Culture

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) An unsettling writer for today's reader

Literature is not just entertainment. For the American Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor it is a means of stirring up readers and making them think. O'Connor does this often with grotesque characters and violent situations, she is not "politically correct" and thus invites us to reflect on the meaning of life.

María Teresa Kamel and Jaime Nubiola-September 20, 2021-Reading time: 4 minutes
Andalusia Farm, Georgia, where O'Connor wrote his best stories.

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), a Catholic writer from the southern United States, is considered one of the most important authors of the 20th century. Personally, I have never connected with her tremendous stories. However, I am impressed by her ability to reach new readers today. I transcribe what Teresa Kamel writes to me from Los Angeles:

"Several years ago, I spent the morning of my birthday drowning in existential agony. Lying in bed, I silently mourned the years I was leaving behind, wishing for a way to return and regain the identity of yesterday's child. I feared the years ahead of me and the weight of their demands and uncertain promises. I was five years old.

I felt accompanied when I came across Flannery O'Connor's writings during my university years. In her work I saw crystallized in a palpable and profound way my childhood fear of the passage of time. For O'Connor, a devout Catholic until her death, spiritual conversion is not a process, but a slap in the face, and the moment of truth comes even if one is not ready. Her characters come to encounter not only their own banality and inner poverty, but also the opportunity to come to terms with even their most pathetic failings.

The theme of spiritual fulfillment leaves a marked imprint in A good man is hard to find (1955). This is one of O'Connor's best-known stories. It begins simply enough: a grandmother goes on a car trip from Georgia to Florida with her son Bailey, her daughter-in-law, and her three grandchildren. The story is comic, poking fun at the grandmother's superficial concerns (when discussing this story, Flannery would refer to it as. "the silly old lady"). However, the reception of the story was shocking because of the abrupt violence that follows: a group of prisoners finds the family and kills them one by one. The grandmother is the last to die. After killing her, her murderer, the leader of the prisoners-known as "the Misfit" [the Unbalanced]-tells his companions that. "she would have been a good woman if she had had someone around to shoot her every minute of her life.". Not surprisingly, this phrase concentrated the displeasure of critics and readers.

The ending of this story also caused me some anguish when I first read it. How can a life end so abruptly, with so little compassion and no preparation whatsoever? Actually, O'Connor knew the answer better than anyone. At the age of twenty-five she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosusthe same autoimmune disease that had killed his father in 1941. Although the initial prognosis was promising, the symptoms of his disease quickly began to take effect, limiting his mobility and strength. He died fourteen years later. 

O'Connor knew her calling was writing and her encounter with impending death gave her a sense of urgency to complete her mission. A good man is hard to find suggests that the awareness of his vocation leaves him no room for vanity. Her protagonist manifests a concern for values that will not help her in her last moments. The grandmother prepares for the journey with a hat that assured her that "in the event of an accident, anyone who saw her dead on the road would know instantly that she was a lady." She insists on taking a tour to visit a mansion she knew as a child; she lies to her grandchildren to pique their interest by telling them there is a secret panel in the house, and Bailey is forced to change her route to calm the uproar Grandma has caused her grandchildren.

Although these episodes are not without humor and irony, they serve as a motive for his death. The detour she so insists on leads them to meet her killers after an accident. The hat will be broken and thrown on the ground, where she herself will lie dead. That the grandmother's intentions were never malevolent is beside the point: her manipulations and disordered priorities prevent the family from reaching their destination, leading them to their deaths. However, the protagonist's spiritual development does not appear until her dialogue with the Unbalanced One about good and evil: "If you prayed, Christ would help you." comes to tell her. After the murder of her family, the grandmother experiences a radical change. Seeing the Unbalanced with her son's shirt, she touches him, exclaiming: "Yes you are one of my children! You are one of my children!". This one is backing up "as if bitten by a snake." and shoots the grandmother in the chest. It's a chilling ending, very Flannery O'Connor.

Although her prose is elegant and powerful, its content is violent, morbid and disturbing. Beauty is a means O'Connor uses to go beyond vanity and sin, so that, in finding oneself, one can also find oneself with God. The death of the grandmother is, in all its violence, an act of redemption. For the first time in the story, the grandmother accepts the opportunity to love another. She recognizes her identity as a mother, ready to love the man who holds her life in his hands. For O'Connor it is the moment of grace to which we are called. Life, work and time come the moment we accept them."

So much for Teresa Kamel's powerful description of approaching Flannery O'Connor from her story A good man is hard to find. The reading of this and her other stories is highly recommended for those who wish to be beaten to a pulp. Although perhaps not suitable for more sensitive people, O'Connor may make some of today's young people react.

The authorMaría Teresa Kamel and Jaime Nubiola

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