devout Catholic peering critically at Southern evangelical Protestant culture, Flannery O'Connor never separates faith and place from her writings. Her upbringing and her life story become inextricably intertwined with her fiction, especially in her short stories. O'Connor was born Mary Flannery O'Connor on March 25, 1925, the only daughter of Regina Cline and Edwin Francis. Having grown up in Savannah and living most of her life in Georgia, Flannery possessed a uniquely disturbing yet reverential perspective on Southern life and culture. Moreover, her Catholic belief and upbringing lent the overtly Biblical symbolism to her stories, many of which twist the sacred into the profane and vice-versa. Flannery, who dropped her first name when she attended the University of Iowa, wrote throughout her entire life, in spite having a debilitating disease called disseminated lupus, which caused her early death in 1964. However, even in her weakest physical conditions, O'Connor discovered the will to write her characteristically strange, poignant short stories. She also published two novels as well as various essays, but Flannery is best known for her short stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "Good Country People." Thematic threads run throughout her stories and her two novels, and in fact, readers can discover distinct similarities between characters in different tales. Among the most common elements found in almost all of O'Connor's fiction include religious hypocrisy, warped personalities, the dichotomies of Southern culture, and macabre, even violent situations, people, and relationships.
Flannery O'Connor published her first short story, "Geranium," in 1921 while a student at the University of Iowa. Her first novel, Wise Blood was published in 1952; her second entitled The Violent Bear it Away, was published in 1960. In 1955, O'Connor published a collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, but several compilations were released after her death. In 1965, "Everything That Rises Must Converge" was published and in 1971, her Collected Stories, which contained almost all of her short fiction, reached the bookshelves.
Flannery O'Connor's characters invoke both compassion and disgust; few of them are wholly likeable, agreeable, "good" people. One notable exception is the owner of the Tower restaurant in a Good Man is Hard to Find." Red Sammy Butts engages the protagonist of the story, the grandmother, in a wistful, almost sentimental conversation about the decline of moral values in modern society. In fact, Red Sam utters the title phrase of the story, claiming, "These days you don't know who to trust...I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more," (O'Connor 122). Red Sam's genuine nature stands in stark contrast to the darker personalities of both the grandmother and The Misfit. While the Misfit clearly emerges as the villain of the story by murdering an entire family, Flannery does not portray a battle between good and evil. Rather, the author shows that these essential two moral forces tug at the hearts of all people; no one is exempt from original sin. The grandmother's pleading with Jesus and her emphasis on religious redemption is countered well by The Misfit's nihilist stance and his open criticism of Jesus. Neither view emerges as a satisfying solution to life's pains, for The Misfit wins the battle but realizes that "It's no real pleasure in life." The Misfit and the grandmother both embody a type of futility inherent in human existence and in the seemingly fruitless search for meaning in life.
Moreover, the story's violent ending shows O'Connor's disgust with vacuous lip service and false religiosity, for the grandmother's attempts to moralize with The Misfit and to pray fail. The theme of religious hypocrisy is also played out in "Good Country People," in which a young Bible salesman thought to be "salt of the earth" turns out to be a thief and an impostor. However, his foil Hulga-Joy is no more likable or sympathetic a character than he is. Bitter, awkward, and resentful, she disparages religion avows atheism. Her harshly intellectual and cold vision of life brings her no "joy," and her voluntarily adopted name Hulga finely suits her character. Yet Hulga-Joy utters one of the central themes of the tale when she yells at Manly Pointer, "You're a fine Christian! You're just like them all -- say one thing and do another," (O'Connor 290). Like The Misfit, Hulga-Joy points a finger directly at religion and Christianity in particular. In spite of O'Connor's devout Catholicism, she infuses a harsh critique of religion into most of her fiction. In "Greenleaf, for example, Mrs. May is "a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true," (O'Connor 316). Grimshaw speculates that O'Connor's "Protestant characters find the world unbearable because they lack that belief, that understanding which has as its basis Catholic dogma," (12). However entrenched O'Connor's Catholic beliefs, however, Brinkmeyer notes that O'Connor's near-obsession with religion directly evolves from her fascination with the Protestant evangelical culture surrounding her: "O'Connor deeply identified with Southern fundamentalists," he states, and had an "admiration for an affinities with fundamentalist fanatics," (179). Regardless of what O'Connor's personal motivations and feelings were regarding the religions of her family and of her community, she characterized the conflicted hearts of many Christian worshippers.
O'Connor's twisted take on Christianity is connected with her keen awareness and critique of Southern culture. Although race is not a universal theme throughout her stories, Southern life is. In "Good Country People," she shows a romantic fascination with a simple life, lived close to the land. Yet the "good country people" turn out to be hypocrites and villains. However, Hulga, the antithesis of Southern genteel plantation culture, is not "good country people." Her emphatic atheism and pride in her heartless philosophy run counter to the Southern ideals of O'Connor's time, but neither the Southern belles nor Hulga find salvation in their respected belief systems or social codes.
Race cannot be rightfully separated from any real insight into the American south. With characteristic and dark satire, O'Connor combines macabre storylines with deep social commentary in her short story "Everything that Rises Must Converge." Julian's mother is a bulwark of Southern white supremacy, stating of blacks, "They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence," (O'Connor 408). Her son Julian champions civil rights but does so selfishly and self-righteously. In fact, his compulsion to teach his mother a lesson about social justice backfires on him; he accomplishes nothing as far as racial equality is concerned but rather ironically demonstrates the core nature of bigotry in his hatred for his mother. Like Hulga in "Good Country People," Julian is consumed by resentment, bitterness, and a sense of superiority. Just as the author works with religion, O'Connor takes a potentially positive force, in this case civil rights, and morphs it into macabre meaninglessness.
The chilling ending to "Everything that Rises Must Converge" is reminiscent of so many of O'Connor's stories that use violence and death as literary power tools. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" contains multiple murders, including that of a baby. "Good Country People" ends in an odd scene synthesizing sexuality and severed limbs. However, O'Connor is no writer of horror or thriller tales; rather, her short stories depict grotesque scenarios and frightening figures in order to convey human conflict and pain as well as the complex divisions in human society. A strong sense of dualism, of the eternal battle between good and evil, pervades O'Connor's work and undoubtedly stems from her preoccupation with Christian theology. O'Connor's characters border on being evil and yet they are consummately human. As Gardiner points out, "Is their grotesquerie only ours writ large?" (190). Even those characters who seem to embody true evil, like The Misfit, embody universally human qualities like confusion, narcissism, and rage. The idiosyncrasies and glaring faults of O'Connor characters mimic the true dynamics of human nature. Hulga, The Misfit, the grandmother, and Julian share many things in common: they are anti-heroes, perfectly unbalanced, un-Christ-like figures dealing with disillusionment.
Christ is not portrayed as a gentle savior in O'Connor's work, which seems to indicate that she struggled with her own faith and its role in a pain-ridden world. However, O'Connor was a master of satire and sarcasm. When her tales turn bloody, as they frequently do, the violence is eerily ironic as when the black woman hits Julian's mother, turning both racism and white pity on its back. Sometimes, macabre imagery like that of Hulga-Joy's leg serves more of a visceral force, to draw attention to the underlying themes of spiritual impoverishment, nihilism, and hypocrisy. The severed artificial leg in many ways symbolizes the artifice of both religion and of atheism; Hulga hasn't got "a leg to stand on," and moreover, she becomes "blinded" to the truth when Manly Pointer steals her glasses as well. Yet Manly is no hero; his fake identity selling bibles likewise symbolizes spiritual artifice. O'Connor satirizes sexuality in "Good…