This is the first in a series I am doing on literary prose. The series will look at fiction writers whose prosaic innovations are tangled inextricably with the thematic achievements of their texts, making it impossible to discuss what their works are about without simultaneous reflection on their compositional techniques. What I mean to investigate is how these writers make prose, prose being loosely definable as the idiosyncrasies found in sequences of sentences that do not just set the tone of a literary work but which fundamentally alter the outcomes of reading. Therefore, I will approach all of the writers in this series first and foremost as writers of sentences, and with the conviction that prose, as distinct from narrative and theme, is what shoulders the ‘literariness’ of fiction. A writer’s labor expresses itself materially as prose, not purely as theme. These things in mind, I’ll start with Flannery O’Connor.
“No pleasure but meanness.”
-From the story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) had a short and intense writing life, producing many of her major works in her early twenties. Critics during her lifetime – and now during ours – have characterized her as a precocious, if at times grotesque, writer, whose passion for Catholic theology adds a pious element to her otherwise unsettling stories and novels. Indeed, the religious aspirations of O’Connor’s fiction are compelling to consider, but what makes her stories pop on a prosaic level is not so much their theological content but O’Connor’s ability to derive depth from surface and to wield a flippant tone despite presenting grave subject matters.
O’Connor is good at exterior exposition and surface dialogue and so does not depend too much on interior speculation or philosophical posturing in her writing. For example, of all the characters in the short story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ only one character, the grandmother, has an interior thought, which is to wonder whether the house that she and her family are driving all around northern Georgia looking for might in fact be in Tennessee. Everything else that occurs
in the prose happens on the surface of the exterior world, so to speak, in descriptions of passing scenery, in the rhythms of speech and bodily interaction among the various characters, and in a final conversation at the end – a horrifying spectacle during which the grandmother’s family members are being executed in the nearby woods while she discusses life and faith and human nature with a drifter-convict who has ordered his traveling cohorts to carry out the killings. The story’s grotesque finale is well orchestrated and shuttles between the grandmother’s dialogue with the convict and the sounds of the killings in the woods, resulting in the strange effect of experiencing ‘grotesqueness,’ latently, in the convict’s havoc-wreaking, conversational nihilism, but also, more subtly, in the grandmother’s under-challenged Christian faith, which she presents
imploringly to the convict as she guesses what his cohorts are doing to her family members in the woods.
As I see it, O’Connor posits a theological underbelly of ‘A Good Man’ beneath the prosaic surface of exposition and dialogue, to the effect that her prose takes on a retentive feel that, precisely because it withholds, is able to spill its saturated contents into the mind of the reader all the more intensely. These contents are not this or that subjectively held truth, however, but the objective sense that O’Connor’s writing is significant because it never leaves the exterior world and yet seems saturated with theology.
Another instance where O’Connor skillfully manipulates surface to derive theology is in a story from the same collection, ‘Good Country People.’ The prosaic achievement of this story is the vapid dialogue between two characters, Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell, who love to talk with one another about the simplistic virtues of so-called ‘good country people.’ Believing they are making principled assertions about the social world, the women’s statements are laden with ambiguity, if not void of meaning altogether. “Good country people are the salt of the earth!” Mrs. Hopewell says at one point, before musing, “Besides, we all have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round. That’s life!”
That the idea of ‘good country people’ is conversationally meaningful but conceptually vapid is made apparent with Mrs. Hopewell’s daughter, Hulga, who holds a PhD in philosophy and likes to say that she believes in ‘nothing,’ becomes erotically interested in a young Bible salesman whom her mother classifies as ‘good country people’ when he comes to visit their home. The Bible salesman turns out to be a swindler with a fake name and tries to take advantage of Hulga in a rare moment of emotional vulnerability for her. “Aren’t you just good country people?” Hulga pleads of him when she realizes what kind of man he is. Later, in reference to her previous claim that she is “one of those people who sees through to nothing,” the young man tells her, “[Hulga,] you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
The irony of the narrative is that Hulga, who is highly educated and rarely pays mind to her mother’s truisms, is fooled by the emptiness of the idea of ‘good country people,’ thinking the Bible salesman to be one of the simple country folks that her mother so often exalts. Prosaically speaking, the theological irony of ‘Good Country People’ is that the ‘nothing’ that Hulga obsesses over and which the Bible salesman claims as his way of life, is derivable from
the surface of a world that appears to be about ‘something’: Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell think they are plain and wise Christians; Hulga thinks philosophy helps her transcend the nothingness on the underside of life; the Bible salesman thinks that ‘nothing’ is his lot and uses it to justify his lawless libertinism.
O’Connor handles dark themes in a flippant prose that, for all it retains on the surface, nevertheless channels a gravity and a sense of irony that is not merely satirical but theological in scope. Her stories indicate, moreover, that fictional prose, when read as the material expression of authorial labor and not as the unmediated, theme-saturated ‘literariness’ on the part of the author, holds within itself the sum of a work’s thematic contents, which do not have to be derived from any source but the prose itself.