The 4 Best Things Flannery O’Connor Teaches Us About How to Read Fiction

The normal ways of teaching fiction are not working very well. In a nutshell, the typical approach to fiction places greater emphasis on historical, biographical, political, economic, and cultural context than on a piece of fiction as a work of art. 

No wonder that the number of college students majoring in English is in significant decline. No wonder that high school students are reading less and less fiction. And no wonder that high school English instruction, scrambling to find a new form of relevance, is increasingly shifting away from its roots in the humanities and taking off in a utilitarian direction with an emphasis on reading workforce-related manuals and articles.

Even classical schools, who have resisted the utilitarian approach and have faithfully retained traditional reading lists, sometimes distract students with an emphasis on matters not internal to the text by seeking the moral of the story or overarching themes, by placing a story in Western history, or by using a work of fiction as a moral case study.

What do we do? How can teachers rethink the art of teaching fiction? How can they focus their students on fiction as art and avoid the kinds of emphases that distract them from the heart of the matter?

On my short list of must-reads for literature teachers is Flannery O’Connor’s essay, The Teaching of Literature, found in a collection of ten wonderful pieces of hers entitled Mystery and Manners. This essay reveals O’Connor as a teacher of teachers on the subject of fiction. Collectively, her essays represent a great mind and expansive heart that open up the world in ways that are insightful and compelling. I have selected a handful of lines from The Teaching of Literature and present them here with commentary. There is no substitute for reading the entire essay, but these selections offer a good first taste. 

Let’s take a look at the 4 best things Flannery O’Connor teaches us about how to read fiction. As we look, let’s see how her own fiction reflects her understanding.

#1. On authorial intent. 

If you’re studying literature, the intentions of the writer have to be found in the work itself, and not in his life. 

This is a countercultural idea, of course, since much of what passes for interpretation today focuses entirely on the author’s intent. Against that tide, O’Connor encourages us to get inside the story, absorb all the details packed into it by the author, and work outward from there. Storytellers deal in fiction, she reminds us, not expository or historical writing. To direct our students to the author’s intent through biography, cultural or intellectual history, or some other extraneous source will generally distract them from the story at hand. 

Let’s take one example: Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. There is simply nothing about the author’s political views, drinking habits, or tragic ending—to name three familiar areas of his biography—that are vital to understanding the protagonist or setting of the story. Hemingway loved Cuba and deep sea fishing, of course. However, we are pulled into the story not by the knowledge of Hemingway’s passions but by the force of his storytelling. He draws us in by detailing the old man, his thoughts, the sea he charters each day, the boat he mans, and the epic struggle to catch the great fish and haul it home. 

In other essays and in her letters, O’Connor speaks her mind about a range of topics; and there, as in The Teaching of Literature, she tells us about her art. In her fiction, however, she lets the details and the story speak of her “intention.” 

#2. On the “business of fiction.”

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners.

O’Connor recognizes that our existence is contingent—that we are when we need not have been. She also understands that humans participate in every level of reality. Each human life is connected to and finds itself in the larger order of things, an order where trees are grounded in the earth but point heavenward, where our finitude is measured by an infinite presence glimpsed in the open sea or the skies above. 

She also recognizes that mystery is perceptible through manners—our language, religion, history, customs, and all the things that make up the fabric of community, that keep us together against all the things humans do to offend, betray, and dominate. Mystery also means that people are the occasions of mystery. Ordinary people, even the most unlikely people, play out the human condition, the drama of life lived between love and hatred, redemption and abandonment, life, death, and life beyond death. In each genuine story, the condition that we share is there for us to see: both the bigger reality evidenced in the characters and the compact human experiences where transcendence takes its place in our lives.

#3. On being true to the way things are.

The storyteller must render what he sees and not what he thinks he ought to see, but this doesn’t mean that he can’t be, or that he isn’t, a moralist in the sense proper to him.

According to O’Connor, it is a mistake for us to seek out a story’s moral, to distill meaning from it. Rather, meaning is in the entirety of a story, in all of its details taken together under the particular form of the story. The storyteller has a gift for seeing the details, how they come together as a whole, and how they illuminate our human experience. The teacher, in turn, guides students into those details, coaching them on how to attend to the form of the story built with those details. That attention is the inroad by which the students can recreate the experience presented in a fictional work.

We can see in her stories what O’Connor teaches us in her essay. Take “Parker’s Back,” for example. At the story’s center is O.E. Parker: carnal, profane, heavily tattooed, rebellious towards all authority. At its climax, Parker procures one final tattoo: the image of a Byzantine Christ on his back, an area, which, up to this point in his life, has been free of imagery. He does it out of “impulse”—perhaps a divine nudge, for the acquisition of this final tattoo is preceded by a strange vision he has of the sun transfigured and by his equally strange encounter with a burning tree. 

Parker does it also out of a nagging impulse to please his wife, Sarah Ruth. That, it turns out, is a matter of exceeding difficulty. A woman who is ever “sniffing out sin” and a disdainer of all symbol—ardently rejecting church buildings, color, imagery, and anything that represents progress—Sarah Ruth is icy-eyed, pale, lean, with skin like an onion’s: not at all Parker’s “type.” She berates him for his flaws, suspects him of yet more, and nearly starves him with her abysmal cooking. Parker is at a loss as to why he pursues her, marries her, and stays with her. Still, as with the other major turns in his life, he feels the “impulse” working—in this case,  towards Sarah Ruth. Parker is hopeful that his latest tattoo will finally please his severe wife. There is a kind of plausibility to his hope, for there is no getting around the connection between his visions, the unexplainable desire to please Sarah Ruth, and the acceptance of the Byzantine Christ on his back; they are all intertwined in Parker. The stage seems set for redemption, a second chance, a reconciliation. 

