Flannery O’Connor’s once wrote in a letter: “I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to ever feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.” She wrote a great deal: two novels and thirty-two short stories before she died at the age of 39.
Some years ago I had read a couple of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories but was not very moved by them. The fact that Thomas Merton was one of her admirers made me decide to go back and read some O’Connor this Lent. (After her death, Merton said he would compare her with “someone like Sophocles…I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.”) Thus I just finished reading The Complete Stories, which contains thirty-one stories.
Much in O’Connor’s stories is dark. Much is violent. Much is quite grotesque. But she has a way of making you (or at least me) keep reading even when you are not sure you want to. And of inviting you to keep pondering after you’ve finished reading one.
At a reading at Hollins College in Virginia less than a year before her death, O’Connor talked about “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story.” She explained:
I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.
She gave an example of such a gesture with reference to the story she read that evening, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It is a story in which a family traveling by car has an accident stranding them in a gulch off the side of the road. One by one, the family is killed by an escaped criminal known as “the Misfit” and his gang.
The last to be killed is the Grandmother who, just before she is shot looks at the Misfit closely and says “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She then reaches out to touch him on the shoulder.
The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I’m still not sure whether I would say I like O’Connor’s stories, but I did read every one of them, and sat with quite a few. That says something.