illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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James J. Napier (essay date spring 1982)

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SOURCE: Napier, James J. “Flannery O'Connor's Last Three: ‘The Sense of an Ending’.” Southern Literary Journal 14, no. 2 (spring 1982): 19-27.

[In the following essay, Napier evaluates O'Connor's literary output in the last few years of her life, focusing on the achievement of her last three stories: “Revelation,” “Judgment Day,” and “Parker's Back.”]

“Ends are ends only when they are not negative but frankly transfigure the events in which they were immanent.”

—Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, p. 175.1

A casual look at the record of Flannery O'Connor's career reveals a precocious beginning followed by an early success that was sustained for almost two decades until her death in 1964. From the publication of her first story in Accent when she was a student at the School for Writers at the State University of Iowa until the completion of “Parker's Back” in the last month of her life, she seems to have been unremittingly, if not exceptionally, productive. But this, as I say, is what a casual look reveals. A closer look, especially at the last half decade, gives a somewhat different impression.

O'Connor published her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, in January 1960. (Novels went slowly for her, Wise Blood having taken five, her second one seven, years). In addition, she had to her credit a volume of collected stories and four more published short stories. In the ensuing last quarter (nearly five years) of her career, she worked on a longer story, Why Do the Heathen Rage? (never completed), and five short stories: “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (early in 1961), “The Lame Shall Enter First” (early 1962), “Revelation” (late 1963), “Judgement Day” (1964), and “Parker's Back” (1964). Since the incomplete work, a fragment, has a marginal status in the O'Connor canon, the short stories invite more attention. A glance at their dates shows how comparatively slight her output was in this period.

But we have more than the dates to go on here. If we are to judge from the few comments about it in her letters, Why Do the Heathen Rage? did not tap O'Connor's deepest inspiration. She said of it on July 9, 1963: “[I] get on slowly if at all.”2 Planned as a longer work, it may have intimidated her after a prolonged labor with two novels. She was, moreover, a reliable judge of her own work. Her letters show how initially enthusiastic she was about the stories that have enjoyed the highest critical praise, beginning with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and followed by “The Artificial Nigger,” “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Greenleaf,” and “Revelation.” Conversely, she seems to have been rightly dissatisfied with “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Comforts of Home,” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” One should be wary of undue attention to her expressed likes and dislikes, however, for she said little about a number of other stories that are among her best. More significant is the fact that in a period of slackening output O'Connor was beginning to question her resources. As she wrote to a friend on May 4, 1963: “I've been writing eighteen years and I've reached the point where I can't do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing” (The Habit of Being, p. 518).

Consider her situation: after three and a half years, aside from “the work in progress,” so to speak (the longer story), she had completed two...

(This entire section contains 3466 words.)

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short stories, the second of them more than a year before. Her earlier story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” was the single work that pleased her. She had also begun to anticipate a second collection of stories, but found herself short of contributions. Four of them had been written in the preceding decade, another (“The Partridge Festival”) was a very early story and of doubtful rank here, and there were the two recent ones. As she had said to Robert Giroux on November 5, 1962: “I have seven stories but I don't think there is enough variety in them to make a good collection. I might as well wait and see what I come up with in the next year or two” (The Habit of Being, p. 498).

What she came up with, following her reduced output, her mood of reassessment, shows a recovery of power in a last trio that is arguably superior to most of the other stories in her posthumous collection. It would be too much to say they encompass “the larger things” she hoped for; it would be too little to say they are merely what she could “do well”; they fall somewhere between, and they provide the variety she needed. But most importantly they reinforce the sense of the “ultimate” that is so often central in her most memorable effects.

They are her final achievement, completed as her illness deepened. Let us admit that last stories may merely seem significant. Let us recognize that had she lived and her talent thrived, these stories may or may not have found an altered niche in a large body of work. The fact remains: they have an immediate interest for a number of reasons bearing upon their content as an ending, as a summation of this phase of her career.

They show, for example, aspects of technique that are surprisingly new for this writer known from her beginnings for technical orthodoxy. Second, they provide a variety of emphasis within her chosen tragicomic mode, a variety that yet offers, as I hope to indicate, a closing coherence of outlook. Third, they reveal a readiness to portray black characters more confidently, to have them speak more revealingly, and move a little closer to the center of her fictional stage. Together, they give proof of a talent that, even as death approached, was able to put a conclusive stamp of meaning on her last efforts.

If we are to connect these stories in this way, however, we should first note the order of their composition. “Revelation” was completed in November, 1963; “Parker's Back,” begun a few years earlier, was being completed in the last month of her life. The record is clear about these two, but concerning “Judgement Day” there is a slight ambiguity. As the last story in the published collection it bears in its placement and title a fitting touch of finality; yet O'Connor remarked in a letter, “I've got one [story] that I'm not satisfied with that I finished about the same time as ‘Revelation’” (The Habit of Being, p. 585). Sally Fitzgerald notes that “Parker's Back” and “Judgement Day” were “both completed when she was more or less in extremis” (The Habit of Being, p. 559). The apparent contradiction is resolved by assuming that “Judgement Day” required alterations in a way that “Revelation” (which appeared in Sewanee Review, Spring 1964) did not require, and that “Parker's Back” resisted a final draft for a prolonged period and then all at once fell into place.

“Revelation,” in my view, is the touchstone story of the three, one that throws a backward light on other stories but also a forward light on the last two, a story whose imaginative center can influence our reading of “Parker's Back” as an exuberantly comic story of youth and of “Judgement Day” as a darkly poignant story of old age. After “Revelation” we must reassess O'Connor's vision in the light of an implied declaration: something hitherto unspoken has been settled.

A hint of this can be seen in “Parker's Back,” with its page or two for the opening, and then a flashback, showing Parker in the days just prior to his marriage. Another flashback, this one within the first: Parker at age fourteen, awed by the tattooed man at the fair. End of second flashback, and a return to the first. But now, narrative convention calling her back to the time and place of her opening pages, O'Connor, risking a flaw, skips ahead from the first flashback, but over and beyond the opening “present,” ignoring it. She knew what she was about: it was deliberate, perhaps even a flaunting of skill, an easy mingling of past, present, future, and imbued with her high comic tone.

“Judgement Day” is more densely dependent on the flashback; only a fourth of the story treats the “present” in New York City. Here the complications of time make more demands on the reader's attention, with old Tanner's ruminations taking him back two days before, and from that to his days in the south with Coleman, and the appearance of the black “Doctor” Foley, on whose land Tanner was a squatter, and within that flashback another that cuts to his first meeting with Coleman, and then a return to the doctor, and then a return to the New York “present” (and not two days before, as the early pages suggest—but one cannot be sure)—all of this soon followed by the flashback with the black actor, the violent outcome, Tanner's stroke. Free of the past and the hold of memory, O'Connor in a few concluding pages brings Tanner to his painful end in the apartment stairwell.

Such unaccustomed attention to the flashback suggests that O'Connor's technical choices in this pair were running in parallel, with the past and the future seen in a wider perspective, one that she handled more flexibly in its applications.

Yet in another way the stories differ markedly. O'Connor has been labeled most often as a tragicomic artist. The label derives from the drama, and for the critic of fiction seems to have a useful but occasional importance. She is often called a comic artist and sometimes a tragic artist. But as Robert Fitzgerald suggested: “On the tragic scene, each time, the presence of her humor is like the presence of grace. Has not tragicomedy at least since Dante been the most Christian of genres?”3 “Tragicomic” accounts best for the doubleness of her effects. In “Parker's Back,” with its youth and robust humor, the mode tilts to comedy and can be said to be COMIC-tragic; but in “Judgement Day,” with its old age and confinement, the mode becomes TRAGIcomic. Providing extremes within the mode, these stories differ from “Revelation,” which occupies the middle ground in its balance of tragic and comic.

“Judgement Day” is a story she inevitably had to attempt, if for no other reason than to sketch the black characters she had so carefully avoided in the past. There is Coleman, poorest of the poor; there is Foley, the Southern landowner and businessman; the third is the nameless actor, the urbanized career-man in a mass society. The last of these is the least expected and the most remarkable, requiring as he does O'Connor's imaginative return to the New York she had left because of illness. Yet O'Connor, with her sure self-criticism, ranked this story below “Parker's Back” (The Habit of Being, p. 593), and there are at least two reasons why we should agree with her. One reason is that the flashback is overdone in “Judgement Day.” Since the purpose of a flashback is to provide necessary exposition and to prepare for a dramatically conclusive ending, proportion requires a substantial closing “present,” as in “Parker's Back.” In “Judgement Day” the closing seems brief after the long attention to memory. A second limitation is that the language lacks the inspiration and imagination so evident in the brilliantly comic “Parker's Back,” a story at once funny, serious, bizarre, and convincing.

Relative success aside, each story makes its way, starting with a common experience that is for the protagonist at once a beginning and a preparation. The experience is that of humiliation. For O'Connor it seems necessary to subject her characters to this fall from inveterate complacency. For Parker the agent is Sarah Ruth, who applies her broom to his head. For Tanner it is the enraged actor. For Ruby Turpin it is Mary Grace. Something in O'Connor urged her first to bring a character low, for in other stories (among her most effective), we note humiliation: that of the family in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”; Mr. Head's with Nelson in “The Artificial Nigger”; Hulga's in the barnloft in “Good Country People”; Mrs. May's in “Greenleaf.” From such humiliation may or may not follow the enlightenment to effect a change, but the ground of change, a chastening, is surely present, and the story's ending makes us ponder its import.

Of endings and their effects, Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, quotes George Eliot: “‘Beginnings are always troublesome … and conclusions are the weak point of most authors.’” Eliot adds: “… some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation.”4 But as Kermode responds: “Ends are ends only when they are not negative but frankly transfigure the events in which they were immanent.”

The most “transfiguring” end among O'Connor's stories appears in “Revelation.” Ruby Turpin's vision as she hoses the swine in the pig parlor offers a conclusion that not only illuminates the content of one story; by its very nature it plies backward and forward in significance, a fictional-theological “given” that refuses to be confined. This is her vision of the twilight sky

… as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.5

Ruby Turpin, whose righteousness has earlier been assailed by the hurled book, and worse, by the stinging insult by Mary Grace (“Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog”), sees that she and her husband Claud are joined in that assembly, but as part of the tribe that brings up the rear, and with “shocked and altered faces” as “even their virtues were being burned away.” Upward they go, this visionary flock, singing in the light that fades, with Ruby and Claud and their like (the “respectable” ones) alone on key, but all of them “climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

This ending, in keeping with the prophetic thrust of O'Connor's themes, is first of all apocalyptic, an aspect, I think, that can easily be exaggerated. More to the point is the explicitness of Ruby Turpin's vision. Unlike other scenes in O'Connor's stories with a visionary element—Asbury's sick-bed experience of the Holy Ghost in “The Enduring Chill,” or Tarwater and his “friend” in the wood at the close of The Violent Bear It Away, to name two examples—unlike these scenes with their implicitly subjective side, this story projects a vision that is a revelation—explicit, objective, and absolute, a hierarchical image of eternity.

The biblical source at the core of this vision has been a part of the critical record for some years.6 Ruby's vision may be read as a literal depiction of the gospel message: “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Critics who share O'Connor's theological outlook have no problem with such a reading. But others have found it troublesome. As Josephine Hendin says: “Everyone … goes to heaven.”7 And Joyce Carol Oates has written: “This is the most powerful of O'Connor's revelations, because it questions the very foundations of our assumptions of the ethical life.”8

Whatever the critical stand, there is a tendency to see Ruby's vision as a set piece, with attention only to its immediate effect on the character and none to its larger implications for the practice of O'Connor's art. Neither the orthodox noting of the source of the vision nor the extravagant—and misleading—approaches of Hendin and Oates seems adequate to the outcome here. Is it necessary to point out that Hendin is wrong? O'Conner does not say that everyone goes to heaven. The irony in the passage, at Ruby's expense, depends on the reversal of the white-black, sane-lunatic, middle-lower social expectations that she has lived by. The ranks of the souls shouting hallelujah would have to include many a “sinner” (in the Dantean sense) to justify Hendin's conclusion. And Oates overlooks the point at issue, which is Ruby's pride and complacency, her spiritual near-sightedness. Finally, however one “judges” Ruby—sternly or charitably—seems not to matter: she is saved.

If then Ruby and her like are saved, the import of the revelation, as compared to other endings in O'Connor's work, should prompt reflection. It is this that I would like to stress and not merely the “facts” of the ending. Nothing in the story casts doubt on how we are to understand the vision: it is clearly authentic—especially so because it is not self-justifying on Ruby's part; on the contrary, it is in part a reversal of a life-long assumption. The effect goes a step beyond the assertion of authorial omniscience; it is a uniquely didactic effect.

O'Connor has dared in this late story to present a spiritual flash-forward: the invisible is made visible. This is the real departure in “Revelation,” but one that derives from what at first seems only an innocuous technical innovation, a fortuitously symmetrical countering of the flashbacks in “Parker's Back” and “Judgement Day.” It is more than that, for to use Kermode's words, it does “frankly transfigure the events in which [it is] immanent.” And through the association of its radical import, it casts an altering light on its two companion stories in time—on the natural ambiguity at the close of “Parker's Back,” with Parker crying “like a baby” under the pecan tree in frustration and defeat; and on the violent end of old Tanner even as he o'erleaps in spirit his brutal handling by the black man. It is an ending in which the message rings: Look up all ye who pray and hope and do your work—see what a goal awaits you!

The ending of “Revelation” erases ambiguity. Could Ruby, upon reflection, come to doubt her vision? That would go against the grain of the story. If the ending of Anna Karenina, as Kermode points out in support of his thesis, “recapitulates the domestic beginning”9 (“All happy families are alike …”) with Levin now in the midst of his own happy family, so too is Ruby's visionary glimpse of her last end immanent in her impulsive cry in the doctor's waiting room: “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!”10 Ill-conceived some of Ruby's views and actions may be; the author is yet clearly for her, not against her.

The ending can be taken a step further. It is arguable that two sides contended in O'Connor's work. One was an austere and satiric, an unforgiving side, perceived by many readers; the second was a more charitable and humanizing side, less prominent and less readily noted. Many of her stories, beginning with Wise Blood and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” support the first side, but an important handful differ: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Parker's Back,” “Judgement Day,” and “Revelation.” The impulse that lightened O'Connor's severity, especially in the first two of this group, dominates in the last one, wherein a covert vision of eternity (the “invisible”) in becoming overt inescapably sheds benign retrospective light on earlier stories as well as associatively on the closing three. For how is one to limit, fictionally, the “vision” of Ruby Turpin? She and her husband Claud are of the country types that inhabit O'Connor's stories. Like the murdered grandmother, the ill-fated Mrs. May, Mr. Head, and others—those “accountable … for good order and common sense and respectable behavior”—they have lived their “average” lives. When O'Connor dared to represent an “otherworldly” moment for the Turpins, she disclosed as it were her foundation of the “off-stage” divine, and in that single gesture, unique for her, embraced Parker and old Tanner too, and gave an ending that transfigured more “events” than she may have guessed.


  1. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 175.

  2. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 529.

  3. Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), Introduction, xxxiii.

  4. Kermode, p. 174.

  5. “Revelation,” in Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966), pp. 217.

  6. See Robert Drake, Flannery O'Connor, Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective Series (Grand Rapids, 1966), p. 31.

  7. Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O'Connor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), p. 30.

  8. Joyce Carol Oates, “The Visionary Art of Flannery O'Connor,” in New Heaven, New Earth (New York: The Vanguard Press, 1974), p. 174.

  9. Kermode, p. 175.

  10. “Revelation,” in Everything That Rises Must Converge, p. 206.


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Flannery O'Connor 1925-1964

(Full name Mary Flannery O'Connor) American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on O'Connor's works from 1982 through 2001. See also A Good Man Is Hard to Find Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Short Story Criticism, Flannery O'Connor Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6, 13, 21.

O'Connor is considered one of the foremost short story writers in American literature. She was an anomaly among post-World War II authors—a Roman Catholic from the Bible-belt South whose stated purpose was to reveal the mystery of God's grace in everyday life. Aware that not all readers shared her faith, O'Connor chose to depict salvation through shocking, often violent action upon characters who are spiritually or physically grotesque. Moreover, her penchant for employing ironic detachment and mordant humor prompted some critics to classify O'Connor as an existentialist or nihilist. She also infused her fiction with the local color and rich comic detail of her southern milieu, particularly through her skillful presentation of regional dialect. A complex system of symbolism and allegory adds further resonance to O'Connor's writing.

Biographical Information

O'Connor was an only child whose parents were devout Roman Catholics from prominent Georgia families. She attended parochial schools in Savannah and public high school in Milledgeville, where the family moved after her father developed disseminated lupus, the degenerative disease that later struck O'Connor. Soon after her father's death when she was nearly sixteen, O'Connor entered the nearby Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in social sciences. In her spare time she edited and wrote for school publications to which she also contributed linoleum block and woodcut cartoons. O'Connor then enrolled in the graduate writing program at Iowa State University, where she earned her M.A. in 1947 with six stories, including “The Geranium,” which had appeared the previous year in the periodical Accent. Throughout her career, O'Connor's stories were readily published, occasionally by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle, but more often by prestigious literary journals including Sewanee Review,Shenandoah, and Kenyon Review.

O'Connor began her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), while living at Yaddo writers' colony in upstate New York in 1947 and 1948. She continued working on the novel while living in New York City and then in Connecticut, where she boarded with her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, a young married couple who shared O'Connor's Catholic faith and literary interests. However, O'Connor's independent lifestyle ended abruptly at age twenty-five when she suffered her first attack of lupus. From that point forward, O'Connor lived with her mother at Andalusia, a small dairy farm outside Milledgeville. She maintained a steady writing pace, publishing Wise Blood in 1952, followed by the story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955, and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Way, in 1960. Each volume attracted significant critical attention, and she was awarded three O. Henry prizes for her short stories in addition to several grants and two honorary degrees. As her reputation grew, she traveled when her health permitted to give readings and lectures. She died in 1964.

Major Works

O'Connor’s fiction frequently criticizes the materialism and spiritual apathy of contemporary society, faulting modern rationalism for its negation of the need for religious faith and redemption. Employing scenes and characters from her native southern environments, she depicts the violent and often bizarre religiosity of Protestant fundamentalists as a manifestation of spiritual life struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. The protagonists of both her novels—Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away—experience intense spiritual conflict. Often considered “Christ-haunted” characters, they are tormented by visions of God and the devil and by the temptation to deny the reality of their revelations. Critics have described O'Connor's protagonists as grotesque in personality, inclined to violence, and isolated and frustrated by their spiritual struggle.

Reflecting the religious themes of her novels, a recurrent motif in O'Connor's thirty-one short stories is that of divine grace descending in an often bizarre or violent manner upon a spiritually deficient main character. She often depicts a rural domestic situation suddenly invaded by a criminal or perverse outsider—a distorted Christ figure who redeems a protagonist afflicted with pride, intellectualism, or materialism. In one of O'Connor's best-known stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, a smugly self-complacent grandmother is shocked into spiritual awareness by a murderer who kills first her family and then her. Critics have noted that O'Connor's tales, while expressing intense action, are related in concise, almost epigrammatic prose. They have also praised her use of richly complex imagery and symbols, observing that spiritual meaning is often conveyed through vivid descriptions of nature in her work.

Critical Reception

The predominant feature of O'Connor criticism is its abundance. O'Connor garnered serious and widespread critical attention for her first short story collection, and since her death the outpouring has been remarkable, including hundreds of essays and numerous full-length studies. While her work has received some hostile reviews, including those that labeled her an atheist or accused her of using the grotesque gratuitously, she is almost universally admired, if not fully understood. In addition to wide-ranging studies of her style, structure, symbolism, tone, themes, and influences, critical discussion often centers on theological aspects of O'Connor's work. In inquiries into the depth of her religious intent, critics usually find O'Connor to be the orthodox Christian that she adamantly declared herself.

Stanley Renner (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Renner, Stanley. “Secular Meaning in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” College Literature 9, no. 2 (1982): 123-32.

[In the following essay, Renner suggests a secular interpretation of the conclusion of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”]

Just as literature illuminates life, life illuminates literature, sometimes causing a shock of recognition that simultaneously verifies the author's imaginative vision and advances our comprehension of both the vision and the means employed to reveal it. A recent account in a Southern newspaper of developments in a murder trial casts such light on Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a story that has proved particularly troublesome because O'Connor's statements about her intention in its violent climax enjoins an interpretation that does not appear to be supported by the logic of its own content. I refer to O'Connor's representation that at the moment of the grandmother's death at the hands of an escaped killer, when she sees him as one of her own children, she enjoys a sudden accession to divine grace, a “special kind of triumph” that seems beyond the capacity of the character as we know her in the story.1 O'Connor's reading of the climax seems to demand a doctrinaire approach that some readers are unable to bring to the story.2 The design of the story itself, moreover, suggests that its meaning is wider than that indicated by the author's own interpretation. The newspaper account referred to invites a reading of the grandmother's last words in terms of a causal relationship with broad cultural implications and overtones of universality.

The newspaper piece, featured by a large metropolitan daily, reports on the murder trial of a young man accused of the sexual-molestation slaying of an eight-year-old girl. Arrested a few days after the crime, the young man admitted his guilt; and it was the playing of his tape-recorded confession that provided the news peg for the article. The confession includes a revelation that bears a remarkable similarity to the climax of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” as may be seen in the following excerpt from the article:

[The accused] began crying as he told the investigators that he decided to kill the girl because “she said that God loves me.” Investigators returned to the comment later.

The taped conversation revealed:

Q—Do you know, Robert, why you killed her?

A—I don't know … I don't know. She just said that and I just …

Q—When she told you that Jesus loves you?


Q—You killed her? Why did that particular thing make you want to kill her?

A—Cause it ain't true.

