A Month of Flannery O’Connor: Week 5

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:

  • Revelation
  • Parker’s Back
  • Judgment Day

SOME CONTEXT:

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.

final thoughts

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.

13 comments

  1. I read one story, Judgement Day to see how it stood up against The Geranium. I thought The Geranium was better. I didn’t take any moral from it except honour your promises. The problem with O’Connor I think is that she accurately portrays the White southerners she lived amongst, and sometimes she sort of hints that their racism might be wrong but then she might also be writing what they say so she can say racist stuff and then claim that she’s just reporting.

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    • I agree with your assertion about O’Connor’s portrayals of white racists. It’s both reporting and uplifting their voices in what is likely an intentional fashion. Though characters are brought down so they can rise in grace, I found myself feeling like I was supposed to feel badly for these racist characters, and not want to.

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  2. Lovely seeing your final thoughts! I’m glad I’m not the only one who struggled with parts of this reading experience, though I think on the whole I felt a little more positively about it in the end. I really like the O’Connor quote you’ve shared about non-retention of education, and I do wish that humor (and a brand of criticism beyond religious morals) had been present in her short stories. I think it would have been a much more pleasurable reading experience if that had been the case, whereas most of my appreciation for this collection was more intellectual, I think. While I also grew tired of seeing religious themes repeated I did have a lot of respect for her characterization; I would agree that their actions seemed chosen specifically to serve a narrative purpose but most of the people inhabiting these stories seemed believable to me. Even though some of them were indeed horid. The slurs and racism were really getting me down by the end, but Ithought overall that while criticizing racism may not have been the Point of most of these pieces, it did generally seem clear to me that O’Connor wanted to show that Black people were worth more respect than society generally wanted to show them in her day; I never felt that she was cruel to those characters with the way she wrote them, though some of her white characters certainly were. Ultimately, most of these stories seemed to me to show where conflict lied- often internal, but some external as well- and instead of trying to take a side in it she often seemed just to stop at pointing it out, leaving the reader to make of it what they would. I liked the tactic, but didn’t necessarily find it made for fun reading.

    And now that I’ve gone through all my overall thoughts already (oops!), I just wanted to mention that Parker’s Back was my favorite of the bunch for this week, and Judgment Day was my least favorite! But I also didn’t really like The Geranium so I wasn’t surprised to feel that way. I did find it an interesting read at least, seeing an author try to update her work certainly intrigues me, and it was a neat bookend to the collection for the first and last stories to “match,” though it is sad O’Connor died before she could write further. I really felt that her skill was improving as the collection progressed, and would have been interested to see where she’d go next.

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    • I also felt her skills were improving. There’s a clumsiness to the early stories (and Wise Blood, the novel) that smooths out near the end. I think my favorite story was “You Can’t Be Any Poorer Than Dead,” about the old man who kidnaps the boy away from a liberal teacher in order to hide him in the woods and make him a God-fearing boy. That story is the first chapter of The Violent Bear it Away, O’Connor’s second novel. I believe I read it a long time ago and didn’t connect with the story, but now that I’ve read more of her work and understand her better as a writer, it might be a novel I revisit.

      I do agree with you that O’Connor is doing something decidedly not racist with her characters, but it’s complicated. On the one hand, the stories are crawling with racism. On the other hand, characters and narrators will acknowledge that the Black people are intelligent, never missing a beat or failing to see through white people. I’d love to read more academic articles about O’Connor and racism, but I’m not up for it right now.

      I wonder if any of her editors or friends recommended she add some of her dry humor to her stories. In her letters that I read to her publishers, she was adamant that people give her feedback on the quality of her stories, not feedback that would make her stories what they wanted to be, which was decidedly not O’Connor.

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      • I do agree that the clumsiness faded away as the stories progressed. I may also be interested in checking out that novel at some point- I found You Can’t Be Poorer Than Dead a bit of a bore to read, but I did like the characters and plot and was curious about where the story would go from there. Wise Blood on the other hand I think will be a no-go for me, the stories from that novel were some of my least favorites here!

        It would certainly be interesting to read some material on O’Connor and racism, though I would also agree that now just doesn’t seem the time, in addition to just needing a bit of a break from her after spending a month with her stories!

        That’s an interesting point, there’s absolutely a difference between critique that’ll improve the writer’s work and critique meant to make the work fit the reader’s preferences. I do wonder which type O’Connor would’ve taken “add your humor!” for.

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  3. Sometimes I think I’m really missing out by not ‘knowing’ the bible, as I’m sure I’d ‘get’ so many books on a deeper level if I was familiar with it. That being said, I’m not that religious, (more of an agnostic) and there’s many more books I’d rather slog through first haha

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    • There is a professor emeritus from the Iowa Writers Workshop who used to teach the Old Testament in the fall and the New Testament in the spring, not to read them as religious texts, but as stories that function as the foundation for many other stories. I’d never thought that would be helpful until I heard a student talk about the courses, and it makes sense.

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  4. Your analogy at the end is wonderful. And, honestly, means I’ll be removing this collection from my TBR. I am not a writer, nor do I study the written word– I read most often for enjoyment and learning on a topic. When I have to apply a ton of intellect and mental power to reading something, I shut down if I know I’m doing it solo. For a buddy read or book club? I’ll push through. I have different expectations for those interactions. This is partially why I wanted to participate in the first place! Alas. The c-word got in the way and my mental power is even less than usual (speaking of, I have a new vampire smut novel that came in today! Yay!).

    I am certainly intrigued to read her non-fiction at this point. all the quotes you’ve included throughout these posts have proven O’Connor’s wit and I want to embrace it! I am with you: I wonder why this wit is lacking from the texts? Perhaps something she learned through her writing programs made her shy away from including it? One can only speculate.

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    • I almost wonder if O’Connor left lots of her humor out of her writing for fear of not being taken seriously. Women have a hard enough time being seen as “literary” today, so I can only imagine what it was like for O’Connor. Then again, Betty MacDonald wrote and published in 1945 a wildly popular memoir that was both literary in its writing style and super funny (review coming soon).

      Perhaps because I am not a person of faith, but imbuing every story with a lesson about religion, though not necessarily a moral lesson, is exhausting. If you’re not a god/God-fearing person, then what does it matter.

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      • I bet that O’Connor grew up in a community where faith was part of how society functioned. Until very recently, most people were church goers of one variety or another. It was impossible NOT to know about the Old & New Testiments. Then, well, religion got out of fashion and here we are. I can understand how this would be exhausting, but it must have been like breathing for O’Connor. It’s just part of the fabric of her life.

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