Flannery O’Connor: Queen of Irony The literary rebellion, known as realism, established itself in American writing as a direct response to the age of American romanticism’s sentimental and sensationalist prose. As the dominance of New England’s literary culture waned “a host of new writers appeared, among them Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain, whose background and training, unlike those of the older generation they displaced, were middle-class and journalistic rather than genteel or academic” (McMichael 6).
These authors moved from tales of local color fiction to realistic and truthful depictions of the complete panorama of American experience. They wrote about uniquely American subjects in a humorous and everyday language, replete with their character’s misdeeds and shortcomings. Their success in creating this plain but descriptive language, the language of the common man, signaled the end of American reverence for British and European culture and for the more formal use of language associated with those traditions. In essence, these new authors “had what [the author] Henry James called “a powerful impulse to mirror the unmitigated realities of life,” in contrast to the romanticist’s insistence “on the author’s rights to avoid representations of “squalid misery” and to present instead an idealized and “poetic” portrait of life” (McMichael 6).
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In contrast to their romantic and realist predecessors, the literary naturalists “emphasized that the world was amoral, that men and women had no freewill, that their lives were controlled by hereditary and the environment, that religious “truths” were illusory, [and] that the destiny of humanity was misery in life and oblivion in death” (McMichael 7).
The naturalist writer Stephen Crane, for instance, explored the absurdity of the human condition. His writing most often portrayed humanity as lonesome singular entities relying on their unproven belief in the benevolence of God and freewill, led by their persistent illusions of being the center of the universe, and clueless to the disparity between their greatest expectations and their equalizing bouts of impendent doom. These realist and naturalist writers, with their revolutionary new method of portraying humanity as capable of evil and as likely victims of an often tempestuous environment or seemingly spiteful heredity, were a powerful influence on the writers who followed in their footsteps. One writer who seems to have evolved as a natural by-product of these two revolutionary literary genres is Flannery Mary O’Connor, a writer whose name is most often associated with stories of violence. She was sometimes referred to as a “Southern Gothic” writer because of her fascination with grotesque incidents and odd complex characters.
This use of grotesque humor and the rural southern dialect of her characters were common elements in her short stories. These dark comedies “often [forced] readers to confront physical deformity, spiritual depravity, and the violence they often engender” (Abcarian et al. 1411).
“She began writing while a student at Georgia State College for Women in her hometown and in 1947 earned an M. F. A.
degree from the University of Iowa” (Abcarian et al. 1411).
The author was born March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia and died August 3, 1964 in Milledgeville, Georgia of kidney failure, a complication of disseminated lupus, an incurable blood disease she had been diagnosed with. Two years before the publication of her first novel, when she discovered she was suffering from the blood disease, she moved, with her mother, back to the family home in Milledgeville.
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Just as the poet Emily Dickinson could write an accurate and intuitive presentation of the society she lived in from the seclusion of her upstairs bedroom, Flannery O’Connor, handicapped by her debility-forced sabbatical to her Milledgeville family home and bound by the theological constrictions of her deep religious faith was able to illuminate, “the conflict between the sacred and the profane, and sometimes their merger, in a grittily regional setting” (Davidson, Wagner-Martin 483).
During her short life she authored two short novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960).
In addition, she authored thirty-one short stories published in two separate anthologies, A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) (Magill, Critical 1756).
O’Connor also wrote book reviews, largely for the Catholic press; these are collected in The Presence of Grace (1983), which was compiled by Leo J.
Z uber and edited by Carter W. Martin (Magill, Critical 1756).
Although the disease would take her life by the age of 39, O’Connor left a corpus of work that has influenced the satiric and ironic rendering of American literature in modern writing and contributed to the continuation of the realist and naturalist genres in literature. Most critics have praised and interpreted O’Connor from a theological perspective and noted how unusual her fiction is, as it unites the banal, the inane, and the trivial with Christian, though fundamentally humorous, tales of proud Georgians fighting battles with imaginary or real agents of god sent out to shake some sense into the heads of the protagonists (Magill, Critical 1756).