Q—Why do you believe that?

A—God just wouldn't let things happen that happen, you know, so he don't care.3

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for comparison, the grandmother, obviously terrified by the prospect of death, tries to disarm the Misfit's murderous intention by reminding him of the love and goodness of Jesus. Ironically, as in the story from life, she only activates his frustration and rage, which builds to such an intensity that when she leans toward him and claims him as one of her own, he shoots her three times through the chest.

Thus, in both the real-life story and the fictional one, the murder is precipitated by an utterance of the victim. Moreover, in both cases, it is the assurance of the love of Jesus that stirs the murderer's homicidal rage. The grandmother says, “Jesus would help,” not “Jesus loves you,” but the import of the exhortation is much the same. So is its effect. For both the young man and the Misfit the appeal to Jesus' love and care somehow presses unbearably against the very quick of their problem, and they lash out against torment. In O'Connor's story the murder does not immediately follow the grandmother's assurance of Jesus' help. There is a longer development of the Misfit's problem with Jesus, followed by the grandmother's recognition of him as one of her own children, which is the immediate cause of her murder. But the pattern of events in both stories is similar. An individual violently maladjusted in society is urged with childlike naiveté to be governed by the goodness of Jesus. Maddened by the incongruity between such a simplistic exhortation and his own experience of life, he murders the source of the exhortation.

This chain of causality puts the climax of O'Connor's story in a somewhat different light than that in which it has usually been viewed. Most significantly, it leads toward the conclusion that the grandmother's last words are more than an expression of parental love, Christian charity, and forgiveness toward the Misfit, based, as the author stated, on a recognition of their ties in the depths of the Christian mysteries. Although the degree of awareness with which the grandmother speaks the words is precisely the pivotal ambiguity in the story, what she says may be taken to mean that she is responsible for the Misfit in a causal sense. This approach to the climax indicates that there may be dimensions to the story beyond those on which the standard reading has been based.

In understanding the ending of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the key is what to make of the grandmother. Is she the heroine, as the author apparently regarded her, or the villain, as other readers have found her?4 The more common view is the one sanctioned by O'Connor that, limited though she is, the grandmother is granted a moment of illumination during which she realizes the emptiness of her faith and extends to the man who is about to kill her the true love of Jesus.5 But this view seems to demand more sympathy than the story grants her. The author has characterized the grandmother so that it is virtually impossible to say anything unquestionably good about her. One cannot even fall back on the excuse that she means well, since most of what she means is to please herself by devious means. To be sure, she is created in the vein of comedy; her sins of self-serving seem ingratiatingly human and harmless enough. But, as O'Connor pointed out, the comedic method is this story's way of being serious.6 In bringing the grandmother and her world into collision with the Misfit, O'Connor seems to be implying some sinister connection between them. From the opening paragraph the journey that gives shape to the first half of the story seems to lead inevitably, fatally, to the violent confrontation that defines the second half.

Indeed, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” seems to invite the reader to hold the grandmother responsible for the Misfit. Developing this generally unexplored approach to their interrelationship does not imply that we are expected to excuse the Misfit's crimes or that they are really the grandmother's fault. Yet there is evidence of a causal link between the two characters that suggests a broad approach to the story's ambiguous ending. The author herself, in explaining how she read the story, connects the grandmother's moment of grace with her recognition “that she is responsible for this man before her.”7 “Responsible” can be understood in more than one way, but the meaning most strongly indicated in the story is that of causality. Thus, as Bailey is her son in a literal sense, the Misfit is one of her own children in a figurative sense: what the grandmother represents has somehow produced what the Misfit represents. We may note in passing that neither of the grandmother's “offspring”—one a nonentity, the other a violent criminal—reflects very favorably on her achievement as a parent.

In what sense, then, has the grandmother, as symbolic parent, been responsible for producing the Misfit? This is the key question posed by the story's climax, and it is a major function of the rest of the story to provide an answer.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is designed in two parts, the first of which is devoted mainly to the characterization of the grandmother. The portrait that emerges has two faces: one is that of a believable old lady, very much, as O'Connor intended, like our own “grandmothers or great aunts”; the other is that of the culture of which she is so representative a figure.8 In the latter role, she is, in fact, something of a caricature of the South, drawn in the manner of an editorial cartoon, with its distinctive features exaggerated and mocked to make a satiric point. For one thing, she personifies the ideal of gentility, manners, and breeding inherited from the old plantation culture. Her white gloves and prim white polka-dotted navy blue dress trimmed in organdy and lace may not be as practical for automobile travel as her daughter-in-law's slacks, but at least they certify her as a Southern Lady. The grandmother also champions the Southern ideal of politeness, with its warm-hearted, well-meaning, outgoing consideration for others. Children should show respect to older people, one should be friendly and agreeable to strangers, and one should feel a tug at one's good heart at the sight of a “cute little pickaninny” too poor to have britches and other things “like we do.” Above all, she exemplifies the simplistic, uncritical religiosity for which the South is well known.

In short, the grandmother is an ironic embodiment of the South of the good old days, when people were God-fearing, genteel, courteous, hospitable, charitable, and honest—in a word, good. This is, of course, the land of the Great Southern Dream toward which, in so much of the fiction of the region, people of the South look back with exquisite and paralyzing nostalgia, the land of the old plantation culture which O'Connor evokes in the now familiar image of the great plantation house, with its tall columns across the front, its driveway lined with trees, its arbors and gardens where ladies and gentlemen lived the romance of the Old South. With fitting irony it is reminiscing about “better times” with Red Sam—the red-necked proprietor of one of those shabby filling-station cafes that seem almost to typify the rural South—that reawakens in the grandmother's mind her dream of lost paradise. And it is her desire to return to the old dream world that brings her and the culture she personifies into fatal collision with reality in the form of the Misfit.

Of course, the grandmother is far from what she thinks she is, and thus she personifies a culture whose pretensions of honorable gentility are belied by reality. C. R. Kropf has rightly seen her as another misfit, and so is the aspect of the South she personifies.9 The old woman is like a child who treats pets and dolls like make-believe people, wheedles and lies to get her way, uses baby talk (“pitty sing” for “pretty thing”), and responds to taunts from other children by threats of getting even. Her amusing illiteracy marks her as a good deal less than genteel. Her dress is a garish travesty of true ladylike taste. She actually enjoys the privation of the black child along the roadside because it is picturesque. In a particularly deft exposure of her pseudo-gentility the grandmother is paired with Red Sammy Butts, personification of the red-necked South, with whom she enjoys an immediate and deep-rooted rapport based on their common vernacular and identical system of values. And in the confrontation with the Misfit, O'Connor heavily underlines the superficiality of the grandmother's religion. Especially rich is the implication that her mindless repetition of the name of Jesus is very close to profanity—taking the Lord's name in vain.

Equally a misfit with reality is the grandmother's view of goodness in life. It is a particularly ironic measure of her blindness that the model of better times she holds in reverence is the plantation culture of the Great Southern Dream, which, insofar as it existed at all, fed on the life's blood of the slaves whose labor made it possible. The dream is pointedly associated with death: it is just outside of Toomsboro where the grandmother recalls the old mansion and points out the graveyard that was attached to the plantation. Thus she grieves for better times and laments that “People are certainly not nice like they used to be,” while the story ironically implies that people never were as nice as she dreams they were and that if a good man is hard to find nowadays, the reason is not far to seek. It lies somewhere in the causal chain by which, for all her ideals and dreams of goodness, the grandmother has reared nothing better than the generation symbolized by Bailey with his parrot shirt, suggesting mindless repetition of the given, and his wife with her kerchief's rabbit ears, suggesting mindless and prolific reproduction, which, in turn, has spawned the generation of ungovernable juvenile anarchy symbolized by John Wesley and June Star.

Thus Flannery O'Connor portrays the South in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as a childish, illiterate, mendacious, garrulous, and blind old woman, a failed parent who has ruined her own offspring, with a false and destructive dream of the past and an equally false and destructive self-perception in the present. But that is not the whole story. One of the curious things about the South is the incongruity between its great courtesy and its strange proclivity to lawlessness and violence.10 This is the paradox of the South that O'Connor has portrayed in the composite formed by the grandmother and the Misfit. Incongruity, the misfit between appearance and reality, between blindness and objective perception, becomes a major motif in the story, recurring in the dream of the old plantation culture, the grandmother's self concept, even in the style of the story, where, to intensify its impact, O'Connor creates a jarring misfit between the violent horror of what takes place and the blank matter-of-fact tone in which it is narrated. This pattern, of course, culminates in the confrontation between the grandmother and the Misfit—the former an epitome of Southern gentility, the latter of callous violence.

It seems quite unhelpful to see the grandmother and the Misfit in terms of good and evil or innocence and evil. The grandmother may be a lovable well-meaning old body, she may, as O'Connor thought of her, resemble our own beloved grandmothers and great-aunts, she may even indicate the tolerant affection with which O'Connor regarded the South; but the story holds her responsible for a substantial share of the disorder it portrays. The apparent triviality of her misdeeds is another misfit, for both literally and figuratively they lead inexorably to the far from trivial derangement of the Misfit. Conversely, the Misfit is a cold-blooded killer, yet we are drawn to sympathize with his tormented inability to reconcile himself to the profound incongruities of the world in which he is trapped. In its effaced point of view the story seems to withhold judgment and merely extend an invitation to see and understand.11

Clearly the Misfit sees the phenomena of existence more objectively than the grandmother. Indeed, in his insistence on the plain truth against a more pleasing rearrangement of reality he has something of Huckleberry Finn's uncompromising eye. Huck is unable to see anything but a Sunday school picnic in Tom Sawyer's Arab caravan. Similarly, the Misfit calls the grandmother back to reality when she begins to embellish her story of the accident—the car rolled over not twice, as she says, but “Oncet. … We seen it happen.” Thus in its ironic exposure of the grandmother's idealizing vision “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” repeats Mark Twain's attack on the South for its worship of style, its willful blindness to the unpleasant reality beneath the decorative surface. Limited though they are, both Huck and the Misfit see this mismatch and neither can bear it. Huck lights out for the Territory. The Misfit tries to annihilate it.

O'Connor creates the Misfit around a keen existential vision of life. He perceives the tenuousness of faith and the crucial difference between a divinely ordered world and one with no transcendent governing principle beyond natural law. Unable to believe in the former, he finds himself in a world of radical freedom where all possibilities are open—“You can do one thing or you can do another”—because there is no moral order to invoke. He is imprisoned in a web of necessity from which he cannot extricate himself; no matter what he does, he comes to the same fate. He feels himself inexplicably and undeservedly punished; whatever he does he is still condemned to the same prison of incertitude and suffering. Indeed, whether guilty or innocent, he is on death row, facing capital punishment. Like Meursault in Camus's The Stranger, the Misfit has committed crime, but in the radical indecipherability of the world the sequence of moral logic linking deed, guilt, and punishment has come undone for both men. As the Misfit says, “I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” In a marvelous image of his existential extremity O'Connor shows the Misfit's eyes, without his glasses, as “red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.”

The Misfit is defenseless because he has no way of accommodating the apparent meaninglessness of existence: no faith to assure him of the divine purpose behind the wall of appearances, no capacity to transform what is into what one would like it to be. The problem is that the grandmother's shallow view of goodness is nothing less than the institutionalized mind of the culture. Thus the Misfit's human yearnings to live and be free are doubly denied: by his fatal entrapment in necessity and by his subjugation to a view of existence that is enforced upon him with all the authority of society even though it does not fit visible reality and is belied by the lives of those who judge him by it.

It is the Misfit's violent exasperation at the incongruity between what he has experienced and seen with his own eyes and the whole cultural edifice of Jesus-centered goodness, established with all the weight of law and custom, that is replicated by the real-life story behind the newspaper article with which this discussion began. (I am, of course, both taking the article at face value and reading between the lines.) When the girl invokes the love of Jesus, the young man is confronted with the misfit between his own experience of life—a life tormented by socially abhorrent, perverted sexual cravings—and all that her words imply of the lifting of human burdens, the assurance of understanding, acceptance, and pardon, the ideal of spiritual goodness and sexless purity, and the sheer societal and legal weight of Jesus on his life. Deranged by the incongruity, he savagely strangles and stabs her to death. As the Misfit tries to explain to the grandmother the profound existential complexity of his life, she presses on him the help of Jesus as the solution to all his troubles. This scene, subtly probing the mechanism of the Misfit's violence, is surely one of O'Connor's finest things. Eloquently emblematic of his entire life, it dramatizes his compulsion to justify the truthfulness of his existence against the demonstrable falsehood that stifles him and the mechanical prattling about Jesus and goodness that is the only response he ever gets. The Misfit feels himself drawn again into the futile confrontation between the truth of his own experience and the blank wall of the “Authorities” that has been the bane of his life (the capitalization of the term suggests its proper thematic weight). The story deftly plants evidence that his problem began early in life. Some readers are taken in by O'Connor's indirection and assume that the Misfit really did kill his father. But he is a truthful man, and if it were possible to enter the world of the story, we would find his father buried in Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard a victim of “the epidemic flu.” The Misfit has merely overheard psychoanalytical talk by the penitentiary “head doctor,” who undoubtedly diagnosed his homicidal tendency as a displacement of the primal revolt against parental authority. When the Misfit acknowledges that his parents were good people, evidently in the grandmother's sense of goodness, we understand that his trouble began in childhood with the rigid imposition of the ideal of goodness that the story ironically undercuts. Now, as the grandmother, deaf to his plea for understanding, reminds him of Jesus, he sees her as the blank wall of Authority, as yet another manifestation of the institutionalized standard of Jesus-centered goodness that has plagued his entire life.

Thus the story builds to its explosive climax. Pounding the ground in agitation, his voice about to crack, the Misfit hurls his life's truth against the grandmother's terrified vacuity. Then “her head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and murmured, ‘Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” At this, the Misfit kills her.

With authorial prompting most critics have accepted the grandmother's moment of clarity as her accession to grace. As Dowell puts it, “she suddenly realizes that her superficial commitment to good has been meaningless because she lives without faith, that is to say without Christ.”12 It may be rash to resist the authorial view of the story; nevertheless, that is claiming a good deal for the grandmother as we know her in the story, a demurral that is based on literary, not theological, grounds. As she is characterized, the grandmother may be capable of some insight into her shortcomings, but she has not been presented as a person whose realization would take a religious form at all, certainly not one so devoutly pat.

If the grandmother's role in the climax remains enigmatic, the Misfit's is less so. He sees in the old woman the mentality behind the blank wall of Authority, the simplistic, unreasoning mind of the culture that all his life has judged him by an ideal standard that fits no one. When the grandmother claims him as her own offspring, he sees what she represents as the embodiment of falsehood. At the same time he hears her self-servingly try to get him to accept adoption into her family of goodness, represented so ironically in Bailey, his wife, and his bratty children. Her touch on his shoulder suggests several meanings. It is reminiscent of the royal touch of healing, but ironically it reminds the Misfit of the way Authority has poisoned his life. It is the conferral of a parental blessing, but the implication of the grandmother's causal responsibility for his misfit, together with the presumption that he is one of hers, like all the Baileys of the world, is more than he can bear. Best of all, since the touch is on his shoulder, it suggests the ceremonial dubbing of knighthood that recognizes the squire as worthy representative of Christian chivalry and sends him forth to champion its ideal of gentility, justice, and goodness in the world. Small wonder the Misfit finds the touch venomous and shoots the grandmother to death.

But how are we to take the grandmother? O'Connor grants her a dim awareness of her manipulation of reality in “not telling the truth but wishing she were.” She is capable of sympathetic concern for animals, pickaninnies, and adults—as when she volunteers to spell Bailey's wife in tending the baby during the long hours on the road. Thus, although the story does not prepare for her to realize the inadequacy of her hazy superficial religion or to sense even dimly the way in which the institutionalized falsehood she personifies has spawned the Misfit, it does prepare for her to feel sympathy for his hurt. She does not understand a word of his life's truth, but when she sees him about to cry, his real suffering touches her almost instinctive springs of sympathy and human kinship.

This may not be much, but it is enough to make the grandmother the heroine of the story. For though it is in one sense an allegory of the South, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is in a larger sense a dramatization of the human condition that chooses between two ways of responding to the patent imperfections and misfits that constitute reality. The grandmother is a caricature of the South, but in the way that her every impulse is tainted by instinctive, unconscious egoism, she is also a droll personification of human nature as we have come to understand it in the wake of Darwin and Freud; she is, then, Reality. Thus, in a final instance of the misfit motif, the Misfit cannot accommodate himself to reality; and that way lies madness. His response to the inevitable failure of human beings to live up to their ideal of goodness is to kill them, thus purifying the world of falsehood to make it good. Since every action of the grandmother, however well intentioned, would, as the story shows, be tainted every moment of her life with the unconscious egoism inherent in human nature, “She would've been a good woman,” in the Misfit's terms, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This is both a brutal and unworkable response to reality since it means that he will have to kill everyone who shows the grandmother's imperfection—that is, everyone. As the story indicates, he has made an energetic beginning.

The grandmother, simple-minded though she is, makes a more constructive response than the misfit. She is able to extend to radically imperfect humanity the touch of sympathy and acknowledgment of kinship in weakness and sorrow that may be the best hope for ameliorating the human lot. All this can, of course, be cast in the religious terms of a fallen world, sin, faith, and grace, but it can also be read with no sacrifice of resonance as the dramatization of one of the basic themes of modern literature. Thus the grandmother is approved for her gesture of sympathy for the scabrous Misfit as the mariner is redeemed when he learns to love the slimy creatures of the deep, as Conrad's Axel Heyst is taught to put his faith in life in spite of its imperfection, and as Forster's characters learn the one lesson that may ameliorate the disjunctions of modern reality—“only connect.”


  1. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961), p. 11.

  2. See, for example, William S. Doxey, “A Dissenting Opinion of Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 10 (Spring 1973), 199-204.

  3. James Chisum, “‘God Loves You’ Spurred Killing, Coe Tape Says,” The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.), 20 Feb. 1981, Sec. 1, p. 1, col. 1.

  4. See O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 110.

  5. See, for example, Bob Dowell, “The Moment of Grace in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor,” College English, 27 (December 1965), 236; Leon V. Driskell and Joan T. Brittain, The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971), p. 70; Carter W. Martin, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969), pp. 134-135.

  6. Mystery and Manners, p. 108.

  7. Mystery and Manners, p. 111.

  8. Mystery and Manners, p. 110.

  9. “Theme and Setting in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Renascence, 24 (Summer 1972), 180.

  10. I do not mean to imply that the South is worse than other regions of the country, merely that it is different. If other regions have been equally violent, they have not been so polite.

  11. In the Misfit's sardonic eulogium over the grandmother's corpse O'Connor also, with great imaginative richness, brings to culmination his keen existential vision of life. For the existentialist the encounter with death humanizes the individual, turning him back to life with an awakened sense of concern and responsibility. The grandmother would have been a good woman, therefore, if she had experienced an existential awareness of death “every minute of her life.” “As terrible as the threat of annihilation is,” explains William V. Spanos, “for the existentialist it often becomes a paradoxically benign agent.” [A Casebook on Existentialism (N.Y.: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 7.]

  12. “Moment of Grace,” p. 236.

Principal Works

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Wise Blood (novel) 1952

A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short stories) 1955; published in England as The Artificial Nigger, 1957

The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960

Three by Flannery O’Connor (novels and short stories) 1964

Everything That Rises Must Converge (short stories) 1965

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (nonfiction) 1969

The Complete Stories (short stories) 1971

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (correspondence) 1979

Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works 1988

A. R. Coulthard (essay date March 1983)

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SOURCE: Coulthard, A. R. “From Sermon to Parable: Four Conversion Stories by Flannery O'Connor.” American Literature 55, no. 1 (March 1983): 55-71.

[In the following essay, Coulthard considers sin and redemption in four of O'Connor's short stories: “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Revelation,” and “Parker's Back.”]

In a 1958 letter, Flannery O'Connor discussed the major theme of her writing: “It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing. … The action of grace changes a character. … All my stories are about the action of grace on a character.”1 Like many of O'Connor's statements about her writing, this one is useful if it is properly qualified. Most of O'Connor's stories, of course, are about sin and redemption, but not all of them actually depict “the action of grace on a character.”

In seven stories, for instance, O'Connor clears the way for a character's redemption but stops short of delineating it. The stories freeze the protagonists in their moment of spiritual truth and do not reveal whether they will in fact accept the salvation proffered.2 These open-ended stories are best described by what O'Connor said of one of them, “The Enduring Chill”: “It's not so much a story of conversion as of self-knowledge, which I suppose has to be the first step in conversion” (HB [The Habit of Being], p. 299).

The stories which leave the question of salvation unanswered include some of O'Connor's best, such as “Good Country People” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” but in writing them the author was able to avoid the task of realistically describing the effects of conversion. O'Connor was well aware of the aesthetic problems inherent in depicting grace in fiction. She stated in “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” “Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense.”3 Writing about spiritual triumph must have been a special challenge for a writer who once said, “I … hate pious language … because I believe the realities it hides” (HB, p. 227).

The near impossibility of depicting grace abounding in converted sinners without resorting to pious or doctrinaire prose may be one reason that in three conversion stories—“The River,” “Greenleaf,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”—grace and death strike at virtually the same moment. O'Connor said, “You can't tell about conversion until you live with it a while” (HB, p. 299), but in only four of her short stories do the protagonists get the chance. An examination of these four stories reveals that O'Connor, in depicting the advent and aftermath of grace, did not always live up to her dictum that “In the greatest fiction, the writer's moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense,”4 but when she did, she did it in fine style.

