It is my impression that O'Connor is most famous for two of the first stories in this collection, the title story and "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." I cannot entirely understand this, except, perhaps, by thinking of their utility in high school or even advanced middle school education: these stories are perfect bones to throw to high schoolers for a game of Symbolism-Scavenger-Hunt, and serve as durable but facile prompts for banal discussion, mostly centering around religion and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy may be the richest goldmine for the shallowest discussions: because hypocrisy tends toward dichotomous interpretations (s/he is or is not a hypocrite; one character or the other is the bigger hypocrite; hypocrisy is or isn't worse than outright evil), the reader gets the glamour of ambiguity but the solidity of a highly constrained field of options. You can argue endlessly in this shimmering playground of fixed positions.
Outside of this very dull level of interest, these two stories, along with the others in the first four-fifths of this book, left me wondering how O'Connor could ever be reckoned a great American writer, or even an interesting storyteller. The "Southern Gothic" ethos she is renowned for seemed to be like a stick of butter covered in chocolate: tasteful shadows just barely obscuring the greasily overdetermined but ultimately spineless plot. (Actually, "The River" isn't bad, and stands out over the rest of the first eight stories quite strikingly.) But the worst thing I think I can say about them is that no character is ever smarter than they need to be.
The last two stories, however—"Good Country People" and the relatively long "The Displaced Person"—are masterpieces. Well, I have one or two scruples about the last few pages of "Good Country People" (I think O'Connor re-descends into her tedious considerations of hypocrisy), but "The Displaced Person" is unequivocally the work of a master hand. O'Connor lets ambiguity seep into her story without guiding those ambiguities toward particular, plot-oriented ends. The characters seem larger than the plot, which may be a horribly James Wood-en thing to say, but which is certainly true, regardless of my feelings about Wood's overweening love of "characters who are real to themselves" or whatever. But in O'Connor's stories, a character who seems to be active on more levels than those which the plot bids is rare, precious, and surprising.
If hypocrisy is O'Connor's AP English Gold Star, "salvation" may be her Freshman Comp essay theme. Yet I think "salvation" has a little bit more to recommend it than hypocrisy, if only because its dichotomies have more meat to them.
Yet O'Connor's stories are not really about salvation—they are about justification.1 The mechanism of justification is the focus and constant preoccupation of her stories, each one carefully built to disclose the possibility of justification in the form of an epiphanic apprehension of the existence of mystery in life. This epiphany is not always made available to the characters, but it is granted to the reader, held out like a Communion wafer.
Because O'Connor is working from the Catholic understanding of justification, there is an equation for how this epiphany is to be enclosed into the story, a sort of soteriological algebra: where the Catholics have
works + faith + grace = justification
O'Connor's stories operate like
(plot + imagery) + characters + x = story
where x is the epiphanic mystery which is disclosed by the story to the reader—an analogue (but not substitute or vehicle) for grace. The creation of a story thus becomes a simple operation of solving for x, of defining that ineffable variable.
I think this equation has been immensely successful as an ideal for the writing of short stories, and that it spread through O'Connor to many other writers, particularly those connected with the Iowa Writing Program. I don't really think it has been an explicit formula, but I think its internal logic has prevailed over a number of writers, and is generally acknowledged to be the paradigm for how a short story is constructed. I am, I must confess, speaking from a vast lack of experience—I have never been in a creative writing classroom, and its rituals are as obscure to me as those of Opus Dei.
But I know what I read, and the kinds of short stories I read all seem to be built on the simple, elegant and utterly dull logic of this equation. Each writer seems to be possessed of a great deal of confidence that the crucial work of the writing of a story occurs in solving for this variable, and that this variable, by its addition to the plot, imagery, and characters, completes the story. This is an adaptable formula (because it has a variable in it), but it is nevertheless a formula, an algorithm, and it is subject to a certain noticeable consistency in its products because of their shared internal logic.
I think it is also interesting how a belief in this equation allows one to evaluate a story; by solving for x (by subtracting the elements on the left from the story on the right), one gets a certain idea of what the mystery enclosed is supposed to feel like, and one can test this against the feeling one actually gets, and if the weight of the mystery is found wanting or profuse, then the story is guilty of some excess or deficiency of one of its elements—a wrong value was assigned to the plot or the imagery or the characters, and too much or too little has been taken away from the story to square with the mystery.
Excesses are, therefore, dangerous things—they require that other elements be adjusted, or that the mystery must be diminished. This is, I think, O'Connor's problem in the first eight stories of the collection, and particularly in the two most famous stories. She tries to keep strict bookkeeping, but her characters get too large on her, and she is torn between her equation and her mystery. She wants to keep the mystery the same size, but can't bear to break the justifying equation. In the end, I think she sort of punts. But in the last two stories, she makes a firm decision and breaks the equation; she accepts excess—visions which whisper and burn on the page but have no consequential effects, characters who are bigger than they need to be—O'Connor for a moment looks at her story and decides it doesn't all need to be, well, justified.
1 A little soteriological background: if we simplify things a great deal, we can say that Protestant ideas of salvation and Catholic ideas of salvation differ most saliently at the point not of salvation's origin (both believe that it is in Christ alone, and through grace that salvation comes to humanity) but in the nature and degree of our responses to it: is our faith in this salvation a necessary part of its actualization, and are works undertaken in cooperation with grace of any consideration in the continued availability of grace. The question is about the mechanism of justification: how we become amenable to God's salvation. (As I said, this is reductive, but if you're interested, read this and/or this, and this.) O'Connor is right to shift her terms (implicitly) from salvation to justification: this is the thornier and more narratively interesting problem.