Whenever I think of short stories, I think of Flannery O’Connor. Her dark southern Gothic stories are perfect examples of the form. I first read this collection in college and have since read her collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, as well as her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. Although I liked the novels, it’s her stories that I love, and the stories in this collection are among her best.
O’Connor’s stories are set in the Jim Crow–era South, and all the flaws of the period are on full display. Her mostly white characters are deeply flawed—often racist, sometimes hypocritical, usually self-absorbed, and otherwise generally unpleasant. I suppose they could seem to some like caricatures, but to me they feel utterly real because they reflect the flaws that we all carry with us. And many of them receive grace in spite of—and more often because of—those flaws.
Grace is a running theme throughout the stories. O’Connor was a Roman Catholic, and her Catholicism is inescapable in many of her stories. But she also makes wonderful use of charismatic and evangelical imagery and ideas. In one of my favorite stories, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a character has what could almost be described as a born-again moment, but that experience comes not through preaching and an altar call but through the Eucharist. The closest thing to a sermon are the words of a “freak” her cousins told her about after a night at the fair:
The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the “Tantum Ergo” before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, “I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.”
Also notable in this passage is O’Connor’s use of dialect. Her characters are clearly Southern, but their speech isn’t exaggerated in any way. The day after I started rereading this collection, I also happened to start listening to the audiobook of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and in that book, Prose talks about how O’Connor peppers characters’ speeches with hints of dialect. This technique has the benefit of placing her characters geographically without making their speech either incomprehensible or so different from standard English as to seem totally “other.”
More difficult for me to sort out is O’Connor’s handling of race. As I mentioned earlier, many of her characters are racist. Some of them, like the grandfather in “The Artifical Nigger,” are outright nasty in their racism, while the racism of others seems to be more about condescension (the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”) or a desire to feel superior to someone (Mrs McIntyre in “The Displaced Person”). And there is, of course, the matter-of-fact use of racist words.
In most cases, the racism of O’Connor’s characters is depicted as a negative thing—part of those characters’ packages of flaws. But there is a sense that the black characters are present merely to reveal something about the white characters. Only in “The Displaced Person” are they given much of a chance to speak for themselves, and even then the white characters remain the focus. But remembering that O’Connor was writing in the 1950s, I have to wonder how much intimate contact O’Connor had with the black people around her and whether she could have adequately charted their emotional and spiritual lives. With that in mind, I cannot really fault her for focusing on the slice of Southern life that she knew best. But I do wish things had been different, not just for O’Connor but for so many others who, like the characters in her stories, were taught to fear or despise their African-American neighbors.
Besides “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” other favorite stories included “The Artificial Nigger,” in which a grandfather tries to teach his son humility by taking him to the big city, only to discover that he himself does not know as much as he thinks. In this story, O’Connor shows her mastery of symbol and image with the train that glides like a snake, taking them out of Eden and into hell. And “The Displaced Person,” which depicts how a white woman who works as hired help on a farm, reacts when a hard-working European refugee is also given a place on the farm, leaving her to worry that the displaced person might end up displacing her.
And then there’s “Good Country People,” a story about who and what people choose to believe. And “The River,” which shows a child’s desperate need for God but his inability to articulate that need and adults’ inability to speak in words he can understand. Both of these stories have deeply ambiguous endings whose meaning depends as much on the reader’s point of view as on any clear signals from O’Connor. I certainly can’t sort out what O’Connor makes of the dark ending of “The River,” which according to any rational understanding is obviously tragic. However, the imagery and supernatural awareness make me wonder if we aren’t meant to see hope. And what are we to make of our final glimpse of the fate of the intellectual skeptic Hulda at the end of “Good Country People”? I could read these stories over and over without coming to any clear conclusion. It is clear to me, however, that the reader’s understanding of and feelings about Catholic theology will color that reader’s impression of each story.
I haven’t yet mentioned the humor in the stories, but some of them are quite funny. It’s an uncomfortable and dark humor, often built of characters’ foolishness, but it’s still comical. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story of a vacation gone horribly wrong, partly through the perverse selfishness of the family grandmother who never wanted to go to Florida in the first place. More straightforwardly funny is “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” in which a living historical monument to the old South doesn’t remember his true history and doesn’t care about the mythical history being built around him, although he does enjoy the attention.
As with any collection, not every story made a strong impression on me, but those that did were stunners. Many of them have been anthologized elsewhere—in fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen any stories from her other collections in anthologies—so if you’re looking for a way to get a good strong dose of O’Connor, I’d recommend this as the place to start.