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Familial Roles In The Short Stories By O’Connor
Religion and irony through the mother-and-daughter theme are central in most of the stories, written by Flannery O’Connor, and, readers familiar with her biography, would also find that many familial ties depicted in her works have allusions to her real life. The relationship between her life and fiction is plainly reflected in her work, as her stories are heavily influenced by her Southernness, her religious beliefs and her concern with mystery and manners. A close look on her life will help us interpret the various religious, social and literary messages her stories convey.
O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and she later moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1938, with her mother. She graduated in arts from the Women’s College of Georgia, in 1945, and later completed her Master’s in the State University of Iowa, in 1947. Her first short story collection was published in the year 1946, and she won, in 1947, the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for her first novel. She was offered a fellowship by the Yaddo Foundation in New York. But, after spending just six months there, she went back to Milledgeville and, expected just for a few years, she spent most of her life there, in that Southern town.
Her stories were short, sharp and often related to violence. She was a religious Catholic, her works had serious religious themes, but she did not believe in preaching, but conveyed her message often, through shocking her audience with strange characters and ugly violence. Her stories often transform from comedy to tragedy, which mostly catches the readers’ attention, I would say, and the characters experience their moments of grace through unexpected situations.
O’Connor’s protagonists are often Southern women, who have an established view of themselves and the people around them. Familial ties are central to her stories and, they more often than not, involve contradiction of viewpoints between family members. Her characters live their lives, according to their stubborn viewpoints, and, usually, with the help of an antagonist, they realize the falseness of their stand. The misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and the Bible salesman in "Good Country People” are examples of such characters.
In Milledgeville, O’Connor lived with her widowed mother Regina, who ran the farm, while her daughter wrote fiction. Southern women often were in full charge of farms, due to absence of their family men. Therefore, it was common for those women to rise and educated children, and to compensate for the role of familial men. Even after the war, women did not give up their double role straightforwardly and many of them never returned to the former status of submissiveness to their husbands. Although O’Connor’s fiction does not have an exact prototype of her mother, there are many similarities between her fictional Southern widowed female characters and her mother. Her fictional farm widows are concerned about their appearances, and they emphasize on hard work, common sense and being lady-like .
For example, the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find" turns out in a perfect attire of white gloves, black purse and polka-dot dress, with collar and cuffs, for the trip taken with her family. When quizzed about her dressing, she says that, if they were to meet with an accident, she would want anyone seeing her dead on the highway to know that she once was a lady. Such is the importance, given by the character for appearance and manners.
Many of her stories feature a traditional Southern mother, who is at odds with her modern children. During childhood, girls often identify with their mother, but later on they experience a natural need for separation and independence. The writer truthfully depicts her female characters in their way of losing feminine connection and stepping on the track that leads to further separation. Only understanding psychology well, O’Connor can describe adolescence so meticulously perfectly and its effects in mother’s and daughter’s lives. The family members in her story are prisoners of manipulative and often destructive relationship. The dysfunctionality of the family relationships, stunts the emotional growth of the characters, especially since there is no father figure involved. The predominance of mother’s role to be a successful farm-runner is the reason, why many mothers and daughters never reach any agreement and understanding between them. Their relationship is often stalled and, finally, these close relatives become more and more alienated. The imbalance was seen so often in literature and real-life that it became a norm for daughter and mother relationship. Due to hard circumstances of that period of time, it appears that, to reach healthy mother-daughter relationship, is a lifelong venture.
In the author’s life, too, the role of the father was limited, as O’Connor’s father died, when she was 15, which completely devastated her. Since there is no father figure to share the burden of running the farm, or mediate between them and their children, O’Connor’s mothers are assertive and independent, the very qualities which alienate them from their children. It is evident in the way the mother-daughter relationship pans out in the short story, "Good Country People". The daughter is annoyed by her mother’s lack of understanding, and the mother is never able to form a relationship with her daughter, or fully understand the values she believed in. The overwhelming masculinity in her short stories leads to failure of mothers and their feminine mission. Contrary to the norms of the patriarchal society, women try to assert themselves as rational and practical and, opposed to being emotional, they no longer define themselves through maternity. The mother-daughter theme is only slightly touched upon in southern literature, before the 1970’s. O’Connor’s works mark a unique example because she gives her full attention to the theme. Perhaps, she paved the way to modern feminist thinkers, who encourage women to express themselves through the renewed relationships between southern mothers and daughters .
O’Connor knew that, if she presents spiritual reality to her readers, they would ignore her, but if she conveys the same message in a shocking way, using ordinary characters and situations, she can get her message across. Her works are an unusual blend of comic violence and mysterious shock. The grandmother, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find", for example, is a type of character most people find in their family, a self-righteous grandmother or aunt, who is an old lady, who lacked comprehension and was concerned only with self-preservation. Through her, O’Connor delineates her spiritual message to her readers.
It is apparent that the basic themes of O’Connor’s works are – religion, death and salvation. However, her Southern characters and their familiar ties are the means through which she conveys these themes across. The family unit is not portrayed by O’Connor to be a closely-kit, loving unit, but as a group of people with their own, often contradicting, views, trying to assert their point over others. Through such differences, O’Connor conveys to her readers her spiritual message and, thus, familial roles play a vital role in her stories.
Bernard, Gretchen Dobrott. "FLANNERY O'CONNOR'S FRACTURED FAMILIES: MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS IN CONFLICT." Rel'isca de Estudios Norteamericanos, no.1O (2004): 71-82. Pdf.
Edwards, Jr., Bruce L. "Flannery O’Connor." Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition (2010): 1-6. Web. <ebscohost.com>.
Ruppersburg, Hugh. Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor. 22 January 2004. Web. <http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/short-stories-flannery-oconnor>. 5 March 2015.