The mystery of description: Flannery O’Connor and characterization

So it was just Good Friday, the Christian holy day of contemplation on the crucifixion of Jesus, and it was also Flannery O’Connor’s birthday, all on the same day. That’s portentous.

O’Connor is among my favorite 20th century authors, something which is in part related to her insightful eye for the chaotic nature of human nature, but it’s also simply her command of language. Much like how a film needs to be visual to truly earn my adoration, writing has to be written well, and O’Connor wrote like few others. In particular, her descriptions always stick in my head. Like O’Connor’s writing as a whole, her descriptions are more abstract and ethereal, sometimes difficult to grasp but always laden with meaning. O’Connor was not interested in the material, even in her characterizations, instead focusing on the intangible nature of humanity.

Because her training was religious in nature, O’Connor was more than comfortable speaking in metaphor. The result is much more engaging characterization than some authors ever achieve. Where did O’Connor’s inspiration for literary construction come from? C. S. Lewis said that Christian training is a complete education in itself, so one could argue it was her Catholicism. However, to be fair to the secular world, O’Connor did attend the State University of Iowa, where she initially studied journalism, so she could not be accused of being uneducated. Still, I went to journalism school, and I did not learn to write like O’Connor. Perhaps it is safest to say that she had what the ancients called “genius,” the spirit of the divinity channeling through her, that which the moderns call “talent.”

In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” O’Connor introduces two teenage girls–students at a Catholic high school, of course–with initially direct descriptions, but they grow gradually more abstract over the course of paragraph, culminating in this gem: “Neither one of them could say an intelligent thing and all their sentences began, ‘You know this boy I know well one time he…'”

I’ve known people like that. Here, O’Connor refines the rudeness of human language into abstract thought. A human identity can be reduced to language, the method by which we border ourselves as separate but similar to the people around us.

In another favorite, “Parker’s Back,” the titular gentleman, a former sailor turned farmhand husband with a tattoo habit taken to carnivalesque extremes, is initially described as being as “ordinary as a loaf of bread,” and elsewhere, he “seemed a natural part of the gray mechanical ship.” Here, O’Connor robs us of a direct description and focuses on the language of poetry. The first metaphor in particular is a delicious description; I am sure you have a loaf of bread sitting somewhere around your house, and you need no further elaboration to conjure up an image of Parker than those words.

In fact, “Parker’s Back” is particularly interesting because Parker’s body–he the central character of the story, it the vehicle of his tattoos–is not described in any more specific terms than being very large in body (presumably to fit all the tattoos onto). His wife is given more description, but, similarly to Parker, she is mostly fleshed out through her actions, which are unexplained by the narrator (it is worth noting that O’Connor never wrote in first-person in her fiction–at least not that I have encountered). The slight outer description of Parker’s wife is, like a medieval writer’s tactic, used to illustrate her inner character.

O’Connor’s descriptions are not easy, but neither are her characters. Yet despite their grotesque natures, divinity is always buried within. Whether that divinity emerges is up to the character, and whether we can recognize it is up to the reader. In an age of increasing convenience, O’Connor remains a complex and thoughtful breath of fresh air.

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