Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle. –Flannery O’Connor, “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable”
Why did Flannery O’Connor write? To convert us? The devout Catholic was not immune to a certain apologetic impulse, or a sense of her own purpose as a vessel for divine truth. Or did she, like Greek tragedians, write to inspire pity and terror? “I don’t have any pretensions,” she once demurred, “to being an Aeschylus or Sophocles and providing you in this story with a cathartic experience.” In any case, what drove her may be a less interesting question than what should drive us to read her.
O’Connor wrote, as most great writers do, because she was compelled to write. What we gain as readers is the deeply unsettling, but also deeply pleasurable experience of recognizing our own flawed humanity in her violent, manipulative characters, none of whom, somehow, are ever beyond redemption. O’Connor’s authorial voice does not judge or condemn but exposes to light the flaws that even, or especially, her most respectable characters would rather hide from themselves and others.
By use of what she called “a reasonable use of the unreasonable” she shows murder, contempt, and deception as shockingly ordinary states of affairs, belying the polite fictions of civility and social niceness. Perhaps no setting could better illuminate the contrasts than the piously violent segregated mid-century American South. O’Connor’s “mastery of the grotesque,” notes the TED-Ed video above by Iseult Gillespie, “and her explorations of the insularity and superstitions of the South led her to be classified as a ‘Southern Gothic’ writer.”
The label may fit superficially, but “her work pushed beyond the purely ridiculous and frightening characteristics associated with the genre to reveal the variety and nuance of human character.” O’Connor herself suggested that what set her apart were “the assumptions… of the central Christian mysteries.” Though we need not read her work this way, she grants, there is “none other by which it could have been written.” We might say that her committed belief in the idea of universal human depravity gave her unique insight into the meaninglessness of class and race distinctions. Few writers have taken the idea as seriously, or approached it with more wicked playfulness.
Why did she write? One reason is she “took pleasure in challenging her readers,” as the video explains. But it was pleasure that she chiefly desired to share. We can vivisect her stories, carve them up and seal them in jars labeled with politics and theologies. Yet “properly, you analyze to enjoy,” she wrote. “It’s equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already, and I think that the best reason to hear a story read is that it should stimulate that primary enjoyment.” Lovers of O’Connor know the answer to the question of why we should read her. Because they take as much pleasure in reading her stories as she did in writing them.
Discover this enjoyment on your own. Hear Studs Terkel read her story “Revelation,” hear Estelle Parsons read “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” and hear O’Connor herself read that 1959 classic of her Southern grotesque style, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”