O’Connor always saw herself as writing from an explicitly Christian point of view; indeed, given her convictions, that was the only way she could consider writing. She saw her religion as liberation and considered it a vocation in much the way one might be called to the priesthood. At the same time, she resented the sentimental expectations that people frequently hold toward what they might call “religious” fiction—maudlin stories about deathbed conversions and inspirational saints’ lives.
O’Connor undermined those expectations by her use of humor; she avoided pious characters and conventionally “churchy” settings. Instead, she drew her characters and settings from the rural South she knew so well. Those characters were sometimes labeled grotesques by critics and scholars, but she rejected the term, feeling that it originated with writers who understood the South as little as they understood Christianity, a condition of ignorance she intended to remedy. She understood that she was writing to a secular world, and she intended to instruct it in the Christian understanding of grace and redemption as the elements most central to human life. At the same time, O’Connor recognized the dangers of becoming a sermonizer instead of an artist (she talked about that issue in some of her addresses), although the satiric humor in her style, the violence in her plots, and her strange characters made it unlikely that she would fall into that difficulty.
O’Connor’s themes return to the issue of grace and redemption again and again. In her first novel, Wise Blood, the central character, Hazel Motes, begins as a man who is determined to escape the compelling image of Jesus which haunts him. His death, however, is an affirmation of grace, as O’Connor is careful to make clear in imagery which suggests that in his death Hazel is returning to Bethlehem.
O’Connor’s other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has a similar major theme. Its central character is Francis Marion Tarwater, a boy who, like Motes, is attempting to escape a calling. At the end of the novel, however, he is setting out to return to the city in his new role as prophet. What both Motes and Tarwater have experienced is the lacerating effect of God’s grace, a grace which, O’Connor implies, is far removed from its syrupy portrayal in popular hymns. Instead, it seems to have more in common with the terrifying experiences of Old Testament prophets, for whom it is manifested as God’s relentless insistence on bestowing mercy as he chooses.
O’Connor’s short stories reveal similar thematic material. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953), one sees a foolish and self-centered old woman who comes to a moment of grace just as she ceases mouthing platitudes to a mass murderer who is going to kill her seconds later. In “Revelation” (1964), smug, self-satisfied Ruby Turpin has a vision that teaches her what she never before understood—that the last shall be first in Heaven and that her material well-being is not necessarily a mark of divine favor. Similarly, in “The River” (1955), the little boy simply accepts the preacher’s assertion that baptism in the river leads to the kingdom of Christ. It also leads to his death by drowning, but, as O’Connor shows from the rest of the characters, he has paradoxically died into life, while people such as his worldly parents are caught in a sort of living death.
Violence is often an element in O’Connor’s stories; in fact, she once said that her own faith made her conscious of the constant presence of death in the world, and her illness must have had the same effect. That probably explains the large number of deaths in her stories, and it may also account for the strong sense of danger in many of them. In “Good Country People” (1955), for example, Hulga’s wooden leg is stolen by a dishonest Bible salesman. In “Revelation,” mentioned above, Mrs. Turpin is attacked in the doctor’s office by a girl who has suddenly gone mad.
Events and characters such as these are the source of the charge that O’Connor’s characters are grotesques. The word seems to imply that they are too exaggerated to belong in realistic fiction. Early critics, especially, had a difficult time understanding what O’Connor intended, and they often believed that characters such as Tarwater and Hazel Motes were simply insane or too out of touch with modern values (which the critics themselves, O’Connor felt, too often embodied) to be taken seriously. O’Connor’s comments about her own work, however, make clear that she was quite serious about them. Her backwoods preachers, she believed, came closer to understanding the human condition in relationship to God than any number of psychologists, teachers, and sociologists, none of whom ever appear very flatteringly in her fiction.
Another way of looking at the issue of the grotesque in O’Connor’s work, however, may lend more weight to the charge. Her novels and stories are peopled almost entirely with characters who are the result of O’Connor’s satiric view of the world. They are often funny, but they are almost always unpleasant.