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the earliest of these four stories, begins as a satire with moral undertones and degenerates into a morality play which is neither amusing nor particularly instructive. Wendell and Cory, who are “both going to be Church of God preachers because you don't have to know nothing to be one,”5 are hilarious country bumpkins. When these backwoods Lotharios come courting, they sit on the banisters “like monkeys, their knees on a level with their shoulders and their arms hanging down between,” as one of them croons “a hillbilly song that sounded half like a love song and half like a hymn” (p. 240). This humorous mingling of the sacred and the profane is continued in the portrait of the two convent girls who call themselves Temple One and Temple Two: “They put on lipstick and their Sunday shoes and walked around in high heels all over the house, always passing the long mirror in the hall slowly to get a look at their legs … all their sentences began, ‘You know this boy I know one time he …’” (p. 236).

The dramatic and theological success of “Temple,” however, depends on the credibility of its twelve year-old protagonist, an unnamed girl with fat cheeks and braces, and she is the least convincing character in the story. She is so immature that she giggles uncontrollably at her own inane jokes, such as the suggestion that Miss Kirby's middle-aged admirer show her two fourteen year-old cousins around, and she doesn't know where baby rabbits come from; yet she supposedly understands the spiritual essence of the body as the temple of the Holy Ghost and realizes that she is “slothful” and “eaten up also with the sin of Pride, the worst one” (p. 243). O'Connor said, “The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful” (HB, p. 516), but the protagonist of “Temple” is more of a bratty adolescent than a corrupt sinner. O'Connor wrote “A” that “‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’ all revolves around what is purity” (HB, p. 117), but the protagonist is much too slight to support such a weighty theme.

O'Connor's attempt to motivate the child's conversion and to inject profundity results in the most bizarre symbol in her fiction. The two visiting cousins return from a carnival with the story of an hermaphrodite who has told the crowd, “God made me thisaway. … This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain't disputing His way” (p. 245). This spiel has a powerful effect on the girl. She dreams about it and mentally hears it again as she takes communion at the climax of the story.

The hermaphrodite is intended to serve as an epiphany for the young girl. O'Connor said, “As near as I get to saying what purity is in this story is saying that it is an acceptance of what God wills for us, an acceptance of our individual circumstances” (HB, p. 124). But it is very difficult to apply this statement to O'Connor's protagonist. Certainly her chubby cheeks and braces aren't afflictions on the same order as the hermaphrodite's abnormality, and the girl has had no trouble accepting herself from the beginning of the story. “I'm not as old as you all,” she tells her cousins, “but I'm about a million times smarter” (p. 245).

By the story's conclusion, O'Connor has completely abandoned her earlier comic texture, and her moral sense has left her dramatic one in the dust. Both O'Connor's intention and the heavy-handed symbolism are visible in O'Connor's explanation of the climax:

remember that when the nun hugged the child, the crucifix on her belt was mashed into the side of the child's face, so that one accepted embrace was marked with the ultimate all-inclusive symbol of love, and that when the child saw the sun again, it was a red ball, like an elevated Host drenched in blood and it left a line like a red clay road in the sky. Now here the martyrdom that she had thought about in a childish way … is shown in the final way that it has to be for us all—an acceptance of the Crucifixtion [sic], Christ's and our own.

(HB, p. 124)

The climactic symbols range from the blatant (the sign of the crucifix mashed into the child's face) to the unbelievable (the implication that the child now perceives the sun as “an elevated Host drenched in blood”). The entire story plods toward the girl's salvation, and this unconvincingly executed climax marks the story's complete transformation from promising satire to ponderous theological tract. One of O'Connor's outspoken critiques of a friend's story also applies to “Temple”: “This ending is too obvious. You can suggest something obvious is going to happen but you cannot have it happen in a story. You can't clobber any reader while he is looking” (HB, p. 202).

The conclusion of “Temple” more believably expresses the spiritual perception of the author than that of her immature protagonist. In fact, the most convincing detail of the story's denouement is the information that the child, in spite of what she supposedly has realized about vile and sacred bodies, looks at the taxidriver from the back seat of the car and observes “three folds of fat in the back of his neck” and notes that “his ears were pointed almost like a pig's” (p. 248). This vignette, however, casts some final doubt on whether the young protagonist's conversion has really taken, obviously not O'Connor's intent.

Eight years after the publication of the story, O'Connor wrote “A,” “Odd about ‘The Temple of the Holy Ghost.’ Nobody notices it. It is never anthologized, never commented upon.” In spite of her astute critical eye toward her own and other people's writing, O'Connor apparently did not realize that in “Temple” her dramatic and her moral senses collide. Her final word on the story suggests that theological message dominates artistic matter: “A few nuns have mentioned it with pleasure, but nobody else besides you” (HB, p. 487).

“The Artificial Nigger” is a better story than “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” but no more successful in dramatizing conversion. Early in her career, O'Connor said, “‘The Artificial Nigger’ is my favorite and probably the best thing I'll ever write” (HB, p. 209), and Martha Foley included it in The Best American Short Stories of 1956, but the story, like “Temple,” is marred by an unconvincing transformation at the climax.

O'Connor struggled with “The Artificial Nigger,” especially its conclusion. She told Ben Griffith in 1955, “I wrote that story a good many times, having a lot of trouble with the end” (HB, p. 78). Another letter written the same year suggests that “The Artificial Nigger” began as a simple account of the adventures of two country bumpkins out of their element in the city but during the course of composition grew into something more: “I suppose ‘The Artificial Nigger’ is my favorite. I have often had the experience of finding myself not as adequate to the situation as I thought I would be, but there turned out to be a great deal more to that story than just that” (HB, p. 101).

O'Connor informed her editor, Robert Giroux, that she had sought advice on the story from Caroline Gordon Tate, a friend whose critical acumen O'Connor greatly respected: “I have conferred with Caroline about the story called ‘The Artificial Nigger,’ and am consequently rewriting it” (HB, p. 73). O'Connor later explained the exact nature of her friend's influence: “I frequently send my stories to Mrs. Tate and she is always telling me that the endings are too flat and that at the end I must gain some altitude and get a larger view. Well the end of ‘The Artificial Nigger’ was a very definite attempt to do that and in those last two paragraphs I have practically gone from the Garden of Eden to the Gates of Paradise. I am not sure it is successful” (HB, p. 78).

It is unfortunate that O'Connor raised “The Artificial Nigger” to a theological drama, for up to the ending the story works quite well as a farce. Prior to the wrenching climax, O'Connor presents the protagonist's vanity as more comic than evil. Mr. Head and Nelson, who is more a twin than a grandson, compete to see who can arise the earliest and, like typical hillbillies, are prepared to save face by ignoring the train if it passes them by. (This comic bit also implies that these two supposedly vain characters are accustomed to being slighted.) On the train, when Mr. Head reports of Nelson to a stranger, “That's his first nigger” (p. 255), the impression is of comic ignorance rather than sinful racism. The humorous tone continues as the two bumpkins reverently examine the plumbing in the train toilet and wander underfoot and insulted in the dining-car kitchen. Mr. Head is the stereotype comic innocent. As for Nelson, his “sin” is his inordinate pride in being born in Atlanta and not in the sticks.

When the two get lost in the alien city, O'Connor continues to play it for laughs. In an attempt to wean Nelson from his urban pride, his grandfather makes him stick his head into a sewer, and the motherless Nelson, to Mr. Head's disgust, swoons when a black matriarch calls him “Sugarpie” (p. 262). When Mr. Head stupidly awakens Nelson from his side walk nap by loudly banging a garbage can and the disoriented Nelson streaks off “like a wild maddened pony” (p. 264) and flattens an elderly woman carrying a bag of groceries, the two are figures in a Chaplinesque slapstick, not a divine comedy.

Only when Mr. Head, frightened by the old lady's screaming for the police, denies knowing his grandson a few pages from the end of this long story does it begin to take on religious connotations. From this point, the two characters and O'Connor's attitude toward them change drastically, and “The Artificial Nigger” shifts from a delightful comedy to a ponderous melodrama. The expedient denial of Nelson by his grandfather, whose rejections are as impulsive as his allegiances, supposedly plunges Mr. Head into a despair so deep that “Ahead of him he saw nothing but a hollow tunnel that had once been the street” (p. 265).

When Nelson snubs his grandfather in return, we are told in unintentionally mock-heroic terms that

Mr. Head … lost all hope. His face in the waning afternoon light looked ravaged and abandoned. He could feel the boy's steady hate. … He knew that now he was wandering into a black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end.

As for Nelson, his mind had frozen around his grandfather's treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final judgment.

(pp. 266-67)

It strains credulity that these two primitives, whose symbiotic relationship is based on outdoing each other, could respond to the street mishap in such profoundly tragic terms. O'Connor's attempt to “gain some altitude and get a larger view” breaks the structural back of the story.

At the climax, Mr. Head's “Oh Gawd I'm lost! Oh hep me Gawd I'm lost!” (p. 267) signifies his humbling new sense of vulnerability and sets the stage for the appearance of the artificial nigger, a symbol which merely adds to the confusion. O'Connor explains the statue's significance in some of her murkiest writing: “They stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy” (p. 269). Then O'Connor inexplicably shifts from the newly sensitized Head back to the comically callous one:

He looked at Nelson and understood that he must say something to the child to show that he was still wise. …

Mr. Head opened his lips to make a lofty statement and heard himself say, “They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”

(p. 269)

This remark is reminiscent of Mr. Head's earlier taunt to Nelson, “Yes, this is where you were born—right here with all these niggers” (p. 260). The instinctive racial slur—and the fact that Mr. Head utters it to prove to Nelson that he is still wise—constitutes odd proof that the old man has begun to find salvation through humility.

O'Connor said, “What I had in mind to suggest with the artificial nigger was the redemptive quality of the Negro's suffering for us all” (HB, p. 78), and part of the reason for the failure of this symbol may be that O'Connor wasn't totally committed to it. Her letters reveal that she was less than liberal on race, and Sally Fitzgerald, in her introduction to The Habit of Being, apologizes for what she calls this “area of sensibility” which “remained imperfectly developed” in O'Connor (p. xviii). While O'Connor probably was intellectually sincere in her statements about the Negro's redemptive suffering, her emotions may well have been in closer accord with Mr. Head's sarcastic remark. Whatever the case, Head's racial jeer rings true in the context of the story, while O'Connor's enlightened commentary on the artificial nigger as redemptive symbol does not.

O'Connor apparently did not consider Mr. Head's remark a negative indicator, for she follows it with a lengthy editorial explaining, once again, what her redeemed protagonist has learned: “Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again. … He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it” (pp. 269-70). This passage purports to take us inside the old man's mind, but it is O'Connor's perception that we get, not Mr. Head's. The author leaves her simple-minded protagonist with another sophisticated insight, again couched in the pious language O'Connor disliked and usually avoided: “He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise” (p. 270).

The protagonist's conversion experience is so overstated and represents such a departure from the primitive Mr. Head that one is tempted to speculate that it is intended to be bogus, a part of the comedy, and that O'Connor's inflated description of it is meant to suggest as much. Such is not the case, however, for in 1959 O'Connor informed John Hawkes that “Mr. Head's redemption is all laid out inside the story” (HB, p. 350). And in 1962, O'Connor angrily wrote “A” concerning an article in which Melvin J. Friedman had mentioned the story: “I thought it was about as dumb as you could get. Not only did he say nothing happened to Haze and Tarwater, but that nothing happened to Mr. Head and Nelson! … Holy mother” (HB, p. 474). Friedman had described Mr. Head's and Nelson's trip to Atlanta as spiritually unsuccessful,6 but he might more accurately have called it unconvincingly successful.

The failure of “The Artificial Nigger” as a theological dramatization is due primarily to the failure of Mr. Head to endure to the end as a believable character. O'Connor said, “Mr. Head is changed by his experience even though he remains Mr. Head” (HB, p. 275), but in one sense he doesn't change enough: his delivering a racial slur at the moment he is supposed to be experiencing a newfound humility marks him as the same rural buffoon we see earlier, and, as O'Connor once said, “you can't just posit a moral moron and expect the reader to have any interest” (HB, p. 199). In another sense, Mr. Head changes too much: the subtle theologian of the ending is too far removed from the primitive rustic of the beginning.

O'Connor once criticized a story Louise Abbott had written by informing her that the protagonist didn't “come off” because “what happens to her, what she realizes, she realizes because the author wants her to, not because it is her character to realize it” (HB, p. 224). This is precisely the problem with “The Artificial Nigger,” and one of its by products is O'Connor's doctrinaire prose at the end.

O'Connor's comic eye and theological mind are better coordinated in “Revelation.” The story, which won first prize in the 1965 O. Henry Awards, was a relatively easy one for O'Connor. She said, “the whole story just sort of happened. … It was one of those rare ones in which every gesture gave me great pleasure in the writing, from Claud pulling up his pants leg to show where the cow kicked him, right on through” (HB, p. 552). This remark stresses the comedy of “Revelation,” but another letter identifies its dual achievement: “Caroline was crazy about my story. She read it to her class and they laughed until they cried or so she reported … she understood it perfectly and thought it was probably the profoundest so far” (HB, pp. 562-63). Funny and profound—the ideal O'Connor blend.

But unlike “The Artificial Nigger,” which is funny most of the way through and profound at the end, “Revelation” interweaves the comic and the serious throughout, each reinforcing the other. It is probably O'Connor's most beautifully visualized story—especially the opening scene in the doctor's waiting room—and O'Connor does play some bits strictly for laughs, such as Claud's rolling “his trouser leg up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble-white calf” (p. 489), a picture she obviously delighted in for its own sake.

However, the waiting room scene also serves to establish the deep-seated vanity of the protagonist. Unlike Mr. Head's racism, which is the unwitting result of his ignorance and backwoods environment, Mrs. Turpin's sense of superiority, which O'Connor reveals by constantly taking us inside her protagonist's mind, has been carefully reasoned out. Not only does she consider herself better than all blacks but most whites as well. In a set piece that is both amusing and revealing, Mrs. Turpin judges the worth of the other women in the waiting room according to the kind of shoes they are wearing. This middle-class matron has footwear-ranking honed to a fine art and is capable of making such subtle distinctions as “She was not white-trash, just common” (p. 491). This kind of smug judgment is not limited to social encounters but is habitual: “Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged” (p. 491).

Tension builds steadily during the long opening scene as Mrs. Turpin engages in hypocritical small talk with a “pleasant lady,” whose “red and gray suede shoes” (p. 490) mark her as the only person there worthy of Mrs. Turpin's attention. “Oh, I couldn't do without my good colored friends,” the pleasant lady says, and Mrs. Turpin replies, “There's a heap of things worse than a nigger” (p. 495). The small talk becomes more pointed as Mrs. Turpin and her friend begin to direct clichés at the woman's scowling daughter. “You just can't beat a good disposition” (p. 490), says the pleasant lady. “It never hurt anyone to smile” (p. 499), echoes Mrs. Turpin, O'Connor foreshadows a cataclysmic event by stating, “every time Mrs. Turpin exchanged a look with the lady, she was aware that the ugly girl's peculiar eyes were still on her” (p. 494).

The girl's seething self-control breaks when Mrs. Turpin, overcome by her blessings, gives voice to what she has been thinking: “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ ‘It could have been different!’ For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. ‘Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!’ she cried aloud” (p. 499). At this, the girl slams Human Development, the book she has been reading, into Mrs. Turpin's face. This violent outburst is totally believable in light of the provocation. The girl, in striking Mrs. Turpin, is also attacking her mother, whom O'Connor has depicted as Mrs. Turpin's more refined moral double.

The girl's assault is outrageously funny. It also marks the beginning of a big change in Mrs. Turpin's life: “There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. ‘What you got to say to me?’ she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation” (p. 500). O'Connor once said, “I don't know if anybody can be converted without seeing themselves in a kind of blasting annihilating light” (HB, p. 427), and Mrs. Turpin's complacency is so total that only a direct blow could shake it. Through the girl, symbolically named Mary Grace, O'Connor had to knock Mrs. Turpin silly in order to knock her sane.

Unlike the sudden conversions of “Temple” and “The Artificial Nigger,” however, almost half of “Revelation” is devoted to charting Mrs. Turpin's reluctant progress to salvation. The second part of the story does not keep pace with its rollicking opening, but its psychological realism gives Mrs. Turpin's ultimate redemption a hard-edged credibility. When the protagonist returns home, her first impulse is, quite naturally, to resist the message of grace brought by the girl: “‘I am not,’ she said tearfully, ‘a wart hog. From hell.’ But the denial had no force” (p. 502). Unable to reject the charge, Mrs. Turpin turns to resentment: “The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath” (p. 502). Next she attempts to exorcise the girl's demonic words by confessing them to her black fieldhands:

“She said,” she began again and finished this time with a fierce rush of breath, “that I was an old wart hog from hell.”

There was an astounded silence.

“Where she at?” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice.

“Lemme see her. I'll kill her!”

“I'll kill her with you!” the other one cried.

“She b'long in the sylum,” the old woman said emphatically. “You the sweetest white lady I know.”

“She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!”

“Deed he is,” the old woman declared.

“Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself.

(p. 505)

This little scene is both funny and thematically significant. Mrs. Turpin's refusal to accept the phony image of herself as a good woman offered by the blacks is a step toward facing the truth.

Mrs. Turpin's next step is literal. She climbs the hill to the hogpen, apparently considering it the appropriate place to reason out the meaning of being called a wart hog from hell. Once there, Ruby gets right down to business: “What do you send me a message like that for?” she demands. “How am I a hog and me both?” Then she yells, “Go on, call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell” (pp. 506-07). She ends her harangue by hilariously roaring at God, “Who do you think you are?” (p. 507). In this scene, Ruby begins to grow into a sympathetic, even lovable, character. As O'Connor said, “You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hogpen” (HB, p. 577). You also got to believe.

God answers Mrs. Turpin by sending her an epiphany which is so unobtrusively presented that at first it seems to be only description: “A tiny truck, Claud's, appeared on the highway, heading rapidly out of sight. Its gears scraped thinly. It looked like a child's toy. At any moment a bigger truck might smash into it and scatter Claud's and the niggers' brains all over the road” (p. 508). The answer to Ruby's question is that God is omnipotent and that Ruby, like all mortals, is an insignificant, vulnerable creature whose life can end at any moment. Her response to this new knowledge is immediate: “Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs” (p. 508).

The story originally ended at this point, but O'Connor decided that “something else was needed” (HB, p. 549). Fortunately, what she added is not a concluding mini-sermon but a supernatural vision which is perfectly in keeping with the seriocomic tone of the story:

A visionary light settled in her eyes … a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those … like herself and Claud. … They were marching behind the others with great dignity. … They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

(p. 508)

This vision demolishes Ruby's earlier neat ranking of people, and its concluding sentence, which could have quotation marks around “virtues,” completes her education by telling her that no one deserves grace and that we receive it only because of God's mysterious mercy. The epiphany takes, and the story ends with Ruby, “her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead” (pp. 508-09), prepared to face a humbler and more demanding life.

Though at least one reader whom O'Connor respected found “Revelation” pessimistic and considered the protagonist evil (HB, p. 554), O'Connor's main worry was that the story would “be taken to be one designed to make fun of Ruby” (HB, p. 552), probably because her weaknesses are so vividly shown. But the great achievement of the protagonist's characterization is that Ruby Turpin retains her humanity to the end and does not, upon receiving grace, turn into an inspirational symbol. At the same time, O'Connor has made her conversion believable by dramatizing it in action and dialogue consistent with both Mrs. Turpin's humorous traits and her serious role in the story. “Revelation” is not only a delightful comedy but a profound dramatization of redemption as well.

The best of this genre, however, is “Parker's Back,” a story that did not come so easily as “Revelation.” O'Connor told a friend, “‘Parker's Back’ is not coming along too well. It is too funny to be as serious as it ought. I have a lot of trouble with getting the right tone” (HB, p. 427). But get the right tone she did. “Parker's Back” ranks with O'Connor's best in its humor, and it may be her most impressive theological statement.

The protagonist of this richly textured story is one of O'Connor's most intriguing creations, the plucky Obadiah Elihue Parker, a backwoods hedonist whose name foretells that he has been claimed by God. Parker's name also foreshadows the particular brand of religion he is destined for. Both Obadiah and Elihu are Old Testament figures. Obadiah, whose name means “the Lord's servant,” was a Hebrew prophet, and Elihu, consistent with the story's theme of suffering, appears in the Book of Job.

In this, her last story, O'Connor comes full circle. Parker, like Hazel Motes of Wise Blood, stumbles into the arms of God by fleeing him. When his bride-to-be coaxes his full name from him, O. E. Parker says, “If you ever call me that aloud, I'll bust your head open” (p. 517). He ranks God with other unpleasant things to be avoided: “Long views depressed Parker. You look out into space like that and you begin to feel as if someone were after you, the navy or the government or religion” (p. 516). Someone, of course, is after Parker, in spite of his being so debauched that he has “an extra sense that told him when there was a woman nearby watching him” (p. 511). O'Connor ultimately makes the conversion of such a hard case credible mainly through the use of one of the most intricate and effective symbols in her fiction.

Parker's tattoos show that the spirit of the pursuing Christ has long abided in Obadiah Elihue's heart. Commenting on the prerequisites for conversion, O'Connor said, “If you're satisfied with what you've got, you're hardly going to look for anything better” (HB, p. 159), and the tattoos simultaneously represent Parker's dissatisfaction with his life and his subliminal desire for spiritual transfiguration. O'Connor charts Parker's journey to redemption in passages which beautifully mesh the secular and the spiritual levels of meaning. The seed of Parker's quest was planted early, when at the age of fourteen he saw a tattooed man at a fair: “Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed” (p. 513). Thus began Parker's progress to the cross, though at the time he did not realize it: “it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed” (p. 513).

Though we see Parker's need as spiritual, he sees it as material. Inspired by the experience at the fair, he begins to get his own tattoos and discovers that they improve his social life: “He found out that the tattoos were attractive to the kind of girls he liked but who had never liked him before” (p. 513). But tattoos cannot fulfill Parker's true need: “A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. … As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general” (p. 514).

