Why Should We Read Flannery O’Connor? An Animated Video Makes the Case

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a Rare Record­ing of Flan­nery O’Connor Read­ing “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1959)

Flan­nery O’Connor Ren­ders Her Ver­dict on Ayn Rand’s Fic­tion: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

Flan­nery O’Connor’s Satir­i­cal Car­toons: 1942–1945

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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