Flannery O'Connor Writing Short Stories Essay

April 2 - May 11

Besides being a brilliant writer, Flannery O'Connor wrote quite a bit about the craft of writing. In this six-week course, we will look at O'Connor's essays about writing in Mystery and Manners, examine ways that she implemented her principles in her short stories, and implement those principles ourselves in short writing exercises. 

My goal as instructor will not be to get you to mimic O'Connor, but to help you find your own voice--to help you write in your native tongue, just as O'Connor wrote in hers. Though O'Connor's wrote more or less exclusively about fiction, most of her principles are equally applicable to non-fiction narratives.

Typical weekly workload 

  • Reading: One essay and one story from O'Connor (there will also be optional readings)
  • Writing: 2-3 pages 
  • Listening: 20-30 minute lecture
  • Online Discussion: I will post several discussion questions each week. Hopefully they will lead to fruitful discussion in which you can participate as time allows.

I will provide detailed feedback on your writing every week. That back-and-forth is really the heart of the course. 

Required Texts

  • Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners
  • Flannery O'Connor, Complete Stories

Recommended Text

Syllabus (tentative)

Week 1: The Nature of Narrative

Essay--"Writing Short Stories"

Short Story--"The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

Week 2: Native Country, Native Tongue

Essay--"The Fiction Writer and His Country"

Short Story--"Greenleaf"

Week 3: Using Metaphor and Symbol

Essay--"The Nature and Aim of Fiction"

Short Story--"Good Country People"

Week 4: Unexpected but Believable

Essay--"Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction"

Short Story--"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Week 5: Mystery and Manners

Essay--"Novelist and Believer"

Short Story--"A Temple of the Holy Ghost"

Week 6: Fiction and Faith

Essay--"The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South"

Short Story--"The River"

  • 1

    Choose one story in which a mother is present. How is her importance demonstrated?

    Answer: In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," The Grandmother is the most important mother, since in her moment of Grace she realizes that The Misfit, who is about to kill her, could be one of her own children. In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," the elder Lucynell Crater dominates her daughter's life and dooms her by convincing Mr. Shiftlet to marry her. In "Good Country People," Mrs. Hopewell's conviction that Manley is just a good country person is a misjudgment. She also suffocates her daughter, Hulga, and does not appreciate Hulga's education. In "The Enduring Chill" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Asbury and Julian blame their mothers for their misfortune and take it out on their mothers with rudeness and disrespect. Julian realizes where he has gone wrong at the end of the story when his mother has a stroke.

  • 2

    Racism is an important theme in many of the stories. Choose one story in which is is relevant and explain how it affects the characters' lives.

    Answer: In "The Displaced Person," Mrs. Shortley is racist toward Europeans, and is suspicious of the Guizacs for this reason. Mrs. McIntyre decides to do away with Mr. Guizac because he is trying to organize a marriage between his white cousin and Sulk, a black farmhand, even though her financial success will be negatively affected by his departure. Racism is important in "The Artificial Nigger;" though neither Mr. Head nor Nelson feels explicit hatred toward the black people they encounter, they certainly view them as Others and are nervous around them. A level of racism is apparent in Asbury’s interactions with Randall and Morgan in "The Enduring Chill," although he doesn’t believe himself to be racist. The very idea that he would be writing a play about “The Negro” is, of course, racist. Last year when he was writing the play, he had spent time with them on the job, and they had bonded over breaking one of his mother’s rules by smoking in the barn. In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother is clearly racist. She is afraid of the black people who board the bus, and of black people in general, even saying aloud that they would be better off if they had remained slaves. This results in her demise, as she has a stroke after the black woman knocks her down.

  • 3

    Choose one story and explain how weather is used as an indicator of the characters' moods and intentions.

    Answer: For example, in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," weather is an important indicator of characters' moods and important moments. As Tom Shiftlet drives off with the younger Lucynell Crater in the car, supposedly to go on a honeymoon, "The early afternoon was clear and open and surrounded by pale blue sky;" he still has a chance to redeem himself. But after he abandons her at The Hot Spot, he has lost his chance at salvation, and the significance of this moment is enforced by the weather: "Deep in the sky a storm was preparing very slowly and without thunder as if it meant to drain every drop of air from the earth before it broke." After the hitchhiking boy has thrown himself out the passenger door, all is really lost for Tom Shiftlet, and "there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car." The intensity of the weather is increased by its personification throughout the story. When Tom Shiftlet approaches the house of the Lucynell Craters at the beginning of the story, he leans to the side "as if the breeze were pushing him," with his face turned toward the sun "which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain." As Tom Shiftlet drives along slowly after the boy in the overalls has leapt from his car, "A cloud, the exact color of the boy's hat and shaped like a turnip, had descended over the sun, and another, worse looking, crouched behind the car."

  • 4

    Choose an example of a character whose glorification of a past time is a major identifying factor. Explain how this preoccupation affects the action of the story.

    Answer: For example, the glorification of the past is prevalent in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in the character of The Grandmother, who expresses nostalgia for the way things used to be in the South. Her mistake about the "old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady" leads to the demise of the whole family when they get in a car accident while driving down the dirt driveway. Before she realizes that the plantation is actually not in Georgia but in Tennessee, she remembers "the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey," imagining the beautiful scene she believes they will soon find.

  • 5

    Explain how the symbols of the sky and sun represents an openness to faith in Christ in two of the stories.

