Reading and Teaching Flannery O’Connor

Image result for flannery o'connor stories"Flannery O’Connor was a Southern writer whose works are often set in the rural American South. Her stories are popular examples of Southern Gothic literature, and they explore Southern life, manners, alienation, the grotesque, and religion.

In this post, I lay out some background for reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I also give a few questions for a handful of O’Connor’s stories that can lead to reflection, discussion, and essays.

Not only could this information serve as fruitful instruction for your student(s), I recommend her stories to anyone looking for literature that is packed with dark humor and thought-provoking themes.

Some of her most well-known stories are “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Warning: The questions below might contain some spoilers to these stories! I suggest reading the stories one at a time, and then check out the questions in the second half of this post.

The Grotesque

  • The natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature
  • The grotesque fits in between the real and the fantastic (non-real)
  • The grotesque simultaneously fits between being funny and being frightening Gustave Courbet, Art, Painting, Oil On Canvas, France
  • Often linked with satire and tragic-comedy
  • Often contains fusion between human and animal
  • Dating back to the 1500’s the word itself is derived from the Italian “grotto,” for caves or hidden place
  • This is because it was around this time that cave paintings were discovered 
  • These cave paintings mixed humans with animals 

The Difference Between the Grotesque and the Disgusting

    • Makes a character more than a monster, more than a villain.
    • Though we may find the character disgusting—they too were once innocent. 
    • Example: Beauty and the Beast. We want the monster to change and to become more human.
    • Example: Gollum in Lord of the Rings
    • Grotesque is the pairing of disgust with empathy

 

Whitby Abbey, Dracula, Lightning, Yorkshire, WhitbyGothic Literature

  • Gothic: Combines fiction, horror, and romanticism (emotion, individualism, and glorification of past and nature)
  • Examples: Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Frankenstein, and Dracula 

Southern Gothic Literature

  • A style of writing practiced by writers of the American South  whose stories set in that region are categorized as grotesque, disturbing (involvement or depiction of death), or fantastic incidents to examine the values of the American South.
  • It differs from the Gothic genre:
    • The Southern Gothic uses tools not just for suspense but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South 
  • One of the best known writers of the Southern Gothic genre is Flannery O’Connor

Southern Gothic Literature Often Includes…

  • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
  • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
  • Outsider: doesn’t belong
  • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
  • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
  • Imprisonment: literal or figurative

Flannery O’ConnorFlannery-OConnor

  • Lived from 1925-1964
  • A devout Catholic living in the “Bible Belt” of the Protestant South (socially conservative evangelical Protestantism)
  • Religion plays a large part in her writing 
  • Often involves questions of morality and ethics—elements of a parable 
  • Had a dark sense of humor 
  • Loved birds, especially peacocks
  • She passed away at 39 from complications from lupus

 

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. What do we know about Lucynell Crater? What do we know about her daughter?

 

  1. What do we know about Tom Shiftlet? Did you trust Tom at the beginning of the story? Explain why or why not.

 

  1. What criticisms does Tom make about ‘men’ and ‘the world’?

 

  1. How does Tom serve the Crater family? How does the Crater family serve Tom? Does it appear to be an equal relationship?

 

  1. Is it enough to view Mr. Shiftlet as an anti-Christ, as some critics have argued? In what sense could we call his betrayal of these women a kind of salvation? From what does he save them? 

 

  1. How should we view Mr. Shiftlet’s actions in the final paragraphs of the story? Why does he give the boy a sermon on the sweetness of a mother’s love? What motivates his prayer for a cleansing of the world? Does he lack any sense of culpability for his own actions?

 

“Revelation”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. What do Mrs. Turpin and the “white trash” lady in the waiting room say about hogs? How does Mrs. Turpin feel about being called a hog?

 

  1. What does Mrs. Turpin say she values in life? Why does this make Mary Grace mad? Why would Mary Grace consider Mrs. Turpin an “old wart hog from hell?”

 

  1. Mrs. Turpin stands in her pasture alone and asks, “What do you send me a message like that for?” To whom is she speaking? What is she asking? What realization(s) do(es) she come to? 

 

  1. At the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin says, “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!” How does this relate to the vision that Mrs. Turpin sees at the end of the story? What significance does her vision have on her understanding of the way different types of people ought to be ordered in society?

 

“Parker’s Back”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. How is the story structured chronologically ?

 

  1. The story’s point of view is somewhat “unreliable” in that it is biased. In what ways is the narrator’s voice biased?

 

  1. Look online for the stories of the following and give a brief explanation in list form: Moses and the burning bush (Book of Exodus), Obadiah (Book of Obadiah), Elihue (Book of Job), Jonah (Book of Jonah), Paul’s conversion (Acts of the Apostles).

Image result for paul's conversion"

  1. All of the above Biblical references are alluded to in “Parker’s Back.” In list form, tell how these references show up in “Parker’s Back.”

 

  1. Write a paragraph in which you discuss the significance of these references.

 

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

  1. In complete sentences and using details from the story, identify the following traits of Southern Gothic Literature:
    • Innocence: pure; free of guilt
    • Grotesque: ugly or distorted
    • Outsider: doesn’t belong
    • Sense of Place: a clear description of a geographic place and time
    • Violence: physical or emotional abuse
    • Imprisonment: literal or figurative
  1. Describe the grandmother.

 

  1. Describe The Misfit.

 

  1. What was something ironic that happens in the story?

 

  1. Identify two events in the story that foreshadow events later in the story.

 

  1. The grandmother thinks of herself as a lady, and a good Christian woman. Is she?

 

  1. The misfit says, “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody

there to shoot her everyday of her life.” What does he mean?

 

  1. Describe the causes of the car accident. Is it totally an accident or can you blame it

on bad choices made?

 

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