The tone of Flannery O'Connor's "First Confession" is comic and good-natured, mildly satiric but also affectionately tolerant. One may claim to see antireligious sentiment in it, because the sternness and rigidity of the father, the sister, and Mrs. Ryan are subject to O’Connor’s satiric thrusts. A consideration of the amused but understanding priest, however, supports the contention that the story treats its religious topic understandingly and sympathetically.
The conflict of the plot may be variously described: punishment versus forgiveness, anger versus toleration, rigidity versus understanding, or the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. The complication begins simultaneously with the exposition, for we learn right from the beginning that the narrator has been subjected to "troubles" and pressures at home. One might claim that the story presents a series of mounting crises—namely the family squabbles, the fear of hell as described by Mrs. Ryan, the narrator’s hesitancy to go to confession, and the farcical actions in the church. The climax is the confession itself, which sets all the narrator’s apprehensions aside, and the dénouement is a genuine exodos, in which the narrator and his sister walk away from the church toward home.
Perhaps in keeping with O’Connor’s experiences in the theater, the story is arranged in easily marked scenes that progress logically. The story is thus a virtual case study in the simultaneity of plot and structure. Paragraphs 1–3 describe the home troubles; paragraphs 4–7 introduce religious instruction and the intensification of the possibilities of punishment; paragraphs 8–16 develop the initial agonies faced by the narrator about confession; paragraphs 17–33 are a first stage of confession involving the farcical actions in the confessional and in the aisle, climaxed by Jackie’s developing composure about his "sinfulness"; the confession itself (the climax) is described in paragraphs 34–58; and the resolution extends from paragraphs 59 to 77.