The same feeling of emptiness that produces the tattoos attracts Parker to the woman he marries. Parker subconsciously realizes that only suffering can bring meaning to his life, and pain is the common denominator of his colorful tattoos and drab wife. When Parker gets his first tattoo, O'Connor says, “It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing” (p. 513). Seemingly against his will, the carnal Parker is drawn to a woman who “was forever sniffing up sin” (p. 510): “Parker had no intention of taking any basket of peaches back there but the next day he found himself doing it” (p. 516). Parker finds himself marrying the woman and then remaining with her in the same driven manner: “Every morning he decided he had had enough and would not return that night; every night he returned” (p. 518).

By localizing Parker's painful attraction to this fanatical woman in her eyes, which are “sharp like the points of two icepicks” (p. 510), O'Connor introduces another symbol to bind the story's threads even tighter. From the beginning, stern eyes are associated with the Holy Spirit. At the opening of the story, when the woman attacks Parker with a broom for swearing, she is described as “a giant hawk-eyed angel wielding a hoary weapon” (p. 512). But Parker manages to ignore the message of the eyes until God shouts his mortality to him when he wrecks a tractor and nearly kills himself. From this point on, Parker is in the fold: “He only knew that there had been a great change in his life, a leap forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it” (p. 521).

Parker's first act as a changed man is to get a tattoo of God on the only decent space left vacant. Not surprisingly, the God that Parker wants on his back is not the benevolent “up-to-date” Jesus, but the Old Testament God of Wrath. When he selects a “flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes,” the tattooist prophesies, “That'll cost you plenty” (p. 522). Whatever the price, Parker seems willing to pay, for when the tattoo is completed, “He longed miserably for Sarah Ruth. Her sharp tongue and icepick eyes were the only comfort he could bring to mind” (p. 524), a passage binding tattoos and demanding eyes with pain and redemption.

One last drunken brawl over the new tattoo is required to solidify Parker's transformation. When Parker is irrevocably cast out of his old life, as “Jonah had been cast into the sea,” he sits on the ground, examines his soul, and finally accepts the fact that “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.” Then, as reward for his submission, “he observed that his dissatisfaction was gone” (p. 527).

The new Parker retains enough of his human traits to anticipate (reasonably, it would seem) that his religious-fanatic wife will be pleased by his latest tattoo. This anticipation sets up the story's marvelous seriocomic ending. When Parker returns home and for the first time calls himself by his biblical name, “he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors” (p. 528). Parker's mission seems completed, for his soul has been glorified into the ultimate tattoo he had always sought.

But when Parker enters his house, he discovers that redemption isn't that simple—or that romantic. The eyes come with the tattoo. When he proudly shows Sarah Ruth his new Christ, she calls him an idolator and begins to thrash him with a broom. Parker finally learns the immolating nature of the demands of the all-seeing eyes on his back as he and Christ are crucified together: “He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ” (p. 529). As Sarah Ruth's eyes harden even more into self-righteous hate, Parker's soften into tears, and O'Connor leaves the man “who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby” (p. 530).

O'Connor has made Parker's transformation from wilful sensualist to humble martyr convincing by her brilliant symbolic use of Parker's tattoos and the everpresent stern eyes. The ironic twist at the end and the fact that Parker, even after he sees the light, never ceases to be his comically driven self save the story from being sentimental or preachy. “Parker's Back” is both touchingly human and theologically profound in its testimony to the terrible price of grace.

O'Connor finished “Parker's Back” at a time when she was often in pain and almost certainly knew she was finally losing her long battle with lupus. The intense suffering of her last weeks may have had some influence on the stern message of “Parker's Back,” but to stress O'Connor's weakened physical condition is to underestimate her mental and spiritual strength, clearly visible in the letters she wrote during this time. To emphasize the influence of O'Connor's illness is also to ignore the fact that the theological point of “Parker's Back” was by no means new for her. As early as 1955, she called her stories “hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism” (HB, p. 90); and in 1956 she said, “I can understand the feeling of pain on going to Communion and it seems a more reliable feeling than joy” (HB, p. 164). Though O'Connor's long-held belief that spiritual commitment has its price, else it would be worthless, may have been deepened by her own suffering, a surer measure of O'Connor's faith is that pain not only failed to blunt her wonderful sense of humor but seems to have sharpened it. For all her theological profundity, the greatest affirmation of O'Connor's life and work may be her obvious delight in the human comedy.

The synthesis of comic genius and religious devotion found in Flannery O'Connor's writing is rare, and in her best stories O'Connor beautifully blends her way of seeing with the spiritual significance of what she saw. Although she realized that “it's almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction” (HB, p. 144), she took on the theme in almost all her stories. In four of them, she subjected herself not only to the challenge of making grace believable but to depicting its immediate effect on her protagonists.

One of these, “Revelation,” is among O'Connor's finest, and “Parker's Back” may be her best. These two stories, both the products of O'Connor's mature art, belie the critical dictum that she grew little as a writer over the course of her abbreviated career. Discounting “Judgement Day,” a revision of one of her M. F. A. pieces, “Revelation” and “Parker's Back” are the last stories O'Connor wrote. In comparison, her earlier attempts to depict conversion—“A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” published in 1954, and “The Artificial Nigger,” published in 1955—are inferior indeed.

In 1960, O'Connor told John Hawkes that “the basis of the way I see is comic regardless of what I do with it” (HB, p. 400), and the relative failure of “Temple” and “The Artificial Nigger” may be laid to O'Connor's abandonment of her instinctively comic vision as the theology of these stories rose to the surface. By the time of “Revelation” and “Parker's Back,” however, O'Connor had gained the confidence to unblinkingly train her comic-ironic eye on humanity, even in the experience of grace. In these stories, who O'Connor was and what she believed truly come together.


  1. Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 275. All further references to this work appear in the text as HB.

  2. These seven stories are, in order of publication, “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Displaced Person,” “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The protagonists of the last five are all intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals, a type O'Connor had little hope for.

  3. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1957), p. 147.

  4. “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” Mystery and Manners, p. 31.

  5. Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), p. 239. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  6. The Added Dimension (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1966), p. 12. The article first appeared in The English Journal in 1962.

Further Reading

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Burke, William. “Fetishism in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 22 (1993-94): 45-52.

Examines the fetishistic characters in O'Connor's fiction.

Cash, Jean W. “O'Connor on ‘Revelation’: The Story of a Story.” English Language Notes 24, no. 3 (March 1987): 61-7.

Traces the origins and writing of O'Connor's “Revelation.”

Crocker, Michael W., and Robert C. Evans. “Faulkner's ‘Barn Burning’ and O'Connor's ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’.” CLA Journal 36, no. 4 (June 1993): 371-83.

Finds parallels between “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and William Faulkner's “The Barn Burning.”

Farley, Blanche. “Echoes of Poe, In Sawmill and Loft.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin14 (1985): 14-23.

Notes similarities in the humor of O'Connor and Edgar Allan Poe.

Gray, Jeffrey. “‘It's Not Natural’: Freud's ‘Uncanny’ and O'Connor's Wise Blood.Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 2 (fall 1996): 56-68.

Provides a Freudian reading of O'Connor's Wise Blood.

Haddox, Thomas F. “Contextualizing Flannery O'Connor: Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, and the Catholic Turn in Southern Literature.” Southern Quarterly 38, no. 1 (fall 1999): 173-90.

Discusses O'Connor as a Catholic writer in light of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon's conception of Southern literature.

Hannon, Jane. “The Wide World Her Parish: O'Connor's All-Embracing Vision of Church.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 24 (1995-96): 1-21.

Elucidates O'Connor's Catholic perspective.

Hardy, Donald E., and Chris Newton. “Why is She So Negative? Negation and Knowledge in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find.Southwest Journal of Linguistics 17, no. 2 (December 1998): 61-79.

Examines the analytic negation in O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

Johnson, Rob. “‘The Topical Is Poison’: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of Social Reality in ‘The Partridge Festival’ and ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 21 (1992): 1-24.

Considers O'Connor's mix of “the topical and the timeless” in her “The Partridge Festival” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

Ludwin, Deanna. “O'Connor's Inferno: Return to the Dark Wood.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 17 (1988): 11-39.

Investigates the relationship between “The Artificial Nigger” and Dante's The Divine Comedy.

May, John R. “The Methodological Limits of Flannery O'Connor's Critics.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 15 (1986): 16-28.

Surveys the critical reaction to the relationship between art and religion in O'Connor's work.

Mayer, David. “‘Like Getting Ticks Off a Dog’: Flannery O'Connor's ‘As if’.” Christianity and Literature 33, no. 4 (summer 1984): 17-34.

Discusses O'Connor's use of the as-if construction in her fiction.

Meek, Kristen. “Flannery O'Connor's ‘Greenleaf’ and the Holy Hunt of the Unicorn.” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 19 (1990): 30-7.

Notes the mythological elements in O'Connor's “Greenleaf.”

Mellard, James M. “Flannery O'Connor's Others: Freud, Lacan, and the Unconscious.” American Literature 61, no. 4 (December 1989): 625-43.

Provides a Lacanian and Freudian perspective on O'Connor's fiction.

O'Gorman, Farrell. “The Angelic Artist in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy.” Renascence 43, no. 1 (fall 2000): 61-79.

Examines O'Connor's and Percy's links to the post-WWII Catholic intellectual milieu.

Redmon, Anne. “Figures for Our Displacement: An Informal Discussion of the Works of Flannery O'Connor.” In The Origins and Originality of American Culture, by Tibor Frank, pp. 219-29. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1984.

Discusses O'Connor as a Southern writer.

Roos, John. “Flannery O'Connor and the Limits of Justice.” In Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics, edited by Joseph M. Knippenberg and Peter Augustine Lawler, pp. 143-67. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

Explores the relationship between justice and politics in O'Connor's fiction.

Shaw, Mary Neff. “Responses to God's Grace: Varying Degrees of Doubt in Flannery O'Connor's Character Types.” CLA Journal 44, no. 4 (June 2001): 471-79.

Offers Michael Polanyi's perspective “to illuminate the veracity of O'Connor's Christian appeal by demonstrating how selected character types in O'Connor's fiction exemplify categories of doubt which Polanyi identifies as humankind's various responses to God's grace.”

Spivey, Ted R. “The Complex Gifts of Flannery O'Connor.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 14 (May 1985): 49-58.

Surveys the defining characteristics of O'Connor's fiction.

Tuttle, Jon. “Glimpses of ‘A Good Man’ in Capote's In Cold Blood.ANQ 1, no. 4 (October 1988): 144-46.

Detects the influence of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

Wray, Virginia F. “‘An Afternoon in the Woods': Flannery O'Connor's Discovery of Theme.’” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 20 (1991): 45-53.

Traces the origins and revisions of O'Connor's “An Afternoon in the Woods.”

Additional coverage of O'Connor's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, 21, 66, 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 12; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 10; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 1, 23; Twayne's United States Authors; and World Literature Criticism.

John F. Desmond (essay date summer-fall 1983)

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SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Flannery O'Connor and the History behind the History.” Modern Age 27, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1983): 290-96.

[In the following essay, Desmond examines the role of historicism and the aesthetic of memory in O'Connor's work.]

The question of Flannery O'Connor's place in the tradition of modern Southern letters remains a vexing one for critics. Both the number and the wide ideological range of critical assessments that have appeared since her death testify to the anomalous position she continues to occupy as a Southern Catholic writer. Some may wish to argue that her rare blend of Christian orthodoxy, Southern regionalism, and comic literary genius makes her writing so unique as to defy categorization. But to argue so merely begs the question of her relationship to modern Southern literature, and the larger, more important question of her place among twentieth-century writers. The issue cannot be ignored because it is not simply a matter of establishing a line of literary and intellectual influences or correspondences within a tradition. Of a more crucial nature, attempts to determine O'Connor's place in a modern tradition raise questions about the fundamental value of her work as a whole.

Among some readers and critics of O'Connor's fiction there is a belief that her work simply does not adequately represent the complexities of the modern consciousness. This belief is sometimes revealed popularly in the form of a kind of critical dualism which accepts and admires O'Connor's comic talent as a literary artist in spite, as it were, of the demanding religious vision embodied in her work. Such a critical dualism implicitly suggests a split within O'Connor herself—fiction writer on the one hand and believer on the other—and thus raises the whole complex issue of the relationship between her thought and her art. At other times the religious orthodoxy in her stories is “accepted” as orthodoxy, but often with the deeply felt reservation that her presentation of the spiritual consciousness is too simplistic and antiquated to do full justice to the modern temper.

Such a view is that expressed by Lewis P. Simpson in his study of the American literary consciousness, The Brazen Face of History. Simpson argues that like their contemporaries in England and Europe, the major twentieth-century Southern writers—Faulkner, Warren, Welty, and others—were confronted with the modern crisis of the “historicism of consciousness,” that is, an intellectual crisis which creates a consciousness bent on “looking upon everything—man, nature, place, time, and God—as subject to the dominion of history … history as an ineluctable process or series of processes, which may be regarded as teleological or blankly purposeless.”1 This crisis had its roots in the breakup of the medieval order in the West and the rise of modernity beginning in the Renaissance, and it involved the “transformation of an assumed metaphysical and moral order into the dehumanized present-day society of history and science” (p. 240).

In reaction to this compulsion toward historicism, which threatens the very bases of order and identity within the mind, the great Southern writers developed an “aesthetic of memory,” according to Simpson. Writers such as Faulkner, Warren, and Welty came to look upon “remembering as an art of the Psychic—the spiritual—survival,” and their aesthetic of memory came into being as a conscious literary mode when the “culture of kinship and custom, of tradition and myth, began to give way altogether to the culture of rationality. … In this situation, memory became, not a spiritual heritage, but a ‘life's work’.” Thus for Simpson the great Southern writers discovered what he sees as the “omnipresent subject of modern letters: man's idea of himself as a creature of his own conception of history, and his resistance to this idea” (p. 238).

But such is not the case with Flannery O'Connor, Simpson argues. She rejected the aesthetic of memory because she saw the South's history as a microcosm of larger universal history, one which the Southern writer can perceive because his vision is essentially prophetic, “a vision of Moses' face as he pulverized our idols.” For O'Connor the Southern writer gifted with this prophetic vision is, to use Simpson's phrase, “a participant … in the transcendent mystery of the history behind the history,” and his problem as an artist is to discover in his work that “nexus of time, place, and eternity” which is his true location. But Simpson believes that by rejecting the aesthetic of memory in favor of a “mode of revelation” as a fictional aesthetic, O'Connor effectively removed herself both from the mainstream of the Southern literary imagination and from the modern mind's struggle with the central issue of the historicism of consciousness.

Ascribing to the southern writer a transcendent religiosity of consciousness, she parodies the quest to resist the historicist compulsion. An actor in the drama of existence, lacking the capacity for detached observation and suspension of judgment, she fails to realize that her concept of a simultaneous descent into the self and into the South is a way of evading the historicism of consciousness; that the problem of locating the transcendent juncture of time, place, and eternity is ironically involved with the problem of the modern self's tendency to enclose history in the self. Having no empathy with the self that internalizes history as memory so that it may survive history and its catastrophes, she oversimplifies the modern situation of the self; her stories employ a series of characters who lack the sophistication to grapple inwardly with the subtleties of the self as a creature of modern history. She lacks, perhaps refuses, an intimacy with history. Blessed by an overpowering gift of faith, she lets the Faulkner company, the survivors of history, go its way. Her vision is directed toward timeless order and the ultimate beatitude of the soul. Prophesying the irresistibility of God's grace in the life of the individual, her stories follow a compelling aesthetic of revelation. The result is that, in spite of their detailed portrayal of the manners of her region, they divest it of a tension toward historical reality

(pp. 247-8).

Probably no one has put the case for O'Connor's limitations as forcefully as Simpson has in this statement. But one may well ask whether the central assumption behind his argument—the historicism of consciousness—can be regarded as so definitive of the modern situation as to be totally inclusive. Or is such a thesis too rigid a formulation to explain the complex reality of the twentieth-century historical-literary situation? does the problem of the historicism of consciousness necessarily mean that the “culture of kinship and custom, of tradition and myth, began to give way altogether to the culture of rationality …”?

On the contrary, it is possible to find many examples of vital belief in a traditionalist moral and metaphysical order in the modern sensibility, and if these do exist, they are an appropriate subject for representation in fiction, as indeed O'Connor has done in characters such as Mrs. Greenleaf, Father Finn in “The Enduring Chill,” old Mason Tarwater, and the priest and the Guizacs in “The Displaced Person.” One may wish to argue that these are exceptions which do not represent the general condition—that being the modern mind's struggle against the forces of historicism. But such a view only leads to the more fundamental question: Whether or not the modern compulsion toward historicism precludes any access whatsoever to a transcendent order of reality, that divine order which is revealed in the “history behind the history”? This is the question raised by Walker Percy in his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” when he asks whether the “tempestuous restructuring” of modern consciousness has made it temporarily impossible for modern man to hear the Good News. O'Connor's response to this question, and more importantly her fictional method in dealing with it, show clearly the reasons behind her rejection of the aesthetic of memory.

For O'Connor, because the act of memory itself is a mode of consciousness, a process of human intellectuality, as such it is incapable of transcending the historicist compulsion. The fallibility of memory, both in the sense of lapses from truth and in terms of memory's tendency toward selectivity and exaggeration, is made clear in “A Late Encounter With the Enemy.” George Poker Sash has been “recreated” as General Tennessee Flintrock Sash through his own and others' impulse to romanticize history. This impulse constitutes a denial of true history and of Sash's real situation in both past and present. Against this O'Connor affirms a truer historical sense in the words of the commencement speaker in the story: “If we forget our past … we won't remember our future and it will be as well for we won't have one.” But even this more accurate memory of history, valuable as it is, is insufficient for man. General Sash struggles to deny acknowledging his true past, which has been reawakened by the speaker's words, and he dies trying to escape death, the “black procession” that has haunted all his days. While his effort to escape death is futile, his struggle against it and his whole tendency to romanticize his history represent an attempt at transcendence, albeit in a mock, distorted form. That it is a mock and sentimental attempt at transcendence of course destroys its validity, yet it does implicitly acknowledge the need for transcendence, beyond the limits of human memory.

But to regard the historicism of consciousness as the modern problem is to assume that consciousness be identified with the whole of reality, a view that O'Connor categorically rejected. In her essays, letters, and fiction, she constantly condemned those for whom reality began and ended with the borders of their skulls. Again and again the false god of a presumed self-sufficient intellectualism is attacked: the reductive rationalism of Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away and Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First” and Hulga Hopewell in “Good Country People”; the intellectual pride of Asbury Fox in “The Enduring Chill” and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; and the mental rigidity of Haze Motes in Wise Blood and Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger,” whose attempts to limit reality to the dimensions of their own minds are comically confounded at every turn. In every case, O'Connor shatters the icon of solipsistic consciousness and forces these protagonists to encounter that larger reality governed by mystery. For her, the life of consciousness, including memory, was too limited both as a subject for fiction and as an artistic stance, too narrow to encompass the full reality of man's true situation in history. Her view is akin to that expressed by Mircea Eliade in Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism:

The terms “history” and “historic” can occasion much confusion; they indicate, on the one hand, all that is concrete and authentic in a given human existence, as opposed to the inauthentic existence constituted by evasions and automatisms of every kind. On the other hand, in the various historicist and existentialist currents of thought, “history” and “historic” seem to imply that human existence is authentic only insofar as it is reduced to the awakened consciousness of its historic moment. It is to the latter, the “totalitarian” meaning of history that I am referring when I take issue against “historicisms.” It seems to me, indeed, that the authenticity of an existence cannot be limited to the consciousness of its own historicity; one cannot regard as “evasive” or “inauthentic,” the fundamental experiences of love, anxiety, joy, melancholy, etc. Each of these makes use of a temporal rhythm proper to itself, and all combine to constitute what might be called the integral man, who neither denies himself to his historic moment, nor consents to be identified with it.2

But the deeper question underlying the notion of the internalization of history in consciousness remains. That concerns O'Connor's attempt to evoke the history behind the history—the transcendent order of reality which encompasses and gives meaning to history. From her writings it is evident that she was well aware of the problem of the historicism of consciousness, the process of making history immanent within the self, the rationalistic imperative that so saturates contemporary existence as to make awareness of the transcendent, immutable reality extremely difficult.

For the last few centuries we have lived in a world which has been increasingly convinced that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, that there is no ultimate divine source. … For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man. Many modern novelists have been more concerned with the processes of consciousness than with the objective world outside the mind. In twentieth-century fiction it increasingly happens that a meaningless, absurd world impinges upon the sacred consciousness of author or character; author and character seldom now go out to explore and penetrate a world in which the sacred is reflected.3

Awareness of the transcendent reality may indeed have become difficult, but not impossible, for that would be antithetical to O'Connor's Christian conception of history; her theology would reject this complete “closure” of man from the divine. So her problem as a writer was how to break through the condition of closure which has been created by the very force of the historicism of consciousness, the modern tendency to identify self, mind, and all reality. That she believed the transcendent metaphysical and moral order could not be recovered by memory is apparent from her fiction. In addition to “A Late Encounter With The Enemy,” there is the fact that frequently in her stories we meet putative Christians—Mrs. Hitchcock in Wise Blood, Mrs. May in “Greenleaf,” the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Mrs. Cope in “A Circle in the Fire,” and at times old Mason Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away—who attempt to “appropriate” Christianity through memory, internalizing it and identifying it with the self and with history. O'Connor's devastating description of Mrs. May typifies this kind of mind: “She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” But such spiritual decadence won't do for O'Connor; she attacks this rationalizing process by pulverizing the idol they have made of Christianity in attempting to reduce its mystery to a mode of consciousness. And pulverizing the idol of consciousness in order to reveal the history behind the history meant adopting violence as a fictional strategy, and a means of both revealing and speaking to what Eliade calls the “integral man,” the whole person who is within the historic moment but not completely identified with it.

