A few days ago my good friend Avra and I were talking about our love/hate relationship with the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. If you fancy yourself a writer, they’re the kind of stories you inexplicably love, but – in Avara’s words – leave you “very jealous…and a little insecure.”
What fascinates me is these stories quickly, often within the first sentence, put a tight knot in my gut, one that lingers long after I’ve put the book down. How does O’Connor do that? What magic does she breath into her words that twists my tummy ’round sideways?
To get some perspective, I thought it might be fun to examine the first sentences of some of my favorite O’Connor stories. Lets see what we can find.
Conflict in Eight Words or Less
“The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.” – A Good Man is Hard to Find
Not eight words into A Good Man is Hard to Find and there’s already conflict. Who is the Grandmother? Why didn’t she want to go to Florida? Who is making her go? Why is this an issue?
I think there are a couple interesting conclusions we can draw already: The subject of the sentence is referred to as the Grandmother, meaning we’re dealing with a family, and given the disagreement over Florida, we can assume that there is some dysfunction at hand.
It also stands to reason that there will soon be a journey in store for the Granny and company, and judging from her disposition, it’s not going to be a pleasant one. What will happen along the way? How will things resolve themselves?
Boom. Conflict. Eight words. Think you can do better?
“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.” – Good Country People
What an unusual person, that Mrs. Freeman. She sounds like the type that will steamroll forward, pushing through everyone in her path, somehow disconnected from the people around her as if they were little more than annoying ghosts. And yet, she seems withdrawn; sunken into herself. Alone she’s neutral, gray, nothing; and when cornered or threatened, she backs up, retreats, and disappears around a corner.
There’s enough in that one sentence to unpack a whole volume of human psychology. I’m primed now for whatever lies ahead of Mrs. Freeman. I sense her angst and fear. I’m aware of the walls she’s built up to keep herself safe, and I know how devastating it’ll be when the story’s events inevitably tear them down.
It leaves me wondering “what on earth is about to happen to this poor woman?”
A Clear Path
“Her doctor had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y.” – Everything The Rises Must Converge
Already we know a great deal about what’s going on in this story: Julian’s mother’s health seems fragile on account of her blood pressure and weight. As a result, Julian is obligated to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class. All the game pieces are laid out plainly for us. What is about to happen to these two? Where is this going?
As the story progresses, those pieces of information cast a foreboding shadow over what we learn about the characters:
Julian’s obnoxiously nostalgic mother grew up on a plantation, and is mentally stuck in the Antebellum South. She’s the sweetest, kindest racist you’ll ever meet.
Julian considers himself liberal and educated, well above his outmoded and bigoted Mother. So much so that he decides he must educate her; he must teach her a lesson and break her once and for all of her nonsense.
Julian sees his perfect opportunity when he and his Mother board the bus for downtown and find themselves in the company of several black passengers. This doesn’t bode well for Julian’s mother, given her high blood pressure and all.
If I were to consider the above examples and look for a pattern, it’s this: they all cause a wellspring of questions in me. I’m instantly on edge. The mystery generated in O’Connor’s opening lines cause me to feel dread, fear, and hope (even if it’s a false hope).
Questions pull us, the reader, right into the thick of it.
What are your favorite Flannery O’Connor stories?