Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2926
Few postmodern writers have spoken as articulately and as compellingly about their craft and the relationship of their fiction to its perceived audience as did Flannery O’Connor. In her occasional prose, in her letters, and in her book reviews, O’Connor evinced an uncommonly perceptive grasp of her readers and the society in which they lived. Addressing the children of a demythologized and desacralized century, she confronted boldly the rancor and apathy with which modern culture meets the religious and the supernatural. To shake and sharpen the sensibilities of a culture made lethargic by the heritage of American civil religion, she turned to shock, to the literally awful and the grotesque, to proclaim her gospel: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The underlying premise that informs all of O’Connor’s fiction, and especially her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, is that men and women, as they are, are not whole. This “wholeness,” lost in Eden, is now embodied and supplied to humans freely in the person of the incarnate Son of God. In order to make this now familiar theme “seeable” and creditable to her readers, O’Connor was led to herald a Christ who bore little resemblance to the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of childhood hymnody. Her Christ is a tiger who disturbs and terrorizes. One thinks especially of Hazel Motes, evangelist of the so-called Church of Christ without Christ in Wise Blood, who fights ferociously to avoid that Jesus in the back of his mind, a wild, ragged figure motioning to him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and suddenly know it and drown.
Motes is a child of the fundamentalist South, but in O’Connor’s economy, he is also Everyman; those who refuse Christ’s offer to help them, force Him to haunt them. O’Connor used sudden death, disease, or trauma to depict the devastating encounter with Christ that must occur before one can be truly alive in this world. Worse things than mere death can befall a person made in God’s image; her characters more often than not must be brought to the brink of crisis or death to see themselves as they are: in dire need of repentance and grace. In O’Connor’s view, humankind did not accidentally stumble into rebellion against God; each man or woman deliberately chooses to do so. Consequently, she records with merciless precision the rationalizations of herprotagonists, stripping them bare of their pretensions of goodness and innocence. She endeavored to confront her readers with the full scandal of Christianity. Those O’Connor characters who attempt to redeem themselves with arrant scientism or sheer intellectualism meet a savage Savior—manifested in a bull, a haunting prophecy, or a terrifying vision—who will not release them until they confess Him or utterly denounce Him.
For O’Connor, there was no middle ground, no neutral corner; all who are not with Him are against Him. Her narrative voice had little room for authorial compassion or tenderness. Relentlessly exposing human pride, avarice, and weakness, she agreed with writer C. S. Lewis that all things that are not eternal are eternally out of date. Western culture was already too sentimental, too complacent about Christ and Christianity; her mission was to pound on the table, to cast the moneychangers—sacred or secular—out of the literary temple.
One must ask how O’Connor avoided mere Tractarianism, as her continuing popularity among critics and ubiquity in college literature anthologies attest she did. Part of the answer is that she frankly confronted the tenuous relationships that exist among audience, medium, story, and craft. It was her genius to lead her readers through and from the seemingly mundane and ordinary to a vision of reality as sacramental, as always pointing to a divine presence in human activity. She wrote, When I write a novel in which the central action is baptism, I am aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless riteso I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance.
O’Connor’s fiction strips away the jaded images of the faith, forcing a dynamic confrontation with the gospel as it is played out in the lives of professed believers and as it is rejected by the worldly-wise.
As the reader follows Hazel Motes or Francis Marion Tarwater on his journey to belief, he is confronted with grace—a grace that enlarges his perception of the world, enabling him to see both the natural and the supernatural anew, to both discover and retrieve deeper images of the real. As O’Connor states it, this journey frequently entails “an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put into my stories; it is a discovery that I get out of them.” It is this “awful rowing toward God” that is chronicled in O’Connor’s two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.
Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Wise Blood, is, O’Connor says, a “Christian malgré lui,” a believer in spite of himself, a harried wayfarer who has been displaced from Eastrod, Tennessee, and from the religious life of the South. That religious life is distinctively Protestant, the religion of a South of beleaguered prophets and street-corner preachers, a South haunted by Jesus and by a theological definition of human identity and destiny. Motes is determined to escape salvation and anything that smacks of supernatural origin. Like that of Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away, Motes’s story is a reverse bildungsroman, a novel of an antiquest in which the protagonist tries to avoid, rather than seek, his or her destiny.