I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. 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.4

Consequently, O'Connor's fictional stance was not based on the dynamic of memory and history of other modern writers, but rather on the dynamic of history (including memory) and eschatology.

Because for O'Connor the roots of man's being are anagogical, mind is not the whole self. Therefore, the violent action in many of her stories is necessarily anterior to the kind of complex consciousness exemplified by, say, Quentin Compson in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Why? Because so many of her characters are already imbued with the historicist disease, having internalized history within the mind and identified it totally with the self. One need only look at the state of mind represented in Rayber, Hulga Hopewell, Asbury Fox, Mrs. McIntyre, the Misfit, and Mr. Head to see the condition clearly. It is a condition perhaps best dramatized in Haze Motes' gospel of the Church Without Christ when he proclaims that “Nothing outside you can give you any place. … In yourself right now is all the place you've got.” This condition constituted such a reductive, closed view of reality that O'Connor felt compelled to use violence—particularly the violent intrusions of grace offered—as a means of reestablishing in the mind that larger, complex vision of reality. The emphasis on “mind” here is crucial, because the violence in her stories is only incidentally physical; in fact, it is directed precisely against the internalizing, historicizing mind. Its real aim is to produce a new level of consciousness in the character, a complex and subtle awareness in which the character is forced to see the whole self in relation to history and in relation to the transcendent order from which his existence in history derives its ultimate meaning. Sometimes the new awareness comes only at the moment of death, as in the case of the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or Mrs. Shortley in “The Displaced Person.” At other times it breaks forth in the form of a startling hierophany, as for Ruby Turpin in “Revelation,” Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger,” or for young Tarwater in his vision of his resurrected great-uncle Mason eating the fishes and loaves near the end of The Violent Bear It Away. Rather than evading history and the problem of historicism. O'Connor recast it within a larger framework, at the same time implicitly revealing the very limitations of mind by itself to transcend the historicist compulsion.

To envision the kind of complex consciousness created by this violent action, imagine the state of Hulga Hopewell's mind after her encounter with Manley Pointer, or Asbury Fox's after the descent of the icy Paraclete, or Julian's after the death of his mother. These characters will continue to live in the world—in history—with their new self-awareness, and it is difficult to imagine them as intellectually less sophisticated than a Quentin Compson. For in spite of his great subtlety of mind and eloquence, Quentin Compson is in the grip of a fateful determinism leading to suicide. It is a determinism that, by reducing the reality of transcendent order to an idea (or memory) within the mind, thereby simplifies the issue by eliminating creative choice, since Quentin is powerless to act in the light of a transcendent reality. But O'Connor's protagonists are not powerless to act, because the vital dimension which is established by the violence in her stories is the power of freedom, that terrifying freedom which is at the core of the tension between history and eschatology—the freedom to accept or reject divine grace which has absolute consequences.

The New Testament notion of the tension between history and eschatology is important to recall here for two reasons: one, because it is so central to the Christian conception of history, and antithetical to the theme of the historicism of consciousness as a completely adequate interpretation of history; and two, because it so accurately describes the tension between history and eschatology created in O'Connor's work, tension founded on the Scriptural thesis.

The full meaning of the Scriptural concept of eschatology continues to be debated, but several of its essential features can be elucidated. As the theologian John L. McKenzie has pointed out, the basic definition of eschatology involves “the belief that history issues in a divine act which terminates history and inaugurates a new age, a new dimension of reality.”5 The concept of eschatology is a Biblical answer to the problem of dualism, particularly the dualism inherent in the conflict between history as process and the idea of a transcendent, absolute spiritual order. The aesthetic of memory is another response to that dualism, but one that is finally incapable of resolving that dualism because its source, especially since Descartes, is too exclusively within the mind, too conditioned by historical process.

The complicating factor in the notion of eschatology is, of course, the Incarnation, Christ's entry into history. With this event human destiny achieves its fully eschatological and historical character. On the one hand, Christ is an eschatological figure whose coming inaugurates a new age—the Reign of God. As Father McKenzie puts it, “the New Testament speaks with conviction of the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ; and the Church has always understood that there cannot be another gospel. He begins the last age …” (p. 81). On the other hand, this tendency toward the fulfillment of human destiny cannot be conceived as separate from the function and goal of human destiny in the world—in history. In spite of the paradox, “both characters must be retained,” and “when this is understood, one feels that the tension between history and eschatology has become more acute” (p. 81). This tension derives from the Biblical conception of history, which “sees the present both as recapitulating the entire past and as implicitly containing the entire future” (p. 84). Eliade states the same paradox as follows:

And yet it must not be lost sight of, that Christianity entered History in order to abolish it: the greatest hope of the Christian is the second coming of Christ, which is to put an end to all History. From a certain point of view, for every Christian individually, this end, and the eternity to follow it—the paradise regained—may be attained from this moment. The time to come announced by Christ is already accessible, and for him who has regained it, history ceases to be. The transformation of Time into Eternity began with the first believers.6

In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor dramatizes this tension in the fact that while young Tarwater receives the transcendent vision of his great-uncle resurrected in glory, he still must follow out his earthly vocation, to enter the “dark city” and “warn the children of God of the terrible speed of God's mercy.”

What is particularly crucial in the eschatological thesis, and indeed in the whole Christian conception of the redemption of history, is that fulfillment is not seen in individualistic terms. Rather, fulfillment is viewed in terms of an ideal of unity, mankind's corporate destiny (individual man as a member of one mystical body), a view which runs counter to the predicament of the solitary self-consciousness that derives in the historicist process. This Christian conception of history and eschatology is the traditional orthodoxy O'Connor believed in, yet she saw everywhere resistance to this corporate destiny, particularly in the form of those who retreat into the world of solitary mind, attempting to avoid the corporate process of history by self-reliance on their own monolithic visions of reality. Consequently, she attacked this situation of closure, with its tendency to internalize history within the self, by violence, in order to create the possibility of a new mind capable of perceiving man's true historical situation. Whether or not her characters accept this larger vision is another question. She gave them, and her readers, the freedom to see it, to experience in their minds the complex dynamic between eschatology and history, and to live as creators of history and not simply as its victims. That it took violence to make possible this larger vision may seem unfortunate, but, like Walker Percy, O'Connor well understood that it was too late in the day for the mode of remembrance as a viable fictional stance. Moreover, she understood that many things are accomplished by violence, among them the kingdom of heaven which the violent bear away.


  1. Lewis P. Simpson, The Brazen Face of History (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), p. 241. (Future references to this work are noted by page reference in the text.)

  2. Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), pp. 171-72. (Future references to this work are noted by page reference in the text.)

  3. Flannery O'Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” in Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961), pp. 157-58.

  4. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 112.

  5. John L. McKenzie, The Power and the Wisdom (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1972), p. 74 and passim. (Future references to this work are cited by page reference in the text.) Throughout this discussion of eschatology I am greatly indebted to Father McKenzie's analysis.

  6. Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 172.

M. A. Klug (essay date fall 1983)

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SOURCE: Klug, M. A. “Flannery O'Connor and the Manichean Spirit of Modernism.” Southern Humanities Review 17, no. 4 (fall 1983): 303-14.

[In the following essay, Klug maintains that O'Connor's negative attitude towards modernism and the modern writer “sets her at odds with the whole tradition of American fiction in this century and with the type of spiritual hero which that tradition has produced.”]

Flannery O'Connor made no secret of her contempt for the modern age. Her antagonism to it goes far beyond the artist's conventional scorn of science, technology, middle-class values, “the smell of steaks in passage-ways.” She attacks the central assumptions of literary modernism as vigorously as those of our social and economic life and for the same reason. As O'Connor sees it, the modern consciousness in all its manifestations is corrupted by the Manichean predisposition “to separate spirit and matter.”1 As her letters and occasional prose clearly indicate, she blames this compulsion to separate spiritual truth from concrete reality for the two opposing kinds of excess that disfigure modern fiction. On the one hand, it leads to a terminal romanticism which disregards the material world in pursuit of abstraction. On the other hand, it encourages a terminal realism or naturalism which ignores the possibility of any spiritual meaning and sinks in an accumulation of concrete detail.

One measure of O'Connor's distrust of the modern consciousness is her constant fear of being misunderstood by her audience. She sees even the typical Catholic reader to be “more of a Manichean than the Church permits.”2 As a result, Catholic readers come to fiction with the same false expectations as secular readers do. At one extreme, modern readers look for uplift. Having no respect for the fabric of material life that sustains fiction, they search out some kind of pure meaning that can be refined from it and in the process turn it into a “problem to be solved, something which you evaporate to get Instant Enlightenment.”3 At the other extreme, they are blind or indifferent to any deeper meaning that fiction might express and insist that it give them a “realism of fact,” which is faithful “to the way things look and happen in normal life.”4 Surrounded by an audience infected with the modern virus of separating spiritual and material reality, O'Connor writes for that unified mind “willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”5

But if O'Connor is often irritated with the modern reader, she has a more substantial conflict with her fellow writers. This is potentially a two-front war, but O'Connor declares “strict” naturalism a “dead end in fiction”6 and concentrates her assault on the perverse romanticism of the modern novel. She begins by condemning the romantic idealization of the modern writer as a sensitive loner. The myth of the lonely writer is “pernicious and untruthful.”7 It makes a virtue of alienation, converting what “was once a diagnosis” into an ideal that dominates “much of the fiction of our time.”8 For O'Connor, the artist's assumption of superiority to ordinary people and his or her willful cultivation of alienation are symptoms of the Manichean urge to escape from material creation in order to take up residence in the purely spiritual realm of one's own mind.9 Once secure from the intrusion of finite things, romantic artists can undertake the true work of forging their own souls, creating their own immortality through their vision or their work. In opposing this notion that artists achieve or fabricate their own essential selves, O'Connor takes her stand against one of the basic postulates of the modern American writer. It sets her at odds with the whole tradition of American fiction in this century and with the type of spiritual hero which that tradition has produced.

The typical spiritual heroes in our fiction begin by rejecting the soul as an eternal self that is given to all. The soul must be achieved or discovered in some faculty of the personality—usually the imagination, the intellect, or the will—that sets the hero apart from common folk. A familiar version of this modern quest for the essential self might be called the aesthetic heresy. The soul is equated with aspiration, with the urge to self-perfection that realizes itself in immortal creation or some other transcendent experience. The prototype of the spiritual hero becomes a kind of artist whatever the hero's occupation might be. The hero is a romantic artist of the self, furiously laboring to give birth to his or her own perfected being through the achievement of a personal destiny. We find this author of one's own self emerging in those heroes of the will and “self made” persons who show up in the novels of the early naturalists. In Dreiser's Carrie Meeber and Eugene Witla and in Cather's Thea Kronborg, we see the full birth of the type as it has passed into contemporary fiction and appears, often crippled with irony, in the works of such writers as Bellow, Ellison, Plath, Barth, and Pynchon.

In refusing the inherent soul in favor of one that must be achieved, the spiritual hero of modern fiction faces mortal consequences that are familiar to every reader, since they supply many of the motifs of the literature of alienation. They are also precisely those consequences that O'Connor laments as the effect of the Manichean compulsion to try to “approach the infinite … without any mediation of matter”10 and which in turn she examines in the central characters of her own novels. The typical spiritual heroes of our fiction usually forsake their homes early in their careers. They have to be free to begin making themselves, but on a deeper level their rejection of home is an unconscious denial of that familiar world in which all persons are endowed with a soul and share a common spiritual inheritance and kinship. This act of denial leads to an irreconcilable conflict between such heroes and their environments. Ordinary people are reduced to an inert mass, threatening to absorb the unique being of the hero. Carrie Meeber's terror of the ordinary fate, embodied in the rank of anonymous shopgirls, has infected almost every subsequent hero of American fiction who has set out to find his or her destiny. In the most extreme cases, the hero is caught in a landscape of death and beset by vampires who thirst after the hero's being. Beneath this estrangement is the total failure of spiritual understanding. Heroes of modern fiction cannot locate their reflections in the eyes of ordinary humanity that surround them. The symptoms of the hero's loss of spiritual vision show up all across our fiction—in the frozen objectivity of the early realists and naturalists, in the paranoid fear of being watched which haunts so many of the central characters of recent fiction, and again in the constant preoccupation with voyeurism and the theme of blindness which shows up in the work of such writers as Bellow, Hawkes, Ellison, Plath, Malamud, Percy, and James Dickey. It is small wonder that modern heroes, surrounded by a hostile environment that threatens their very souls, characteristically retreat or try to retreat into a safe place in the hopes of preserving their spiritual beings.

Most readers are struck by the “primitive” eccentricity of the central characters of O'Connor's two novels. But for all their backwoods peculiarity, Hazel Motes and young Tarwater are full of “the poison of the modern world.”11 They are possessed by the same Manichean predisposition as the recurrent spiritual hero of our fiction. Both of them begin as parodies of the modern hero, undertaking the same quest and confronting the same irreconcilable conflict as that line of self seekers following after Carrie Meeber. Each denies the inherent soul which binds him to God and creation in order to fashion his own being and his own salvation. As a result, each suffers that loss of home, or “essential displacement,” that O'Connor, along with most other recent novelists, sees as the fundamental condition of the modern hero. Having denied God's presence within, they cannot bear to see him in the material world or in the eyes of their fellow men, and they wander blindly among dead things and dead neighbors. To escape the weight of the finite, each withdraws in the hope of locating a sanctuary where he can achieve his own spiritual salvation.

Hazel Motes wants desperately to be an infidel, but he can never really lose his belief. He has to betray it. He turns his face from the “wild ragged figure” of Christ,12 so that he can be free to become himself. To declare his independence, he must first deny his own given soul, “get rid of it once and for all” (p. 17). Finally he must free himself from the inherited burden of sin if he is ever to be totally his own. He continually has to insist that he is clean, but that he “wouldn't be if Christ existed” (p. 53). Haze knows that if he admits sin he will never be free of the need for redemption, will forever be bound to Christ along with the rest of fallen mankind.

The price of being clean is isolation.13 When Haze first rejects Christ, he believes that he can return to the familiar world of Eastrod, Tennessee. He assures himself that his misery is just a longing for home. But his denial seals his displacement. He finds Eastrod deserted and heads for the nearest city, since he “might as well go one place as another” (p. 11). In Taulkinham, Haze is almost totally alone. He would like to immerse himself in the world of the flesh to prove his disregard for the spirit, but it repels him. His sexual transgressions are acts of ritual defiance that he performs in spite of his physical disgust with the body. When anyone reaches towards Haze, his instinctive reaction is “keep your hands off me.” Mrs. Watts, Sabbath Hawkes, and Mrs. Flood all promise him a “place where he can be” in this world, but Haze spurns their offers. He insists that without Christ there can be no home for us except within ourselves. Each man is free or doomed to inhabit his own being: “In yourself right now is all the place you've got” (p. 90).

Throughout the novel Haze tries to make his home within his own self, safe from Christ and from a world in which he has lost his place. He continually retreats into dark, narrow spaces where he can be alone.14 Early in the novel he runs to his pullman berth to escape the “heavy and pink” flesh of Mrs. Wally B. Hitchcock. He draws the curtains and settles into his place, which resembles a partially closed coffin. In the darkness, Haze recalls how his closest kin one by one had lain powerless as the lids closed upon their death boxes. As the scene draws to an end, he imagines or dreams that the lid is closing upon his own coffin and calls out Christ's name in something between a curse and an appeal. This brief scene is part of a symbolic pattern which reveals Haze's psychological and spiritual conflict. In a Manichean flight, he runs from the world of the flesh into his own consciousness. Once he has secured himself, he is haunted by guilt of his own betrayal of his faith and by the death of kinship which follows. In this most vulnerable moment, he senses that his isolation is not the way to salvation but a living death. The clearest example of this pattern shows up in Haze's attempts to withdraw into the safe confines of his “rat-coloured” car, which O'Connor describes as “his pulpit and his coffin as well as something he thinks of as a means of escape. … The car is a kind of death-in-life symbol.”15 Haze buys the car “mostly to be a house” or a “place to be” (p. 43). It is his justification, the outward sign that he has won his own salvation. Only in the unguarded moment, when he cannot attempt to justify his own being, does he come close to the truth. After he locks the car and draws its curtains against the worldly corruption of Hoover Shoats, he again slides into a nightmare vision of his own isolation. He dreams that he is buried alive in his Essex, separated by a layer of glass from the eyes that peer in “through the back oval window at his situation” (p. 88). The onlookers are as powerless to touch Haze as he is to raise himself up. When he awakens, he shakes off the nightmare and its message.

Much of Haze's life goes into avoiding messages. He must put out his spiritual eyes in order to sustain his denial of God.16 In this act of self-mutilation, he forfeits his inherent capacity to see creation, to penetrate the concrete world and “find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”17 His spiritual blindness is exactly that which O'Connor ascribes to Manicheans, who refuse to find this world a fit abode for the spirit and turn inward to their own sacred consciousness. From the beginning of the novel, Haze is defined in terms of his eyes, which are usually averted or fixed in a rigid stare. As Sabbath Hawkes says, “they don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep on looking” (p. 62). Although he insists that he has eyes in his head and assures himself that he will not need his mother's glasses, unless “his vision should ever become dim” (p. 18), Haze knows that he is missing something and senses that it lies behind the black glasses that Asa Hawkes wears over his scarred eyes. But his vision cannot be restored until his own eyes are burned clean.

By the time that O'Connor had come to write The Violent Bear It Away, her antagonism towards the modern spirit had, if anything, deepened. As a result, Young Tarwater's rebellion against God is even more clearly romantic and Manichean in character than that of Hazel Motes. From the start, Tarwater resents that his freedom has “to be connected with Christ” (p. 315), for like Haze, he sees Christ as a threat to his own personal destiny. His image of himself is stricken, when he confronts the fate of being one of Christ's lesser prophets. There is nothing remarkable in “trudging in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus” (p. 357), and Tarwater has to be remarkable. The only signs that interest him are those that “set his existence apart from the ordinary” (p. 327). He wants to “set the city astir,” do “something to make every eye stick” on him (p. 319). The final reach of his egoism is to become his own creator and savior. He resists all those who would be his father because he insists on being self-conceived and self-created. Like Rayber, but with a far more violent will, Tarwater demands to be born again, in a way that he can “accomplish” himself (p. 417). He must act out his rebellion against God so that he can be in charge of his “own bidness” (p. 428), free “forever to his own inclinations” (p. 435).

Tarwater's first acts of rebellion are meant to establish exclusive sovereignty to his familiar piece of ground. Like Hazel Motes, he believes that he can claim that country which has never “budged from its first allegiance in the days of creation” (p. 412). But in asserting that he owns Powderhead, he inevitably loses it, along with the possibility of ever being at home anywhere. Instead of possessing, he is himself possessed, by the voice of the stranger within. Powderhead becomes an empty place (p. 324). As Tarwater follows his course towards the final act of negation, his native acres loom “strange and alien,” a sign of his “broken covenant.” Powderhead is “forsaken and his own” (pp. 442, 444).

In attempting to achieve himself and his own exclusive place, Young Tarwater declares the superiority of his will to the claims of creation. He would be independent of any form of kinship with others or with the things of this world. From the beginning, he wears “his isolation like a mantle” of election (p. 370). He cannot abide the thought that God might show His presence in any “fleshly hand or breath” (p. 316) and looks at things with the “noncommital eye” of one who finds “nothing here worth holding his attention” (p. 360). Not even the sins of the flesh, which might look like a refuge from God, attract him. In surrendering to his urge for withdrawal, Tarwater moves towards the chosen destiny of Rayber, the arch-Manichean who has transformed the rage of Tarwater's rebellion into a cold, hard intellectual position. Rayber finds that being nearly blind and deaf are an advantage against the intrusion of reality. As old Tarwater recognizes, he wants to reduce creation to a set of abstractions that he can control inside the “switchbox” of his head. He triumphs in achieving the pure indifference of the objective observer who knows that “life has never been good enough … to wince at its destruction” (p. 421). In the death of his son, Bishop, he meets the final test of his indifference.

Young Tarwater's rejection of the bonds of human kinship is also put to the test by Bishop. From the start, Tarwater wants a state of moral laissez-faire: “nobody owing nobody nothing.” He sees in Bishop the hideousness of mortal flesh: “He's like a hog. … He eats like a hog and he don't think no more than a hog and when he dies, he'll rot like a hog” (p. 74). But Tarwater's fear and resentment of Bishop have a deeper source. He is personally insulted by the suspicion that a soul may be hiding in Bishop's imperfect flesh. If Bishop has a soul, Tarwater's quest is futile. He can have no separate destiny if the “hog” is his brother in God.

In order to resist this message of spiritual kinship, Tarwater must prevent himself from looking at Bishop or rather into him. Like Hazel Motes, he must put out his own spiritual vision, force his eyes “to stop at the surface” of things to avoid the threatened “intimacy of creation” (p. 316). Nowhere is this intimacy more threatening than in the eyes of Bishop. And just as Tarwater cannot bear looking into creation, he cannot bear creation looking into him. After he sets fire to Powderhead, he is terrified that some moral presence brooding upon the universe may have observed his transgression. The stars seem “to be holes in his skull through which some distant unmoving light was watching him” (p. 354). The same light stares out of Bishop's eyes, demanding to be recognized and named. Through most of the novel, Tarwater tries to deny the light by avoiding Bishop's gaze, but, unlike Rayber, he has the courage of the violent and must finally act out his damnation or redemption. As the moment of will approaches, he turns the “steel-like glint” of his eyes directly into Bishop (p. 407). He knows exactly what he is doing. With his eyes “open wide,” he stares through the “bottomless darkness,” into the “light silent eyes of the child across from him” (p. 431). He murders Bishop, but it is God's image upon creation that he wants to kill. In one final act, he would put out the light behind every eye. Overhead the sky watches, “dotted with fixed tranquil eyes like the spread tail of some celestial night bird” (p. 432).

