Hidden Symbolism in Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Written April 23, 2018

Important note

Hi, I’ve noticed that this particular blog post is apparently being found through scholar.google and jstor. While I’m always glad that my work is getting views, I felt it necessary to make it painfully clear that this is an undergraduate paper I completed in 2017 during my intro course for my English major. You are more than welcome to use the same sources that I used in this but please do not use this paper I wrote as a reference in your works cited. I am just a university student studying English. I never meant for this to be something that people used for their own work (and, to be truthful, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to be used as a resource). Keep this in mind as you read. Thank you!

Flannery O’Connor is known for her short stories that can easily “lose most of her readers” (Leonard, 1983) through her intense use of imagery and symbolism. She uses humor to critique the hypocrisy and ignorance of the stereotypical southerner. Her writing is unapologetic and honest, which is why she is both liked and disliked by so many people. By analyzing the stories the book The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor, we can understand a message through her use of satire, symbolism and irony. Her stories like A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Parker’s Back best exemplifies each of these points.

When it comes to Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, irony and satire play an important role in the message of the story as well as in the characters. The most crucial character, the grandmother, can easily be summed up by her conversation with her grandchildren:

“‘In my time,’ said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, ‘children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh, look at that cute little pickaninny!’ she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. ‘Wouldn’t that make a picture, now?’” (O’Connor 119)

The grandmother personifies the stereotypical southerner through her ignorance and sense of noblesse oblige. Noblesse oblige comes into play with her grandchildren when she expresses how things were so much better in her day and that she is above them in regards to what she respects, yet she still has obvious racism that makes her no better from anyone else. Her racism is displayed through assumptions and ignorance when she tells June Star that the boy has no pants because boys like him “don’t have things like we do” (O’Connor 119). She also tries to paint herself as this wealthy woman through what she wears like her “white cotton gloves,” (O’Connor 118) which typically indicates a high-class individual yet is all a facade for who she really is. She even goes as far as to paint herself as a better person than her own son when he refuses to dance and her internal response is simply because “he didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did” (O’Connor 121).

The grandmother’s only way of connecting with the world around her is by using her southern identity and religion. Her southern identity and religion are all she really has, and even that shows to be fake when the Misfit shows her true colors. The Misfit acts as an equalizer for the grandmother and even a sort of antichrist. He strips down her identity and reveals what she is at the base of her existence: a fraud in every sense of the word. When the grandmother tries to bond with him over religion and telling him he’s “a good man” and “not the least bit common,” (O’Connor 128) the Misfit disregards it and continues to kill off her family. When faced with her own mortality, it becomes apparent that she really is not the holy beacon of light she pretends to be when the only religious thing she can speak is “pray, pray” (O’Connor 130) over and over again.

One way to view the ending of the story is to focus on how she is with religion. She never mentions Bible verses or the teachings of her religion; she only repeats for him to pray over and over again, proving that she is a hypocrite. She used this metaphorical veil of religion to protect her from the common dangers of the world but when faced with something as intensive as this, it is not enough. Even if her southern identity is not a true reflection of who she is, she still tries to keep that identity when she dies “in a puddle of her own blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky” (O’Connor 132) ready to go to heaven, even if she did not exactly exemplify the perfect Christian. O’Connor, in one sense, is warning of the consequences of being a hypocrite in an extreme satirical circumstance.

In another sense, one can read this story and actually feel for the grandmother. Even though the grandmother is easy to pick apart and make fun of, she plays an even bigger and not-so-obvious part in the story. At the beginning of the story, she warns of the Misfit yet no one pays attention to her. It forces us to realize that the grandmother was “not, after all, a figure of ridicule, but a tragically unwitting prophet and agent of destruction” (Foster, 1986). Her classic southern disposition is easy to scoff at but she actually foreshadowed their end in the grand scheme of things. O’Connor makes us come face to face with our own mortality through the grandmother and the way she handled situations throughout the story.

In her other story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, similar writing aspects are used to get the meaning across and to critique. The mother, much like the grandmother in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, depicts the stereotypical southerner while her son, Julian, has lost his connection with the old south. Along with losing connection with his identity, he actually goes as far as resenting his own mother. He tries to one-up her obvious racism with a faux liberalism attitude and constantly tries to make friends with nearby Negros to spite his mother. Everything Julian does is geared towards making his mother uncomfortable and goes so far that he gives her a stroke by the climax of the story.

