Welcome to Week #5 of A Month of Reading Flannery O’Connor. This is the last post, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has joined me; Bill, Emily, Nick, Gil, and Karissa, thank you for reading along. For those who didn’t read with us but engaged with comments and questions, thank you, too! You’ve all made the journey worthwhile, even when O’Connor had me cringing at her racial slurs and violence.
THIS WEEK’S STORIES:
- Parker’s Back
- Judgment Day
These later O’Connor stories, the last few she wrote before her death, are some of the strongest in terms of plotting. In addition, people with more religious knowledge than me have analyzed the connections to characters in the Bible and their deeds. As someone who hasn’t read the Bible, I see secular themes played out.
A quick side note: author Angela Flournoy joined my digital book club last week, as we had finished The Turner House. Flournoy is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where the author noted that Professor Marilynn Robinson taught a course on the Old Testament in the fall and one on the New Testament in the spring, not to educate students on religion, but because so many stories allude to Biblical tales.
The secular theme I noticed was pride: pride in one’s judgement, pride in one’s appearance, pride in death. Let’s see what you think about my assertion.
EXAMINING THE last three STORIES:
“Revelation” (published 1964 in Sewanee Review and in Everything that Rises Must Converge collection 1965) — Mrs. Turpin’s penchant for ranking people is problematic. She knows folks struggle, and can see their struggles on their bodies, but she fails to sympathize or empathize. To test her tolerance to descend in rank, she asks herself if she would prefer God make her white trash or black, or ugly or white trash, etc. What she doesn’t realize is that her judgement doesn’t align with Christianity because people are not the judge, only God. The “white trash” client at the doctor’s office is honest about her prejudice, which is part of why I thought the young woman threw her book at Mrs. Turpin rather than the more offensive woman. Mrs. Turpin wants to be praised for saying “hello” to her Black farmhands and for offering them a bucket of water, as if to give people access to water after hot, backbreaking labor isn’t basic decency. As I expected, when she asks her farmhands if she’s a warthog, they reassure her she’s the nicest white woman they know — and why wouldn’t they? To defy her would be to take their own lives or livelihoods into their hands. Although Mrs. Turpin prides herself on her ability to categorize people into classes of goodness, the story ends with her washing the pig area, which the “white trash” woman said she’d never do, suggesting Mrs. Turpin has failed in her judgement, fallen from grace, and even her farmhands know she’s problematic. Check out this interesting analysis.
“Parker’s Back” (published in 1965 in Equire and 1965 in Everything that Rises collection) — I read this analysis of the story and was amazed by the Christian references I wouldn’t have gotten. What stood out to me was Parker’s need to do something to fill this lost feeling he has, using tattoos that uplift his spirit for a short amount of time, perhaps to understand himself because he cannot do so. Needing something deeper — religion, anyone? — would be the cure. We know he’s not Christian, noted when he tells Sarah Ruth they can lay together in his truck bed before they’re married, and when he cares not who marries them. Is the tattoo of God meant to make his wife praise him and his body, or bring God closer to him? It’s a stretch to say Parker has pride in his tattoos because he loses interest in them, but they are a part of him in a way he stands by, despite his wife’s claims or idolatry. I found the writing style better in this story than many previous, and here is a sample of a simple description that’s photographic:
At intervals a car would shoot past below and his wife’s eyes would swerve suspiciously after the sound of it and then come back to rest on the newspaper full of beans in her lap.