Enoch Emery in Wise Blood is an excellent example of this kind of characterizing. Almost everything about him is simultaneously funny and terrible. His ignorance is responsible for much of his grotesque response to the world. He hates and fears the zoo animals he guards; he never knows how ludicrous he looks to others, and so he imagines that the ugly cook at the snack shop is in love with him and that no one knows he hides in the bushes to watch the women at the swimming pool. His only real hero is Gonga the Gorilla from films. It is characteristic of O’Connor’s work that even Enoch Emery’s father, who never appears in the novel at all, is another example of ugliness and brutality. On his return from the penitentiary, Enoch’s father gave him a gag gift: a can that appeared to contain peanut brittle but, when opened, released a steel spring that popped out and broke Enoch’s two front teeth.
Again and again O’Connor offers comic but extremely unflattering pictures of the people who inhabit her characters’ worlds. In “Revelation,” for example, all the people in the doctor’s office are grimly funny reminders of the varieties of human ugliness—Mrs. Turpin, who offends the reader with smugness and bigotry; Mary Grace, the mad girl who goes to college but who makes her ugliness even worse by making faces at Mrs. Turpin; the “white trash” family that sits immobile in poverty, ignorance, and dirt. Even Mrs. Turpin’s husband, Claud, a man she really loves, is revealed by his racist jokes to be as corrupt as everyone else in the story.
Unremitting human ugliness is a source of much of O’Connor’s humor. She is able to present the dirty, the disfigured, and the stupid as also funny and recognizable as inhabitants of the real world. Because they are almost the only inhabitants of O’Connor’s fictional world, they probably justify the term grotesque.
Another characteristic of O’Connor’s style that concerns her characters is her use of southern dialects, especially those associated with poor white people. In her earlier stories, she often indicated some of their quality with spelling. In Wise Blood, for example, the phrase “worse than having them” is spelled “worsen havinum.” O’Connor reduced the number of such dialect indicators in her later work, but she always took joy in the sounds and sometimes the flamboyance of southern speech. “THE PROPHET I RAISE UP OUT OF THIS BOY WILL BURN YOUR EYES CLEAN,” old Tarwater writes to his worldly nephew. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit quotes his father speaking about him: “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters.”
One other issue about O’Connor’s characters deserves mention, and that concerns race. O’Connor’s stories almost all contain black characters—not surprisingly, as all but one are set in the South. O’Connor wrote much of her work in the period just before the first nationwide attention to civil rights, so it may seem curious that she never addressed that issue directly in her fiction. Some scholars have made an effort to find evidence of her sympathy for the growing Civil Rights movement in her work, but such evidence is very slight, if it exists at all.
O’Connor herself implied that southern black and white people inhabited worlds that were so different that a white writer could never really expect to understand the black world. Still, her black characters seem no less attractive than her white ones (none of them is very sympathetic anyway), and the racist comments in her stories come from characters who are themselves racists and would be likely to say such things (a good example is the doctor’s office conversations in “Revelation”).
In contrast to her basically satiric view of human characters, O’Connor’s physical descriptions of people and landscapes are often serious, dramatic, and weighted with symbolism. References to eyes and their color and to the various colors and qualities of the sky are numerous in almost every story. The sky and particularly the sun often seem intended to evoke images of God and Christ looking down on the world. The sun is an ancient symbol for Christ, and O’Connor’s descriptions make clear that the references are intentional. Another frequent symbol in her work is the use of birds to suggest the Holy Spirit or even, in the case of peacocks, Christ himself. Other animals sometimes appear as well, particularly pigs and monkeys, which often seem intended to suggest the bestial nature of fallen humanity, intelligent but debased and corrupt (the pigs in “Revelation” and Gonga in Wise Blood are good examples).
Like many writers, O’Connor often gave symbolic or evocative names to her characters, and they are often worth considering in that light. Mary Grace in “Revelation,” for example, is certainly an agent of divine grace in that story. Hazel (“Haze”) Motes’s name seems to draw one’s attention to his cloudy or hazy vision, reminding the reader of the biblical injunction not to try to take the mote or speck from another’s eye until one has removed the beam from one’s own. Tarwater, the protagonist of The Violent Bear It Away, simply has the name of an old folk remedy.
O’Connor’s literary reputation has risen steadily since her death. Modern readers are increasingly likely to see her serious intentions while relishing her humor. Her debt to Nathaniel Hawthorne has long been noted, but some scholars have begun to notice, too, her debt to Mark Twain—the former for his concern for moral issues, the latter for his comic view. It is on that combination of qualities that O’Connor’s reputation rests.