O’Connor maintained that Wise Blood is a “comic novel,” and nonetheless so because it deals with “matters of life and death.” Though many readers try to locate the integrity of Motes in his vigorous struggle to escape that “ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind,” O’Connor avers: “His integrity lies in his not being able to [escape] it.” His attempted flight from Jesus begins on the train to Taulkinham. Discharged from military service, Motes parries with a Mrs. Hitchcock, challenging her claim to redemption. “If you’ve been redeemed,” Motes snaps, “I wouldn’t want to be.” Later, he exclaims to no one in particular, “Do you think I believe in Jesus?Well, I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.” Motes has determined that the way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin; one who is not a sinner needs no redemption—he is already “clean”—if he is free from transgression. This “freedom,” however, does not mean that Motes can avoid becoming a preacher. When he first reaches the city and decides to look up Miss Leora Watts—who owns the “Friendliest Bed in Town”—both she and the cabdriver who brings him there accuse him of being a preacher; he simply looks the part.
Very soon, Motes encounters some potential disciples: Enoch Emery, who wants to help him find a “new jesus,” and Sabbath Lily Hawks, the lustful daughter of a street preacher who feigns blindness. Following Sabbath and her father in order to ridicule their shallow evangelism, Motes declares that he will start a new church, a church without Christ. “I don’t need Jesus,” he tells the crowd gathering about him, “I got Leora Watts.” Motes’s obsession with the Hawks duo leads him to drive around the city in his beat-up Essex. His desperate flight from belief compels him to hound Asa Hawks, confronting him with the strange fact of his blindness—if Jesus is real, then why does He not heal His servants? Motes is tortured by his lack of a theodicy, a defense of God’s absence; his only solace is to throw himself into his own “ministry”: street-side preaching of the Church of Christ without Christ from the hood of his Essex.
Motes’s nightly forays into sermonizing yield only one “convert,” a would-be Aaron to Motes’s Moses, Onnie Jay Holy—a slick packager of religion and faith who knows a money-making scam when he sees it. Crediting Motes-the-prophet with changing his life, Holy drowns out the frustrated antipreacher, who learns to speak the truth in spite of himself: “Listen!” Motes screams, “It don’t cost you any money to know the truth!” It is at this point that O’Connor’s protagonist has begun his inexorable trek toward recognizing his true state and the call of God. When Enoch Emery answers Motes’s call for a “new jesus” by stealing a mummified pygmy from a local museum and delivering it to the now domesticated Sabbath Lily Hawks, the reader is introduced to what Caroline Gordon called “the unholy family.” Slinking into Motes’s room, Sabbath introduces the mummy as their child. Sensing the blasphemy of the moment, Motes seizes the mummy and crushes it against the wall. The prophet must now leave this desecrated place and search for a new city in which he can begin his ministry afresh. Before he can leave, however, he must confront a false prophet—hired by Hoover Shoats, née Onnie Jay Holy—who has supplanted him on the streets of Taulkinham. Following him out onto a lonely road, Motes first knocks his car into the ditch and then runs over his counterpart, killing him and thus carrying out the Old Testament vengeance against false prophets.
From here, Motes inevitably heads for his own Calvary, his own “death unto life”: The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29, “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out,” are taken literally. Motes blinds himself so that he can see with a spiritual vision that bogus believers such as Asa Hawks and Hoover Shoats can never attain. He is fully focused now; there is no intent to escape or flee. His landlady, Mrs. Flood, represents the kind of “Christian” O’Connor loved to contrast with her dramatic, utterly committed antisaints such as Hazel Motes, the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and Manley Pointer in “Good Country People.” She cannot fathom Motes’s sudden devotion—which extended to the bearing of the marks of Christ on his body: “I’m as good, Mr. Motes, not believing in Jesus as many a one that does,” she boastfully proclaims. When she sees the barbed wire wrapped around his chest, she exclaims, “There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it.” His reply, anthem and testimony for all latter-day believers, seals his fate: “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.” Motes’s death is as anticlimactic as Christ’s; the police officers who discover him in the drainage ditch, like the soldiers at the foot of the cross who bargain for Christ’s robe, mouth inanities and treat Motes as a troublesome derelict, quite worthy of being put out of his misery.
The story of Hazel Motes is the tale of one of God’s creatures and his struggle with the fundamental choice to serve God or deny Him. O’Connor’s avowed purpose was to “deepen the mystery of free will,” which is not the war between one will and another but of “many wills conflicting in one man.” In Wise Blood, whose title comes from Enoch Emery’s claim to “know things” because of his ancestral blood, O’Connor has created a parable of twentieth century humankind’s inner debate over God’s existence and presence in the modern world. It is ironic, although not too surprising, that O’Connor’s Christian readers sometimes responded less enthusiastically to her achievement than did her nonreligious readers. Such a response was simply a corroboration of O’Connor’s perceptions regarding the state of belief in postwar America.
