Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

How Flannery O'Connor Read Franz Kafka: Considerations of Style and Grace

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

How Flannery O'Connor Read Franz Kafka: Considerations of Style and Grace

Article excerpt

Introduction

When O'Connor's work first appeared, many compared her style to that of Franz Kafka, a comparison that O'Connor herself acknowledged. Her recently published journal contains several startling comments in which she explicitly, and somewhat surprisingly, identifies a struggle for grace in Kafka's fiction and personally identifies with that struggle. By so doing, she raises the question of whether a comparison might be made between her work and that of Kafka, not only on the basis of style, but on the basis of substance as well. The period in which she wrote those entries in A Prayer Journal, when she was in graduate school in Iowa, was evidently a spiritually and professionally formative time for her. The tone of her spirituality in the Journal is searching and at times effusive in contrast with her later more reserved, yet deeply reflective piety. Her comments about Kafka's literary struggle for grace are striking for those interested in the affinity between the two writers; and, even if none of her later comments about Kafka repeat her earlier observations in such an unambiguous way, none contradict them either. In addition, Christine Flanagan's edited compilation of the Flannery O'Connor-Caroline Gordon correspondence reveals that discussion between Gordon and O'Connor about Kafka went beyond the book jacket blurbs and reviewers' comments.

This essay, then, explores and compares both of the dimensions in the fiction of the two authors, and in so doing, investigates the spiritual dimension of his strange stories, a dimension suggesting his work shares, with O'Connor's, not only a similarity of technique but also a spiritual depth not unlike that of O'Connor even if it is more ambiguous. The debate over the religious dimension of Kafka's work is not new, and will undoubtedly continue apace, yet this comparison offers a step forward in that inquiry by offering an additional view of his work. It may be that O'Connor would agree with Kafka critics that his work, like hers, involves difficult and awkward encounters with grace, though Kafka's characters may seem at times even more tortured in their pursuit than O'Connor's. That said, it is hard to imagine more oppressed O'Connoresque souls than, for example, Haze Motes, the younger Tarwater, Mr. Shiftlet, and Parker. Even more, illuminating Kafka's fiction in this way reflects in some measure back on O'Connor's writing so as to enable the reader to apprehend her work anew. It is hoped then, that this comparative analysis might help the reader and critic alike to understand Kafka's work better, and to appreciate O'Connor's more. In using the concept of grace in this inquiry, I mean a beneficial, unexpected, unsolicited, and underserved encounter with the spiritual, most often precipitated by distress or violence, which in some way directs the individual to an experience of greater self-knowledge. In addition, grace might be discerned as the origin of a spiritual longing in the individual, such as might be identified in O'Connor's "Parker's Back" or in Kafka's story "In the Penal Colony." This is not to say that Kafka's leanings were Christian. Rather this common element would be somewhat generic insofar as the two writers did not share a theological context that might have influenced their fiction: O'Connor self-consciously and emphatically draws upon her Roman Catholic heritage; if there is a religious background to Kafka's work, its source is less clear but may be attributable in part to his Judaic legacy, although perhaps not limited to that heritage.

Meaningful fiction often involves spiritual longings and/or a search for redemption. O'Connor claimed that readers are looking for the "redemptive act" (MM 48), an assertion that she may have absorbed from Caroline Gordon. A quest for, and experience of, self-knowledge, moreover, is a staple of at least four of the authors O'Connor admired: Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, George Bernanos, and François Mauriac. …

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