First published: 1952
Type of work: Novel
A backwoods preacher attempts to escape his call but at last gives in to a sort of martyrdom.
Wise Blood was O’Connor’s first novel; she began work on it while she was still in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It embodies most of her major themes, and it contains some of her best comedy. It is flawed, however, by her difficulties in pulling the two parts of the plot together. The Enoch Emery story is never fully integrated into the Hazel Motes story. O’Connor also had difficulties clarifying the issues about Motes’s past that have turned him into what she called a “Christian malgre lui,” a Christian in spite of himself.
The novel opens on a train as Hazel Motes leaves the Army. He is the grandson of a backwoods preacher, but he finds the image of a Jesus who insists on claiming the human recipients of his mercy to be unbearably disturbing. He has resisted inheriting his grandfather’s role, that of preaching from the hood of a car to listeners on a small-town square. Hazel has long decided that he wants to avoid that Jesus, first by trying to avoid sin and later by asserting that Jesus is nothing more than a trick.
Even on the train, however, O’Connor makes clear that Hazel’s cheap blue suit—brand-new, with the price tag ($11.98) still attached—and his black hat look exactly like the traditional garb of the preacher he refuses to be. Nevertheless, Hazel startles his worldly fellow passengers by suddenly claiming that if they are saved he would not want to be. Like many such comments in O’Connor’s work, this carries an ironic weight, for it is quite clear that salvation is the last thing the ladies in the dining car desire.
When Hazel arrives in the city of Taulkinham, he heads for the house of a prostitute, Leora Watts, as the next step in asserting that sin is an irrelevant issue in his life. Significantly, however, both the cab driver and Leora herself identify Hazel as a preacher, an identification he violently rejects. Soon Hazel sees a street preacher, Asa Hawks, who claims to have blinded himself as a demonstration of faith, although early in the novel the reader learns that his blindness is a sham. Hazel is both drawn to and repelled by Hawks and his adolescent daughter Sabbath Lily. Gradually it comes to Hazel that seducing Hawks’s daughter would make a dramatic assertion of sin’s irrelevance.
In the course of seeking Hawks’s house, Hazel meets Enoch Emery. Enoch is eager to tell Hazel—or anyone—his story, about how his father gave him to a welfare woman who sent him off to the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy and from whom he later escaped. Now he works for the city as a zoo guard. Desperately lonely and not very smart, Enoch ignores Hazel’s rebuffs and follows him like a puppy, offering to help him find where Hawks lives. Like Hawks, Enoch senses Hazel’s intense concern with Jesus. Hawks, in fact, says that some preacher has left his mark on Haze, but Hazel insists that he believes in nothing at all.
To prove his point, Hazel sets about buying a car, an ancient, rat-colored Essex, for which he pays forty dollars. The car seems to be Hazel’s vision of American materialism (“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he says), but significantly he uses it exactly as his grandfather had used his Ford, as a platform to preach from. His one attempt to use the car in a “traditional” American way, for a date with Sabbath Lily, turns out to be a travesty. It is notable that the first thing Hazel does with his car is to stop in the middle of the highway to read a “Jesus Saves” sign.
Meanwhile, Enoch Emery is acting out his own sort of religion. Enoch claims to have “wise blood,” which tells him what to do, and, in fact, he acts mostly from instinct. He insists that Hazel meet him at the park where he works, and after an elaborate set of ritual activities that include going through the zoo to ridicule the animals, Enoch leads Hazel to the city museum. Enoch finds it a place of enormous mystery because its name is carved, Roman-style, on the front, MVSEVM, creating a word that Enoch is unable to pronounce—like Yahweh, the unutterable name of God in the Old Testament. Inside the museum, Enoch shows Hazel the tiny, mummified man which has captured his imagination, but Hazel is unimpressed.
Hazel has rented a room in the house where Hawks and his daughter live, begun his plan to seduce Sabbath Lily (a plan he executes with a remarkable lack of finesse), and started a sort of church, the Church of Christ Without Christ, to dramatize his rejection of faith. Hazel’s preaching is met with public indifference; however, after a few nights, he gains a disciple in the form of a former radio preacher, Onnie Jay Holy (his real name is Hoover Shoats),...
