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Flannery O’Connor: A Brief Introduction to Her Themes and Symbols

Flannery O’Connor: A Brief Introduction To Her Themes And Symbols

Over the past twenty-five years or so, the fiction of Georgian Flannery O’Connor has enjoyed the widespread critical attention and popular readership that eludes far too many “serious” novelists and story writers. She is safely ensconced in that pantheon of twentieth-century writers whose membership leans heavily towards Southerners and that includes Mississippians William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, and O’Connor’s fellow Georgian Carson McCullers. In other words she is among the luminaries of modern American letters whose work has provided the basis for numerous dissertations, classroom discussions, and critical tomes.1 A danger exists, however, that O’Connor’s work has been subsumed by academia, when it is the general public who is in greater need of her stories and novels and their vivid depiction of the social and spiritual malaise that currently grip contemporary society. The following essay attempts, if nothing more, a summation of O’Connor’s thematic/theological concerns and her methods of handling them in fiction.

O’Connor’s conscious use of symbolism in an effort to depict Catholic doctrine in stories and novels set in the fiercely Protestant South of the 1940s and 1950s no doubt accounts in part for the critical attention paid her work. O’Connor was interested in questions of freedom and free will (an entire novel, Wise Blood, is devoted to the issue), and her unflinching explorations of these themes, especially in her last story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, borders very nearly on proselytizing in its repetitions, in the harsh fates dealt those characters, both men and women, who have chosen free will over freedom. But O’Connor never apologized for this thematic consistency or its inherent repetition. She was, after all, as she says of herself in the introduction to the second edition of Wise Blood, “an author congenitally free of theory but one with certain preoccupations.”2

Two elements seem to contribute to the popular appeal of O’Connor’s work once these theological considerations have been set aside. The first is O’Connor’s brilliant use of humor, which may or may not be consciously employed to leaven the gravity of her Christian symbolism. O’Connor’s humor is a kind of amalgam of sarcasm and verbal slapstick—she is not reticent, for example, about letting her characters take actual spills to the ground or suffer other such physical humiliations—the sarcasm arguably in tune with the Southerner’s defeated, weary, resigned view of the world in general. O’Connor is as deft with a one-liner or a bit of repartee as Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld but is a whole lot more profound and much funnier as well. When, in “Revelation,” a masterful story from O’Connor’s last collection, a lower-class woman, one who’d be commonly referred to as “white trash,” exclaims that she has purchased some “joo’ry” with trading stamps, Ruby Turpin, the story’s protagonist, quips to herself, “Ought to have got you a wash rag and some soap.”3 In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” from O’Connor’s first collection, Mr. Shiftlet, a huckster out to steal an automobile from an ignorant but equally ambitious country woman, says he would be glad to sleep in said car and reminds her that “the monks of old slept in their coffins,” to which the good woman replies, “They wasn’t as advanced as we are.”4

A second element contributing to the continuing interest in O’Connor’s fiction is her use of the grotesque (or what she would call “distorted reality”), a commodity in twentieth-century Southern fiction, as anyone familiar with the field knows. Of course such a predilection has given critics ammunition with which to cudgel Southern writers, but O’Connor remained undaunted. She populated her fiction with febrile preachers, proud country matrons, conniving Bible salesmen, 106-year-old Confederate veterans, and any number of other eccentrics whose physical deformities provide perfect physical correlatives for absence of the humility that presages Christian salvation. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” for instance, Mr. Shiftlet’s disproportionate arm symbolizes his own spiritual lack, and a similar aridity is illustrated in “Good Country People” in the wooden leg of Hulga, a professor of philosophy and avowed atheist.

In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor explains the Southern penchant for the grotesque:

“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”5

This remark could be interpreted as follows: Man is a creature of entirety, physical and spiritual, and if spirituality is missing, man might as well be missing an arm or leg. Hulga, for instance, in “Good Country People,” may have her doctorate degree and be a genius in the field of philosophy, but her rejection of Christian doctrine, a lack symbolized by her wooden leg, leaves her vulnerable to the machinations of the wily Bible salesman suggestively named Manly T. Pointer, who knows all too well how cunning human nature can be. And in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Mr. Shiftlet, whose very name is packed with thematic possibilities, shows an absence of basic human decency in his attempt to manipulate an old woman and her mute daughter out of an automobile (with, it must be noted, the mother in complicity). His deformed arm makes an exterior display of this absence, one which he finally seems to ascertain for himself at the story’s close, when the reader has all along sensed that Shiftlet is, with his spiritual “disability,” a far more “handicapped” figure than Lucynelle Crater, the deaf-mute target of his scam.

