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The Obedient Imagination
Sarah Gordon. Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000. xviii + 270 pp.
The publication of Sarah Gordon's latest book is an important event in Flannery O'Connor studies. Gordon's O'Connor credentials are unimpeachable. Since 1973, she has taught at O'Connor's alma mater in Milledgeville, Georgia. In 1973 she also undertook the position of associate editor at The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, and in 1983, she became editor. Her close proximity to the scenes of O'Connor's life and her access to the author's extensive manuscript collection at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville ensure that hers is an informed opinion. Clearly The Obedient Imagination is the work of a top scholar in the field.
The book provides Gordon with a chance to reflect on her extensive scholarly career. She notes that, over the past thirty years, her critical view has expanded as trends in literary theory have changed; consequently, her reactions to and perceptions of O'Connor have changed over time as well. At the time that she started her teaching career, she worked firmly within the framework of New Criticism. For Gordon, this initial critical approach has been supplemented by her exposure to feminist criticism, reader response criticism, and the dialogic theory of Bakhtin. Rather than adopting one theory of criticism to the exclusion of others, Gordon blends her approaches. However, the book does favor a feminist view of O'Connor, which is reflected in the phrase, "the obedient imagination." [End Page 501]
Gordon's lengthy career has led her to formulate some fundamental questions regarding O'Connor's work and art. She wonders why it is that O'Connor's world view seems so unremittingly bleak; why O'Connor is relentlessly satirical in her treatment of characters, and whether her use of satire is cruel; why women in particular and the feminine in general are such targets for O'Connor's ridicule; why she presents African Americans as marginal characters, and whether this depiction reflects racist attitudes on O'Connor's part. In answering these questions, Gordon presents the thesis that O'Connor's imagination was "obedient" to the patriarchal modes of thought and art of her time.
By "obedient imagination," Gordon means that O'Connor's free-ranging imagination was reined-in by her adherence to Catholic teachings. Indeed, Gordon identifies one source of O'Connor's power as a writer in the tension between her formidable imagination and the restrictions imposed by the Church. However, Gordon's concerns extend further than O'Connor's relationship with the Church. For Gordon, O'Connor's imagination is "obedient" in that it obeys the promptings of a patriarchal academic and literary culture. She sees O'Connor's renowned "unladylike" treatment of her subject matter as rooted in the ideas and attitudes of the male writers and critics of her time. Citing influences on O'Connor such as the Fugitive Poets, T. S. Eliot, Nathanael West, and James Thurber, Gordon suggests that O'Connor internalized their opinions of women and literature. From the Fugitives, Gordon sees the influence of New Criticism in O'Connor's essays on writing. From Eliot, she identifies O'Connor's use of "waste land" imagery in her novels and stories. From West and Thurber, she suggests that O'Connor adopted the attitude of misogyny with a sharp satirical edge.
Gordon observes that O'Connor's apparent hostility to the feminine and female is rooted in her unquestioning acceptance of the male-dominated literary tradition of her time. From Eliot and the New Critics, suggests Gordon, O'Connor learned to devalue women's literary efforts. Her disdain for "women's fiction" and her adoption of the hard-boiled "masculine" style of fiction, with its emphasis on male experience and characters, emerge from this exposure to patriarchal literary criticism. Gordon singles out Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind as an example of the type of "women's...