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The Dark Side of the Cross:
Flannery O'Connor's Short Fiction
by Patrick Galloway
To the uninitiated, the writing of Flannery O'Connor can seem at once cold and dispassionate, as well as almost absurdly stark and violent. Her short stories routinely end in horrendous, freak fatalities or, at the very least, a character's emotional devastation. Working his way through "Greenleaf," "Everything that Rises Must Converge," or "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the new reader feels an existential hollowness reminiscent of Camus' The Stranger; O'Connor's imagination appears a barren, godless plane of meaninglessness, punctuated by pockets of random, mindless cruelty.
In reality, her writing is filled with meaning and symbolism, hidden in plain sight beneath a seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief. In this way, her writing is intrinsically esoteric, in that it contains knowledge that is hidden to all but those who have been instructed as to how and where to look for it, i.e. the initiated. Flannery O'Connor is a Christian writer, and her work is message-oriented, yet she is far too brilliant a stylist to tip her hand; like all good writers, crass didacticism is abhorrent to her. Nevertheless, she achieves what few Christian writers have ever achieved: a type of writing that stands up on both literary and the religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both.
In this analysis, we will be looking at just how Flannery O'Connor accomplished this seemingly impossible task, non-didactic Christian fiction, by examining elements of faith, elements of style, and thematic elements in her writing. While secondary sources are included for perspective, I have focused primarily upon Miss O'Connor's own essays and speeches in my examination of the writer's motivations, attitudes, and technique, most of which are contained in the posthumous collection Mystery and Manners. Unlike some more cryptic writers, O'Connor was happy to discuss the conceptual and philosophical underpinnings of her stories, and this candor is a godsend for the researcher that seeks to know what "makes the writer tick."
Before examining the various elements that make up the remarkable writing of Flannery O'Connor, a bit of biography is necessary. Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia on March twenty-fifth, 1925 to Catholic parents Edward F. and Regina C. O'Connor, and spent her early childhood at 207 East Charlton Street. Young Flannery attended St. Vincent's Grammar School and Sacred Heart Parochial School. In 1938 her father got a position as appraiser for the Federal Housing Administration, and the family moved to North East Atlanta, then Milledgeville, where, three years later, Ed died from complications arising from the chronic autoimmune disease lupus. Flannery attended Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College) and State University of Iowa, receiving her MFA from the latter in 1947. In 1951, after complaining of a heaviness in her typing arms, she was diagnosed with the same lupus that had killed her father. She went on, despite the disease, to write two novels and thirty-two short stories, winning awards and acclaim, going on speaking tours when her health permitted, but spending most of her time on the family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, with her mother. She died of lupus on August third, 1964 at the age of thirty-nine.
Flannery O'Connor remained a devout Catholic throughout, and this fact, coupled with the constant awareness of her own impending death, both filtered through an acute literary sensibility, gives us valuable insight into just what went into those thirty-two short stories and the two novels: cathartic bitterness, a belief in grace as something devastating to the recipient, a gelid concept of salvation, and violence as a force for good. At first it might seem that these aspects of her writing would detract from, distort or mar the fiction they are wrapped up in, but in fact they only serve to enhance it, to elevate the mundane, sometimes laughably pathetic events that move her plots into sublime anti-parables, stories that show the way by elucidating the worst of paths. What at first seem senseless deaths become powerful representations of the swift justice of God; the self-deluded, prideful characters that receive the unbearable revelation of their own shallow selves are being impaled upon the holy icicle of grace, even if they are too stupid or lost to understand the great boon God is providing them. Note these last lines from "The Enduring Chill": "...and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes....But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued to descend." 1
Elements of Faith
Flannery O'Connor put much conscious thought into her dual role of Catholic and fiction writer, and reading her written reflections on the matter reveals that she had developed a whole literary philosophy devoted to reconciling the two, nay joining them into a single unified force to "prove the truth of the Faith." She was well aware of the pitfalls of preachiness, and warned the would-be Catholic novelist that "when the finished work suggests that pertinent actions have been fraudulently manipulated or overlooked or smothered, whatever purposes the writer started out with have already been defeated." She advised the writer that "he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth," but assured him that he would "realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them." 2
One such limitation was the representation of nature. O'Connor observed a Manicheism in the mind of the average Catholic reader, resulting from a conceptual separation between nature and grace in considerations of the supernatural, thus rendering fictional experience of nature as either sentimental or obscene. "He would seem to prefer the former," she tells us, but he "...forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite." 3 In this way, pornography can be seen as ultimately sentimental, as it is sex extricated from its essential purpose, the pain of childbirth and the beginning of long, arduous life. Therefore O'Connor utilizes nature as a tool, a hard, sharp tool with which to hew and chisel her work from the living rock of the real world. Nature imagery is everywhere in O'Connor, and it is often used to reinforce the negativity of the lives and mental states of her characters. In "A View of the Woods" we read of trees that are described as "sullen" and "gaunt ," of "threadbare" clouds, and "indifferent" weather. Elsewhere, human beings are described by way of animal imagery such as "large bug," "wheezing horse," "hyena," "sheep," "crab," "goat," "dog," " buzzard," "monkey," and the like. 4 Nature in O'Connor's stories reflects mankind, in all his/its base nature, and it is by keeping nature constantly in view that the author avoids the sentimental, as well as its flipside, the obscene.
