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Topics For Essays About Flannery O Connor

O’Connor always saw herself as writing from an explicitly Christian point of view; indeed, given her convictions, that was the only way she could consider writing. She saw her religion as liberation and considered it a vocation in much the way one might be called to the priesthood. At the same time, she resented the sentimental expectations that people frequently hold toward what they might call “religious” fiction—maudlin stories about deathbed conversions and inspirational saints’ lives.

O’Connor undermined those expectations by her use of humor; she avoided pious characters and conventionally “churchy” settings. Instead, she drew her characters and settings from the rural South she knew so well. Those characters were sometimes labeled grotesques by critics and scholars, but she rejected the term, feeling that it originated with writers who understood the South as little as they understood Christianity, a condition of ignorance she intended to remedy. She understood that she was writing to a secular world, and she intended to instruct it in the Christian understanding of grace and redemption as the elements most central to human life. At the same time, O’Connor recognized the dangers of becoming a sermonizer instead of an artist (she talked about that issue in some of her addresses), although the satiric humor in her style, the violence in her plots, and her strange characters made it unlikely that she would fall into that difficulty.

O’Connor’s themes return to the issue of grace and redemption again and again. In her first novel, Wise Blood, the central character, Hazel Motes, begins as a man who is determined to escape the compelling image of Jesus which haunts him. His death, however, is an affirmation of grace, as O’Connor is careful to make clear in imagery which suggests that in his death Hazel is returning to Bethlehem.

O’Connor’s other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has a similar major theme. Its central character is Francis Marion Tarwater, a boy who, like Motes, is attempting to escape a calling. At the end of the novel, however, he is setting out to return to the city in his new role as prophet. What both Motes and Tarwater have experienced is the lacerating effect of God’s grace, a grace which, O’Connor implies, is far removed from its syrupy portrayal in popular hymns. Instead, it seems to have more in common with the terrifying experiences of Old Testament prophets, for whom it is manifested as God’s relentless insistence on bestowing mercy as he chooses.

O’Connor’s short stories reveal similar thematic material. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), one sees a foolish and self-centered old woman who comes to a moment of grace just as she ceases mouthing platitudes to a mass murderer who is going to kill her seconds later. In “Revelation” (1964), smug, self-satisfied Ruby Turpin has a vision that teaches her what she never before understood—that the last shall be first in Heaven and that her material well-being is not necessarily a mark of divine favor. Similarly, in “The River” (1955), the little boy simply accepts the preacher’s assertion that baptism in the river leads to the kingdom of Christ. It also leads to his death by drowning, but, as O’Connor shows from the rest of the characters, he has paradoxically died into life, while people such as his worldly parents are caught in a sort of living death.

Violence is often an element in O’Connor’s stories; in fact, she once said that her own faith made her conscious of the constant presence of death in the world, and her illness must have had the same effect. That probably explains the large number of deaths in her stories, and it may also account for the strong sense of danger in many of them. In “Good Country People” (1955), for example, Hulga’s wooden leg is stolen by a dishonest Bible salesman. In “Revelation,” mentioned above, Mrs. Turpin is attacked in the doctor’s office by a girl who has suddenly gone mad.

Events and characters such as these are the source of the charge that O’Connor’s characters are grotesques. The word seems to imply that they are too exaggerated to belong in realistic fiction. Early critics, especially, had a difficult time understanding what O’Connor intended, and they often believed that characters such as Tarwater and Hazel Motes were simply insane or too out of touch with modern values (which the critics themselves, O’Connor felt, too often embodied) to be taken seriously. O’Connor’s comments about her own work, however, make clear that she was quite serious about them. Her backwoods preachers, she believed, came closer to understanding the human condition in relationship to God than any number of psychologists, teachers, and sociologists, none of whom ever appear very flatteringly in her fiction.

Another way of looking at the issue of the grotesque in O’Connor’s work, however, may lend more weight to the charge. Her novels and stories are peopled almost entirely with characters who are the result of O’Connor’s satiric view of the world. They are often funny, but they are almost always unpleasant.

