For today’s catch-up review, we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. I’d read three of these stories previously but started at the beginning and read through the full collection of thirty-one stories in May alongside Melanie’s Month of Flannery O’Connor project. She’s more informed on O’Connor’s life and work than I am, so be sure to check out her posts, which tell a little about the content and publication of each story with some background on O’Connor’s life and overall thoughts on theme and patterns as well. Partially because Melanie did such a fantastic job covering each story (and partially because I didn’t take notes on the individual stories as I read them) I’m going to be talking more broadly about my experience with the collection and some things I’ve noted generally about O’Connor’s short story style.
“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”
The first thing to note about O’Connor’s stories is that they don’t make points so much as they make clear where there’s a point of contention to be grappled with. What I mean is, O’Connor seems intent on highlighting conflict- racial, theological, social- not with the intent of making a stance or guiding the reader’s thinking, but simply to demonstrate that the conflict exists, and perhaps to encourage the reader to consider multiple views before choosing one. Her stories often end without clear resolutions, which I think is why they’re so widely studied- the reader must sift for clues, and what the stories are actually saying is hotly debated.
For example, one of O’Connor’s best-known and most-read pieces, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is either a story of a woman seeing the error of her ways and finding grace in a moment of peril, or a woman blind to the error of her ways remaining selfish to the end, even at the cost of her lifelong faith. The ambiguity is the draw, and presents as O’Connor’s favorite modus operandi; to sow the seeds of discord and then leave the reader to decide- in the case of “Good Man,” to decide whether the old woman’s final act is a cheapening of her religion or a finding of it. So yes, the story is theologically themed, but it’s impossible to tell from the fiction provided where O’Connor herself stood on the matter or which way she expects the reader to lean upon reading.
This is also why I felt so conflicted about the portrayal of racism in her stories. What’s clear is that it’s there. The white and black characters filling these stories are always at odds, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that the whites often consider themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s also clear that many of these characters suffer as a result of their racism. What’s unclear is what O’Connor’s stance is on all of it. Normally I would say it doesn’t much matter- I’m a big supporter of separating the art from the artist wherever possible, though I can certainly admit there are cases (especially with classics) where knowing a bit about the author’s circumstances can enhance the reading experience. But the fact that there is so much up for debate in O’Connor’s stories leaves the reader uncertain which way things are “meant,” and it’s hard to decide what to believe without knowing the author’s intentions- hence questioning O’Connor’s personal stance on the themes she returns to so often in her fiction.
Frequent use of racial slurs and stereotyping can be found in everything from the first story to the last, and O’Connor’s approach to race remains in-your-face and morally questionable throughout the book. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that facet of these stories, especially since I happened to be reading this as George Floyd was killed, protests swept across America, and the volume was turned way up on conversations about racism. There’s plenty of racism to be found in O’Connor’s stories.
There should never be a time where it’s comfortable to read about racism, but the tail-end of May 2020 was one of the absolute worst moments for it. However, while I agree wholeheartedly that racism should not be condoned or supported in any way, I think including racist characters in fiction can have a positive/worthwhile effect, if the racism is portrayed as an evil. It can be used as a lesson, as a cautionary device. And for the most part, that is how it came across for me in O’Connor’s stories. The racist characters O’Connor writes are often depicted as being in the wrong, and learning so. But there’s also some casual racism that is not challenged, which I chalked up to being a product of its time and place- though an article I read recently has made me reconsider that stance. The 1950s – 60s was still a time of significant racial inequality in the US, but it’s worth noting that America was undergoing a change in these years that other authors of O’Connor’s day handled in other, arguably better, ways. In that same article, one particular hypothesis jumped out at me: that O’Connor’s stories on racial tensions were perhaps a way for her to work through her own racism.
Apparently racism is much more apparent and overt in O’Connor’s essays, letters, and other works. I’ve not read any of O’Connor’s nonfiction, so I can’t speak on it, but the speculation about working through her own racist thoughts struck a chord for me even with only her stories to go on. I came to this collection much more interested in the fiction than the author- I knew O’Connor had been an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, and since my undergrad studies brought me in close proximity to that program (the grad students there led the undergrad creative writing workshops that I took part in) it’s been a personal interest of mine to read previous Workshop writers when I can, to see the fiction that was produced and published from that familiar environment. (If you’re looking for better alternatives from Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, let me strongly recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for starters.) I didn’t intend to learn about O’Connor’s personal history or read her letters- it wasn’t her real life I was interested in. But now that I know a bit about them it’s not something I can ignore.