Her most memorable stories, “Good Country People,”A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” and the title story in her second collection of short stories, published after her death, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are haunting, comic, and realistic depictions of the struggle of souls to know themselves, to escape evil, and to reach God. As a novelist and short fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor was best known for this use of satiric irony, symbolism, and a unique style of comedy, which was often at odds with her devout Roman Catholic faith. “The Queen of Irony” had a way of exposing the hypocrisy of organized religion by placing her characters in situations which question the validity / realistic feasibility of faith. “[In her stories] O’Connor’s protagonists think so highly of themselves that they are unable to recognize their own fallen ness because of Original Sin, so the characters typically are brought to an awareness of their humanity (and their sinfulness) through violent confrontations with outsider figures” (Magill, Critical 1759).
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Through her disciplined editing and compulsive revising, she discovered radically novel means to express her deep-seated spirituality within the bounds of the Catholic faith. Proof of this point of innovation was most often illustrated through what seemed to be her well-developed affinity for literary civil disobedience against accepted conventions of her time.
She breathed this essence of her personality into the characters in her stories and brought to life her depictions of “the South as a troubled region in which the social, racial, and religious status quo that had existed since before the Civil War was coming to its violent end” (Kennedy and Gioia 390).
Flannery O’Connor’s use of this type of satiric irony is obvious early in the short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” when the main character, the grandmother, manipulatively insists that the family travel to east Tennessee, instead of Florida; because she has just read about an escaped convict nicknamed The Misfit who is heading for Florida. The two lines in the opening, “I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that a loose in it” and “I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did that,” brings about the unconscious feeling that Hell has just opened up and granny is about to be swallowed by something out of a Stephen King novel that is too terrible to speak of (O’Connor 405).
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Right about then, the reader begins to faintly hear the first bars of the theme music from The Twilight Zone, building in the background. Immediately, on a subconscious level, awakened intuition senses that bad things are going to happen. That “Bad Moon Rising” becomes tangible.
Even this early in the story it’s clear that this bitch is an accident waiting to happen. The Mr. Hyde buried in every human’s psyche starts to cackle insanely in anticipation, gleeful in the knowledge that down the road, poised for psychotic mayhem with that sardonic Jack Nicholson grin plastered on its face, is death disguised as grandma’s moment of judgment, her moment of “grace in territory held largely by the devil” (Kennedy and Gioia 390).
In an essay entitled “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable, O’Conner states that her stories are about “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” and points out that the most significant part of her stories is the “moment” or “action of grace,” when the protagonist is confronted with her own humanity and offered, through an ironic agent of God (an outsider) and, usually through violence, one last chance at salvation (Magill, Great Women 381).
Her intuitive analysis of human nature, in spite to her deep religious underpinnings, displayed a concrete objectivity in portraying the realities of life and a commitment, in contradiction to her alternating verbal assertions to the contrary, to speak her mind regardless of the consequences. The author tended to be ambiguous as to what she believed was the writer’s responsibility to the reader.
In interviews, personal letters, and essays she vacillated, in her comments, between living up to the reader’s expectations and fulfilling her conviction to not let anything interfere with her artistic expression. Her writing though, more often than not, still drew critical reviews because of her use of irony, sarcasm, and caustic wit to attack or expose the folly, vice, and stupidity of the conventions, mores, and hypocrisies of her southern environment. In the last year of her life O’Connor wrote, “You write… , what you can.
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And you become, we can further infer, what you can” (Fitzgerald xix).
It was the civil rights leader Martin Luther King who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Faced with a sure knowledge of impending death from an incurable disease and a South blinded by its hypocrisies and lies, Flannery O’Connor challenged the mores and conventions of her time to emerge a literary visionary and a true example of the best that American literature has to offer. The author used “the prevailing locution of the South as easily, and as maliciously, as it often occurs there, among blacks and whites alike” (Fitzgerald xix).
She spit into the wind of amorality and sin the consequences be damned despite the fact that in her time she was an outsider as a women, a southerner, and a Roman Catholic in the South.
Her [natural] gifts produced the fiction, but her situation gave them opportunities, and enabled her to exercise her intelligence, imagination, and craft most effectively (Hyman 46).