‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925.

“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.” For O’Connor, reality meant spirit – the everlasting soul was the site of reality, not the material world, no matter how bound to it we appear to be. Again and again, she pushes her characters into terrifying epiphanies, moments of grace that they are hardly able to maintain. O’Connor’s lines about violence, reality, and grace were delivered in a discussion on her most-anthologized tale, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ but the sentiment saturates her fiction, where heroes are fatally flawed, stuck in the clay of the material world, yet still striving for a recognition of something metaphysical that might give meaning to it all.

The hero of ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ is Tom T. Shiftlet, a one-armed shapeshifting trickster who drifts into the lives of Lucynell Crater and her daughter, Lucynell Crater Jr. The narrator notes that his grotesque figure resembles a “crooked cross” and Shiftlet claims to be a carpenter. Like so many of O’Connor’s heroes, he’s a failed Jesus, a dissatisfied seeker. What is a man? he demands of Lucynell Crater upon their initial meeting.  It’s a question that the narrative can’t answer but can nevertheless repeatedly pose.

O’Connor presses her vision of reality upon Shiftlet. He marries the daughter Lucynell Crater Jr. in what amounts to an economic exchange “That didn’t satisfy me none.” He soon abandons her in a highway diner, and the reader senses that this is just one more failure in life stuffed with failure. But O’Connor gives the hero another chance to redeem himself. After passing a mundane sign that warns, “Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own,” Shiftlet picks up a young boy hitchhiking on the side of the road. He seems to recognize something of himself in the boy, and guilt and regret seep into his consciousness. His attempts to reach out to the boy are met with rejection, however, and the lad jumps from a moving car into a ditch. The story concludes in ominous, anxious conclusive inconclusiveness as Shiftlet prays to God: “Oh Lord! . . .Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” His prayer is answered.

First published in The Kenyon Review, Spring 1953, and available to read online here. Collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1955, and in Complete Stories, FSG 1971, and now from Faber and Faber, 1990

‘The Artificial Nigger’ by Flannery O’Connor

‘The Artificial Nigger’ is also located in a shifting political landscape, but in the US. The two main characters move through an unsettling experience culminating in the sighting of a statue leading them to an awareness of sorts. In a rural town of Georgia, Mr Head and his grandson, Nelson prepare for a trip to Atlanta. They argue about whether or not Nelson will recognise “a nigger”. After a stressful day in the city, Mr Head and Nelson see a plaster figurine of a black, lawn jockey on a lawn. This is their moment of reckoning. Mr Head says, “An artificial nigger!” which the boy repeats, in the “exact same tone.” Mr Head explains the statue is there because “they ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.” The statue elicits an emotional response from the old man and his grandson and they reach an understanding of their familial bond and “all the mystery of existence”, but, as the reader appreciates, they remain unaware of their racist attitude and their wider connection to humanity. 

First published in A Good Man is Hard to Find, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955

‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor

Really, one of the first stories that rattled my bones, with its languorous tone, incongruous against the abject violence within. This story sparked an exploration of Sothern gothic literature and inspired my own MA dissertation. Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ is a wonderful example of how Southern Gothic can contain both dark humour and a bleak and shocking theme. 
A prisoner, ‘the Misfit’, has escaped from the ‘federal pen’. An unbearable Grandmother, exposed by O’Connor as a hypocrite, racist and religious zealot, sets off with her family to visit relatives in Tennessee. She insists on a diversion to an old plantation house, leading the family straight into the path of the misfit and his gang. What transpires is utterly horrific, yet due to O’Connor’s skilful storytelling, we ultimately find sympathy for the anti-hero. 

First published in The Berkeley Book of Modern Writers, ed. William Phillips and Phillip Rahv, in 1953. You can read this, and other stories here

‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor

In any list of the best short stories ever written, you have to include something by Flannery O’Connor. It’s an actual crime not to – and with good reason. She was a flat out, one of a kind genius. O’Connor is someone else I first read in the Granta anthology and it’s that story, ‘Good Country People’, that I want to include here. It tells the story of Mrs Hopewell and her daughter, Hulga, a morose 32 year old with ‘a number of degrees’ and a wooden leg who has changed her name from Joy specifically to spite her mother. When a bible salesman visits, Hulga is fascinated by the possibility of seducing him and he by the thought of her leg. Usually, when I admire a writer, it makes me want to write like them, but not in O’Connor’s case. You know that you could never write something so strange, so savage and so funny – and you shouldn’t even try.

First published in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955, Harcourt, Brace and Company) and widely collected and anthologised.

‘The Lame Shall Enter First’, by Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor died of lupus in 1964  at the age  of 39; this story was published posthumously a year later in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge.Like William Faulkner , Carson McCullers and a host of others, O’Connor wrote in the Southern Gothic tradition, populating her work with grotesque characters, violent incident  and moral debate. I also have lupus; on diagnosis I identified as a shadowy Flannery O’Connor, one without the writing talent or the peacocks (she famously kept many exotic birds), an atheist in thrall to O’Connor’s rhapsodic Catholicism. In this story, a father refuses to empathise with the grief of his young son who has recently lost his mother. Instead, he offers his charity to a manipulative homeless teenager, with tragic consequences for the child. It’s unsettling, unsentimental and never fails to make me weep and rage.

(In Complete Stories, Faber and Faber, 1990)