    Answer: The sky represents an openness to faith in "The River." As Bevel preaches in the river, his eyes follow the paths of two birds. They eventually settle "in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky." When Harry tells the preacher that his name is also Bevel, jokingly, the preacher's face is "rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky," in this moment before Harry's baptism. But when he is displeased, after Harry tells him that his mother is in fact only suffering from a hangover, "the sky appeared to darken in his eyes." As Harry runs into the river to drown himself, "The sky was a clear pale blue, all in one piece - except for the hole the sun made - and fringed around the bottom with treetops." Here, the sky represents Harry's mentality: he is focused and determined, and the only thought in his mind is faith, represented by the sun.

    The sun is a symbol of Catholic faith in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," and its intensity mirrors the characters' embodiment of that faith. After Wendell sings to the girls, they use the Latin songs they have practiced at school to make him and Cory feel confused and embarrassed; accordingly, "The sun was going down and the sky was turning a bruised violet color." After the child has achieved Grace in the chapel of the convent school, during the drive home, "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." The Host, which Catholics like O'Connor believe is literally transformed into the body of Christ, is also linked to the hermaphrodite's body when the child thinks of the "freak" during the mass ceremony.

  • 6

    Many characters in O'Connor's stories demonstrate a disgust with the state of the world. Elaborate on this tool of characterization as it applies to three characters.

    Answer: In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," disgust with the world is evident in Red Sammy Butts' conversation with The Grandmother. The Grandmother states that, "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust." This belief contradicts her Christian faith, of course.

    In "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," Tom Shiftlet is disenchanted with the state of the world. After the elder Lucynell Crater tells him that her car no longer runs, he says, "Nothing is like it used to be, lady... The world is almost rotten." Later, when he is fixing the car, he comments that "the trouble with the world was that nobody cared, or stopped and took any trouble." By the end of the story, after he has abandoned the younger Lucynell Crater and caused the hitchhiking boy to jump out of his car, he "felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him."

    The title of the story “Good Country People” refers to Mrs. Hopewell’s judgments of people whom she believes she can trust. These people are distinct from the majority of the world, since “in this day and age, you get good country people, you had better hang onto them. She had had plenty of experience with trash.”

    In "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian’s mother complains about the state of the world. Out of nowhere, while they are discussing her hat, she says, “With the world in the mess it’s in, it’s a wonder we can enjoy anything. I tell you, the bottom rail is on the top.” This is a reference to racial integration, which she sees as disempowering to white families like theirs. Aboard the bus, before any black people are on it, she says to another white woman about integration, “The world is in a mess everywhere. I don’t know how we’ve let it get in this fix.”

  • 7

    Many of Flannery O'Connor's protagonists are deformed or suffer from disabilities. Choose one of the characters and describe how he or she becomes defined by the deformity or disability.

    Answer: In “Good Country People,” Hulga used to be insecure about her wooden leg, but she has come to value it and to keep it sacred. She almost worships it in place of God, since she has no faith. This ends up leading to her betrayal by Manley. Mrs. Freeman relishes hearing about deformities, and Hulga has heard Mrs. Hopewell relating to her the details of the hunting accident that cost Hulga her leg. Rufus Johnson has a club foot in "The Lame Shall Enter First," and protects it much in the same way that Hulga protects her artificial leg. He refuses to wear the special corrective shoe that Sheppard buys for him, because he identifies himself by his club foot.

  • 8

    Eyes are an important symbol in many of O'Connor's stories. Choose a story in which they are described as violent and explain how this is effective.

    [Answer]: For example, eyes are often violent in "The Enduring Chill." When Mary George tells Asbury that if she looked as bad as he does she would go to the hospital, “Her mother cut her eyes sharply at her and she left.” As Doctor Block examines Asbury for the first time, his “drill-like gaze swung over [his mouth] and bore down.” Similarly, when Doctor Block has reported that he is suffering from undulant fever and will not die, “Block’s gaze seemed to reach down like a steel pin and hold whatever it was until the life was out of it.” When Father Finn chastises Asbury for being ignorant of the Holy Ghost, Asbury “moved his arms and legs helplessly as if he were pinned to the bed by the terrible eye” through which the priest sees. Since the story is told from Asbury's perspective, the reader gets the impression that Asbury only interprets these gazes from the doctor and the priest as violent. In reality, the men want to help him, but he is scared of them and aggressive toward them.

  • 9

    In "The Displaced Person," how is violent imagery associated with language used to enforce the characters' racism?

    Answer: In "The Displaced Person," Mrs. Shortley's fear of the Guizac family manifests as an imaginary battle between the Polish language and the English language: "She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other." When Mrs. McIntyre yells at Father Flynn in Part III, "her voice fell across his brogue like a drill into a mechanical saw." As Father Flynn preaches to her, Mrs. McIntyre does not listen, but rather waits for "an opportunity to drive a wedge into his talk." The mention of Father Flynn's "brogue" identifies him as originating in Ireland and thus as being different from Mrs. McIntyre.

  • 10

    Grace is one of the most important themes in O'Connor's stories. Choose a story in which Grace plays an important role and describe how it is symbolized.

    Answer: Rather than accepting Grace, Asbury has been worshiping Art as a god instead in "The Enduring Chill." He realizes this when he overhears Mary George say that he has decided to be an invalid because he cannot be an artist, thinking, “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death.” When Father Finn instructs him to pray, he responds, “The artist prays by creating.” The stain on Asbury’s bedroom ceiling can be interpreted as representing the Holy Ghost. It appears to him as a “fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak.” Since he has closed himself off to faith, he finds it irritating and sometimes frightening. After Father Finn leaves, having instructed him about the Holy Ghost, Asbury “looked at the fierce bird with the icicle in its beak and felt that it was there for some purpose that he could not divine.” When he realizes that he is doomed to a long life suffering from undulant fever, “the fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion.” It descends toward him, since he is doomed to suffer for his refusal to open his mind to Grace.

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