Enoch Emery in Wise Blood is an excellent example of this kind of characterizing. Almost everything about him is simultaneously funny and terrible. His ignorance is responsible for much of his grotesque response to the world. He hates and fears the zoo animals he guards; he never knows how ludicrous he looks to others, and so he imagines that the ugly cook at the snack shop is in love with him and that no one knows he hides in the bushes to watch the women at the swimming pool. His only real hero is Gonga the Gorilla from films. It is characteristic of O’Connor’s work that even Enoch Emery’s father, who never appears in the novel at all, is another example of ugliness and brutality. On his return from the penitentiary, Enoch’s father gave him a gag gift: a can that appeared to contain peanut brittle but, when opened, released a steel spring that popped out and broke Enoch’s two front teeth.

Again and again O’Connor offers comic but extremely unflattering pictures of the people who inhabit her characters’ worlds. In “Revelation,” for example, all the people in the doctor’s office are grimly funny reminders of the varieties of human ugliness—Mrs. Turpin, who offends the reader with smugness and bigotry; Mary Grace, the mad girl who goes to college but who makes her ugliness even worse by making faces at Mrs. Turpin; the “white trash” family that sits immobile in poverty, ignorance, and dirt. Even Mrs. Turpin’s husband, Claud, a man she really loves, is revealed by his racist jokes to be as corrupt as everyone else in the story.

Unremitting human ugliness is a source of much of O’Connor’s humor. She is able to present the dirty, the disfigured, and the stupid as also funny and recognizable as inhabitants of the real world. Because they are almost the only inhabitants of O’Connor’s fictional world, they probably justify the term grotesque.

Another characteristic of O’Connor’s style that concerns her characters is her use of southern dialects, especially those associated with poor white people. In her earlier stories, she often indicated some of their quality with spelling. In Wise Blood, for example, the phrase “worse than having them” is spelled “worsen havinum.” O’Connor reduced the number of such dialect indicators in her later work, but she always took joy in the sounds and sometimes the flamboyance of southern speech. “THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN,” old Tarwater writes to his worldly nephew. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit quotes his father speaking about him: “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters.”

One other issue about O’Connor’s characters deserves mention, and that concerns race. O’Connor’s stories almost all contain black characters—not surprisingly, as all but one are set in the South. O’Connor wrote much of her work in the period just before the first nationwide attention to civil rights, so it may seem curious that she never addressed that issue directly in her fiction. Some scholars have made an effort to find evidence of her sympathy for the growing Civil Rights movement in her work, but such evidence is very slight, if it exists at all.

O’Connor herself implied that southern black and white people inhabited worlds that were so different that a white writer could never really expect to understand the black world. Still, her black characters seem no less attractive than her white ones (none of them is very sympathetic anyway), and the racist comments in her stories come from characters who are themselves racists and would be likely to say such things (a good example is the doctor’s office conversations in “Revelation”).

In contrast to her basically satiric view of human characters, O’Connor’s physical descriptions of people and landscapes are often serious, dramatic, and weighted with symbolism. References to eyes and their color and to the various colors and qualities of the sky are numerous in almost every story. The sky and particularly the sun often seem intended to evoke images of God and Christ looking down on the world. The sun is an ancient symbol for Christ, and O’Connor’s descriptions make clear that the references are intentional. Another frequent symbol in her work is the use of birds to suggest the Holy Spirit or even, in the case of peacocks, Christ himself. Other animals sometimes appear as well, particularly pigs and monkeys, which often seem intended to suggest the bestial nature of fallen humanity, intelligent but debased and corrupt (the pigs in “Revelation” and Gonga in Wise Blood are good examples).

Like many writers, O’Connor often gave symbolic or evocative names to her characters, and they are often worth considering in that light. Mary Grace in “Revelation,” for example, is certainly an agent of divine grace in that story. Hazel (“Haze”) Motes’s name seems to draw one’s attention to his cloudy or hazy vision, reminding the reader of the biblical injunction not to try to take the mote or speck from another’s eye until one has removed the beam from one’s own. Tarwater, the protagonist of The Violent Bear It Away, simply has the name of an old folk remedy.

O’Connor’s literary reputation has risen steadily since her death. Modern readers are increasingly likely to see her serious intentions while relishing her humor. Her debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne has long been noted, but some scholars have begun to notice, too, her debt to Mark Twain—the former for his concern for moral issues, the latter for his comic view. It is on that combination of qualities that O’Connor’s reputation rests.

Wise Blood

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

A backwoods preacher attempts to escape his call but at last gives in to a sort of martyrdom.

Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel; she began work on it while she was still in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It embodies most of her major themes, and it contains some of her best comedy. It is flawed, however, by her difficulties in pulling the two parts of the plot together. The Enoch Emery story is never fully integrated into the Hazel Motes story. O’Connor also had difficulties clarifying the issues about Motes’s past that have turned him into what she called a “Christian malgre lui,” a Christian in spite of himself.

The novel opens on a train as Hazel Motes leaves the Army. He is the grandson of a backwoods preacher, but he finds the image of a Jesus who insists on claiming the human recipients of his mercy to be unbearably disturbing. He has resisted inheriting his grandfather’s role, that of preaching from the hood of a car to listeners on a small-town square. Hazel has long decided that he wants to avoid that Jesus, first by trying to avoid sin and later by asserting that Jesus is nothing more than a trick.

Even on the train, however, O’Connor makes clear that Hazel’s cheap blue suit—brand-new, with the price tag ($11.98) still attached—and his black hat look exactly like the traditional garb of the preacher he refuses to be. Nevertheless, Hazel startles his worldly fellow passengers by suddenly claiming that if they are saved he would not want to be. Like many such comments in O’Connor’s work, this carries an ironic weight, for it is quite clear that salvation is the last thing the ladies in the dining car desire.

When Hazel arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he heads for the house of a prostitute, Leora Watts, as the next step in asserting that sin is an irrelevant issue in his life. Significantly, however, both the cab driver and Leora herself identify Hazel as a preacher, an identification he violently rejects. Soon Hazel sees a street preacher, Asa Hawks, who claims to have blinded himself as a demonstration of faith, although early in the novel the reader learns that his blindness is a sham. Hazel is both drawn to and repelled by Hawks and his adolescent daughter Sabbath Lily. Gradually it comes to Hazel that seducing Hawks’s daughter would make a dramatic assertion of sin’s irrelevance.

In the course of seeking Hawks’s house, Hazel meets Enoch Emery. Enoch is eager to tell Hazel—or anyone—his story, about how his father gave him to a welfare woman who sent him off to the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy and from whom he later escaped. Now he works for the city as a zoo guard. Desperately lonely and not very smart, Enoch ignores Hazel’s rebuffs and follows him like a puppy, offering to help him find where Hawks lives. Like Hawks, Enoch senses Hazel’s intense concern with Jesus. Hawks, in fact, says that some preacher has left his mark on Haze, but Hazel insists that he believes in nothing at all.

To prove his point, Hazel sets about buying a car, an ancient, rat-colored Essex, for which he pays forty dollars. The car seems to be Hazel’s vision of American materialism (“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he says), but significantly he uses it exactly as his grandfather had used his Ford, as a platform to preach from. His one attempt to use the car in a “traditional” American way, for a date with Sabbath Lily, turns out to be a travesty. It is notable that the first thing Hazel does with his car is to stop in the middle of the highway to read a “Jesus Saves” sign.

Meanwhile, Enoch Emery is acting out his own sort of religion. Enoch claims to have “wise blood,” which tells him what to do, and, in fact, he acts mostly from instinct. He insists that Hazel meet him at the park where he works, and after an elaborate set of ritual activities that include going through the zoo to ridicule the animals, Enoch leads Hazel to the city museum. Enoch finds it a place of enormous mystery because its name is carved, Roman-style, on the front, MVSEVM, creating a word that Enoch is unable to pronounce—like Yahweh, the unutterable name of God in the Old Testament. Inside the museum, Enoch shows Hazel the tiny, mummified man which has captured his imagination, but Hazel is unimpressed.

Hazel has rented a room in the house where Hawks and his daughter live, begun his plan to seduce Sabbath Lily (a plan he executes with a remarkable lack of finesse), and started a sort of church, the Church of Christ Without Christ, to dramatize his rejection of faith. Hazel’s preaching is met with public indifference; however, after a few nights, he gains a disciple in the form of a former radio preacher, Onnie Jay Holy (his real name is Hoover Shoats),...

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  • 1

    Choose one story in which a mother is present. How is her importance demonstrated?

    Answer: In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," The Grandmother is the most important mother, since in her moment of Grace she realizes that The Misfit, who is about to kill her, could be one of her own children. In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," the elder Lucynell Crater dominates her daughter's life and dooms her by convincing Mr. Shiftlet to marry her. In "Good Country People," Mrs. Hopewell's conviction that Manley is just a good country person is a misjudgment. She also suffocates her daughter, Hulga, and does not appreciate Hulga's education. In "The Enduring Chill" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Asbury and Julian blame their mothers for their misfortune and take it out on their mothers with rudeness and disrespect. Julian realizes where he has gone wrong at the end of the story when his mother has a stroke.

