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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Flannery O’Connor (1925-1965)

[7303] Joe McTyre, Flannery O’Connor (c. 1955), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-108013].

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of devout Catholic parents of good social standing. She was educated at parochial schools in Savannah until 1938, when her father was diagnosed with lupus, a degenerative blood disease of which he died two years later. During her father’s last years, the O’Connor family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor would spend most of the rest of her life living with her mother. After finishing high school, O’Connor earned a degree in social science from a local college. In 1945, on the recommendation of one of her professors, she earned a fellowship to attend the Writer’s Workshop of the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa), where she met John Crowe Ransom. During the next two years, O’Connor honed her skills as one of America’s most distinguished writers of short stories. Her first publication came with Geranium in 1946, followed by her first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952. The Habit of Being (1979) is a collection of O’Connor’s letters.

Although she went on to publish a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), O’Connor is best known for her short stories, which are marked by their dark humor, masterful use of dialogue, and sometimes aggressive anti-sentimentalism. O’Connor’s rural southern characters have been described as “repugnant, contemptible, and grotesque.” But while deluded and deceitful characters like Tom T. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” or Hulga and Joy Hopewell in “Good Country People” are not necessarily likable, O’Connor deftly captures them in moments where they seem on the verge of realizing their deepest flaws. By showing the pain her characters feel as a result of their own shortcomings, O’Connor almost seems to suggest they deserve our pity as much as our scorn; yet she tends to leave them–and us–hanging just a moment before we can be sure.

O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus–the same disease that had killed her father–in December 1950. She continued to write for the next fourteen years and worked feverishly in the final weeks of her life to finish her second short-story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, before her death at the age of thirty-nine.

Teaching Tips

  • In Mystery and Manners O’Connor describes “Good Country People” as a story in which “a lady Ph.D. has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce.” Admitting that, “paraphrased this way, the situation is simply a low joke,” O’Connor goes on to discuss the significance of the wooden leg as, among other things, a symbol of Hulga’s wooden soul and emotional disability. “As the story goes on,” O’Connor continues, “the wooden leg continues to accumulate meaning. The reader learns how the girl feels about it; and finally, by the time the Bible salesman comes along, the leg has accumulated so much meaning that it is, as the saying goes, loaded. And when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl’s personality and has revealed her deeper affliction to her for the first time.” Begin your discussion of the story by asking your students to think about O’Connor’s simple paraphrase; then use that discussion to open up the multiple layers of meaning within the story.
  • The title of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” comes from a warning to drivers that they should drive carefully. “Good Country People” begins with a description of Mrs. Freeman that characterizes her as very much like a car with three gears–neutral, forward, and reverse. Ask your students to think about O’Connor’s apparent preoccupation with automobiles and travel. How might such references relate to the development of the federal highway system in the 1950s? What do these stories seem to be saying about an increasingly mobile population?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is the significance of the names of O’Connor’s characters such as Tom T. Shiftlet, Mrs. Hopewell, or Mrs. Freeman? Why might O’Connor name her characters in this way?
  2. Comprehension: What is the role of the Freemans in “Good Country People”? Why does Mrs. Hopewell “keep” them? What does that mean?
  3. Context: In the opening scene of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Tom T. Shiftlet says, “Lady, people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady . . . what is a man?” Why does Shiftlet ask such a question? Shiftlet also talks about the doctor who cuts out human hearts, denies he has any concern for money, and is unmistakably preoccupied with the car in the garage. What might these references symbolize? How do these aspects of Shiftlet’s character relate to the changing South in the 1930s?
  4. Exploration: In an essay entitled “Writing Short Stories” (from the collection Mystery and Manners), O’Connor wrote that “the great advantage of being a southern writer is that we don’t have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we’ve got them in abundance. We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech.” How does O’Connor make use of the richness of the South as she identifies it here? Do other southern writers seem to share O’Connor’s assessment of the South, or do they portray it as something different?

Selected Archive Items

[3314] Anonymous, Flannery O’Connor
courtesy of Georgia State University Library. 
Flannery O’Connor was well known for her short stories and their dark sense of humor, dialogue, and rejection of sentimentalism.

[7303] Joe McTyre, Flannery O’Connor (c. 1955), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-108013].
Diagnosed with lupus in 1950, Flannery O’Connor continued to write for fourteen years. Her short story “Good Country People” (1955) represents O’Connor’s unflinching and anti-sentimental take on physical disabilities.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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