Flannery O’Connor has a particular take on a particular place, which is both the strength and limitation of her writing. Reading through these black and brilliant tales I was remind of a child who looks at a picture identifying only those objects that they know, or wish to note. Another way of saying this is that O’Connor approaches her world with a fixed view, which basically is that it is damned. She then selects her characters and shapes their stories to demonstrate this. Why this world, and presumably ours by extension, is damned is not clear; what is clear is the primary sin: Pride, the Satan original (particularly for those tainted by east-coast liberalism).
Although I have never visited the American South, and despite historical knowledge of the provincialism and racism that pervaded so much of the area in O’Connor’s time, I do not believe for an instant that her litany of misfits and maniacs and their attendant violence is anything like a true portrait of the time and place. Given the power of the writing, does this matter? Well it depends what you’re looking for.
O’Connor’s main literary vehicle is character. Focusing mostly on externals, which is why much of what she presents is so vivid, almost like a play, she carves out each of her figures in sharp relief by detailed physical description, subtle and often ironic dialogue, and conversational conflict. All up, they are not an attractive bunch, and collectively they come to no good end.
If you’re living in a fallen world, the only possible proof of God’s existence is personal redemption. And many of O’Connor’s characters do achieve redemption, but they achieve it only by having her smash them open, through them ignorantly or accidentally destroying the thing of most value to them, usually a loved one. She imposes on our fallen world a sort of infernal moral arithmetic. To save one soul others must necessarily be sacrificed, usually physically. I’m sure even Jesus, maybe especially Jesus, would have found this bizarre, perhaps pathological.
So, in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’, the grandmother gains self-knowledge just as she’s being blasted away and maybe the blaster gains it too, but at what cost? The murder of an entire family, including an innocent infant (or simply by being born has it forgone innocence?). This is the most extreme example but the template repeats over. In ‘A View of the Woods’, an arrogant old man ends up killing his beloved granddaughter and having a coronary to boot. In ‘The Comforts of Home’ a pride-stricken intellectual unintentionally shoots his mother. On and on it goes, drowned kiddies, avoidable suicides, fired properties, I know that the God of the Old Testament is a jealous God but whatever happened to lovingkindness? Wrong question.
So, despite one’s admiration for the craft, relish of the dark humour, cutting observations, sustained Gothic tone etc. after a while all the cumulative relentless misanthropy might make a normally constituted reader relieved to turn that final page. I know I was. Great writing, sure, but this is one skewed vision of humanity, do with it what you will.