The world and writing of Flannery O’Connor revolves around seeing, and Dr. Caren Lambert’s experience teaching O’Connor has certainly affected how she sees the world. Dr. Lambert came to study O’Connor through her scrutiny of Southern literature. O’Connor can be approached from two very different angles, Dr. Lambert points out: through the lens of “the historical context in the secular university,”she says, and through “the position of faith.” These lead to two very different readings. “She can be very tiring if you read her in a historical way,” Dr. Lambert admits. “All her stories begin to sound the same.” But in the light of faith, revelation and grace, every story of O’Connor’s is revolutionary.
Literature itself teaches you to look through different lenses, not only with authors but also with the everyday. “Literature encourages you to make connections and see patterns,” Dr. Lambert explains. “And this is a useful way to approach life. You learn to back up from specifics and see the bigger picture.” This concept certainly shines through many of O’Connor’s works; her characters are often trapped in “the realism of place and time and cultural circumstances,” to use Dr. Lambert’s words. You have to look past that into the transcendent, just as we have to look past the banalities of our everyday lives to see the transcendent working in ways that are so much bigger than ourselves.
“One of my teachers in high school would always say that the point of reading literature is to give us common mental furniture,” Dr. Lambert tells me. “It makes it easier to see the point of view of another person.” She explains that differences in mental furniture create some of the most challenging and most worthwhile experiences in the classroom. For example, she relates a story from her time teaching in Moscow, Russia. Her class was discussing current events in English, and one of the girls said, “Well, Putin is so foxy.” Dr. Lambert said she paused a moment, confused, and the girl repeated her comment in Russian. By foxy, she had meant sneaky, like a fox, instead of our English connotation of being attractive. “What you immediately think someone’s saying might be light-years different from what they’re actually saying,” Dr. Lambert points out, and this is true even when two people speak the same language. “It really makes you stop and think.” This is one of the lessons she’s learned while teaching, and though it’s often highlighted in literature, it blends to every discipline. O’Connor may be all about seeing, but as Dr. Lambert has learned, life is often just as much about listening