Flannery O'Conner: Biography, Books & Writing Style

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Fiction and essay writer Flannery O'Connor is considered one of the best American southern writers. This lesson will discuss her life, her struggles, as well as what makes her stories so deep and dark.

Biography

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, as an only child. Her family was devoutly Catholic, which would influence her and her work for her entire life. When she was 13, they moved to Milledgeville, and within two years, her father died of lupus. O'Connor, overcome by the loss of her father, chose to remain in Milledgeville and attend Georgia State College for Women in an accelerated program.

In 1945, O'Connor attended the now-called University of Iowa on a journalism scholarship. However, by the end of her first term, she decided she'd made a mistake and was given permission to move to the creative writing program. At school, she was known for her extreme shyness and thick, southern drawl, both of which were so bad that she hardly ever read aloud her own stories in workshop. Her master's thesis The Geranium, a collection of short stories, has since become published and its stories anthologized.

Photograph of Flannery O Connor
photograph of Flannery O Connor

After receiving her Masters in Fine Arts, O'Connor published her first novel Wise Blood, winning the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction award for a first novel. She was invited to attend a world-famous writer's retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York called 'Yaddo', where she befriended famous northern poet Robert Lowell and continued to write.

In 1950, O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus, the same incurable disease that killed her father. Her health deteriorated quickly, and she was forced to move in with her mother back in Milledgeville. During her final years, O'Connor devoted her time to writing, even traveling to lecture and read her work. She continued to receive critical acclaim, as well as several awards such as O. Henry awards in short stories.

After a surgery awakened the lupus that she had managed to fight for 14 years, O'Connor fell into a deep coma. And three days later, on August 3, 1964, she died. In 1983, the University of Georgia Press created an award in her honor, called the Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction.

Writing Style

O'Connor's style is best described as 'southern gothic', which is a style of literature that has flawed and disturbed characters in sinister situations. Her writing explores religion and morality, and often how the two horrifically collide.

Aside from her southern settings and psychologically disturbed characters, readers of O'Connor have come to expect grotesque and shocking twists, as well as an excellent use of foreshadowing. For example, her short story 'A Good Man is Hard to Find', begins with a grandmother dreading a family vacation and using the story of an escaped murderer to back out of it. All of this happens within the first few sentences and signals to the reader dark things to come.

Though many of her stories begin in realistic settings, like a farm or a family home, her writing style does not fall under 'realism'. For example, her story 'A Stroke of Good Fortune' takes place in a simple apartment stairwell. However, as the main character Ruby ascends the stairs, the story becomes more and more bizarre and normalcy goes out the window.

Writing during the social and racial changes overcoming the south, O'Connor utilized these tensions in her work, embedding it often into her characters and dialects. Her use of racial satire was meant for shock value, and not to be taken at face value, though some have come to criticize her racial slurs as just that. In the biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch, O'Connor is revealed to be a rather feisty woman, and not one to succumb to the typical southern bell mannerisms. Though she was a supporter of equal rights, she was known to take delight in telling racist jokes, especially to her activist friends.

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