  • 2

    Racism is an important theme in many of the stories. Choose one story in which is is relevant and explain how it affects the characters' lives.

    Answer: In "The Displaced Person," Mrs. Shortley is racist toward Europeans, and is suspicious of the Guizacs for this reason. Mrs. McIntyre decides to do away with Mr. Guizac because he is trying to organize a marriage between his white cousin and Sulk, a black farmhand, even though her financial success will be negatively affected by his departure. Racism is important in "The Artificial Nigger;" though neither Mr. Head nor Nelson feels explicit hatred toward the black people they encounter, they certainly view them as Others and are nervous around them. A level of racism is apparent in Asbury’s interactions with Randall and Morgan in "The Enduring Chill," although he doesn’t believe himself to be racist. The very idea that he would be writing a play about “The Negro” is, of course, racist. Last year when he was writing the play, he had spent time with them on the job, and they had bonded over breaking one of his mother’s rules by smoking in the barn. In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother is clearly racist. She is afraid of the black people who board the bus, and of black people in general, even saying aloud that they would be better off if they had remained slaves. This results in her demise, as she has a stroke after the black woman knocks her down.

  • 3

    Choose one story and explain how weather is used as an indicator of the characters' moods and intentions.

    Answer: For example, in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," weather is an important indicator of characters' moods and important moments. As Tom Shiftlet drives off with the younger Lucynell Crater in the car, supposedly to go on a honeymoon, "The early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky;" he still has a chance to redeem himself. But after he abandons her at The Hot Spot, he has lost his chance at salvation, and the significance of this moment is enforced by the weather: "Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke." After the hitchhiking boy has thrown himself out the passenger door, all is really lost for Tom Shiftlet, and "there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car." The intensity of the weather is increased by its personification throughout the story. When Tom Shiftlet approaches the house of the Lucynell Craters at the beginning of the story, he leans to the side "as if the breeze were pushing him," with his face turned toward the sun "which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain." As Tom Shiftlet drives along slowly after the boy in the overalls has leapt from his car, "A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car."

  • 4

    Choose an example of a character whose glorification of a past time is a major identifying factor. Explain how this preoccupation affects the action of the story.

    Answer: For example, the glorification of the past is prevalent in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in the character of The Grandmother, who expresses nostalgia for the way things used to be in the South. Her mistake about the "old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady" leads to the demise of the whole family when they get in a car accident while driving down the dirt driveway. Before she realizes that the plantation is actually not in Georgia but in Tennessee, she remembers "the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey," imagining the beautiful scene she believes they will soon find.

  • 5

    Explain how the symbols of the sky and sun represents an openness to faith in Christ in two of the stories.

    Answer: The sky represents an openness to faith in "The River." As Bevel preaches in the river, his eyes follow the paths of two birds. They eventually settle "in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky." When Harry tells the preacher that his name is also Bevel, jokingly, the preacher's face is "rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky," in this moment before Harry's baptism. But when he is displeased, after Harry tells him that his mother is in fact only suffering from a hangover, "the sky appeared to darken in his eyes." As Harry runs into the river to drown himself, "The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece - except for the hole the sun made - and fringed around the bottom with treetops." Here, the sky represents Harry's mentality: he is focused and determined, and the only thought in his mind is faith, represented by the sun.

    The sun is a symbol of Catholic faith in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," and its intensity mirrors the characters' embodiment of that faith. After Wendell sings to the girls, they use the Latin songs they have practiced at school to make him and Cory feel confused and embarrassed; accordingly, "The sun was going down and the sky was turning a bruised violet color." After the child has achieved Grace in the chapel of the convent school, during the drive home, "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." The Host, which Catholics like O'Connor believe is literally transformed into the body of Christ, is also linked to the hermaphrodite's body when the child thinks of the "freak" during the mass ceremony.

  • 6

    Many characters in O'Connor's stories demonstrate a disgust with the state of the world. Elaborate on this tool of characterization as it applies to three characters.

    Answer: In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," disgust with the world is evident in Red Sammy Butts' conversation with The Grandmother. The Grandmother states that, "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust." This belief contradicts her Christian faith, of course.