“Judgment Day” (mailed to editor Robert Giroux in early July, but he never heard back from her after his last letter, dated July 7, 1964, which included “an advance proof of our catalogue description of Everything that Rises Must Converge as it was then conceived.” O’Connor went into a coma and died on August 3) — The first story we read, “The Geranium,” was one O’Connor liked and attempted to re-write in “Judgment Day.” Her later version is more detailed and gives more depth to the characters, demonstrating that the father has so much pride that he refuses to work for a Black doctor on whose land he is squatting. Instead, he’s taken to NYC with his daughter, a place O’Connor describes like Hell on Earth every time she sets the a story in that city. (O’Connor lived in NYC for six months in 1949). Making the father more noticeably frail in “Judgment Day” tugs at our sympathy, and his relationship with Coleman is expanded as to make them appear like friends rather than a toxic “friendship” like we saw in “The Geranium.” The daughter’s unwillingness to have her father embalmed and buried in the south quickly turns “Judgment Day” into a sort of ghost story, and I wish we’d gotten more there. Instead, like a number of O’Connor stories, things end abruptly.
While I knew Flannery O’Connor was a Georgian woman who wrote violence and Christianity, I was overwhelmed by how often faith and a return to grace through violence was the objective of these thirty-one stories. Truly, I was tired of her racist characters, though I noticed a shift when her narrators used “Negro” (the acceptable term at the time) while her older characters continued to use the racial epithet in dialogue and thought. Had I learned more about these racist characters coming to understand something of the human condition, including their Black neighbors and employees, instead of religious grace, I might have warmed to them more. It’s like O’Connor couldn’t see people, she saw puppets for a lesson about stomaching faith. It’s not always done well.
Even as I read dozens of analysis papers about her thirty-one stories, I noticed those authors often making assertions about how a character’s actions say something about Christianity that is not clear on the page. It’s what we do for term papers, right? A professor tells us to dredge up meaning in a story. In fact, O’Conner would get feisty when people tried to ask her questions about why she did something in a story, or what it meant, causing her to wonder why readers couldn’t just leave it alone. Was there really so many messages about Christianity as we dumped into these works? From a 1979 New York Times article:
. . . to an unnamed professor of English who has sent [O’Connor] a fan‘ciful exegesis of one of her stories she explodes: “The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intention as it could get…. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem … then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction….”
Another problem I had while reading is that I’ve been in so many fiction workshops that I could almost see how each move was made in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, rather than be immersed in them. Each time there’s something clever or shocking, it stood out like a run in panty hose to me. I also don’t enjoy a “cute” twist at the end for which I was unprepared. This feels like an MFA trick if there ever was one, with the writer hoping for a big reaction that is unearned. The reason readers are analyzing O’Connor’s stories excessively is because she often leaves us no logical trail by which to land at her conclusions about falling so one can return to grace. Think about the grandfather who smashes his granddaughter’s head on a rock, or the man who marries and abandons a woman with special needs. Consider the accidental death of the refugee of the Holocaust and the creep who steals a wooden leg.
And like some writers, Lidia Yuknavitch being one, O’Connor chews over the same ideas like a ruminant. Some weeks I felt that I was reading the same tale repeatedly, especially Week 4 with it’s hostile, unproductive academics and Week 2 with the aging women running farms. It’s hard not to feel indifferent about the pieces that seem weaker when compared to deeper kin in the collection.
While I do appreciate O’Connor’s ability to capture certain moments like a photograph, her language and ability to focus on a key detail or two mesmerizing, I noticed she used the same descriptions across her stories. I was surprised by the accuracy of describing someone who walks with their neck forward being one who looks like he’s smelled something good, but after the third time reading that, I had to wonder about O’Connor’s creative flex.
Mostly, though, I felt cheated out of O’Connor’s amazing personality. Having read many of her personal letters, I can attest that this woman had some of the best dry humor I’ve ever encountered. On education, she wrote, “Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me.” Instead of capitalizing on this wit in her fiction, stories strained to include religious themes.
Overall, my experience was like eating a dry chocolate chip scone. I can see how picking out the chips would give me some tasty lessons as a reader and writer, but in general I was dissatisfied with the bake. At least now I can say I’m all done with Flannery O’Connor’s fiction after giving it my 100%. Yet, her nonfiction book Mystery and Manners appears to have interesting perspectives about writing that I’d like to read.