By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In a short life beset by ill health, the American writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). But it is for her short stories, many of which were collected in just two volumes, that she is best-known.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find appeared in 1955, eight years after O’Connor had gained her Master’s thesis in creative writing from the University of Iowa. It included the title story, which is perhaps her best-known and most highly regarded of all, among many others. In 1965, a year after her untimely death, a second collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, appeared.
Flannery O’Connor was from Georgia, and some of her work bears comparison with William Faulkner: both of them are associated with Southern Gothic, that curious subgenre which is noted for its fantastical or macabre elements that are used to shine a light on life in the southern states of the US.
However, what sets her apart from other Southern Gothic writers is the strong vein of Catholicism that runs through her work. Her symbolism is complex and revealing, but her stories require considerable analysis for all of the themes to become fully apparent.
Most of these stories are available online, but if they whet your appetite for more, we thoroughly recommend The Complete Stories, which contains all of her short fiction.
1. ‘Good Country People’.
Let’s begin with one of Flannery O’Connor’s best-known short stories, from 1955. A Bible salesman seduces Hulga, the daughter of Mrs Hopewell. Although Hulga is well-educated, her wooden leg (made necessary by a shooting accident when she was a child) makes her vulnerable, as will be revealed later in the story.
As so often in her best stories, O’Connor presents the superior, holier-than-thou attitude of many women she knew growing up in the South, but does so in a way that suggests that nobody is, in fact superior, and nobody emerges very well out of the events of the story.
2. ‘A Late Encounter with the Enemy’.
This 1953 short story offers us another character who has an inflated sense of pride: George Sash is a 104-year-old veteran of the American Civil War who is feted as a hero. His granddaughter Sally, meanwhile, is similarly proud to what O’Connor would consider a sinful degree.
She prays to God that her grandfather will live long enough to attend her college graduation, where she hopes to show off her military grandfather to everyone in order to raise her own social status.
As the title of this story suggests, ‘Revelation’ (1964) is one of O’Connor’s most overtly religious stories. Ruby Turpin begins by sitting in a doctor’s office and ends up having some sort of epiphany. She’s the typical O’Connor heroine (antiheroine) in considering herself superior to many of her neighbours, especially African Americans.
But when she experiences her powerful religious vision of the souls of her neighbours ascending to heaven, she is in for a surprise …
4. ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’.
One evening, an elderly woman named Lucynell Crater and her daughter sit out on the porch when a man, whom Mrs Crater regards as a ‘tramp’, appears. However, she is soon trying to marry off her daughter to the man. She succeeds in brokering a ‘deal’, but with terrible consequences.
5. ‘A Circle in the Fire’.
Written in 1954, this story a farm-owner named Mrs Cope, who is visited one day by three teenage boys. The familiar trope in Flannery O’Connor’s stories – the arrival of a malevolent stranger – is here taken up a notch, and Mrs Cope finds herself vainly trying to rid herself of three unwanted interlopers …
6. ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’.
This short story, published posthumously in 1965, is one of Flannery O’Connor’s best explorations of race relations in the South. A white woman who harbours bigoted attitudes towards black people travels on the bus to her weight-loss meeting, with her son Julian accompanying her, seemingly for her own safety.
When a black woman and her son board the bus, and the boy sits next to Julian’s mother, it seems likely some sort of altercation is going to break out – as indeed it does, when a patronising gesture from the white woman causes tensions to flare up.
7. ‘The Lame Shall Enter First’.
This 1962 story is one of Flannery O’Connor’s most tragic tales. Sheppard is an arch-rationalist who devotes his time to helping the young children of the parish, but at home he fails to understand the grief his own son, Norton, is suffering following his mother’s death.
When Sheppard invites a juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, to come and live under their roof, in the belief that he can reform the youth, things don’t go according to his grand plan. Sheppard may experience an epiphany, but has it come too late?
In this 1956 short story, O’Connor explores one of her most beloved themes: classism. Mrs May, who faintly belongs to the old aristocratic class in the South, looks down on Greenleaf and his two sons, but the Greenleaf family are up-and-coming.
They also have a bull, which escapes one day and poses a threat to Mrs May’s cattle. What if this bull from an ‘inferior’ class should breed with her prize cows? This is obviously symbolic. But Mrs May’s belief in her own class is also misplaced, and the Greenleaf family are thriving while her own family appears to be in decline.
9. ‘The River’.
This 1953 work is one of O’Connor’s earliest mature works, along with ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ (see below). It’s another tale of religious revelation or conversion, but here the focus is a young boy, Harry, who leaves the city, and his family, behind to go and live in the country, by the river which provides the story with its title.
And it is during a baptism at the river that Harry, who has renamed himself Bevel, undergoes an epiphany, and returns home a changed boy. But the river calls him back …
10. ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.
This story is about a grandmother, her son, his wife, and the couple’s three children, going on holiday to Florida. At the beginning of the story, the grandmother points out to her son that a notorious criminal, known as the Misfit, is on the loose. Are the two parties destined to meet?
We won’t offer spoilers, except to say that this 1952 short story is rightly praised as one of O’Connor’s most powerful explorations of racism in the South. The grandmother is that familiar O’Connor figure: proud, superior, patronising towards black people, and destined – as O’Connor’s characters usually are – for a fall. But also, potentially, for a strange kind of salvation …