Obviously use of the grotesque, in O’Connor’s case, is not mere ornamentation or exploitation, and such symbolism does more than lay bare spiritual lack. It reveals prescience in her work perhaps she never saw, one that may be termed social commentary, although O’Connor, never a fan of sociology, might have balked at such a characterization of her work, seeing social commentary as an inappropriate end for the fiction writer. Nevertheless a close reading of these novels and stories reveals an acute criticism of post-World War II American manners and mores, rampant materialism, pride, vanity, and, the logical consequence of all these human failings, lack of the honest piety that gives a civilization coherence and continuity.

Wise Blood, her first novel and published book (1952), has as its setting, ostensibly, a large Southern city, a world in which materialism and mendacity rule the day, a world of hucksters, conniving preachers, prostitutes, aimless youth, men and women who, in the absence of genuine spirituality, must find some substitute in money or casual sex. Into this world wanders Hazel Motes, ex-soldier and practically the only character in the book whose concerns are spiritual. But Haze has come to Taulkinham, this fictionalized city (is it Birmingham? is it Nashville? is it Atlanta?), not to convert sinners to an orthodox Christianity but to emphasize the nonexistence of Christ and the lie of redemption. In fact he aims to start something called the “Church Without Christ.” For O’Connor this is a start. At least Haze Motes is, to use her term, “bothered” by the notion of Christ, and as the novel proceeds he is increasingly fascinated by the supposed sufferings of an itinerant preacher (which turn out to be manufactured) and by book’s end has imitated this suffering in order to obtain the grace denied the other characters, lost in their empty pursuits of money and loveless carnality.

Motes is not the only character in the book with the potential for spiritual wholeness. Others, including the supposedly blind street preacher and a phony evangelist who wants to make money from Motes’s Church Without Christ, have some sense of grace, but each is too bound by ego and rapacious desire for money. A third character, Enoch Emery, also exhibits the potential, but he seems hungrier for human companionship and approval than redemption. In Wise Blood O’Connor does a striking job of painting a portrait of the world given over almost entirely to its sensual appetites. Certainly it would be an easy thing, almost facile in fact, to draw comparisons between her furtive, scheming “men of God” and the coruscating variety that inhabits “inspirational” television, ostensibly offering salvation while simultaneously hawking prayer cloths, Virgin Mary neck ties, and plastic replications of Christ on the Cross. The final image O’Connor gives us here, notwithstanding Haze Motes acquiescence to the ghost which pursues him, is a civilization in its last throes, the very twilight of Christendom itself, to alter a phrase by Andrew Lytle, the novelist and critic who also served as O’Connor’s teacher at the University of Iowa in the 1940’s. Lytle characterizes O’Connor’s work as follows:

“The general enveloping action of her stories is a state not predominately but absolutely secular and material, in which her heroes and heroines miss salvation because of complete selfishness and self love. Actually it is impossible to find any society so given over totally to the evil nature of man. This can only be done in an art form. Hence the monstrosity and grotesqueness of her characters. . . . I would say her fiction. . .resembles a morality play. . . .”6

O’Connor’s tendency to depict the abandonment and disparagement of genuine spirituality and the possibility of Christian redemption is even more acutely present in her shorter fiction. In “The Displaced Person,” the final story in A Good Man is Hard to Find, the protagonist, Mrs. McIntyre, is the proprietor of a farm bequeathed to her by her late husband and is struggling to make ends meet with the help of poor black and poor white sharecroppers. She allows a family of Eastern émigrés, “displaced persons” they are called, to tenant on her farm. They have been brought to her in the wake of the Second World War by a Roman Catholic priest who is anxious to discuss religious doctrine with Mrs. McIntyre, who will hear none of it. “I’m not theological,” she tells him. “I’m practical. I want to talk to you about something practical!”7 For people like Mrs. McIntyre religion is a “social occasion” and for “those people who don’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”8

When Mr. Guizac, the head of this émigré family, proves himself a wizard at fieldwork, employing Mrs. McIntyre’s farm equipment with great adeptness and efficiency, Mrs. McIntyre exclaims, “I am saved! That man is my salvation!”9 Mrs. McIntyre is a modern woman. She has placed her faith in industry, thriftiness, machinery, and man, not God, and like all O’Connor characters who make a similar mistake, she is, by story’s end, disillusioned, for she eventually learns that Mr. Guizac, behind her back, is attempting to bring over to the United States his young cousin by marrying her to one of Mrs. McIntyre’s black fieldhands. By the end of the story, paralyzed by shock at Mr. Guizac’s accidental death (in which she is inadvertently complicit) and bedridden, Mrs. McIntyre has no choice but to listen to the lectures on Catholic doctrine delivered by the well-meaning priest.

