Alice Munro or Lorrie Moore, she is a short story writer at heart. Her characters in stories don’t ever become grotesque the way they do in her novels. I think some of what she’s doing has to do with her allegorical style, and how much she was influenced by her religion (Catholicism). The other thing is this: those people aren’t freaks at all. They are very real, and they are still alive and well in the deep South. I’ve met people here in Georgia (and lower Alabama, and in the Florida panhandle) who seemed to have stepped directly off the pages of one of her stories.

    • I’ve met my fair share of freaks here in the Northeast, but none that came straight from one of O’Connor’s stories. 🙂 As I said in some of my other answers, I think much of my disappointment with Wise Blood came from the fact that I couldn’t relate to it as much anymore as I did 15 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that I no longer admire her as a writer. I like your point of her being a short story writer. Now I am actually curious to revisit some of them again to see if they still have the same impact on me. Thanks for commenting!

      • Argh. I love Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (novella) and thought Anagrams was okay, but I was unprepared for what a hot mess Gate at the Stairs turned out to be. People were singing its praises, and all I could think was that they’d never read anything else she’d written. I’m happy to hear it wasn’t just me!

  5. I like your “folks” instead of “freaks” line. I haven’t read anything by Flannery O’Connor either, but I always had the impression she was a writer I should give a try. But where to start?

  6. I’ve had some disappointments as well when I reread old favourites, but mostly I was pleasantly surprised that they still held true after all that time. Mind you, I’m not planning to rearead Flannery O’Connor very soon, although I do think A Good Man Is Hard to Find is a masterclass in storytelling. It’s mainly things like Romantic Poets or Whitman that I cannot read much of nowadays.

  7. I haven’t read Flannery O’Connor. Now, I don’t know if I should try reading her books at all. Would you still recommend one for me, if I would like to try her style? Thank you.

    • Definitely give Flannery O’Connor a chance; don’t let my disappointing reading experience stop you. Wise Blood was her first story, and some argue her weakest. So I would recommend reading her short story A Good Man Is Hard to Find, not only because it’s short, but also because it’s a good representation of Southern Gothic literature. Then you will be able to judge for yourself whether she is someone you’d like to read more of.

  8. Oh dear…Isn’t it funny how our responses to certain types of literature change with age and experience? I’m fascinated by this. Every five years or so I reread a favourite novel, something like The Great Gatsby or Jane Eyre, and I never fail to find something new there. Over the past two years I’ve been revisiting some of Raymond Chandler’s work, books I found exhilarating as a teenager and still love to this day. That said, I’ve noticed a slight undercurrent of casual racism in certain passages this time around. Perhaps I’m just more sensitive to these things now than I was 30+ years ago.

    • Other than Jane Austen, I can’t think of a re-read I’ve enjoyed recently. How sad! I think I remember a lot of books based on the feeling I had when I read them, and if I don’t get the same feelings again when re-reading, it’s easy for me to feel disappointed. I’m sure you are more sensitive towards certain things now; we all are. Cultural sensitivity in general is now so much more heightened than even just a few years ago.

      • I think also that when we’re younger we’re often reading in a group, like at school. Teachers explain things certain ways, we want to like what we know if edgy out counter culture, etc. At least, this is what I did at times!

  9. Oh no, I still haven’t read anything by FO, but have always meant to. I especially wanted to read A Good Man Is Hard To Find after reading The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. It sounds like my window of opportunity has passed (a long time ago, actually).

    • Thank you for mentioning ‘The Storied Life of AJ Fikry’, Naomi. I read the book’s title in the blog, and couldn’t recall in which book I read about it. 🙂 Now I remember how that book was celebrated in ‘The Storied…’ Many thanks. 🙂

    • I hate to discourage anyone from reading a certain book, so please don’t strike A Good Man off your list just yet. She is an excellent writer; it’s just that this time around I couldn’t relate to her story. My disappointment with Wise Blood was based a lot on the feeling of being let down, after loving it so much when I was younger. So if you are ever in the mood for some Southern Gothic, consider giving her a try.

      • I’m pretty sure I would still like to read A Good Man, just because AJ Fikry made me so curious about it (and FO’s writing in general).

  10. I loved Flannery O’Connor in my early 20s, too, but have no desire to read her now as I’m sure I’d have the same reaction you did, so I wouldn’t force myself because there is so much else to read. Altho I do think A Good Man is Hard to Find is genius and would enjoy that again. I don’t think this means FO’s writing is lacking because we wouldn’t want to read her now. I don’t warm up to the “freaks” in some of her stories, but the world contains many such who are even more unusual and, at the very least, deserve compassion or a least acknowledgement of the sometimes folly of humanity. FO is stellar and enduring, even tho I can’t relate to her at the moment.

    • I agree with what you say here, and I feel a little bad that my review is negative. Most of that is because of my disappointment that I can’t find the magic anymore that I obviously saw in her stories 15 years ago. I still like her style, and I admire how she was able to teach herself how to write so well, it’s just that this story left me cold this time around. I’m sure that at some point, I’ll give her another try.

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