The novice reader of O'Connor may well wonder how her work, grotesque and violent as it is, would be considered "Christian" or "Catholic" writing. On first perusal, with its horrendous deaths, it's empty, cruel, narcissistic characters and depressing, seemingly unresolved endings, it seems rather the opposite. What confuses the reader at first is what Miss O'Connor referred to as her "reasonable use of the unreasonable," and the assumptions that underlie its use. "About this I can only say that there are perhaps other ways than my own in which this story could be read, but none other by which it could have been written. Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate." 5 As to the, at times, extreme use of violence in her writing, O'Connor's literary philosophy allowed for the use of it in the service of some greater vision of spiritual reality. According to this philosophy, the man in a violent situation reveals those aspects of his character that he will take with him into eternity; hence the reader should approach the story by looking to such moments as an opportunity to peer into the soul of the character.
This approach also borrows from German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1899-1976) and his concept of Dasein, being-there, wherein death represents the moment when a man's existence becomes complete, for better or worse. Heideger was a definite influence on O'Connor, and ideas such as this, as well as his concept that essential truth is a mystery that pervades the whole of human existence, dovetail perfectly with the larger theological interpretation of reality seen in her writing. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was also an influence, with his "Concept of Dread" which examines the whole complex of sin and redemption. His theory, that man's attempt to replace the Absolute with himself makes him pathetic and comical but never tragic (as the tragic is reserved for loss of the religious dimension) is also influential. In O'Connor, the religious dimension is never far off, her stories being set in the Christ-haunted south where religion, whether one is a true believer of not, is a part of the very landscape. Her narrative treatment of this dimension is subtle, however, and therein lies the liability to overlook it and derive a strictly existential reading. Other philosophers who influenced the thought and writing of Flannery O'Connor include Sartre, Pascal, Merton, as well as theologians Saint Augustine, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. 6
Veering our critical analysis back to Christianity, let us examine how such fundamental concepts as compassion, mystery, and anagogy are handled in O'Connor.
At first glance, one might find O'Connor to be somewhat less than compassionate toward her characters, yet this, like so many first impressions, is mistaken; while considerations of authorial intent are often discounted or discouraged in literary study, with O'Connor awareness of such issues is a prerequisite for understanding her craft and, as mentioned earlier, we are fortunate to have plenty of her own candid discussions to help enlighten us in our attempts to interpret her writing. For instance:
- It's considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody's mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult to be anti-anything. 7
Unsympathetic characters are often revealed in an entirely different light at story's close. This is due to the transformation grace brings, however dubious the blessing might seem. For in fact, according to O'Connor, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, God's ways are essentially mysterious. The idea of mystery, not as literary genre but as spiritual principle, looms large in her writing, both in her fiction and her prose. For O'Connor, the purely secular novelist that strives after truth in fiction will ultimately come up with only a kind of tragic naturalism, having missed the overarching mystery of existence; the Catholic mindset accepts mystery as a fact of life, that there are certain things we are simply not meant to know, certain workings of the cosmic machine that only God understands. O'Connor utilizes this as a plot option, this mysterious, unexpected turn. She is not satisfied with the limitations of purely realistic prose, being rather of the opinion that her kind of fiction "will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery." 11 For O'Connor, "the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." 12 This is not to suggest a kind of Christian fantasy, with angels appearing before men and Satan around every corner; however, O'Connor's methodology "will use the concrete in a more drastic way...the way of distortion." 13 These distortions will most likely be of a sudden or explosive nature, as with the college freshman Mary Grace (note the name) who suddenly pounces on, and proceeds to strangle, the loud and house-proud Mrs. Turpin in the doctor's waiting room in "Revelation." Nothing supernatural, just pure mayhem, but it certainly comes out of nowhere and takes the story into a totally new direction, causing a dark and subtle realization within the mind of Mrs. Turpin that she may well be what Mary Grace called her during their brief encounter, a "wart hog from hell." This is the type of distortion O'Connor is talking about, unlikely occurrences, yet not wholly beyond the scope of possibility, realistic enough to be justified artistically.