In “The River” a boy, whose mother and father neglect him in order to continue their perpetual alcoholic socializing, discovers from his pious “backwoods” babysitter that Jesus Christ is an actual personage and not a swear term as he’s been led to believe at home. By story’s end he goes seeking a literal Kingdom of God beneath the surface of a wooded river where earlier he was baptized. His antagonist in this search is an atheist named Mr. Paradise, another of O’Connor’s grotesques whose deformed ear signals his spiritual deficiency. And in “Good Country People,” the aforementioned Hulga is an atheistic philosophy professor whose own missing leg, lost in a hunting accident, symbolizes her own spiritual vacuity. Like Mrs. McIntyre, she has transferred her faith to something else, in this case human intellect. She will not allow her mother to keep a Bible in the house and attempts to get the best of a redneck Bible salesman, who turns the tables on her by seducing her, stealing her wooden leg, and revealing his own hypocrisy—“I hope you don’t think I believe that crap!” he tells her as he takes away her appendage. His own faithfulness is symbolized by a phony Bible, hollowed out to hold a whiskey flask.

This faithlessness, or transferal of faith to industry, intellect, science, sex, the Gross National Product, etc., is too well illustrated in present-day America to warrant any enumeration here. But what is interesting, and distressing, is that this same spiritual paralysis has almost completely overtaken contemporary Southern letters. Of course there are still a handful of Southern fictionists who have as their concern matters of the spirit and man’s relationship to God—one need only think of the late George Garrett, the late Reynolds Price, the still living and thriving Fred Chappell, Cormac McCarthy, and Wendell Berry, and the fine but neglected Tennessee novelist Madison Jones ( a writer whom O’Connor greatly admired and praised publicly)—but these are writers of an older generation and their numbers are few and far between. What we are left with, even below the Mason-Dixon line, is a literature grounded in the materialism and morbid self-centeredness that has overwhelmed the remainder of the nation. Fred Hobson, in his excellent monograph on contemporary Southern letters, The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World, makes note of this trend, particularly in his discussion of the Kentucky novelist and story writer Bobbie Ann Mason and her novel In Country, whose heroine, a seventeen year old girl named Sam, almost completely lacks an historical consciousness and feels more affinity to TV shows and characters like Johnny Carson and M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye than she does her own family. She is indicative of a culture engulfed by media and materialism, that expects the immediate gratification provided by a thirty-minute sitcom. Mr. Hobson expresses it more eloquently:

“What we have here are characters who inhabit shopping malls and drive-ins with no idea of and no concern for what was there fifty years before, no idea of how they fit into the whole picture, temporally or spatially. . . .”10

What are the consequences of disentangling ourselves from the spiritual and the sacred? For literature, such divorce poses dire results, as the late critic Walter Sullivan, notes in his collection In Defense of Blood Sports. Sullivan, paraphrasing Jacques Maritain, says that only a Christian can be a good novelist.11 He is not being bigoted or even completely serious for that matter. What he means is that, while a writer may not possess the hardcore religious convictions of a Flannery O’Connor, he should at least have some sense of man’s spirituality in order to treat his characters in their entirety. Man, after all, is more than a mere collection of corpuscles, ligaments, and follicles. He is both body and spirit, and any truly serious artist must be prepared to face this duality or be content to populate his novels with one, perhaps two-dimensional characters.

O’Connor’s fiction offers some idea of what happens when the safeguard of religious impulse has been removed from society: man is allowed to cast off humility, since he answers to no higher authority than his own ego, and is free to pursue the dictates of his sensual nature. The Romantic notions of the nineteenth century, fathered by Wordsworth, among others, in which man becomes the master of his own destiny and casts off the conventions of society, including religious tendencies, have found their monstrous realization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In place of piety comes vanity, pride, appetite.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” the grandmother, who has more or less invited herself to go along with her son and his family to Florida, dresses up in her finest clothes just in case the family has an accident and “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”12 This inordinate pride seems harmless in this early context, a matter of simple vanity, but turns deadly for the family later on when the grandmother is too proud to admit that she has given her son the wrong directions to a plantation house of her girlhood (the house turns out to be in Tennessee, not Georgia) and they end up in a ravine in the woods, the eventual victims of the maundering Misfit and his gang of murderers.13 To save herself from being shot by The Misfit, the grandmother appeals to his vanity as well—“You’ve got good blood!” she cries out to him. “I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people!”—but to no avail.14 The grandmother’s pride, like Hulga’s intellect, ultimately cannot save her. The Misfit, ironically enough, not acceptably attired, not steeped in superficial manners, has a firmer grasp of man’s spiritual dimension than the seemingly pious grandmother, and after he murders her, makes the observation “She would have been a good woman if there’d been somebody there to shoot her everyday of her life.”15

For O’Connor, pride is often the barrier between man and the humility he needs to achieve salvation. The point is emphasized further in “Revelation,” the masterpiece from O’Connor’s last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Mrs. Turpin, another of O’Connor’s proud country matrons, has devised an elaborate system by which to categorize people:

. . .On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not

the kind she would have been had she been one, but most of them;

then next to them. . .were the white-trash. . .then the homeowners. . .

