Shocking, grotesque, horrendous, violent, and dark: These are the stories of Flannery O’Connor, which have perplexed, provoked, and intrigued readers for many years. In her day, the horrified reactions from folks in the small Georgia town where she lived were fairly predictable. Even her own mother flinched from the gruesomeness of the tales, and an aunt took to bed for a week after reading O’Connor’s first novel. The plots featured drunkards, prostitutes, cold-blooded killers, and shocking moments such as self-mutilation, drowning, and suicide. People are shot, gored by bulls, and run over by tractors. As O’Connor wryly put it literary critics complained about the violence and then proceeded to tear her stories apart, “limb from limb.”
Over time people realized the brilliance of her tales, and after her death the stories were awarded the National Book Award for fiction. Today, readers are still poring and puzzling over the Gothic tales. Little wonder that if you Google her name, you’ll get over four million hits. Her characters are unforgettable: a Bible salesman who runs off with a woman’s wooden leg; a stranger who marries a retarded girl and abandons her at a truck stop; an entire family massacred at the roadside by an escaped convict. And yet, despite the gruesome events, the stories are peppered with moments of hilarity that capture the rural tones and down-home ways of the Deep South.
O’Connor didn’t write, however, simply to shock and provoke people. Taken at face value, the stories are dark indeed, but a closer look reveals that the characters are grappling with pride, greed, lust, and a host of other flaws. As she put it, she was writing about the real world, and her interest was showing the action of “grace in territory largely inhabited by the Devil.” Many of her characters have made a pact with the Devil and are later wrenched out of their self-obsession or arrogance or greed by an awakening, a moment of light, an infusion of grace, while others cling stubbornly to the downwardly spiraling path they have chosen. Some get important messages that change them forever, although the messengers are often quite shocking and surprising.
When one old lady wrote to O’Connor, complaining that the stories didn’t lift up her heart, O’Connor wrote back and suggested this was because the old lady’s heart was in the wrong place. The old lady, it seems, wanted nice, pat formulas and bright, little trite sayings rather than a glimpse into O’Connor’s world, which could be dark and frightening -- but in keeping with the real world in which terrible things happen every day.
O’Connor refused to dish out platitudes, refused to be “touched by an angel,” and refused to turn a blind eye to reality. She knew many readers wanted to be lulled into a false sense of security, so she wrote her stories to wake them up and get their attention. She did this with shocking moments, grotesque characters, and diabolical twists. As she put it, you had to shout for the hard of hearing to get the message, and she was not hesitant to shout. The echoes are still reverberating down the lines and making shock waves today. The stories, surprising and startling, deeply riveting and deeply revealing, continue to attract and amaze readers.