    In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Tom Shiftlet is disenchanted with the state of the world. After the elder Lucynell Crater tells him that her car no longer runs, he says, "Nothing is like it used to be, lady... The world is almost rotten." Later, when he is fixing the car, he comments that "the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble." By the end of the story, after he has abandoned the younger Lucynell Crater and caused the hitchhiking boy to jump out of his car, he "felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him."

    The title of the story “Good Country People” refers to Mrs. Hopewell’s judgments of people whom she believes she can trust. These people are distinct from the majority of the world, since “in this day and age, you get good country people, you had better hang onto them. She had had plenty of experience with trash.”

    In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother complains about the state of the world. Out of nowhere, while they are discussing her hat, she says, “With the world in the mess it’s in, it’s a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.” This is a reference to racial integration, which she sees as disempowering to white families like theirs. Aboard the bus, before any black people are on it, she says to another white woman about integration, “The world is in a mess everywhere. I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”

  • 7

    Many of Flannery O'Connor's protagonists are deformed or suffer from disabilities. Choose one of the characters and describe how he or she becomes defined by the deformity or disability.

    Answer: In “Good Country People,” Hulga used to be insecure about her wooden leg, but she has come to value it and to keep it sacred. She almost worships it in place of God, since she has no faith. This ends up leading to her betrayal by Manley. Mrs. Freeman relishes hearing about deformities, and Hulga has heard Mrs. Hopewell relating to her the details of the hunting accident that cost Hulga her leg. Rufus Johnson has a club foot in "The Lame Shall Enter First," and protects it much in the same way that Hulga protects her artificial leg. He refuses to wear the special corrective shoe that Sheppard buys for him, because he identifies himself by his club foot.

  • 8

    Eyes are an important symbol in many of O'Connor's stories. Choose a story in which they are described as violent and explain how this is effective.

    [Answer]: For example, eyes are often violent in "The Enduring Chill." When Mary George tells Asbury that if she looked as bad as he does she would go to the hospital, “Her mother cut her eyes sharply at her and she left.” As Doctor Block examines Asbury for the first time, his “drill-like gaze swung over [his mouth] and bore down.” Similarly, when Doctor Block has reported that he is suffering from undulant fever and will not die, “Block’s gaze seemed to reach down like a steel pin and hold whatever it was until the life was out of it.” When Father Finn chastises Asbury for being ignorant of the Holy Ghost, Asbury “moved his arms and legs helplessly as if he were pinned to the bed by the terrible eye” through which the priest sees. Since the story is told from Asbury's perspective, the reader gets the impression that Asbury only interprets these gazes from the doctor and the priest as violent. In reality, the men want to help him, but he is scared of them and aggressive toward them.

  • 9

    In "The Displaced Person," how is violent imagery associated with language used to enforce the characters' racism?

    Answer: In "The Displaced Person," Mrs. Shortley's fear of the Guizac family manifests as an imaginary battle between the Polish language and the English language: "She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other." When Mrs. McIntyre yells at Father Flynn in Part III, "her voice fell across his brogue like a drill into a mechanical saw." As Father Flynn preaches to her, Mrs. McIntyre does not listen, but rather waits for "an opportunity to drive a wedge into his talk." The mention of Father Flynn's "brogue" identifies him as originating in Ireland and thus as being different from Mrs. McIntyre.

  • 10

    Grace is one of the most important themes in O'Connor's stories. Choose a story in which Grace plays an important role and describe how it is symbolized.

    Answer: Rather than accepting Grace, Asbury has been worshiping Art as a god instead in "The Enduring Chill." He realizes this when he overhears Mary George say that he has decided to be an invalid because he cannot be an artist, thinking, “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death.” When Father Finn instructs him to pray, he responds, “The artist prays by creating.” The stain on Asbury’s bedroom ceiling can be interpreted as representing the Holy Ghost. It appears to him as a “fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak.” Since he has closed himself off to faith, he finds it irritating and sometimes frightening. After Father Finn leaves, having instructed him about the Holy Ghost, Asbury “looked at the fierce bird with the icicle in its beak and felt that it was there for some purpose that he could not divine.” When he realizes that he is doomed to a long life suffering from undulant fever, “the fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion.” It descends toward him, since he is doomed to suffer for his refusal to open his mind to Grace.

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