As mentioned earlier, the triumph of Flannery O'Connor's writing lies in the balance between the realistic and the anagogical. When posed with the question of what makes a story work, Miss O'Connor replies, "it is probably some action or a gesture of a character...which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character." 14 Such an action, for O'Connor, must be significant both on a literary, as well as anagogical, level, the latter pertaining to some divine truth, while not being in itself allegorical. The key is to create a situation that defies "any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery." 15 And thus, we've come full circle to mystery. But O'Connor's brand of literary interpretation of Christian mystery is so stylistically water tight that one is often hard put to extrapolate the anagogical significance. Take for example the instance of the grandmother's gesture mentioned above from "A Good Man is Hard to Find." At the moment when she realizes that she is tied to the Misfit with a bond of mystery to which she has only ever paid lip service, she does the right thing, she utters the first honest words she has said to him in their brief encounter, and reaches out. However, the fact that this does nothing to save her, that she is immediately shot for her trouble, is where the reader is likely to be thrown off. This is Miss O'Connor's pride as a writer, for which she had been, in her day, criticized by the more orthodox elements in the church who would, no doubt, have wanted a clearer moral position to emerge from her work. This is a detail to keep in mind later in this thesis, when we go into our examination of her treatment of the sin of pride.
Elements of Style
Having looked somewhat at the morbidly Catholic mindset that is the essential infrastructure supporting the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, let us move on to those techniques and idiosyncrasies that make up her writing style.
It should be said at the outset that O'Connor is not as "colorful" or "lyrical" as other writers in the great Southern Gothic tradition, although she did share their fascination with the grotesque. Along with her more conservative Catholic detractors (mentioned above), who find, as critic Melvin J. Friedman puts it, "her brand of Catholicism not orthodox enough," there are also the more "'textual' literary critics who find her language too bare and her experiments with structure not eccentric enough." 16 This last comment points to what I would refer to as a Cult of Eccentricity in literary academia that obsesses on the obscure, the abstruse, the vague, and the confusing in literature in what is, by now, a reflexive effort to legitimize literature study by making it as difficult as possible to understand. It is reflexive, in that it is no longer necessary, as it once was, some 100 years ago, when the study of literature still sought legitimacy among the accepted academic disciplines. But nevertheless, the good news is that O'Connor's genius is recognized and accepted by the bulk of the intelligencia, proving the truth of the motto, "less is more." For this truly is the secret weapon in her stylistic arsenal: a stark, spartan, perhaps dour, possibly mundane regularity, a steadiness in the narrative that at times may seem plodding to the neophyte reader, yet all the while something is bubbling beneath the lid; at any moment, the pot is likely to boil over, even spew forth something unexpected and, usually, profoundly disturbing.
Also significant in the writing style of Flannery O'Connor is a tendency to take on the character point of view in the narrative. However, it is done in such a way that although the omniscient third-person narrator takes on the particular viewpoint of the character in question while describing this or that, the effect is more of a mirror than an advocate. For example:
- He knew, of course, that his mother would not understand the letter at once. Her literal mind would require some time to discover the significance of it, but he thought she would be able to see that he forgave her for all she had done to him. 17
When people think they are smart--even when they are smart--there is nothing anybody else can say to make them see things straight, and with Asbury, the trouble was that in addition to being smart, he had an artistic temperament. 18
In these quotes from "The Enduring Chill," the use of "of course" and "literal" are reflecting the point of view of the son, Asbury, in the first passage, and the business about being smart is clearly the mother's opinion in the second, but within the context of the story, as the description shifts democratically throughout, O'Connor's narrative maintains it's impartiality while emphasizing the viewpoint of it's various characters. This technique lends itself to greater economy of description and exposition, therefore making it perfectly suited to the short story genre.
