Do You “Get” Flannery O’Connor? She Writes Like a Biblical Author

Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood left me scratching my head. I think that was part of her technique, honestly. The “meaning” of her stories isn’t right there on the surface as it is in a Dickens novel. Her works really have to be pondered, and you’re best off pondering from the perspective of the biblical authors (by the way, learning the perspective of the biblical authors is the point of biblical theology).

I think the technique of writers like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce is actually closer to that of the biblical authors than what we find from the likes of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc (writers who are easier to enjoy). What I mean is that as in biblical narratives, the plot isn’t always there on the surface, and you have to read carefully for the perspective from which the narrator presents the story. Once you understand the narrator’s perspective, you can tell whether his presentation is meant to be taken positively or negatively (note: if Miss Flannery can use the generic “he” when talking about what authors do, and she does, so I can).

Consider this example: suppose a hard-left abortion-activist is describing the activities of a pro-life person trying to persuade women not to have abortions. If the abortionist says the words: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature,” we know that statement is meant as an indictment.

But consider the statement.

It’s only an indictment because we know the abortionist’s opinion of such activity.

The same words could be spoken by a pro-life attorney defending such behavior: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature.” When the pro-life attorney says the words, they are a declaration of innocence rather than an indictment.

My point here is that this is how the biblical authors often operate. The authors of Kings and Samuel expect their audience to know Deuteronomy, and they expect their audience to understand that their accounts are written with the Torah as the standard of evaluation. The meta-narrative in which they have couched their plot has also been articulated by Moses in passages like Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4:25–31, and Deuteronomy 28–32, and this meta-narrative is assumed rather than directly invoked in a passage like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8.

So to understand these texts, we have to know the perspective of the biblical authors. That is, we have to understand biblical theology. (Want some help?).

All this to say, I think that writers like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor are imitating the artistry they have seen in the Bible, and I’m grateful for people who have studied the writings of Joyce and O’Connor with the kind of rigor a biblical theologian applies to the Bible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’m really grateful that Jonathan Rogers has started The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, and I think you should get Flannery’s Collected Works, read along with Mr. Rogers, and with his help, let Miss Flannery shock you into sensibility. It will not be like a sweater clad visit to a safe neighborhood. It will be a different kind of beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The first post on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is up, along with a discussion of the Misfit’s moral clarity, and you can listen to Miss Flannery herself read the story here.

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  1. Jim, I love you, I love what you write, and I think that GGISTJ should be required-reading by law.

    But having said that… I’ve read Stephen King, and I’ve read Flannery O’Connor, and the latter is to the former as a daylong dive into a sewer is to a browse through the Hallmark section. I find as much wisdom in her as I do in the collected speeches of Barack Obama.

    My opinion, and I know it’s a minority one at that, and that it marks me literarily.


    1. I regret you have had a prefrontal lobotomy. Most of us will never know how difficult that is. until you fully recover please do not stop your meds and do not drive farm equipment or travel on interstate highways unless at least one adult is in the vehicle.

  2. “What I mean is that as in biblical narratives, the plot isn’t always there on the surface, and you have to read carefully for the perspective from which the narrator presents the story.”

    Would you say open theism fails to appreciate that distinction?

  3. Thank you for your interesting thoughts on my favorite American writer. In a talk, O’Connor said: “When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’ Some writers can ignore this presence, but I have never learned how.”

    O’Connor was genuinely concerned to communicate, but she had her own ironic vision, and wouldn’t/couldn’t discard it. As far as “what happens” in her stories and novels, what was of primary importance to her was pretty straightforward: Will someone be saved? Her genius is her originality in leading to this event, usually by the uses of irony and humor. She saw our time as nihilistic and grotesque, and used these realities to get through to the other side.

    Her favorite of her stories is probably her most explicit one as far as its meaning is concerned, and I recommend that it be read in order to see what she’s about. Unfortunately, potential readers often can’t get past the title: “The Artificial Nigger.” All I can say is that its attitude is directly opposite what you may imagine it to be.

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