It’s obvious in the story that the mother actually has good intentions when “she held out the coin” to a little Negro boy on the train with her son and is completely confused when she faces retaliation. Despite this, O’Connor uses imagery to show that she is still lost to the modern way of handling things through her eyes, which “were as innocent and untouched by experience as they must have been when she was ten” (O’Connor 406). By creating characters that have both positive and negative qualities, O’Connor is able to critique the southern stereotypes like “selfishness, bigotry, pride” (Wyatt, 1992) as well as recognizing southerners “as vessels of grace” (Wyatt, 1992) at the same time.

The climax of the story occurs after his mother offers the Negro child a coin and his mother sees the interaction take place:

“The huge woman turned and for a moment stood, her shoulders lifted and her face frozen with frustrated rage, and stared at Julian’s mother. Then all at once she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that had been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed as he heard the woman shout, ‘He don’t take nobody’s pennies!’ When he opened his eyes, the woman was disappearing down the street with the little boy staring wide-eyed over her shoulder. Julian’s mother was sitting on the sidewalk” (O’Connor 418).

This climax is incredibly significant, as it leads to the end of Julian’s mother. Regardless of the fact that his mother has just been hit, he still continues to belittle her and make her feel terrible until she has a stroke. Giving her a stroke is ironic because earlier in the novel, he discusses giving her a stroke if he made “friends with some distinguished Negro professor or lawyer” (O’Connor 414). Although her son is grief-stricken by the end, he spent the entire story being childish and trying to aggravate his mother for no other reason than trying to teach her a lesson.

In the final story, Parker’s Back, O’Connor takes a more obvious stance on a religious viewpoint. The story starts with a man who calls himself O.E. Parker and eventually calls himself by his full name, Obadiah Elihue. The significance of his name changing is that it shows his maturity. His name is also significant because it foreshadows the religion he will soon believe in, as both parts of his name are located in the Old Testament. When one is young, they tend to only go by a nickname, yet when they grow up, go by their full name. In the story, O.E. tries to get his religious wife to love his tattoos with a giant piece of Jesus Christ Himself, but it doesn’t go as planned. His wife actually beats his back calling him an “idolator” (O’Connor 529), which was the opposite reaction he had expected. The welts that form on O.E.’s back alludes to the torture Jesus faced before He was made to carry the cross, and O’Connor points this somewhat insignificant detail to make sure the reader realizes that.

The tattoo immediately has an impact on O.E. At one point, “Parker turned his head as if he expected someone behind him” (O’Connor 528) but it was actually just the feeling of God’s face on his back. He was never a religious man throughout the story but immediately felt something rise in his soul after getting the ink. O’Connor also alludes to Moses and the burning bush when O.E. sees “a tree of light burst over the skyline” (O’Connor 528). In one sense, O’Connor alludes to O.E.’s journey to religion like Jesus’ journey to His cross.

It began when he saw the tattooed man at the fair and he felt “as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed” (O’Connor 513). O.E even recognizes his “dissatisfaction” after a new tattoo and “he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up” (O’Connor 514) symbolizing that he felt a longing for something but didn’t understand that religion was what he lacked.  No matter how many tattoos he received, “his dissatisfaction grew and became general” (O’Connor 514) and made him marry a woman he could hardly stand. “Parker subconsciously realizes that only suffering can bring meaning to his life, and pain is the most common denominator of his colorful tattoos and drab wife” ( Coulthard, 1983) when really the thing Parker wants in his life is to be saved with God.

In conclusion, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are full of meaning through her use of satire, irony and critique of the south. Her work forces the reader “to shake out of their modernist stereotypes” (Ben-Bassat, 1997) through her writing style and ideals of the south. She explores everything from religion to old-fashioned southern racism, which can cause the reader to either enjoy her work or be put off. She coherently expresses her ideas in an enjoyable way through her apologetically honest disposition and unwillingness to let critics of her work shut her down.

Works cited
Ben-Bassat, Hedda. “FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S DOUBLE VISION.” Literature and Theology, vol. 11, no. 2, 1997, pp. 185–199. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23926835.

Coulthard, A. R. “From Sermon to Parable: Four Conversion Stories by Flannery O’Connor.” American Literature, vol. 55, no. 1, 1983, pp. 55–71. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2925882.

Foster, Shirley. “Flannery O’Connor’s Short Stories: The Assault on the Reader.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1986, pp. 259–272. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27554760.

Leonard, Douglas Novich. “EXPERIENCING FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find.’” Interpretations, vol. 14, no. 2, 1983, pp. 48–54. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23241513.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Complete Stories.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Wyatt, Bryan N. “The Domestic Dynamics of Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 38, no. 1, 1992, pp. 66–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/441543.

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