The Secret to Reading Flannery O'Connor

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in John Huston's Wild Blood. Photographer unknown.
A very young Brad Dourif played Hazel Motes in John Huston's incomparable film adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.

Veiled Mystery

About forty years ago, I read the work of Flannery O’Connor for the first time, at the suggestion of my college English professor, John Glass. I was immediately hooked, although at the time I had no idea what her stories were about. Mr. Glass, who liked to set us reading challenges, had assigned one of O’Connor’s short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for class. I read it and was suitably shocked by it but also intrigued. For reasons I won’t go into here, I felt I knew the family in the story — in fact, it could have been my own family, except that none of us had ever been gunned down by escaped felons while on a family road trip. (Not yet, anyway.) If I could make sense of that senseless slaughter, maybe I could make sense of my own life.

After that, I read her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away (I even wrote a paper about that one, but I have no idea what I could have said that would have made sense), as well as some more of her stories, thinking that, if I just read enough of her work, eventually the penny would drop and I would “get it.” Her stories might be strange — in-your-face strange — and uncomfortable, but I sensed that their grotesque, out-of-proportion weirdness veiled a great truth, and I wanted to know what it was.

Another Book of Mystery: the Bible

In an odd and unexpected way, my reading of Flannery O’Connor paralleled my reading of the Bible, which I took up about the same time. I heard Bible readings every Sunday at Mass, of course, but in many ways the Bible remained a closed book to me, a library of strange tales that didn’t yet make sense to me when put together. Even some of the parables Jesus told — simple stories though they are — seemed peculiar and impenetrable. I got a toe-hold on the Bible, though, when I discovered the Psalms, many of which spoke to the prolonged case of adolescent angst that I was experiencing in those days — a sense that God was out there somewhere but he seemed to be ignoring my cries for help. Yet I kept calling out to him, like the psalmist who asks, “How long, O Lord, must I keep waiting?”

Anyone who has ever seriously undertaken to understand the Bible — as a whole, a unified book of many different chapters rather than a jumbled collection of disparate books — will know that it takes a while (and probably some good preaching and/or well-directed Bible study) before the pieces of the mosaic suddenly form a coherent picture of God’s love for humankind. For me, the penny dropped when a priest said in a homily, offhandedly, as if this was something that we already knew, that “the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ.” I was stunned — I sensed it was true, but I didn’t yet see how it was true. But from that moment on, as soon as the unifying principle had been pointed out to me, everything else I had ever learned about the Bible — typology, prophecy, poetry, history, etc. — began to come into focus. And once I saw the picture as a whole, I have never been able to unsee it.

What's the Point?

Something similar happened to me with Flannery O'Connor's stories. About eight or ten years after I first read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I woke up in the middle of the night with  a clear thought in my head: I knew exactly what the Misfit meant when he said of the grandmother he had just shot to death:

She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

I couldn’t yet articulate it, but I sensed its meaning — a truth that hit me like a bullet to the heart. When I went back and re-read O’Connor’s strange, difficult stories, gradually the scales fell from my eyes and I saw clearly what she was on about and also (perhaps more importantly) why she had to write such bizarre stories to make her point.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably hoping I will now reveal the secret, say the magic word, turn off the smoke machine so that you can see the trick clearly. Well, I could . . . but someday when I meet Flannery in eternity, she would probably chew me out for doing so. She hated it when readers demanded the hermeneutic key that would allow them to “figure her out” and “get the point.”

I could tell you to read The Habit of Being (a collection of O'Connor's correspondence) or maybe one of the collections of her essays on writing, such as Mystery and Manners. There is plenty there to shed light on the matter.

3 by Flannery O'Connor book cover
A burr under my saddle
for years

But the best way to make sense of O'Connor's stories is just to keep reading (and maybe re-reading) them. Exercise the virtue of perseverance. Let her weird, uncomfortable stories be the burr under your saddle, the pebble in your shoe, the grit in your oyster, but just keep going. Remember, the longer that grit remains in the oyster, the bigger the pearl it will produce. And, if it takes a very long time, it eventually becomes a pearl of great price.

Maybe you've already tried that and you are still baffled. Fed up, even. So, being a big-hearted person, I'll give you a clue: the unifying principle of Flannery O'Connor's stories can be summed up in a single word, and that word is revealed in this blog post that I wrote back in 2012, when I responded to a reader who really did not get what O'Connor is all about.

Want to let me know what you think? Leave a comment below.


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