If Hazel Motes and Francis Tarwater both begin as romantic rebels with a strong Manichean urge to escape from created reality, O'Connor will not allow them to die within the walls of their own refusal. She rejects alienation as a necessity, much less as an ideal, and her rejection of it goes much deeper than a commitment to a purely social or secular responsibility. It grows out of her belief in the inherent human spirit. She insists that there can be no need for the individual to create his soul; it is given once and for all to each. The soul can never be the basis of an exclusively personal distinction, just as it can never serve the ego or sublimate the ego's demand to some transcendent end. The burden is exactly the opposite. The soul is the destruction of a merely personal self, the defeat of any hope of an individual distinction that might justify being; for it is the inherent image of God upon each man, binding him to the mystery of creation and to all other men in kinship under God. While the individual has infinite worth, it does not rest upon that which separates him from others but upon that which joins him to the Universal.

Just as O'Connor's belief in the soul forces her to reject the romantic version of the spiritual hero, it puts her at odds with the romantic figure of the artist that she saw as the central inheritance of our novelists. For O'Connor, the artist is not a creature of aesthetic sensibility but of prophetic vision.18 The artist is not spiritually set apart and can have no need to establish his or her essential uniqueness. As O'Connor says in one of her letters, “the true poet is anonymous.”19 While he or she may judge society by a moral standard that it cannot or will not live up to, the true artist has no irreconcilable conflict with the ordinary world because, unlike the romantic artist, true artists do not see themselves as embodiments of spiritual or intellectual order, surrounded by a chaotic or moribund reality. Every true artist shares Moses Herzog's discovery that he does not have to hold reality together; it is held for him. The “artist dreams no dreams” of order;20 he “penetrates the concrete world … to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.”21 He cannot turn from material reality for the very reason that his work is the “accurate naming of the things of God.”22

The final chapters of Wise Blood are so twisted in irony and paradox that the reader has a hard time seeing just how Hazel Motes escapes from his spiritual isolation and reaches any state of prophetic vision. However, it is clear that whatever recovery Hazel makes results from the destruction of his image of himself as his own creator and redeemer.

In the course of the novel, there are a number of scenes in which Haze is pushed to the edge of vision, but his conversion and rebirth explode upon him in chapter thirteen. He sets out to kill, once and forever, that “false” part of himself which threatens to make a mockery of his life of denial. In Solace Layfield he finds that false self, where belief still hides in spite of all the preaching to the contrary. Haze strips Layfield naked, forces him to acknowledge Christ, and then with his old Essex, the emblem of his impregnable self, he knocks Layfield flat. But Haze cannot sacrifice his bad faith with Layfield's blood. He squats beside the dying man and in a gesture totally in opposition to his conscious will, leans “his head closer to hear [Layfield's] confession” (p. 111). While Haze acknowledges his own belief in the soul and his spiritual kinship with his victim, he is scarcely aware of having done so. He wipes away the blood and makes plans to open a new branch of his Church Without Christ. He still has his car and a “lightning bolt couldn't stop it” (p. 112).

As O'Connor explains, Haze cannot “escape his predicament until the car is destroyed by the patrolman.”23 For all his perversity, the patrolman is an agent of Haze's salvation. Just before he pushes the Essex over the embankment, he explains that Haze is about to see “the puttiest view [he] ever did see.” All he has to do is get out of his car, and he will “be able to see better” (p. 113). After Haze surveys the fragments of his car, coming to rest thirty feet below him in the red clay, his eyes do open:

Haze stood for a few minutes, looking over at the scene. His face seemed to reflect the entire distance across the clearing and on beyond, the entire distance that extended from his eyes to the blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space.”

(p. 104)

This quiet instant is the spiritual climax of Haze's whole life. He is delivered from the confines of his own ego-bound self. His eyes penetrate the concrete scene around him, move through the “blank gray sky” and reach towards infinite space. For a few minutes he “escape[s] his predicament” and is released into what had been an alien world. His face seems “to reflect … the entire distance” extending outward from his eyes. We have no way of knowing what image of the source or ultimate reality Haze may have found in the depths. We are left with the effects. Haze confesses to the policeman that his car was not really taking him anywhere and then walks back to town to prepare his bucket of quick lime.

In the final chapter, Haze is carried away from us, as the point of view abruptly shifts to the consciousness of his landlady, Mrs. Flood. She initially sees Haze as a man who has lost his connection with the real world, a spiritual lunatic who “might as well be in a monkery” (p. 19). While Mrs. Flood appears to be nearly a moral imbecile, there is at least a certain confusion of truth in her first impressions of Haze. In obvious ways he is still disconnected from the concrete world. He wants “to go on where [he's] going” (p. 126). His attention is “directed elsewhere,” and the material world is an “interruption” along the way to eternity (p. 121). In blinding himself, Haze hits upon the perfect symbolic act to reveal the paradox of his spiritual life. In order to atone for refusing to look beneath the surface of things, he has to sacrifice his capacity to see the surface of things. Except for that brief moment at the edge, Haze never fully possesses the prophet's eye, which sees into the mystery of the spirit within the things of this world. He never consciously acknowledges God's image in the face of another human being, which is the surest sign of the limitation of his vision. O'Connor clearly recognizes this limitation in her hero. As she indicates in one of her letters: “he put lye in his eyes … which left him in no state to practice charity.”24

But if Haze has only a moment in which to see, he commits what remains of his life to it. In the darkness of his skull, he follows the “pin point of light” backwards to Bethlehem (p. 119). And while he cannot offer charity, he apparently becomes the offering. In the end, Mrs. Flood is as transfixed in Haze's eyes as he once was in Asa Hawke's:

She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.

(p. 126)

While there are important similarities in the conclusions of the two novels, The Violent Bear It Away is more clearly and fully resolved than Wise Blood. Like Hazel Motes, Young Tarwater tries to kill his own belief as it is reflected in the face of another, and like Hazel he fails because he cannot silence something in himself that is deeper than his conscious will to damnation. He can follow his rebellion to the point of drowning Bishop, but he cannot prevent the words of the Baptism from running out of his mouth and spilling in the water (p. 428). He is humiliated because this unconscious acknowledgment of his belief in the immortal soul has stained the purity of his final act of negation. Just as Haze retreats to the safety of his car after “accidentally” receiving his victim's last confession, Tarwater tries to hide from the meaning of his baptizing of Bishop. He desperately wants to remain spiritually blind because it is the only thing that will keep him safe from the “threatened intimacy of creation.” It is not the consequences of damnation that he fears, but the consequences of redemption. After murdering Bishop, he continually has to shut his eyes against the light, but he cannot put out his inner eye, which remains rigidly open upon that “silent country” where God dwells in his creation (p. 434).

Tarwater can only be released from his defenses through the annihilation of that part of himself that would be sovereign and alone, “clean” in the sense that both Hemingway and Sartre use the term. The lavender stranger who rapes Tarwater, like the patrolman who wrecks Haze's Essex, is a Satanic figure doomed to further God's work. He leaves Tarwater unconscious and stripped forever of the illusion of being the sole master of his “own bidness.” When Tarwater awakens in the spent sunlight, his eyes look “small and seedlike as if while he was asleep, they had been lifted out, scorched, and dropped back into his head” (p. 441). His scorched eyes have “been touched with a coal like the lips of the prophet,” and they are ready for the “final revelation” (p. 442).

While Tarwater shares the gift of prophetic vision with Hazel Motes, he penetrates the concrete world in more depth than Haze does. Also, he is released into creation by his final revelation in a way that is denied to Hazel Motes. When Tarwater returns to Powderhead, he senses a “strangeness about the place, as if there might already be an occupant.” The natural world seems to be hushed in “deference to some mystery that resided here” (p. 445). As he approaches his great uncle's grave, he begins to see through to that mystery which lives in creation: “Nothing seemed alive about the boy but his eyes and they stared downward at the cross as if they followed below the surface of the earth to where its roots encircled all the dead” (p. 446). When he lifts his eyes beyond the grave, his vision seems “to pierce the very air” and he surrenders to the terrible kinship of the created:

The boy remained standing there, his still eyes reflecting the field. … It seemed to him no longer empty but peopled with a multitude. Everywhere, he saw dim figures seated on the slope and as he gazed he saw that from a single basket the throng was being fed.

(p. 446)

In this final scene, Tarwater literally becomes the seer; he sees through those walls that seem to imprison this world. His eyes stare through the surface of the earth, pierce the air, and what they find is the commonplace mystery of one ordinary bread that feeds all things. The illusion of a separate fate, which empties creation, dissolves into the vision of the multitude, bound and encircled in God's making. As one of the unclean, Tarwater anoints himself with dirt and moves steadily towards the “dark City,” where the “children of God,” his true kin, are waiting to anoint him with blood.

The world of likeness that Tarwater finally sees into contains all of O'Connor's work. She has been accused of using religion as a spiritual retreat from material reality, but to the contrary she insists that all retreats are futile, whether they be spiritual or material. Indeed her conflict with the modern consciousness, especially as it expresses itself in literature, springs from her conviction that modernism commits the spirit or mind to perpetual flight from creation. For O'Connor the sense of alienation so pervasive in our time inevitably results from the Manichean urge to find a refuge in the enclosed mind. It follows that her case against this modern predisposition is perceptual rather than intellectual. It rests upon the power of her vision and ultimately upon her capacity to restore us to full sight. She does not offer the consolations of a theology or even of religion, so much as she seeks to melt the modern glance, frozen in objectivity, detachment, indifference. To share her vision we must be willing to look for the spirit and the flesh orbiting together in the familiar circles of the idiot's eye.


  1. Flannery O'Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners (New York, 1961), p. 68.

  2. O'Connor, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 147.

  3. O'Connor, “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 108.

  4. O'Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 39.

  5. O'Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” p. 79.

  6. Ibid., p. 70.

  7. O'Connor, “The Regional Writer,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 52.

  8. O'Connor, “The Catholic Novelist and the Protestant South,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 199.

  9. O'Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” in Mystery and Manners, p. 158.

  10. O'Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” p. 68.

  11. O'Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, 1979), p. 403. While O'Connor's analysis of the Manichean is most fully developed in her two novels, she endows many of the central characters of her short stories with the same qualities that poison Hazel Motes and Tarwater. The first to come to mind are The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Hulga in “Good Country People,” Nelson and Mr. Head in “The Artificial Nigger,” Asbury in “The Enduring Chill,” and Mr. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

  12. O'Connor, Wise Blood, in Three by Flannery O'Connor (New York, n.d.), p. 16. Subsequent references to Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away are to this edition and will appear in the text.

  13. For discussions of the theme of alienation in Wise Blood see Sister Kathleen Feeley, Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock (New Brunswick, N.J., 1972), pp. 57 ff., and Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O'Connor (Bloomington, Ind., 1970), pp. 47 ff.

  14. A number of critics have examined the imagery of entrapment in Wise Blood. For example, see Irving Malin, “Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque,” in The Added Dimension, ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (New York, 1966), pp. 110-11, and Hendin, pp. 39-41.

  15. O'Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” p. 72.

  16. Several critics have analyzed the theme of blindness in the novel. For example, see Patricia Maida, “Light and Enlightenment in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction,” Studies in Short Fiction 13 (Winter, 1976), 31-6; Dorothy Walters, Flannery O'Connor (New York, 1973), pp. 44-5, 91-2; and Leon V. Driskell and Joan Brittain, The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor (Lexington, 1971), pp. 40-1.

  17. O'Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” p. 157.

  18. A number of critics discuss the relationship of the artist and prophet, which is fundamental to O'Connor's outlook. For example, see Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, “Flannery O'Connor, a Realist of Distances,” in The Added Dimension, pp. 157-83; P. Albert Duhamel, “The Novelist as Prophet,” in The Added Dimension, pp. 88-107; Gilbert Muller, Nightmares and Visions (Athens, 1972), pp. 108-9; and Feeley, pp. 141 ff.

  19. O'Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 337.

  20. Ibid., p. 216.

  21. O'Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” p. 157.

  22. O'Connor, The Habit of Being, pp. 126, 128.

  23. O'Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” p. 72.

  24. O'Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 301.

Nadine Brewer (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Brewer, Nadine. “Christ, Satan, and Southern Protestantism in O'Connor's Fiction.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 14 (1985): 103-11.

[In the following essay, Brewer asserts that O'Connor's use of Christ and Satan symbolism in her work proves her thorough understanding of Southern Protestantism.]

In her introduction to Sister Kathleen Feeley's book on Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Gordon reports that O'Connor once remarked “she could wait fifty, indeed a hundred, years to have one of her stories read right.” Unfortunately, it is true that she has been widely misread, despite the probability that no other “Southern” writer has ever written of her own country with more perspicacity and scrupulous realism. It seems paradoxical, but it is undoubtedly her acumen and accuracy that has prompted the misreading of her fiction. The tensions, the complexities, the convolutions, indeed, the contradictions in her work form the warp and the woof of the South itself. One cannot read about the South with the same calm that one reads of, say, New England, or of the Rocky Mountain states. The Southern region of this country is a land of violent contrasts and contradictions, indeed, of violence.

Therefore, in order to “read right” O'Connor's driven characters—Hazel Motes, Rufus Johnson, The Misfit, Joy-Hulga Hopewell, Tom T. Shiflet, Parker, Mrs. McIntye and many others—one must understand what W. J. Cash calls “the mind of the South” and Allen Tate dubs “Uncle Sam's other province.”1 And the greatest obstacle to that understanding arises out of one of the greatest difficulties in accepting O'Connor's portrayal of the South as true—Southern Protestantism. For all her Catholic orthodoxy, nowhere is her profound understanding of her country more evident than in the unerring delineation of Protestantism through her Christ and Satan symbolism.

It is O'Connor's own background of religious, Celtic, generational and environmental influences that equips her with such singular insight and allows these symbols to work in a “Christ-haunted” South where the “territory is held largely by the devil.”2 Through her devotion to Catholicism, she shares the obsessions of original sin, redemption through Christ and the last judgment with the typical Southerner, to whom the human soul is a battleground for Christ and the devil. In the short story, “The River,” the Reverend Bevel Summers enjoins his listeners to “‘Believe Jesus or the devil! … testify to one or the other!’”3

This either-or doctrine and the imminence of both Christ and the devil are typical of Bible Belt Protestantism and fundamental to O'Connor's work. The sinner makes the final choice, but not without a great deal of pressure from both sides. Hazel Motes' grandfather declares that Jesus “‘would chase him over the waters of sin! … Jesus would have him in the end!’” (Three [Three by Flannery O’Connor], p. 16). And that is exactly what happens. No matter what poor Haze does, nor where he turns, he cannot escape his eventual redemption, even when he tries to follow the devil, as faithful a tempter as Jesus is a Saviour: Signs of 666 constantly appear on the highways he travels and he desperately essays the establishment of “The Church Without Christ”; Sabbath Hawks and Leora Watts are more than willing ploys of Satan; Hoover Shoats is willing to promote Haze and make him rich. In other words, Haze is exposed to the same temptations as was Christ in the wilderness—power, sensuality, money—but as his grandfather predicted, Jesus “has him in the end.”

The concept of Christ and the devil as pursuers is endemic to Southern Protestantism, as exemplified in many gospel songs, even those ostensibly for children:

One, two, three, the devil's after me,
Four, five, six, he's always throwing bricks,
Seven, eight, nine, he misses every time,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, amen!(4)
Nine, eight, seven, I'm on my way to heaven,
Six, five, four, he's knocking at my door,
Three, two, one, the vict'ry has been won,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, amen!(4)

A variation on the ending—Three, two, one, the battle's just begun—recalls O'Connor's statement that “The good is something under construction” (MM [Mystery and Manners], p. 226). It is also a common regional perspective. The contest does not end with the sinner's choice, but rages on until he is safely inside the pearly gates. Sermons and altar calls are liberally sprinkled with exhortations to “pray through,” “get refilled,” or “reconsecrate.” Surprisingly, this holds true of Baptist services, though “eternal security” is preached. The tradition of “backsliding,” too strong to deny, is reflected in testimony services:

That old sneak came around today. I said, “Lord, hurry. And He did.”

Right before I started, the devil jumped on my liver with both feet, and I knowed he was up to his old tricks. So I said, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” and came on. And, praise God! I feel just fine and on the Lord's side.

O'Connor expresses this facet of Protestantism in the Misfit's remark about the grandmother: “‘She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (Three, p. 143). He perceives that the old lady's revelation was prompted by fear of damnation, not by a “thirst after righteousness.”

Preoccupation with the devil as a real personality may seem a bit like a rerun of the medieval mystery plays, but there is indeed a terrible primitivism in Southern Protestantism. Belief in hexes, conjuring and demons is found not only in Appalachia and the uneducated community, but literally everywhere. The population of the South is largely Celtic in origin, “of all Western strains the most susceptible to suggestions of the supernatural.”5 O'Connor's Irish heritage links her more closely with the non-Catholic South than with a Frenchman, say, from Louisiana.

The Irish were historically concerned with demonology; Saint Patrick himself exorcised the demons from the land in order to make it habitable. Irish priests were hired to exorcise the devil as much as to invoke Christ. The superstitious Scotch-Irish South inherited the legacy, and O'Connor's “mystery” perpetuates it:

To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion.

(MM, p. 117)

The “devil as a real spirit” in “Parker's Back” takes on the form of apocalyptic animals tattooed on his skin. They symbolize Parker's demon possession, an obsession in the Protestant South. It is not at all uncommon during a prayer service for the leader to ask everyone to close his eyes and take heed that the exorcised demons do not enter another. Parker's tattoo of the Byzantine Christ is obviously an effort to rid him of his demons, but it is not until he avows his biblical name, Obadiah Elihu, that he feels “the light pour through him.”6

The second part of the mystery is that it is his demons that drive him to this moment, just as it is the demonic city, a symbol of alienation from God, that drives Mr. Head to cry: “‘Oh help me Gawd I'm lost!’” (Three, p. 211). The devil or his demons must be present as catalysts in order for revelations to be made.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.”

(MM, p. 35)

Thus, a sense of original sin is necessary for redemption, but like everything else in the South, the awareness must come in an exaggerated fashion, with violence and earthshaking drama. “What our Southerner required was … a faith to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them, and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace … of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice.”7 And the demons that provoke that terror become, as they did in medieval mystery plays, instruments of divine revelation, agents of grace. Therefore, the symbols of Christ and the devil sometimes become confused.

The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is directly responsible for the grandmother's “conversion” because he is there to shoot her. There is a curious thing in this paradox; that is, that there is a saying amongst Southern Protestant preachers that “it would be nice if you could shoot the new converts while they are at the altar, so you could be sure that they would stay saved.” It does not seem likely that O'Connor was ignorant of this statement.

In Wise Blood Hazel Motes becomes both murderer of Solace Layfield and his vicarious redeemer, “leaning his head closer to hear the confession” (Three, p. 111). He also “functions as a catalyst to bring about Enoch's religious initiation,”8 and the final scene of the novel suggests that he may function in much the same manner for Mrs. Flood, whose final vision recalls Roy Acuff's song, “I Saw the Light.”

It is the demonic boys in “Circle in the Fire” who bring about Mrs. Cope's revelation, and here O'Connor pushes the connection between forces of good and evil. In the final scene the evil boys are seen “as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them” (Three, p. 238).

In “Good Country People” it is the reprobate Bible salesman, Manley Pointer, who “points” the way to Joy-Hulga. Her seduction scheme is an exorcism of the demon in reverse; she is trying to prove that the sin does not exist, but her attempt results in the possibility for her conversion. God's sure and immediate judgment forces her to face what she claimed to believe and may make her realize her true status as infidel. Whether or not she chooses Christ, the devilish Pointer has pointed out her sin.

It is difficult to say whether the Christ/devil symbolism is better drawn in the character of Hazel Motes or in that of Rufus Johnson in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Rufus reveals the way to Christ to Norton, and indirectly becomes responsible for his death, at the same time he reveals Sheppard's sin and unbelief. Like Haze, Rufus is running from God and declares: “‘If I ever repent, I'll be a preacher’” (CS [The Complete Stories], p. 476). However, his club foot recalls the cloven hoof of Satan, and at one point arouses revulsion in Sheppard:

The boy's club foot was set within the circle of his vision. The pieced-together shoe appeared to grin at him with Johnson's own face. He caught hold of the edge of the sofa cushion and his knuckles turned white. A chill of hatred shook him.

(CS, p. 473)

Later, the boy appears as a small “black figure on the threshold of some dark apocalypse” (CS, p. 478). Thus, Rufus fits the Christ/devil symbol, but unlike Haze, he is not trying to deny Christ, but promote Him, or at least he reads and “eats” scripture. This, as well as the Christ/devil symbolism, highlights two other aspects of religion in the South. One is the curious dual nature of man, somehow larger than life in the Southerner, that allows him to combine both the Puritan ideal and its antithesis. As Cash writes, “The Southerner's frolic humor, his continual violation of his strict precepts in action, might serve constantly to exacerbate the sense of sin in him, to keep his zest for absolution always at white heat.”9

This conundrum is evident in Hazel Motes and The Misfit, even though they do not seem aware of it as does Rufus. Haze's progress from the desire to escape the “wild ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind” to actual murder serves only to heighten his sense of guilt and need for absolution. Hence, his penitential observances. The Misfit's indulgence in the “pleasure of meanness” ends in the realization that there is no pleasure in killing if there is no sense of sin. If one is forgiven so easily, the fun is all gone. In each case, their actions “exacerbate the sense of sin.” In other words, Flannery O'Connor's “grotesques” are produced by the extremes of Christianity in the South.

