The Shock and Value of Flannery O’Connor

Works by Flannery O’Connor are not difficult to read in the way that works by Russian authors or Henry James are difficult to read. They are difficult to read in that O’Connor held that because midcentury men and women had seen incredible things, they were harder to impress and wake up out of the doldrums of modern life. How do you stir someone who seems to be asleep?

The same question could be applied to our technologically savvy, smart phone-using world. We are so sated with entertainment that it can be mind-numbing. The whirring of gadgets no longer registers as noise to us. To arrest our attention, screenwriters and directors aim faster, harder and louder to keep us engaged. Headlines are more salacious, brazen or teasing. Considering this approach, little has changed in the 60 years since O’Connor wrote for her audience.

What does Flannery get right?

O’Connor’s work is shocking and violent. I read her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, with relish after the dissatisfaction I felt with “Madame Bovary.”

In Madame Bovary, the novel fails because of the author’s inability to grasp and the possibility of change in the main characters. They are what they are and what they are will damn them.

The Violent Bear It Away deals very directly with our ability to make a choice, to pursue or run away from a transcendent call.

If you, like Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, believe that man is the only measure of himself, the only one who can call himself to anything, you will disagree with this assessment. But I think there is something beyond us, something bigger than ourselves working in and out of this world.


A belief or experience of transcendence is such a ubiquitous concept across time and cultures that psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman listed it in his list of Character Strengths and Virtues, a concept of positive psychology that examines not what makes a man ill, but well, happy, fulfilled and flourishing.

Internal Locus of Control

Psychology also proposes that successful and well-adapted individuals likely have an internal locus of control (among other things). It is a sense that in a given situation, we can make a choice and our choices matter. Our choices affects the outcomes.

O’Connor’s vision aligns with these concepts. In all her works, we meet broken characters. Most are generally broken by pride. Pride that they are superior in their righteousness, in their class, in their skin color, in their education. It is often the humbler character of her writing who can see the bigger picture, for pride blots out a multitude of good sense.

As these characters, limited by their background or the smallness of the world, interact with the more worldly ones puffed up by pride, something happens. There is an action, an encounter, to deflate the proud. In her short stories, the action is presented in a tightly woven series of events and comes to a quick and intense ending, often deadly.

Even modern man with his gadgets and medicine cannot escape this last end.

We saw our society shaken down with fear of death as the novel virus with unknown origin, risk factors and spread came onto the stage. Anxiety persists even up to now. It has rocked those who felt safe and secure in their modern world to their core.

This, O’Connor believes, is the moment of grace. It is the moment of invitation. It is the moment to ask ourselves, when faced with the universal reality of death, “So what?”

So what? What difference will it make?

Did this last year change you?

What did you do with the anxiety surrounding death?

Those with the stomach for it, who can overcome the shocking quality of her work, find themselves returning to her work again and again. With the shock worn down by repeat exposure, they find themselves drawn into the mystery of these questions. What is the moment of grace? What is the call to transcendence? What choice does the character make? His or her actions have consequences; they mean something; they matter.

And so do yours.

Meet Flannery O’Connor

At a time when it seems society’s rules are either niceness or insult, sentimentality over thought, I began to feel out of place in my riots of opinion, when the words poured out in a verbose storm.

My writing is steady but the network is small. I lack the ever-desirable community of writers with whom I might feel simpatico.

Along came Flannery.

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May I introduce you to Flannery O’Connor?

More concise words than mine can provide a smart introduction to this remarkably smart woman. Suffice it to say, Flannery’s name was one I have heard since encountering the shocking and violent story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in an educational milieu.

Flannery’s name popped up from time to time among Catholic circles. As I entered more into the Catholic literati (anonymously through social media) her name and body of work became a force to be reckoned with. It was in listening, yet again, to “The Fountains of Carrots” Podcast that I encountered a sincere passion for a remarkable writer.

Their advice was not to begin with her short stories for an introduction but her novels, starting with “The Violent Bear It Away.” Best to alternate between reading O’Connor’s fiction and letters in order to come up for air from the grotesque.

Flannery O’Connor was a successful writer in Milledgeville, Georgia in the 1950s and 60s, who died at age 39 of lupus-related kidney failure.

I read her two novels and recommended “A Good Man” for a book club, knowing just enough to facilitate the group. Her stories illustrate the action of grace in the lives of the broken, who, for the most part, are trying to resist it. If grace works in conjunction with nature, but nature is deformed, what will happen? This question she explored.

As my reading continued, I purchased the 600-page volume of O’Connor’s letters. It was true what they said. Here I met her.

What drew me in first was her unabashed opinions. She wrote what she thought and did not hold back.

How long had I been surrounded by the feeling that one must be “nice,” not step on toes, not speak with the freedom the clear ideas I developed throughout the day after listening and reading. For fear offending, I veiled language and opinion.

This is not a call to be rude but to be honest. O’Connor was honest. In her letters to friends, in her letters to strangers, she was full of integrity, said it like it was. If she did not have an opinion, she said that too.

Here is a woman to be admired, I thought.

Deeper into the pages, I followed the advice, alternating between stories and letters. Letters are a powerful way to meet another person.

Next, I discovered the way Flannery, already a respected writer, sent her stories out again and again to friends whose opinion she valued for the input. She almost always made the recommended changes, trusting them for their technical skill and because they grasped the vision of what she was about. It was not their intention to change her writing, as one publisher would have done, but to help make it better. That willingness to seek out the advice of others, to put her work on display and humbly make corrections stirred me. It is a frightful thing to submit for feedback. Yet, she did it again and again.

Inspired I sent my own work out. The responses were promising.

O’Connor wrote letters. If she loved a novel, she wrote a letter to the writer to tell him so. This was how some of her friendships were formed. Before social media and author’s lists of 20,000 followers, these letters formed lasting friendships.

Authenticity, humility, connection.

There is a great deal more to be gained from Flannery O’Connor. She saw the world for what it was, full of pain and full of hope; full of disfigurement and full of beauty. She saw humans as prone to pride and arrogance, but redeemable when a crack can be made. She was interested in that crack.

With any author, you can study the literature and you can study the author. For the time being, I aim to study both.