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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The rural southern U.S. is the setting for this famous collection of short stories by one of the greatest practitioners of the form. She does not often give exact locations, state or town names, but most of these stories take place in a rural landscape and many--though not all--of the main characters are women. Other stories take place in small and mid-sized towns, at a college graduation, and in a city. The title story, O'Connor's most famous, takes place in a number of states, as a family travels by automobile towards a vacation. Though most of the stories are not time-dated, they generally take place in the nineteen forties and early fifties.
Most of O'Connor's stories investigate and illuminate the moment of greatest desire and dread in a simple character's life. She has often been understood as a deeply Christian writer, interested in how the traditions of Christianity have played out in the southern U.S. in the lives of everyday people.
She is a writer working in the tradition of "Southern Gothic": those writers who addressed the decline of the old south in the early to mid twentieth century (see Faulkner, Williams, and Welty). Southern Gothic tales are often tragic and colorful--sometimes awfully funny--and usually address the rural white-southerner's difficulty in maintaining a vision (often built on white-black racial divisions) of a society that is outdated. For many of her characters, their greatest desires (for security, for assurance, for their own "goodness") lead them to their worst nightmares.
O'Connor's narrators are quite similar. They are omniscient and informed and a tiny bit wry--especially when depicting children, for example, as in the title story. The voice has a hint of the traditional story-teller in it, with unique phrasings and sharp descriptions. The narrator of each story spends a great deal of time depicting a character's thinking, often sympathetically. Also, the narrator tends to offer an exterior view, reporting on details as seen from a distance (both physical and psychological). In this sense, O'Connor's narrators are distinctly omniscient. The pattern does not vary a great deal: there is usually a main character who is depicted extensively, and possibly a major secondary character, and a small group of minor characters. The narrator may move in and out of focus, character by character, very quickly. The tone is usually piercing, expectant, and direct.