Another significant factor which confirms O'Connor's knowledge of her region is the fact that in both the case of Haze and of The Misfit, the efficacy of grace is equal to, or greater than, the magnitude of the sins. The concept is not new; the Apostle Paul spoke of “grace greater than our sins,” as did Saint Augustine and François Mauriac, whom O'Connor often quotes:

Those who seem devoted to evil were, perhaps, chosen before others, and the depth of their fall determines the height of their calling.10

In Hazel Motes, this is indicated by the murderer-saviour tension. The Misfit is also an angel of death and of mercy, but O'Connor pushes the idea of grace even further with the repeated statement that “There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun” (Three, pp. 138 & 141). The sun generally represents the Divine presence in O'Connor's work, so there is an obvious absence of God. On the other hand, the absence of a cloud possibly means that there is no judgment present either. Dorothy Walters claims that this means an absence of grace, because the commonly accepted biblical meaning of a cloud is grace or blessing. However, this does not hold true in the South, where a cloud is usually viewed as an evil omen or as synonymous with the wrath of God.

Whether O'Connor meant one or the other is open to question, but her intent in depicting grace as sufficient in direct ratio to sin, particularly heinous sins, points out one of the peculiar, and sometimes humorous, facets of Christianity in the South (Protestant or Catholic). That is, the greater the sins one has committed, the more evil one has been, the greater one has proven God's mercy and love to be. This appeals to the sensation-seeking, drama-thirsty nature of the Southerner. If one wants, for example, to draw a crowd to a revival meeting, it is better to invite as evangelist a reformed convict, one of the drug addicts made famous by Dave Wilkerson's book, The Cross and the Switchblade, or a Marjo Gortner. To advertise an evangelist who was raised in the Church and never committed any spectacular sin is certain failure for a revival. Crowds prefer one who can sing “I wandered far away from God,” or “The debt was very large and growing every day, for I was always sinning and never tried to pay.”

The second aspect of Southern religion highlighted by the Christ/devil symbol is the eschatological view that the major goal is salvation and redemption of the soul, and any means by which this is accomplished is the will of God. Therefore, any agent who acts as a catalyst for conversion, be he murderer, thief, deceiver or anti-christ, is acting as an agent of God's mercy.

Again, Hazel Motes, the Misfit, Rufus Johnson, and Manley Pointer fall into this category, and so, possibly, does Tom T. Shiflet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” He is obviously a Christ symbol, albeit a questionable one. “His figure formed a crooked cross” (Three, p. 161), his “smile stretched like a weary snake” (p. 167), and he announces that “‘the law doesn't satisfy me’” (p. 167), a statement that may refer to either the law of the land or to that of God. However, Mrs. Crater is too blinded by her own greed to take notice. It is possible that she, like Mrs. Cope, will have an epiphany and repent after she realizes what Shiflet has done. If she does, the evil Shiflet will have worked the will of God.

To the Southern mind, salvation comes about directly as a result of the will of God. Viewing himself as a sojourner here on earth, the Southern Protestant goes to church and sings “I'm just a pilgrim stranger as I journey here below; A citizen of Heaven …” or “This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through.” Since the only life that matters is the one in the hereafter, the means by which one is saved are not important. Indeed, “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform,” and if Lucynell must be abandoned in order to “wake up” Mrs. Crater, or Norton die so that Sheppard will be convicted of his sin and unbelief, it is all in divine order; the soul's salvation is the only reason for life here on earth.

However, though God's mercy seems boundless, there is a point beyond which one can go that will find him in outer darkness for eternity. Southern Protestants often quote the scripture, “God's spirit will not always strive with man,” and again O'Connor reveals her profound knowledge of her country in “The Displaced Person.”

It is readily apparent that Mr. Guizac, the Displaced Person hired by Mrs. McIntyre, is meant as a Christ-figure. He literally “has not where to lay his head.” Moreover, he is “pure” in the sense of Southern fundamentalism, because he does not smoke nor drink, works hard and cares for his family. Despite all this, Mrs. McIntyre resolves to get rid of him. Father Flynn counsels her to keep him and gives her repeated warnings, even going so far as to say that “He came to redeem us” (Three, p. 295).

Nevertheless, the old lady is literally hell-bent on his leaving, and ends by committing blasphemy when she says “Christ is just another Displaced Person.” Her soul now forever lost, she is incapable of stopping his murder. In the final scene, it is she who feels as if “she was in some foreign country” (Three, p. 299), it is she who is a displaced person, beyond the mercy of God. She “hardened her heart” and will never be saved, a theme repeated over and over in sermon, song and altar calls in the South:

Oh, do not let the word depart,
And close thine eyes against the light;
Poor sinner, harden not your heart,
Be saved, o tonight.
Should the Spirit cease its warning,
When sin's path so long you've trod,
What a sad, eternal judgment,
Unprepared to meet thy God.

Flannery O'Connor has been accused of incorrectly depicting the Protestant South, as well as writing only about freaks—Southerners are “still able to recognize one” (MM, p. 44)—but perhaps the problem is one of misunderstanding on the part of the reader, not of the writer. The list of attitudes and mores in the South that “outlanders” misunderstand are legion, and run the gamut from racial issues to collard greens. W. J. Cash says that the South is “not quite a nation without a nation, but the next thing to it.”11

It is just possible that Flannery O'Connor portrays the South so accurately that outlanders will never “read her stories right.” Certainly she does an extraordinary job of portraying the splendors of Bible Belt Protestantism, but perhaps it takes a Southern Protestant to recognize that. As O'Connor writes,

Religious enthusiasm is accepted as one of the South's more grotesque features, and it is possible to build upon that acceptance, however little real understanding such acceptance may carry with it.

(MM, p. 208)


  1. W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), p. viii.

  2. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), pp. 44 and 118. Hereafter, this source will be cited in parentheses following the quotation as MM.

  3. Flannery O'Connor, Three by Flannery O'Connor (New York: The New American Library), p. 16. Hereafter, this source will be cited in parentheses following the quotation as Three.

  4. The songs and anecdotes contained in the text are those recalled from my childhood and own experiences.

  5. Cash, p. 54.

  6. Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 528. Hereafter, this source will be cited in parentheses following the quotation as CS.

  7. Cash, p. 56.

  8. Stuart Burns, “The Evolution of Wise Blood,” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XVI No. 2 (1970), p. 154.

  9. Cash, p. 57.

  10. François Mauriac, Les Anges Noirs (Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1936), p. 206.

  11. Cash, p. viii.

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date spring 1986)

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SOURCE: Kinney, Arthur F. “Flannery O'Connor and the Fiction of Grace.” Massachusetts Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1986): 71-96.

[In the following essay, Kinney considers the role of grace in O'Connor's fiction.]

Flannery O'Connor claimed always to be writing fiction about the extraordinary moments of God's grace, when it touches even the most maimed, deformed, or unregenerate of people—especially those; proper Christian literature, she remarked, is always “an invitation to deeper and stranger visions.” Yet however willingly the most devoted and admiring reader might listen to her talk about her art, precisely those extraordinary moments have always been, at the least, troubling. Even Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk for whom she sustained great respect and whose books she bought and read, had his difficulties. He could say of one of her finest stories, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” that her fiction often seemed to him “strangely scrambled.”

The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem. … Her crazy people while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity. In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics. The “good,” the “right” and the “kind” do all the harm.

She was herself perpetually disturbed by what she jokingly, pointedly called her “monstrous reader,” the one “who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don't get it, I don't see it, I don't want it.’” As early in her abbreviated career as 1955 she was writing her good friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, “I just read another review from a Kansas City paper that ended with the sentence: ‘These stories are technically excellent; spiritually empty.’”

But there are reasons for such confusion. In O'Connor's fictional world God seems to us to spend his grace on the unlikeliest of people. Often they do not appear to deserve His blessing; almost as often they appear to learn nothing from it (or, if they do, we are not told about it). Nor is grace dramatized as a dazzling joy, a sweep of awareness. Rather, it can come in an act of random violence, a forceful accident, a blinding pain. It can be unexpected, intrusive, unwanted, ignored, baffling, misidentified, forgotten. It can bring suffering, wretchedness, even annihilation. Walter Sullivan, in a study aptly titled Death by Melancholy, has calculated its awesome price: “Of the nineteen stories [she revised and preserved in her two collections] nine end in the violent death of one or more persons. Three others end in, or present near the end, physical assaults that result in bodily injury. Of the remaining seven, one ends in arson, another in the theft of a wooden leg, another in car theft and wife abandonment.” Two other works—the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—involve murder; the “mature novel” adds arson and rape as well. Frederick Asals has recently attempted to rescue O'Connor's reputation by saying that the fiction catches us unawares by being anthropotropic rather than (as we have every right to expect) theotropic. But surely many of us refuse, reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” to believe that the grandmother, in a sudden wrench of compassion for a mad killer, is deservedly shot; or that young Harry Ashfield/Bevel in “The River,” in seeking the Kingdom of Christ, joyously drowns himself in an act the Catholic Church would condemn; or that Joy/Hulga of “Good Country People,” left helpless in a barnloft, robbed of her artificial leg some distance from her home and stranded, invalid, no longer whole, by a Bible salesman with pornographic playing cards and a box of contraceptives, is justly treated.

“Give me my leg!” she screeched. He jumped up so quickly that she barely saw him sweep the cards [with obscene pictures] and the blue box [of contraceptives] into the Bible and throw the Bible into the valise. She saw him grab the leg and then she saw it for an instant slanted forlornly across the inside of the suitcase with a Bible at either side of its opposite ends. He slammed the lid shut and snatched up the valise and swung it down the hole and then stepped through himself.

When all of him had passed but his head, he turned and regarded her with a look that no longer had any admiration in it. “I've gotten a lot of interesting things,” he said. “One time I got a woman's glass eye this way. And you needn't to think you'll catch me because Pointer ain't really my name. I use a different name at every house I call at and don't stay nowhere long. And I'll tell you another thing, Hulga,” he said, using the name as if he didn't think much of it, “you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” and then the toast-colored hat disappeared down the hole and the girl was left, sitting on the straw in the dusty sunlight. When she turned her churning face toward the opening, she saw his blue figure struggling successfully over the green speckled lake.

This is the last we see of Joy, who had named herself Hulga out of spiteful self-hatred and shame. Her gaze is fixed on her betrayer from whom she has just learned that she cannot escape the name Joy. It is an ironic birthright for a girl whose sensitivity has yet to understand its depths of meaning just as her vision of a man walking on water—but now a devilish “blue figure” on a snakelike lake—suggests that Hulga still senses the awful gap between perfection and her own shortcomings. But (perhaps surprisingly) this is not the end of the story. That concludes (at this point) by returning to Joy/Hulga's mother and her friend.

Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, who were in the back pasture, digging up onions, saw him emerge a little later from the woods and head across the meadow toward the highway. “Why, that looks like that nice dull young man that tried to sell me a Bible yesterday,” Mrs. Hopewell said, squinting. “He must have been selling them to the Negroes back in there. He was so simple,” she said, “but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.”

Mrs. Freeman's gaze drove forward and just touched him before he disappeared under the hill. Then she returned her attention to the evil-smelling onion shoot she was lifting from the ground. “Some can't be that simple,” she said. “I know I never could.”

We can smile (with condescension?) at Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman whose armor of self-complacency protects them from recognizing the devil in their midst and whose staunch pride produces conversation both ignorant and (therefore) banal. If we are accustomed to O'Connor's fiction, we can also accept the devil contributing to the work of the Lord by providing Joy/Hulga with her moment of grace—the moment when she must confront herself and take true measure—without himself being aware of it. But how, we must think or demand, can anyone with any compassion, including O'Connor, have anything but sympathy for this crippled woman (she is 32) who is humbled in a way that is comic, desperate, and even more grotesque than her fumbling joys at being courted? Perhaps it is O'Connor who has herself made grace grotesque, who has got the notion of grace all wrong.


It seems preposterous, even on the surface, to think of Flannery O'Connor seriously warping a fundamental doctrine of the Church to which she ardently dedicated her life. She grew up in Savannah living in the shadow of the great spire of the Catholic cathedral and attending its convent school. When she later moved to Milledgeville, in central Georgia, she watched an equally devout family actively support the Catholic parish and contribute to the building of the parish church. Her library, now at Georgia College, is jammed with books on theology, on Church history, on interpretations of Catholic dogma; her letters (collected as The Habit of Being) display everywhere a concern with her faith even more passionate than a concern for her fiction. In the gospels, the book parodied by the salesman's bottle, O'Connor writes to Sister Mariella Gable in a letter dated May 4, 1963, we have testimony that “it was the devils who first recognized Christ and the evangelists didn't censor this information. They apparently thought it was pretty good witness. It scandalizes us when we see the same thing in modern dress only because we have this defensive attitude toward the faith.” Such pronouncements were not uncommon for her: the oddness she felt compelled to write about (she was too humble to think herself inspired) is odd from our perspective, but not from God's. Nor can we think her lacking in sympathy for those invalided by handicap or disease: from the age of 25 until her death at 39, she was increasingly debilitated by the rare and progressive lupus erythematosus, a disease that caused her bones to decay, forced her onto crutches, and finally ate its pain into her hands so that she found it agony to continue writing. The only treatment—there was then no known cure—was by drugs that caused her face to puff up and so disfigured her. Where there is no vengeance wreaked on Joy/Hulga in creating her, then, there may be a kind of awful, wrenching self-projection.

But there is also in the case of Joy/Hulga, and she is representative of most of O'Connor's protagonists, the enactment of a good deal of Augustinian and Thomistic thought; the Confessions and the Summa Theologica (which O'Connor owned) were among her favorite patristic writings. So she knew that for those authors, at least one of them a literary saint of her church, God often visits man in mysterious ways, testing the firmness of strength through unexpected temptation. She knows too that the devil can only appeal to us by encouraging us in the disguise of something good, someone good—such as the fumbling courtship of an itinerant Bible salesman. This pseudonymous tempter could get nowhere if Hulga did not find his caresses attractive, if she did not feel (sinfully) that she deserved and even earned his attention. Reality flees her understanding despite the lofty intelligence she insists best characterizes her. She is, essentially, foolish, as all sinners are foolish for O'Connor. Joy/Hulga's own pride and passion seduce her—as they seduced Augustine in his Confessions—into a compromising situation of her own fashioning: she chooses the barnloft as a place of adoration and sexual advance (in a pointed mockery of the stable where the Immaculate Mother found adoration at the visit of strangers); she willingly gives up her leg to the fondling of this boyish stranger (as the sinner would give up his soul at the slightest provocation). By depriving her in turn of what she has already willingly surrendered—her good intentions, her purity of thought, her stiff pride, her hope to be adored—the Bible salesman with the false name has been only an accomplice in taking from her all the crutches she has used for self-sufficiency. He leaves her, vulnerable and alone, before the Lord. Isn't this, then, the story of the disdain of grace, of grace offered, stoutly denied and perhaps, at the end, ruefully confronted?

“To insure our sense of mystery,” O'Connor once said when visiting Hollins College, “we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion,” just as Pointer—the allegory of that name is surely obvious for us—does in the delight of his conquest before departing. His collection of glass eyes and artificial legs are of no functional use to him at all; their utter uselessness are stark tokens of mere sin and pride and they mock him much as Hulga's sudden awareness of her dependence on an artificial limb mocks her sense of superiority. The story of “Good Country People,” like all of O'Connor's stories—following deliberately the model in Hawthorne, whom she admired—are parables of sin and grace, or the absence of grace. If we fail to understand them, it is because we are not finely tuned to the various temptations of an ingenious and pervasive evil which O'Connor would teach us, nor equal to the lessons and significations of God in a material and mundane world that has forgotten or dismissed Him.

Precisely not to let us forget or dismiss—not to let us off the hook of the rugged demands of a faith to which we may only pay lip service—was for O'Connor the challenging, exacting, almost insurmountable cause for her fiction. Even at her most depressed, her most exhausted, and her most anguished moments she never stopped trying to say this, and she never stopped saying it in public lecture and private letter. “The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man's encounter with this God is how he shall make the experience, which is both natural and supernatural, understandable and credible to his reader,” she said once at Sweetbriar College. “In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one. Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental.” In an essay on “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” she added that “the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. This means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across … the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated.” But if we find the exaggeration of Hulga's final circumstance—in its unusualness, its absurdity—to be funny, then we laugh at an occasion of holy truth which makes us as culpable, as sinful for O'Connor as Hulga. To get away with condemning her readers—to get her readers, even more, to know enough to see themselves in her faltering characters and so condemn themselves: this is the persistent function of her fiction.


The function of O'Connor's fiction is to recognize sin for what it is, to get the reader to recognize and condemn sin. But the subject of her fiction, she persistently said, was the action of grace and the manifestation of that was conversion. The painful exposure and surrender of her armored characters comes because the defensive layers of protection helped them get by with a human vulnerability that has already proven painful. There are dozens of comments she left us that make this clear, but here is an earlier one, written in a letter in 1958 to her close but still-anonymous friend “A.”

It seems to me that all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing. If it is the Church he's converted to, the Church remains stable and he has to change as you say—so why do you also say the character has to remain stable? The action of grace changes a character. Grace can't be experienced in itself. An example: when you go to Communion, you receive grace but you experience nothing; or if you do experience something, what you experience is not the grace but an emotion caused by it … Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn't know what grace is and don't recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.

These are the clear, forceful words of a devout believer; throughout her adult life, O'Connor attended Mass whenever she was able, daily said the prayers in her missal, and nightly spent a quarter-hour or more reading the writings of Aquinas before retiring.

O'Connor's chief problem, her primary difficulty, is that, having sensed the meaning of grace herself, she wrote for those who would recognize the discriminating faith at work in her fiction, when the brutal fact is that most of them, as non-Catholic, did not. Worse, the sharp and substantial discrepancies between, say, the Protestant view of grace and the Catholic view actually have prevented her fiction from functioning as she intended. From the days of Calvin and Luther, in fact—from the dawn of the Reformation—Protestants have believed that grace is earned, either through good works or through testimony. For them, grace is God's reciprocal act. By the same token, Calvin especially argued that God's grace is not only a reward which puts Him at the behest of an inferior creature He has created, but more, a free gift which He acknowledges as a kind of Election to be among the sheep and not the goats, the saved and not the damned, at the Day of Judgment. Grace therefore is all-decisive, all-powerful—and irresistible. Its power overwhelms man; we are “showered in grace,” “bathed in grace,” “overcome with grace.” It is never in the devil's power to awaken such a moment (as the Bible salesman is meant to do for Joy/Hulga) or even for human beings or human events to serve as “occasions for grace,” as with Catholic doctrine, but only for God Himself to provide such “occasions.” This can, moreover, occur at any time, since time is a human convenience of understanding which is unknown, or at least immaterial, to God. For the true Protestant, then, no human agent can offer grace without blaspheming; by the same understanding, no person can effectively deny grace once it is offered by God because God is all-powerful. In that sense, then, our reaction would be immaterial. In the first instance, where Protestants merit grace, such an act would “make sense”—it would appear logical. In the second instance, where Protestants would be elected to salvation, it would “feel sense”—it would appear visible to others.

But neither sense of grace is that held to and instructed by the Catholic church, and neither sense of grace is what actually informs O'Connor's fiction. For her grace is an early stage of cognizance—what Augustine calls the “divine imprint” on the soul that is a kind of homing instinct, a sense of vocation whether accepted or not; it is the sort of instinct that Hazel Motes tries to deny by blaspheming in his mocking street gospel, or that young Tarwater tries desperately to escape as too heavy a burden, too awesome and too complete a responsibility. It is God's free and unmerited gift, awarded in later stages of life, suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, and (at least to human vision) randomly, according to the teachings of Augustine. Paul writing to the Romans talks of God's grace in just this way even in reference to the patriarchy in O'Connor's Vulgate text: “For he saith to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy; and I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy’” (9:15). For Augustine, called by the Church the Doctor of Grace, such an act of God may come in mysterious and unexpected ways and forms, too, through unanticipated and even surprising means and agents, even the unlikeliest of men like Pointer or The Misfit, and does not necessarily cause action: it may only alter vision, change perception, evoke new desires, prompt new patterns of behavior. It may be gradual, developmental; it may be striking; it may even be ignored or unacknowledged or even totally unseen. But in every event, Augustine told Flannery O'Connor and tells us too, man must choose to cooperate with grace; it follows, then, that he can also refuse to accept or acknowledge grace. (For Calvin the elected would always know their election; for other Reformers, earning grace permitted man always to be aware of it.) Aquinas adds to Augustine that grace is the favor of God, not an arbitrary decision nor a reward, by which He gives Himself to humanity by reason of a vital creative act of Himself, a kind of second creative act, having already created the soul, the creature. “For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will,” as Paul writes to the young church at Philippi (2:13). From His infinite treasury of grace and good will, God bestows. For O'Connor, then, it is meant to be deliberately surprising, even shocking, but not impossible, that the devil posing as a Bible salesman can offer to Joy/Hulga that moment when, called Hulga, she could realize a deeper Joy than the acceptance and passion of this itinerant boy if (but only if) she is prepared, or has the inclination, to do so. And it is enough that she is given that chance. That we do not know the outcome is not the point for O'Connor. Indeed, it may even be irrelevant, because what we are to learn from the story and what Hulga is to learn, what in fact the story means to make impossible to forget, is that God does allow even those whose selfishness is most rigid a moment in which they can convert their direction and their perspective, a moment in which they can be transformed, if they so choose.

These are, then, the critical, crucial, most dramatic moments when everything is at risk, at stake. The right choice has to be made, willingly, freely, spontaneously, cooperatively, or all is lost. But since God's unmerited grace, like His unmerited love, is forever available, the state of mind regarding it at the moment of death is, for the unregenerate, the most crucial because it is the last possible moment of cooperation. Death is prominent in O'Connor's stories, too, because it is the final telling moment. Everything may rest on that split second in time. It does, of course, for young Bishop who thinks he is saved when Tarwater drowns him in The Violent Bear It Away, and for old Mr. Fortune in “A View of the Woods”; it may or may not for the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” to whom we shall return. But it can also come over a longer period of time, too, as it does with young Harry Ashfield/Bevel in “The River.”