The Violent Bear It Away
In her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, written some ten years after she had originally begun Wise Blood, O’Connor once again returned to the theme of the antiquest, this time with a protagonist who tries to escape the daunting prophecy of his great-uncle. The title comes from an ambiguous passage found in Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.” It is the dual message of this scripture that, in part, gives the novel its underlying power as still another O’Connor portrayal of the conflict of wills within humans, a conflict of reason tempered with godly knowledge and an uncritical, gullible trust in the scientific method. The passage suggests, first, that with the coming of the promised Messiah, humankind can receive the kingdom of God; second, it suggests that there remain calloused and unprincipled unbelievers who will seek to bar the faithful from entering that hallowed ground. These two opposing forces are focused in the protagonist and antagonist of the novel: Francis Marion Tarwater and Rayber the schoolteacher.
Mason Tarwater had reared his nephew, Francis, to be “more than a Christian, a prophet.” His prophetic task consisted of two matters: First, he was to make sure that the elder Tarwater had a proper burial, his gravesite marked by a cross; second, he was to baptize Bishop, the “dimwitted child” of Rayber. Mason had earlier tried to rear Rayber as a prophet, too, but he encountered a resistance that eventually turned into a vigorously antireligious posture. Mason Tarwater had finally broken off all relations with Rayber after the latter wrote a psychoanalysis of Tarwater for a “schoolteacher’s magazine” that mocked his beliefs. Francis Tarwater, also, does not come easily to his prophetic office. At his great-uncle’s death, he abandons the old man and burns down his house, balking at his obsession with Jesus; the choice is not between “Jesus and the devil,” he resolves—“it’s Jesus or me.” Francis, like Hazel Motes, is nevertheless haunted by the presence of Jesus: “Jesus? He felt a terrible disappointment in that conclusion, a dread that it was true.” He can no more escape his destiny than Motes could; it is “hidden in the blood.”
Rayber is a familiar O’Connor character type, the rationalist who attempts to explain away religion as illusion or delusion. He will have no part of the Tarwaters’ prophetic ministry. Just as the sense of sight was a potent symbol in Wise Blood, O’Connor here uses the sense of hearing, Rayber’s need for a hearing aid, to underscore his spiritual ignorance: “Do you think in the box,” Francis Tarwater ridiculed, “or do you think in your head?” The religious people of Rayber’s acquaintance—the Tarwaters, the Carmody family—have all been “exploited” people, bilked by the foolish rhetoric of insane cadgers and shysters. Yet Rayber’s will is not powerful enough to withstand the force of a prophet of God. True to his call, Francis must drown Bishop in baptism, the enduring Christian symbol of new life from death.
O’Connor organized the events of this novel into three distinct parts. Part 1 reveals the eccentric life of the prophet; as Elijah the Old Testament prophet gave his mantle to the younger Elisha, so Mason Tarwater passes his own “burden” to his charge. Part 2 depicts Francis Tarwater’s struggle to free himself, like a latter-day Jonah, from the burden laid upon him; here the city is emblematic of all the distractions and temptations that might deter him from his task. Part 3 relates the purification and cleansing of the prophet who encounters his burning bush and receives his commission to “warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy” in the “dark city” beyond him.
The Violent Bear It Away more fully develops themes O’Connor explored in such short stories as “The Enduring Chill,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Good Country People,” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Her consistent focus is placed upon the human will tortured by indecision, clouded by technology, and rendered impotent by its flight from knowledge of God. The only remedy offered is the laying down of weapons and the complete surrender of the soul. Francis Tarwater and Hazel Motes both discover that their only rest from this ordeal is acquiescence to the will of God.
Throughout her fiction, O’Connor defamiliarized the all-too-familiar concepts of conversion and discipleship and articulated the shallow view of Christ lurking behind modern faith. She wanted her readers to escape the jaundiced vision of their own time. In Mystery and Manners, she paralleled her task with that of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who, in instructing catechumens, warned them of passing by the dragon on their way to the Father of Souls: No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.
O’Connor refused to turn away from the dragon or the storyteller, and she asked of her readers the same courage.
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