above them the home and land owners, to which she and Claude

[Mr. Turpin] belonged. . .above [them] people with a lot of money

and much bigger houses and more land. . . . But here the complexity

of it would bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of

money were common and ought to be below she and Claude. . . .16

Mrs. Turpin is obviously superficial, a judge of people’s surfaces, not their depths. In the story, set in a rural doctor’s office, she freely unleashes her contempt of “white trash”—at one point she prays to be made a “good colored” as opposed to “white trash”: “And he [God] would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.” For Mrs. Turpin, cleanliness and respectability are the highest priorities, and anyone who violates these standards suffers her harsh judgement. The revelation of the title comes at the hands of a homely girl a couple seats down from Mrs. Turpin, who, tired of the woman’s pontifications on respectability, hurls a book at her, tells her to “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” and attempt to strangle her. But the girl, unmannered and unacceptable in Mrs. Turpin’s pantheon of human types, is an agent of grace for Mrs. Turpin; she brings Mrs. Turpin an awareness of her own sinful pride, an awareness made clearer at the end of the story by a vision in the night sky of the true order of heaven, with her type, Mrs. Turpin’s type, not first but last. This is perhaps the most miraculous passage in all of O’Connor’s work. The vision comes in the form of a celestial bridge stretched the length of the night sky:

. . .Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.

There were whole companies of white trash clean for the first time. . .

bands of black niggers in white robes. . .battalions of freaks and

lunatics. . .leaping like frogs. . . . And bringing up the rear. . .was a tribe

of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and

Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to

use it right. . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity,

accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable

behavior. . . . Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that

even their virtues were being burned away. . . .17

Freedom, true freedom as O’Connor defines it, one proffered to man by a God of order, requires the annihilation of self, the destruction of pride, vanity, inordinate self-interest, and respectability to achieve saving grace. It is a lesson O’Connor’s characters must learn the hard way and one we, her readers, engulfed as we are in an age increasingly technological, material, and wholly sensual, where religion has been reduced to the quaintness of long discarded habits, are in danger of not learning at all.



1. Brad Gooch’s recent biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor from Little, Brown, and Company has won both excellent reviews and opprobrium in journals and reviews around the world since its publication three years ago. Whatever its flaws and whatever its critical reception, the book remains valuable for its attempt, not often undertaken, to assay O’Connor’s personal life and the way it influenced her fiction-writing.

2. Flannery O’Connor, 3 by Flannery O’Connor (New York: New American Library, 1962), preface.

3. O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), 492.

4. Ibid., 149.

5. O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), 44.

6. Andrew Lytle, Southerners and Europeans: Essays in a Time of Disorder (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1988), 188.

7. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 225.

8. Ibid., 203.

9. Ibid., 203.

10. Fred Hobson, The Southern Writer in the Post-Modern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press), 18.

11. Walter Sullivan, In Praise of Blood Sports and Other Essays (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1990) 52.

12. O’Connor, Complete Stories, 118.

13. It should be noted that much of the dramatic action in O’Connor’s work occurs in woodland settings. The woods might be seen as another of O’Connor’s symbols. There is not only “A Good Man is Hard to Find” with this symbol at play but also “The River,” where the little boy is led through the woods to the revival, a suggestion that he is leaving the darkness of his urban existence for the light (the sun tags right along with him) and in “A View of the Woods” in her second collection Everything That Rises Must Converge in which a “smart aleck” little girl is accidentally murdered by her grandfather. The grandfather is an avaricious old man, another believer in “progress” happy to have his land turned into the plot for a “fishing club.” The granddaughter, whom the old man initially admires, seeing in her his own traits of willfulness and thrift, becomes his adversary, and the two fight. At the end of the story, the old man, alone in the woods, having killed the girl, realizes his own spiritual weakness, while beside him, a yellow tractor, the very symbol of progress, sits ready to eat more red clay. One critic, Inger Thornquist, says the latter story is one “where she [O’Connor] seems to suggest a parallel between Christ’s redemptive bloodshed and the human exploitation of the earth. . . .” Thornquist goes on to quote a December 28, 1956, letter from O’Connor to her friend Betty Hester saying that the woods are a “Christ symbol.” Inger Thornquist, “The Church-Historical Origin of O’Connor’s Blood Symbolism.” Flannery O’Connor’s Radical Reality. Edited by Jan Norby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006) 85–101. O’Connor may have been influenced to use the woods symbolism by Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of her favorite authors. (See Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” for instance.)

14. Ibid., 131–132.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 491.

17. Ibid., 508.


This was originally published in Anamnesis on February 23, 2013.

Randall IveyRandall Ivey

Randall Ivey

Randall Ivey is a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in magazines and journals all over the country, including The South Carolina Review, The Habersham Review, and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He teaches English at the University of South Carolina.

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