Ultimately, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly where I stand on whether O’Connor is doing a good thing with the content of her stories or not. I did feel most of the time that O’Connor was questioning and condemning racism through her fiction. But I also thought while reading that perhaps it was progressive for her to do that in her time- but her stories aren’t actually that old, and certainly other writers have done more in the way of calling out racial inequality at that time than O’Connor (these were the days of Martin Luther King Jr’s essays and speeches! He was not alone in challenging the status quo). I want to be able to say that she’s trying to do a good thing here, but I was left feeling uneasy about it all, and I suppose that speaks for itself.
I had the same uncertainties about what O’Connor was trying to say about religion; she’s clearly very concerned with morals and religious rituals, though it’s not always clear where she stands in the fiction despite being Catholic herself. In the end, I just wasn’t as concerned about whether O’Connor was supporting or condemning Christianity as about where she stood on racism. One’s stance on religion, I think, is mainly a reflection of personal choice, whereas one’s approach to racism can impact those surrounding (or in this case reading the work of) that person. Whether you practice religion or not should be up to you. Whether you practice racism should not be.
“She felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”
So why put myself through all this confusion? Why talk about O’Connor at all? Because she is, I think, a good storyteller (in the way that Stephen King is a good storyteller though he also has a knack for problematic writing). O’Connor’s characters, even the despicable ones, always feel like real people one might meet on the streets (or the farms) of 1950s Georgia. She doesn’t shy away from violence or death, which keeps her plot twists shocking and unpredictable. Her work feels like a snapshot in time- perhaps not a flattering snapshot, but it’s worth recognizing where people have been wrong, I think. Should Flannery O’Connor be remembered and studied? Perhaps. But if so, she should be recognized for her flaws as well as her assets.
I do like that O’Connor doesn’t try to tell the reader what to think; her characters’ actions and opinions leave no room for doubt, and yet conclusions on meaning are still left to the reader. She touches on law and politics, city vs rural life, academia vs spirituality, death and grief, parenthood and care for those in need, loneliness and community, and plenty more big toics that are still relevant today. Her writing noticeably improves as she goes, becoming sharper, more immersive, and I think more personal, toward the end of her career. The stories that originally appeared in her last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are (in my opinion) the most impressive. There’s also a beautiful sort of symmetry to the fact that this chronologically-organized complete collection is bookended by two attempts at writing the same story- her first published short story, “The Geranium,” was also her final work, rewritten as “Revelation,” a much stronger version, shortly before her death. She may not have been a good person, and her talent may have been put to better use with subjects other than race, but she is a skilled writer nonetheless. Do I recommend reading her work? …Not without a lot of caution and a firm idea going in of where you stand on racism and religion.
My favorite stories from the set included:
- “A Stroke of Good Fortune” – A woman realizes something serious about her health
- “The River” – A young boy is taken to be baptized by a babysitter and there discovers a way to escape his neglectful parents
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family goes on a road trip and encounters danger
- “The Lame Shall Enter First” – A man takes in a bright but troubled boy, hoping to give him and his own son a better start to adult life
- “Parker’s Back” – A man gets a bold tattoo in an attempt to impress his wife
“He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I originally pegged this as a 4 because most of the second half of the book consisted of 4-star stories for me, and I was willing to round up for writing growth. But now that I’ve read a bit deeper on O’Connor’s body of work and racist remarks, and as I’ve sat with this collection a bit longer and remember it a little less fondly in general, I’ve changed my rating to a 3 to acknowledge that initial and lasting discomfort over the lack of clarity in whether O’Connor is speaking against racism through these stories. There are certainly individual pieces worth reading, but I would recommend only picking this full collection up if you’re prepared to do a deeper dive into O’Connor’s life and work as a sort of author study; I do think there’s merit here and plenty to learn, but without putting in a substantial amount of work I’m not convinced the reader is able to draw any conclusions that really make the experience worth the time and effort.
The Literary Elephant