Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Beginnings and Endings in Flannery O'Connor

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Beginnings and Endings in Flannery O'Connor

Article excerpt

IN ALL NARRATIVES, BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS ARE CRITICAL MOMENTS, AND the shorter the narrative, the closer the beginning to the ending, the more important their function and their import. Short stories are fast games with high stakes, quickly won, quickly lost. Everything in them, as Poe argued, is a matter of effects, and as much as in a theatrical performance, it is important to make a successful entrance and to ensure a proper exit.

But what, exactly, do we mean when we talk about the beginning or the ending of a short story? Most readers will spontaneously equate them with the beginning and ending of a finite series of actions and events, or, more specifically, if the actions and events condition one another, with the knotting and unknotting of a plot. In other words, what matters to most common readers is the beginning and the ending of the story itself. But narratology has taught us to distinguish the story from the narrative. Story beginnings do not necessarily coincide with narrative beginnings, nor do story endings necessarily coincide with narrative endings. Indeed, in literature they seldom do. There is no need for the narrative order to follow the chronology of the story. Nor must the ending of the narrative be the ending of the text. Narrators seldom restrict themselves to their narrative duties and have turned quite often into explanators, commentators or even interpreters of their tales. Narratives, especially literary narratives, are apt to include non-narrative discourse, and such discourse is most likely to occur on the margins, at the outset or at the ending, in prologues and in epilogues.

There are, then, at least three distinct kinds of interrelated beginnings and endings to be considered : diegetic beginnings, narrative beginnings, textual beginnings ; diegetic endings, narrative endings, textual endings. How does Flannery O'Connor begin and how does she end her stories ? What do her beginnings and endings tell us about her assumptions, her practice and her purposes as a writer, and how do they affect our reading? These are the questions which I would like to begin to try to address.


In literature, the textual beginning--what, after Louis Aragon had published fen "ai jamais appris a ecrire, came to be called the incipit--is the beginning of all beginnings. Like the ending, it is one of the strategic places or, perhaps rather, one of the strategic moments of the text: a verbal fiat, the crossing of a threshold, the opening up of a new space of language for us to discover and explore. Through the incipit a writer and a reader are brought into contact. But for the initial contact to develop into a lasting and gratifying relationship, the writer must first of all ingratiate himself with his audience and seduce it into reading. The first words should engage the indifferent reader; they should at once arouse and frustrate his curiosity, generate the desire to know more, the desire to read on. Hence starting a narrative is like setting a trap.

Simultaneously providing and withholding information, opening sentences are assumed to create expectations. They also initiate a mood, set a tone. And as reading is an incremental experience, they are likely to remain longest with the reader along the reading trajectory, and to reverberate throughout the narrative. There are short story-writers who do their best to disorient the reader and lead him astray, but most of them see to it that the thrust of their story is apprehended from the opening moments. Occasionally, the incipit even comes to stand, like a metonymy or a raise en abyme, for the entire story, to anticipate and reduplicate the latter in a nutshell.

O'Connor's stories begin variously, but, in contrast to her two novels, most of them begin rather abruptly, and it is certainly not fortuitous that the longest and most intricate opening is the opening of "You Can't Be any Poorer Than Dead," which became the first chapter of The Violent Bear It Away. …

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