Flannery O'Connor Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Flannery O'Connor Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

Wise Blood

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...

(The entire section is 2926 words.)