If you read a short story anthology in high school, took an American lit class in college, or have only browsed the religious novelist fanboy sites on the interwebs, you’ve encountered her. Flannery O’Connor published only between 1952 and 1965 (posthumously), dying at the age of 39, but she’s still making headlines in the mainstream literary world. At least 3 articles have appeared in just the last month, sussing out some of the reasons why we’re still reading her.
1. Sin and Symbolism
Sam Jordison, writing in the Guardian last month about O’Connor’s Wise Blood, asks if redemption is a uniquely religious thing (or a uniquely Catholic thing), as O’Connor insisted that it was. “…during the book’s early years there seems to have been some doubt as to whether sin and redemption were really the book’s subjects,” he explains, and O’Connor felt it necessary to state for the record that the book is “entirely redemption-centred in thought”—despite, or perhaps because of, the protagonist’s nihilistic perspective.
Jordison then parses out the redemptive symbolism she employs, demonstrating that sin and salvation are clear themes of the book, though he isn’t converted to her point of view.
“I didn’t object to much of this material when it was wrapped up in O’Connor’s beguiling rhythmical prose. At least, not as a literary device. Philosophically, I didn’t much like it,” he says. Which makes it all the more interesting how he and so many others, religious and non-religious alike, continue to be drawn to her work.
2. Strange Bodies
A week after his first essay, Jordison returns to the subject in a second article. Quoting some of O’Connor’s most brutal physical descriptions of people, he observes: “Her world is over-ripe, bruised and nauseating.” But then he takes a look at her experience with lupus and how that may have informed her “bruised’ perspective:
“Her body was attacking itself. She was weak. She took aggressive courses of steroids and blood transfusions. She could rarely leave the house. She had rashes. Her joints were stiff and swollen. She knew she was going to die. It’s hardly surprising she presents such a jaundiced view of the world. But her pain is our gain.”
I think he writes that last statement with respect; had she not faced that adversary, she would have been less equipped as a great storyteller. Though it took her life, it made her contribution to the world all the more valuable.
3. Epiphanies Aren’t Permanent
Author Jim Shephard, interviewed last week by Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, chooses O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” when asked to reveal a favorite literary passage. What strikes him about the piece are her wry observations, like how she nails the fleeting nature of epiphanies in just one sentence. It appears in the action immediately after The Misfit (one of her fascinatingly gruesome characters) kills the grandmother:
“She could have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Shephard comments: “O’Connor really believes that we can flood, momentarily, with the kind of grace that epiphany is supposed to represent. But I think she also believes that we’re essentially sinners. She’s saying: Don’t think for a moment that because you’ve had a brief instant of illumination, and you suddenly see yourself with clarity, that you’re not going to transgress two days down the road.”
Her view of humanity is that “almost everybody’s going to be found wanting much of the time. And we are. But you still want to cherish those moments when someone shows you they have the capacity to be better.”
Acerbic Catholic, victim of her own body, and a keen observer of human nature—O’Connor was all of these things. Perhaps it’s the combination of them that makes her startlingly odd perspective still relevant today.