One feature of O'Connor's writing which is none-too-subtle on the Christian fiction front is her use of character names. The worst offender seems to be the aforementioned Mary Grace, the overweight messenger of doom that hurls a book at the head of the pompous Mrs. Turpin and then proceeds to throttle her severely. Other such tell-tale names include O.E. Parker (for Obadiah Elihue, a prophet and a friend of Job respectively), Mr. Fortune, Mrs. Cope, Joy Hopewell (a 32-year-old embittered Ph.D. with a wooden leg who changes her name to Hulga because it sounds uglier), Sheppard, old Tanner, the list goes on. Most names are ironic rather than symbolic, such as Sheppard, a naive man whose lack of judgement leads to the suicide of his son, or Joy Hopewell, who is joyless, hopeless, and unwell. The fact that the names are most usually a mockery of the characters adds to the cryptic Christianity that characterizes O'Connor's work.
There is in O'Connor what I would term an exquisite gelidity, an icy quality that I cannot help but attribute in part to her awareness of her own encroaching mortality. From all accounts, her personality was laconic and droll, self-possessed. Her religion gave her strength, but little joy. For O'Connor, salvation was ice, not fire, as is made clear in "The Enduring Chill," a story that concerns a young intellectual named Asbury who is convinced that he is about to die. Perhaps I've read too much into this little story, but for me it resonates with a certain despair not present in the other works I've read, which I attribute to the author's own despair at watching what was really every writer's dream career (early recognition, critical acclaim, awards, speaking engagements, readings) rapidly waste away from the lupus she'd inherited from her father. For me, the most chilling aspect of the story is the description of a prophetic water stain above Asbury's bed:
Descending from the top molding, long icicle shapes had been etched by leaks and, directly over his bed on the ceiling, another leak had made a fierce bird with spread wings. It had an icicle crosswise in its beak and there were smaller icicles depending from its wings and tail. It had been there since his childhood and had always irritated him and sometimes had frightened him. He had often had the illusion that it was in motion and about to descend mysteriously and set the icicle on his head. He closed his eyes and thought: I won't have to look at it for many more days. 19
As the reader will recall from the beginning of this thesis, the same ice bird is recalled at the end of the story, this time as the Holy Ghost, bearing down on Asbury in all its fierce icy wrath.
Of the various themes of the writing of Flannery O'Connor, perhaps the most fascinating and certainly one of the most discussed, it that of the grotesque. Critic Gilbert H. Muller compares the grotesque imagery of O'Connor with that of the Millennium triptych of Hieronymus Bosch, going on to state that "for these two artists, the grotesque does not function gratuitously, but in order to reveal underlying and essentially theological concepts." 20 Indeed, the various grotesque characters serve both as an example of the folly of denying the true religion and as, in some cases, Christ figures themselves. O'Connor rejoins with, "In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature." 21
This concept of "displacement" runs throughout O'Connor's work, and it is essentially a displacement from the world of the one true God, a theological displacement, although within the context of the story it is more social, based on the nature of the freak's position in the society. In the case of the Polish immigrant Guizac in "The Displaced Person," it is his foreignness, the fact that he is an outsider perceived as a threat by the various rural types in the story, that makes him a freak. Yet he winds up becoming a kind of Christ figure when he is crushed by a tractor that is "allowed" to roll over him, essentially crucifying him. Other freaks include the club-footed Rufus Johnson ("The Lame Shall Enter First), the wooden-legged Joy/Hulga Hopewell ("Good Country People"), the nymphomaniacal Sarah Ham ("The Comforts of Home), and the retarded and deaf Lucynell Crater ("The Life You Save May Be Your Own").
