Wednesday, August 02, 2006

On Flannery O'Connor

Yesterday while taking my son to swimming lessons, I managed to read a short story by Flannery O’Connor. She has been a topic of discussion recently with an issue of Credenda Agenda devoted to her and a brief mentioning on Dr. Haykin’s blog.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic writer who lived in the Protestant American South. Although I have significant theological qualms with Catholicism, I am very fond of the writing of three other Catholics: G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien. Given my affinity for these Catholic writers, and after reading Doug Jones’ take on O’Connor in C/A, I decided to check out a collection of her writing from the local library.

To my delight, the story I read yesterday was remarkable. I have never been a fan of short stories; as an English teacher I have bumped short stories out of the courses I teach. But O’Connor seems to have perfected the art.

The difficulty I have with short stories is that they are “short”. Authors are limited in their ability to develop convincing and authentic characters or developing a sufficiently deep, rich and layered plot. Life is complex; short stories, because of their restrictive length are too simplistic—in terms of form.

In her story, “A View of the Woods,” O’Connor masterfully uses her economy of words to narrow her focus on one character. Good writers say more with less, and she has done this. The story is only twenty pages long, yet O’Connor draws in her reader into a deep and complex arena by using a number of ingenious techniques. The most profound is her use of narration. The story is told 3rd person limited omniscience—in other words, the story is told from a 3rd person perspective but the readers are only given access to one character’s personal thoughts (as opposed to 3rd person omniscient, where the reader has access to all the major character’s thoughts as well as actions). The result is effective. O’Connor “taints” the “objective” narrator’s perspective with that of one of the characters. This gives us a much deeper picture of the main character and enhances realism. In life we only have access to our own thoughts when we are trying to make sense of the world around us. O’Connor could have used first person to accomplish this, but instead she uses the façade of objectivity. This is highly appropriate because the lead character believes that he is omniscient and that only he sees the world objectivity and accurately, untainted by pedantic and small-minded perspectives of his family. The irony is, of course, that he is “limited” and he is “tainted”. Also, by using third person, O’Connor is able to expose this irony “inadvertently”—in other words, although the narrator is tainted by a limited perspective, it still must record events and dialogue as they occur. A first person narration has the liberty to “revise” the events recorded, forcing the reader to read between the lines.

She also uses vernacular very well; she not only conveys an authentic sounding Georgian accent, she also conveys “personality” through the speaking style of her characters. Her physical descriptions are brief but meaningful. She does more than paint a picture of her characters in the readers mind; she uses physical description to tell the reader something about her characters. The names are also important in this story. The protagonist is named Mr. Fortune and his ne’er-do-well son-in-law is named Mr. Pitts. She playfully yet unobtrusively uses these names to deepen the sense of irony in this story.

Most profound is her use of humor. The story was not a “comedy” at all, yet I did laugh out loud on a few occasions. Referring back to my comments about the limitations of short stories, O’Connor adds depth and authentic complexity by incorporating a range of human emotions in her story. Humor is a part of life in almost all circumstances. She uses it authentically and effectively.

Because of her Catholicism, O’Connor also “says” something from a grounded perspective. Unlike many of her contemporaries that write as though they are jelly fish awash in a sea of relativism, O’Connor is judging her character. He is a fool. He does the wrong thing. This “judgmental” perspective is not overt in the story; it is assumed. O’Connor assumes a Christian worldview, where there is such a thing as up and down. This is the heart of her authenticity. The world actually functions according to the Christian worldview. O’Connor is not attempting to preach a moralizing sermon. She is simply observing the world with the clarity of Christian understanding. Tolkien writes LOTR with this sort of depth. He too assumes a Christian worldview; as a result, Midde-earth is an authentic place in the reader’s mind. The reader can relate to the world of Tolkien and of O’Connor because it is a reflection of the world as it is.

Although my reading agenda is jammed packed this summer, I hope to squeeze in a few more O’Connor stories. I also think that more can be said about Catholic writers. Good writers, whether Catholic or not, observe the world with clarity and reflect it in their work accurately. The further removed a writer is from the Christian worldview, the harder it is for the writer to see clearly and retell accurately. When time presents itself, I would like to explore a Protestant Christian perspective on Catholic writers and their work.

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