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There's More Here than Southern Catholicism

  • Feb 5, 2010
According to most critical opinion, Flannery O'Connor was one of the greatest writers of fiction that America has ever produced. When it comes to Southern writers, they say, she's right up there with the Nobel prizewinner William Faulkner, and if she had lived there's no telling what brilliance might have come from her.

I don't necessarily doubt any of this. The thing that bugs me is that those same critical opinions spend all kinds of time reflecting on the fact that O'Connor's stories, being the work of a Southern Catholic, are all about God and His grace, although her notion of grace is more scary than anything else. This leaves a strong temptation to read her work, including the stories in "Everything That Rises Must Converge", looking for the religious elements. You can find yourself altogether missing whatever else might be in the work that way.

So excuse me for a moment if I back up and cover the work on the page. We'll get back to the discomforts of grace later.

What struck me most about these characters is how angry and/or frightened they are, partly because their society is changing under their feet and partly for more personal reasons. Some seek to take a less patronizing attitude toward blacks and poor whites, others want to pretend that nothing has changed. Some resist urbanization, others embrace it. Some cleave to the old-time religion and others find substitutes. Parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, husbands and wives struggle with their roles. Eventually, it seems, everyone in these stories crashes headlong into his or her opposite number and the result is usually violent.

The title story is a good example - a woman on the far side of middle age takes a bus to the YMCA for a reducing class and brings her adult son along because she's uneasy about traveling alone. The son finds this a horrible imposition, as he finds most of his mother's actions and demands; he has had a college education and her class consciousness drives him crazy, especially since the family no longer has the means it once did. A black woman wearing the same hat as the mother gets on the bus, a circumstance that the son tries to use to embarrass the mother. She doesn't seem to notice. Instead, she allows herself to be charmed by the black woman's little boy and tries to give him a coin. I'll leave the upshot of all this for you to find out, but although the events are pretty simple, the underlying meaning of it all goes very deep.

As a matter of fact, that very depth may have been O'Connor's greatest gift. Her narrative, even when describing the character's inner lives, remains simple and mostly declarative (so much for the comparison with Faulkner), and this very simplicity sets off amazing echoes in your mind. Many of her titles do the same - "The Endless Chill," "The Lame Shall Enter First," and of course "Everything That Rises Must Converge". That last phrase comes from a writing by the turn-of-the-century Catholic writer Teilhard de Chardin, a notion he offered as a sort of alternative to evolution. It signifies that any being reaching toward consciousness approaches a single point as it does so, that point being God. Which seems like a rather hopeful process, except that if everything does converge on God, there are bound to be a few bumps.

This is a good place to return to O'Connor's religious angle on her stories and on life. She said that a serious writer would consider a story in which everything is explained - in which the characters have sufficient motivation for what they do - to be too simple to bother with, and that it's only after an author has seen to character motivation, plot structure, language, description and all such virtues that a story has a chance of revealing any of that necessary sense of mystery. When it comes to life, she said that although we are only saved by grace (undeserved favor), grace changes us and change is always uncomfortable or even frightening. These ideas certainly explain the bumps mentioned above, not to mention the violence. In other words, whether you agree that a good story leaves some matters unexplained, or that grace is necessary for salvation, or any of O'Connor's other ideas, at the very least she worked to express herself as completely as she could in the short time she had. The rest of us could do worse than emulate her.

But what about the stories themselves? Someone once said that whereas some stories go down smooth and contribute little, like cotton candy, other stories must be thoroughly chewed and nourish us well, like steak. By now it's pretty clear where Flannery O'Connor lands on that continuum. Her characters find humiliation, disappointment, fear and sometimes death. They lose homes, self-respect, parents and even children. These stories are hard to take. Then again, whatever they go through, these people sometimes learn something valuable even if they're not always aware of it.

This is where that critical emphasis or the author's religious beliefs comes in handy. If her great theme is, as it seems to be, the hidden workings of grace in human life, it makes a certain amount of sense that neither the characters nor the reader can perceive it right away. If nothing else, finding the meaning here is an intriguing intellectual exercise, but of course it's also a challenge to have more respect for these characters than your prejudices might otherwise allow.

For all her virtues, Flannery O'Connor is emphatically not for everyone - I haven't quite figured out whether she's for me. I'm nevertheless grateful that there was someone out there who dared me to make up my mind about that. It's kind of nice to run across a writer who doesn't beg for your approval.

Benshlomo says, Good friends will fight with you if necessary.

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About this book


Collection of nine short stories by Flannery O'connor, published posthumously in 1965. The flawed characters of each story are fully revealed in apocalyptic moments of conflict and violence that are presented with comic detachment. The title story is a tragicomedy about social pride, racial bigotry, generational conflict, false liberalism, and filial dependence. The protagonist Julian Chestny is hypocritically disdainful of his mother's prejudices. His smug selfishness is replaced with childish fear when she suffers a fatal stroke after being struck by a black woman she has insulted out of oblivious ignorance rather than malice. Similarly, "The Comforts of Home" is about an intellectual son with an Oedipus complex. Driven by the voice of his dead father, the son accidentally kills his sentimental mother in an attempt to murder a harlot. The other stories are "A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," "Greenleaf," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day." --The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature--This text refers to an alternatePaperbackedition.
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ISBN-10: 0451031776
ISBN-13: 978-0451031778
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Publisher: Signet

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