Very often, the grotesque elements of O'Connor's stories are balanced out by anagogical ones. Again, the latter are not specifically symbols, for symbols work contextually to represent interactive story elements, whereas O'Connor's anagogical elements are just there, they wander in and out of the action; they may have symbolic significance, but it never comes directly into play as a plot element. They are there as reminders of the presence of the unseen, mysterious God. "These liturgical objects," says Muller, "whether a peacock in 'The Displaced Person,' a water stain in 'The Enduring Chill,' or a tattoo in 'Parker's Back,' permit Flannery O'Connor to neutralize the world of the grotesque and to clarify those mysteries which serve as an antidote to it." 22
Facing death is another thematic element that recurs often in O'Connor, for obvious reasons, both personal and religious. Her "affliction, which she carried with her during the major part of her literary career, forced a certain austerity upon her fiction; inevitably she transferred personal agony and suffering to her work." 23 O'Connor admits as much herself, in an essay in which she discusses "A Good Man is Hard to Find": "The heroine of the story, the Grandmother, is in the most significant position life offers the Christian. She is facing death." 24 This last quote speaks volumes; it is probably the single most significant and telling remark the student of Flannery O'Connor can have in his attempt to understand her work. Clearly facing death as a Christian was the motivational engine that drove her writing, and the theme that emerged from it often, as is common in O'Connor, got turned on its head, becoming stories in which people are facing death not as Christians. Perhaps this was O'Connor's catharsis, her solace, that however terrified she was at the prospect of her own looming death, at least she was prepared, at least she wouldn't wind up like the grotesque wretches that peopled her stories.
In a letter written to Winifred McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor writes, "There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment." 25 We touched briefly on the concept of grace earlier, and a more in-depth discussion is necessary here, when considering thematic elements, because just as the idea of grace figures prominently in Catholicism, so it does in O'Connor. Critic Carter W. Martin notes, "Most of the short stories are constructed in such a way as to dramatize the sinfulness and the need for grace..." and goes on to delineate two different kinds of grace normally received by the characters, "prevenient grace- which moves the will spontaneously, making it incline to God--and illuminating grace, by which God enlightens men to bring them nearer to eternal life." That is to say either a kind of spark that ignites a low smolder of realization, or full-blown revelation. Usually the character "recognizes his need for repentance and either accepts or ignores the opportunity. In a few stories there is no indication as to the response of the character to his new insight." 26 The latter is the case in "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," and "Good Country People" among others.
O'Connor is willing to go to draconian lengths to mete out her particular brand of divine grace, utilizing such techniques as matricide, strangulation, suicide, impaling, beating, shooting, and whipping, to name a few. "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace," she tells us. She goes on to explain that "This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world." 27 To sum up, "I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil." 28
1 Flannery O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 114.
2 Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 145-6.
3 ibid., p. 147.
4Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (eds.), The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, p. 164.
5 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 109.
6 James A. Grimshaw, Jr., The Flannery O'Connor Companion, p. 96-9.
7 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 43.
8 O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 53.
9 O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find, p. 29.
10 O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 244.
11 O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 41
12 ibid., p. 41-2.
13 ibid., p. 42.
14 ibid., p. 111.
15 ibid., p. 111.
16 Friedman and Lawson, op. cit., p. 2.
17 O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 91.
18 ibid., p. 87.
19 ibid., p. 93.
20 Gilbert H. Muller, Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque, p. 5.
21 O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 45.
22 Muller, op. cit., p. 111.
23 ibid., p. 2.
24 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 110.
25 ibid., p. 118.
26Carter W. Martin, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor, p. 105.
27 O'Connor, op. cit., p. 112.
28 ibid., p. 118.
Friedman, Melvin J. and Lawson, Lewis A., Eds., The Added Dimension: The
Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor, New York, Fordham University
Grimshaw, James A., The Flannery O'Connor Companion, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1981.
Martin, Carter W., The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor, Kingsport, TN, Kingsport Press, Inc., 1969.
Muller, Gilbert H., Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque, Athens, GA, University of Georgia Press, 1972.
O'Connor, Flannery, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Orlando, FL, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanoivch, 1955.
O'Connor, Flannery, Everything That Rises Must Converge, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956.
O'Connor, Flannery, Mystery and Manners, Fitzgerald, Sally and Robert, Eds.,
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961.
©1996 Patrick Galloway
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