As many letters in The Habit of Being show, Flannery O'Connor was plagued long before her death with Deep Readers from little colleges offering outlandish 'interpitations' of her fiction and to some extent her life. If the tendency of British academics has been to demand that short stories must be 'short Tories', successful or not according to how strictly they are plotted to deliver a short sharp shock - an early, violent and nastily surprising end - the corresponding vice among their American counterparts has been to require that every short story be a fruitcake of Freudian symbols. O'Connor's stories fulfil neither prescription, though nothing has ever stopped a fully-automated Freudian from applying his insights to anything of human origin. The Fifties and Sixties, when O'Connor was publishing, coincided with the height of the symbol-seeking frenzy. An acquaintance told O'Connor that he hadn't liked her second novel, The violent bear it away, whereupon she replied that she wasn't a bit surprised to hear it 'since you see everything in terms of sex symbols ... My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain't in Manhattan.' She thought that poets were luckier than prose-writers if only because they weren't generally read and therefore not generally misunderstood. All the same, some of the misunderstanding met with by O'Connor, a Roman Catholic of serenest orthodoxy all the 39 years of her life, had to do with the way the moral message she found in life was bound up in the meshings of Catholic doctrine.
LRB 3 September 1981 | PDF Download