When Parker reveals his back to Sarah Ruth, however, she bitterly rejects the tattoo. “God don’t look like that,” she declares. He “don’t look” like the image of Christ? He “don’t look” like Parker? Exactly. For her, God looks like neither one. That is her response. How do we respond? Embedded as it is in the man’s flesh, the difference between the image of the Byzantine Christ and Parker is almost, if not entirely, indiscernible. And while Sarah Ruth makes an angry, summary dismissal of the image, the reader has instead been drawn in by the force of accumulating details. In the face of all that happens with Parker, we suspect that in his tattooed back more than ink has met human flesh. 

One more significant detail is added to this culminating experience: We read that Sarah Ruth not only rejects Parker’s tattoo, she beats him until his back bleeds—that is, until the image of Christ present there is bloody. The last we see of Parker, he is leaning against a lone pecan tree and “crying like a baby.” The last we see of Sarah Ruth, she is looking out at Parker, “and her eyes hardened more.” What are we supposed to do with this? On the one hand, the detail of the blood seems to make the convergence of Christ and Parker complete. On the other hand, when we see Sarah Ruth’s response, it is hard not to conclude that Parker’s acceptance of the image of Christ, his obedience to the impulse he felt, and his offering to his wife are altogether a failure. 

This ending is what O’Connor sees, not something else. I think she is being true to the interplay between mystery and manners in Parker. She simply cannot tidy up the clash between sinner and judge, nor paper over the confrontation with and potential mediation by the image of Christ. If mystery is at work in this profane man—in his impulse, in his response, and in the tattoo on his back—Sarah Ruth has to face it. And so does the reader. To see it for what it is, to write it as real, to be true to that confrontation, to acknowledge that the image of Christ is a sword that divides—that is what O’Connor means that the writer is “a moralist in the sense proper to him.” 

#4. On our condition.

It seems that the fiction writer has a revolting attachment to the poor, for even when he writes about the rich, he is more concerned with what they lack than with what they have…His concern with poverty is with a poverty fundamental to man. I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of human limitation.
Just as in the sight of God we are all children, in the sight of the novelist we are all poor, and the actual poor only symbolize for him the state of all men.

These lines from O’Connor go hand-in-hand with her line regarding how a writer sees. If the writer’s attitude is one of faithful attention to what he sees, his most basic observation is that we are poor. To be poor means we are all limited, in need of others, incapable without grace of getting the job of living done. Life imposes itself as occasions of poverty. In each case, we have to respond: we either accept that which transcends us or bend the moment to some lesser or greater expression of evil. The most basic shape of the human condition, then, is the tension between the gain and loss of our lives as we respond to our limitations. That shape is rooted in the poverty O’Connor says is “fundamental to man.” Poverty, in this understanding, is both a condition and a response.

What then, does O’Connor mean when she says that “the actual poor only symbolize for [the writer] the state of all men”? Let’s return to “Parker’s Back.” There, the heart of the matter is not so much whether Sarah Ruth did the right thing in rejecting her husband’s new tattoo, it is what exactly she sees at that moment. Everything depends on the ability to see. God either looks like Parker’s back or “God don’t.” Sarah Ruth says the latter out loud, and by doing so she presses the readers to consider for themselves the same question. Parker is very much a  man of the flesh—and not just in appearance. But what really bothers Sarah Ruth is the same thing that hits the reader: right there in the flesh of his back is something that belies almost everything else we know about Parker. It just seems too much for us to recognize anything more than merely the man. By all acceptable standards, “God don’t look like that.” By all parochial convention, God could not lack so much; he simply cannot be that poor. 

Yet, the story does something to us: it broadens our sight. Because of the image of Christ on Parker’s back, because the two are now indistinguishable, and because the one’s blood suffices for the other’s, we are impelled to think that God does look like Parker. The key is that tattoo, that image of Christ and all the meaning it gathers over the course of the story. Without the image of Christ, the task of seeing God in Parker is much harder. True, he follows what seems to be a divine impulse throughout the story, and collectively the impulsive moments bring him to the pecan tree at the end.There is, then, evidence of a transcendent purpose all along to which Parker is responsive. Ultimately, however, the concrete means by which we are impelled to make the definitive connection between God and Parker is precisely the image of Christ tattooed into his back. Parker needs that image. He is utterly reliant on the embedding of Christ’s image in him. His poverty is finally defined by that reliance, as is his transformation through the incarnating of the image. Parker has nothing else to give Sarah Ruth but his newly imaged back. He is at the end of his rope, barely hanging on, just waiting on her acceptance. In other words, Parker’s poverty is both his condition and his response. 

We all recognize the kind of man Parker is. The hard part is recognizing the mystery he lives out. To put it another way, the difficulty is in conceding that what we see there is real and true, that it is the way things actually are. Of course, we also recognize what kind of woman Sarah Ruth is. The force of O’Connor’s story gives evidence of the force of her expository insights: it lies in the pull and push between Parker and Sarah Ruth, between his impulse and her judgment, between the mystery we see working through his final tattoo and how she cannot or will not see it. If we are looking back and forth between Sarah Ruth and Parker, if we feel the hardness of her eyes, and if our eyes cannot help but return to the face on Parker’s back, marked as it is by his blood, then the story has worked its “business” on us. 

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as president of Cana Academy.

Banner image by Stiller Beobachter. Used under CC BY-2.0.