He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.

Bevel's death is often seen as wasteful, the loss of an innocent child. But it is glorious for O'Connor. Bevel has been spurned by his family and friends; he has been led to a conventional (therefore unmeaningful, insignificant) baptism by the preacher; but he has felt a longing, a yearning for the Lord that is the true awareness of grace. The river as a river spits him out, mocks him. But the river as an agent of God catches him with “a long gentle hand” and then, with the totality of conversion, pulls him “swiftly forward and down,” taking him with it. This birth—or rebirth—is of course merely an “instant” in which the one who is overcome with the power and love of grace is also “overcome with surprise,” but it is the surprise of joy. The alien world which does not know grace, where even men misnamed Mr. Paradise (as the devil could sell Bibles) must look like “a giant pig,” remains behind, unredeemed.

O'Connor's persistent, repeated, language makes the point: “long gentle hand,” “pulled him,” “overcome with surprise”; “knew that he was getting somewhere”; “all his fury and fear left him.” But her recalcitrant readers, she knew from aching experience, would need all she could supply to understand. “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” So, just as she tried to secure Hulga's sudden “surprise” by contrasting her with the uninterrupted blindness of Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, so she validates Bevel's true triumph over the self with the contrast of an unregenerate Mr. Paradise who knows neither joy nor grace despite the self-delusion of his name, and she does so in unmistakable, reiterated language.

Mr. Paradise's head appeared from time to time on the surface of the water. Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed, staring with his full eyes as far down the river line as he could see.

In his very antithesis, this “old” man, “dull” with his limited vision, can also teach us the lesson of grace—and the salvation of Bevel. With grace, Paul writes, this time to the new church at Corinth, “the old are passed away, behold all things are made new” (II, 5:17). All things are made new.


In the brief compass of the story, then, O'Connor portrays the sudden, abbreviated occasion of the presence of grace. In the longer novel, she concentrates instead on the prolonged, agonizing avoidance of grace over a necessarily longer period, as in young Tarwater's fear, rebellion, reluctance, and finally his resignation to follow the preaching of his grandfather, his destiny as a prophet in The Violent Bear It Away. In Wise Blood the same avoidance, rebellion, and resignation is seen in Hazel Motes.

Ralph C. Wood has written recently that Hazel “is the single character in whom O'Connor's Augustinian theology is most fully realized” because “He is a vivid embodiment of her conviction that—even after the Fall—humanity possesses an indelible divine imprint, a homing instinct for God that makes the heart restless until it finds its peace in His will.” Again, O'Connor has proven her own best teacher of her work (in the 1963 letter to Sister Mariella): “The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful.” We first see Hazel sitting “at a forward angle on the green plush train seat”; he is wearing a new suit—“His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it”—and has “a stiff, black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear.” He is already restless, looking anxiously about the train, trying to get his bearing. He is (also obviously) homeless, unaccustomed to new clothes, avoiding identification with preaching. We learn in time that he is returning home from military service and, aside from the suit, he has little more than this hat. “The only things from Eastrod he took into the army with him were a black Bible and a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles that had belonged to his mother.” They are all symbolic for him—vital and resonant—yet he presently ignores them. Instead he thinks of his deprivation, solitude, and alienation that link him, as we shall presently see, with The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Yet Haze is not altogether successful in ignoring these personal mementoes, these tokens that will become implements for his salvation.

After a few weeks in the camp, when he had some friends—they were not actually friends but he had to live with them—he was offered the chance he had been waiting for; the invitation. He took his mother's glasses out of his pocket and put them on. Then he told them he wouldn't go with them for a million dollars and a feather bed to lie on; he said he was from Eastrod, Tennessee, and that he was not going to have his soul damned by the government or any foreign place they … but his voice cracked and he didn't finish. He only stared at them, trying to steel his face. His friends told him that nobody was interested in his goddam soul unless it was the priest and he managed to answer that no priest taking orders from no pope was going to tamper with his soul. They told him he didn't have any soul and left for their brothel.

He took a long time to believe them because he wanted to believe them. All he wanted was to believe them and get rid of it once and for all, and he saw the opportunity here to get rid of it without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil.

The responsibility of faith and of preaching that faith is too much for him to bear. That cross is too heavy; he is yet too young. So he dismisses it wholesale. Or he thinks he does: he goes to war to kill his fellow men. But the shrapnel, like his conscience, cannot be dug out of him (or so he believes); he even holds firmly to the family Bible, and to his mother's glasses should he ever need them again to read it. “Longing for home,” as he thinks of it during those early days in the Army, is clearly more than wanting to return to Eastrod. From the outset of his biography in Wise Blood Hazel Motes (hazed by the mote in his vision) is torn in mind, body, and soul, between the denial of the Lord and his need to find a home (presumably, in Him).

But “finding a home” for Hazel takes some doing because at first he desires to make the home within easier reach by making it literal.

He was in Melsy at five o'clock in the afternoon and he caught a ride on a cotton-seed truck that took him more than half the distance to Eastrod. He walked the rest of the way and got there at nine o'clock at night, when it had just got dark. The house was as dark as the night and open to it and though he saw that the fence around it had partly fallen and that weeds were growing through the porch floor, he didn't realize all at once that it was only a shell, that there was nothing here but the skeleton of a house. He twisted an envelope and struck a match to it and went through all the empty rooms, upstairs and down. When the envelope burnt out, he lit another one and went through them all again. That night he slept on the floor in the kitchen, and a board fell on his head out of the roof and cut his face.

So Hazel Motes struggles to make this hollow but more easily accessible legacy sufficient; grimly, he will not be played with. He will be superior to such loss, such hardship, as he was superior to the dangerous overseas mission on which the army earlier tested him. In the morning, he arises and takes inventory of his house—that is, of himself.

There was nothing left in the house but the chifforobe in the kitchen. … He opened all the drawers. There were two lengths of wrapping cord in the top one and nothing in the others. He was surprised nobody had come and stolen a chifforobe like that. He took the wrapping cord and tied it around the legs and through the floor boards and left a piece of paper in each of the drawers: this shiffer-robe belongs to hazel motes. do not steal it or you will be hunted down and killed.

The chest, like the house, like himself, is an empty husk. But in his deliberate avoidance of grace, of self-confrontation, Hazel makes extreme his attention and devotion to the chifforobe.

The one remaining piece of good furniture in the deserted home of Haze's childhood is perpetuated as the only furniture in his mind, his soul. Haze's first means of avoiding the call of Christ, Who asks man to give up all that he has in order to follow Him, is to cling to the material objects of this world, to surround himself with as many of them as he can. Simultaneously, he will destroy the Lord Who mocks and Who humiliates him by exposing Him as fraudulent because He asks too much and He doesn't prove merciful to the likes of Hazel Motes. So he deliberately challenges God by blaspheming Him. He preaches from the materialism of a ratty old Essex a Church Without Christ, fulfilling the family's design for him by burlesquing it. He even makes the car his pulpit.

“Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I'm member and preacher to that church where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I'll tell you it's about the church that the blood of Jesus don't foul with redemption.”

He develops his own gospel, too, which he can summarize handily: “‘there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two.’” He takes on a disciple in Enoch Emery and attempts to seduce the daughter of the fake blind preacher Asa named Sabbath Lily Hawks. He brutally murders Solace Layfield, the hired “prophet” of the competitive Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, because he thinks Solace believes in redemption and he must crush (he literally runs over him with the Essex) any sign of conscience in this apparently self-willed alter-ego.

At once Hazel decides to leave Taulkinham, where he spent so much time and energy escaping the duty the Lord calls him to, and converted no one save Enoch. He gets in the possession that has become the center of his world, the ratty Essex, and heads out of town when a policeman stops him and makes strange demands after learning he has no license to drive.

“Listen,” the patrolman said, taking another tone, “would you mind driving your car up to the top of the next hill? I want you to see the view from up there, puttiest view you ever did see.”

Haze shrugged but he started the car up. He didn't mind fighting the patrolman if that was what he wanted. He drove to the top of the hill, with the patrol car following close behind him. “Now you turn it facing the embankment,” the patrolman called. “You'll be able to see better thataway.” Haze turned it facing the embankment. “Now maybe you better had get out,” the cop said. “I think you could see better if you was out.”

Haze got out and glanced at the view. The embankment dropped down for about thirty feet, sheer washed-out red clay, into a partly burnt pasture where there was one scrub cow lying near a puddle. Over in the middle distance there was a one-room shack with a buzzard standing hunch-shouldered on the roof.

The patrolman got behind the Essex and pushed it over the embankment and the cow stumbled up and galloped across the field and into the woods; the buzzard flapped off to a tree at the edge of the clearing. The car landed on its top, with the three wheels that stayed on, spinning. The motor bounced out and rolled some distance away and various odd pieces scattered this way and that.

“Them that don't have a car, don't need a license,” the patrolman said, dusting his hands on his pants.

The climax of Wise Blood is pure O'Connor: it is sudden, unexpected, funny, and unavoidably significant. Like Pointer with Joy/Hulga, the patrolman strips Haze of everything but himself. He is forced, at this point, to confess to the patrolman that he has nowhere to go; he is directionless. Yet the patrolman also provides the means of a new direction—by forcing him to view in the relatively empty field a house such as Haze left behind in Eastrod as something he must now witness—a new sense of self-projection that will totally displace Haze's own initial, and tempting, vision of Taulkinham.

The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete. No one was paying any attention to the sky. The stores in Taulkinham stayed open on Thursday nights so that people could have an extra opportunity to see what was for sale.

In Haze's eyes, the open stores and the habit of buying overcame the self-confrontation of the habit of being. His sudden sense of loss, his humiliation, and his emptiness are the result of leaving home—leaving the Lord—for Taulkinham with its interest in a materiality that might find a Church Without Christ especially appealing. That Haze understands this is made clear—once we understand O'Connor, her fictions always seem transparent—by the conclusion of this scene.

After a while Haze got up and started walking back to town. It took him three hours to get inside the city again. He stopped at a supply store and bought a tin bucket and a sack of quicklime and then he went on to where he lived, carrying these. When he reached the house, he stopped outside on the sidewalk and opened the sack of lime and poured the bucket half full of it. Then he went to a water spigot by the front steps and filled up the rest of the bucket with water and started up the steps. His landlady was sitting on the porch, rocking a cat. “What you going to do with that, Mr. Motes?” she asked.

“Blind myself,” he said and went on in the house.

Instead of using his mother's glasses to concentrate on the material world around him, Haze will (after his conversion) blind himself so as to concentrate on the vision of Christ that lies within—that has been within him all along. His act so surprises his landlady, Mrs. Flood, that he comes to act as her intercessor to finding her own faith: at first the subject of God's grace, Haze is also made an agent of it. We should, in the end, no more feel sorry for Hazel Motes than we do for Bevel, for both are instructive occasions of joy. But unlike the single point of conversion in “The River,” there is no way even O'Connor's highly compressed style could have traced the agony of a lifelong quest such as Haze's in a short story, in anything less than a novel. Wise Blood, and the later novel, The Violent Bear It Away, are not merely about that point in time when total transformation takes place but biographies of those who would avoid the relentless hound of heaven and of how, at last, they merged victorious when beaten at their own selfish designs.


What O'Connor's stories and novels of grace share is the toughened sense that if we can manage to locate our own fate in the bleakest of situations—in the greatest trials of conscience—then we have shouldered successfully the true burdens of a Christian life. O'Connor's library housed as much secular as sacred writing, and one of her favorite poets, her letters tell us, was Gerard Manley Hopkins, who shared her understanding of grace. In the last months, bedridden forever, with death near, she wrote to her grieving companion Janet McKane,

“I like Hopkins … particularly a sonnet [sic] beginning

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? …”

citing from memory, and then the letter stops in mid-thought, all her energy spent. Had she gone on, this is what she would have written:

Leáves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
A´h! aś the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Through worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs aŕe the same,
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

What consoled her was that to feel grief is the universal nature of the human condition. Why should any man—even a little girl like Margaret—grieve when she had known, and would always know, Goldengrove, when she would come to a far lovelier place than the sacramental loveliness she would leave behind her? And how could she help but grieve, knowing Goldengrove, knowing life? The death of trees in golden leaf marks autumn, the curse of man, the fall/Fall; but it also points the way to spring, to rebirth, to regeneration. In both ways, this recognition doubly epitomizes grace.

For O'Connor, caught up as she was in the violent mysteries of grace, The Wreck of the Deutschland must also have seemed kindred, brother to her spirit, a poetic analogy to all her fictions short and long. The scene of stark terror in that poem would sound, unknown and unidentified, like something fictional, like something by O'Connor herself. The grotesque death of the headless sailor and the body with slit wrists; the vision—symbol, really—of nuns with hands clasped found drowned together in their private chamber; the tall nun crying to her husband to be reunited with Him at last—all display how grace can come suddenly, violently, leaving in its wreckage for us only grotesquerie unless we are willing to learn, to understand, to respect, even to love the mysterious ways of the Lord.

The striking significance of this event was patently clear to Hopkins, but as with O'Connor's monstrous readers it was not clear to his friend Robert Bridges. Hopkins had instead patiently to instruct him.

Granted that it needs study and is obscure. … You might, without the effort that to make it all out would seem to have required, have nevertheless read it so that lines and stanzas should be left in the memory and superficial impressions deepened, and have liked some without exhausting all. … [You can get] more weathered to the style and its features. …

The inescapable riddle of the tall nun's cry of bewilderment and yearning must, Hopkins thought, lead to the inescapable comfort of recognizing the power and the triumph of her faith. But what he actually wrote to Bridges in mid-January 1879 is this: “You understand … that I desire to see you a Catholic, or, if not that, a Christian or, if not that, at least a believer in the true God.” The Wreck of the Deutschland was meant to encourage, perhaps to establish, perhaps even to guarantee that end, as it had taxed Hopkins' own faith, since first learning of this dreadful accident that occurred when he slept in his bed in peace, until he had struggled to win his own way to understanding and accepting.

What both poet and fiction writer mean to do is to wrench our fallen way of seeing (and our blindness) into the candid enlightenment of Christ's perspective. Her best critic, O'Connor said, would be Christ: she wrote with Him in mind. But she also wrote for us, in our despicable, fallen state. “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature,” like the displaced Mrs. McIntyre, of “The Displaced Person,” complicit in the “accidental” murder of the Polish refugee she had encouraged to work her farm so long as he made more money for her and didn't fill her farmland with other Poles from the Old Country, some marrying American Negroes to enter the Promised Land of America. Her desire to improve her status, her greed, seem to make her normal, even conventional, yet O'Connor makes it clear by the end that the “displaced person” of the title is not the refugee Mr. Guizac but Mrs. McIntyre herself.

In “The Artificial Nigger,” where a plaster statue of a Negro—which, an old man and young boy agree, has no right, privilege, or occasion to be happy (“He was meant to look happy” but has “a wild look of misery instead”)—suddenly destroys the shallow sanctimony and self-satisfied pride of the old man and the boy. Each had once felt superior to the other, but now before such clear depiction of human agony they merge into each other: “Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and Nelson like a miniature old man,” and in this community of releasing their repressed guilt they learn compassion, learn grace. Or in “Parker's Back,” the last story O'Connor wrote, thinking she would not live to finish, much less perfect it, consider the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ which Parker has put on his back so as to carry the Cross himself. Such an act of subject humiliation is not only misunderstood but condemned by his wife, whose ignorance gives rise to the sin of wrath.

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don't want no idolator in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was—who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

The flagellation here of the wicked and the cursed is simultaneously an act of mortification of the flesh; Parker at least has learned to submit to his two Old Testament names, Obadiah (“the Lord's servant”) and Elihu (the man of suffering in the Book of Job). The child that comes out (“crying like a baby”) is the father to the man but Sarah Ruth remains hardened in her own rigid pride: “her eyes hardened still more.” As A. R. Coulthard notes, “‘Parker's Back’ is both touchingly human and theologically profound in its testimony to the terrible price of grace.”


What is true of these stories and novels is true of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in some ways still the most difficult, if the most popular, of her works of fiction. The story begins with Bailey's mother, who places as much attention on manners as Hazel Motes places on material goods.

The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat.

She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either side of her. Bailey and the children's mother and the baby sat in front and they left Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890. The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they got back. It took them twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the city.

Like everything else O'Connor writes, this is exactingly worded. When we reread it, we note two other things about the grandmother: she is sneaky (she is deliberately deceiving Bailey about the cat, which will cause the accident that brings about the deaths of all the family) and she is proud (everything she does is centered about her own satisfaction—such as protecting the cat that loves her—or her future pleasures—taking mileage so as to center later conversation on herself and on her special knowledge). Both her deceit and pride continue unabated. Following a brief nap she awakes to recall

an old plantation house that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it.

Her inner gaze once more is fixed, this time on the sort of environment with which her son has provided neither herself nor his family, but one where she can relive her own pride in her past and point out Bailey's shortcomings for all his family to see. But to do so she must once again be deceitful—a small price to pay.

She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. “There was a secret panel in this house,” she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, “and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found …”

“Hey!” John Wesley said. “Let's go see it! We'll find it! We'll poke all the woodwork and find it! Who lives there? Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can't we turn off there?”

It is credible corruption again: the grandmother had corrupted John Wesley and she will ultimately corrupt the entire family because she knows they love the mystery of secret panels and share greedy hopes of finding silver. If we fail to see this at first, it is our own easy collusion with the same conventionality—and the same corrupt values of pride and greed—that the grandmother represents in us.

Next to her repeated acts of pride and wrongdoing, the stockpiling of venial sins without care or caution—although at first we are not prepared for this because grace comes in unexpected ways, especially for the uninitiated—we are given The Misfit, pointedly one who was “‘a gospel singer for a while,’” who is theologically alert and religiously wise. This knowledge, however, seems only to have betrayed him.

“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.

“That's when you should have started to pray,” she said. “What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?”

“Turn to the right, it was a wall,” The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. “Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain't recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”

“Maybe they put in by mistake,” the old lady said vaguely.

“Nome,” he said. “It wasn't no mistake. They had the papers on me.”

“You must have stolen something,” she said.

The Misfit sneered slightly. “Nobody had nothing I wanted,” he said. “It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself.”

“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”

We do not know for certain if The Misfit was originally innocent of crime as of sin; what seems clear is that in simply being human he naturally did “‘something wrong’” and so felt trapped in this life as in a narrow room with walls right and left. His own feelings may be abstractly or symbolically put, but they are urgent and real. Next to them the grandmother's more conventional manners seem selfish and superficial. The Misfit seems to sense this too, and, consciously or not, he condemns her greed by his own lack of it. “‘Nobody had nothing I wanted,’” he tells her, although she has wanted knowledge of the trip and recollections of her Godless past. Giving herself an occasion for sin she has given her grandchildren, perhaps her whole family, one too. But she fails to see any of this; she is too concerned to have her way to see what this occasion as an occasion of grace might teach her. The criminal's thoughts wander off to the human conditions of incarceration and alienation; her thoughts impose themselves on the situation rather than grow out of it. In their lack of communication lies O'Connor's whole sense of religion.

The grandmother's willful blindness to the fate of others, even (and especially) as it reflects on her own, is repeated when she proudly announces The Misfit's identity and so causes her family to be shot lest they serve as witnesses against him. When she, like Haze, is stripped of the protection of her son she is at first baffled, frightened, resourceless.

Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, “Jesus, Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

“Yes'm,” The Misfit said as if he agreed. “Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me.”

His twinship, rightly, is with Jesus, not with her. Like Tarwater in O'Connor's longer novel, his vocation is to be a prophet but his “wild misery” comes because he is hounded by a Christ he cannot, will not, understand. Like Jesus he is unfit for a conventional, mannered society of greedy and selfish persons. He is also misfit because his sophisticated theological sense of man's condition makes no sense to those around him. He tries once more to make his sense of kinship with Jesus clear by turning on Him, just as Hazel Motes had done.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for your to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.

Because Jesus threw things off balance for mankind, tormenting him with the knowledge of his cupidity and culpability, The Misfit will seek revenge by killing God's children. If the grandmother took up the challenge, as the patrolman does with Haze, by pointing out the theological fallacy in his argument, she might save herself. But she is not one who sees deeply. She retreats to conventional Christian solace that does not begin to approach his agonized bewilderment.

Never in O'Connor's fiction is the offer of grace put more clearly—“‘If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him’”—and never are the rewards of sin more evident: “‘No pleasure but meanness,’ he said and his voice had become almost a snarl”—but the grandmother's reply is even more shocking (and more revealing): “‘Maybe He didn't raise the dead,’ the old lady mumbled.” Given the opportunity to confess her own sins and die in a state of grace at the hands of a man who makes his role stunningly clear, she instead denies the divinity of Christ Himself. She abandons all hope for them both. She sinks down, in effect kneeling not to Jesus but to this self-confessed sinner whose own struggle against the gospel, whose adamant resistance to find his home in Christ, resembles the young Augustine and the unrepentant Hazel Motes.

The old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her [as in a religious trance].

“I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now.”

He is a sinner but not totally unregenerate: he is agonizing over the Mystery of the true Christ. What he asks for, demands, is revelation. And he gets it.

His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

And so he has led her to enact grace perhaps without knowing it. But The Misfit is doubly shocked. He cannot accept grace for himself—he is much too honest about his criminal misfitted, sinning nature and much too aggrieved with his own state, like Obidiah Elihue Parker, for that. He cannot face the nakedness of pure grace when it is offered to his undeserving self, either—and he senses God's mockery in offering grace at the hands of a stupid and shallow sinner like the grandmother.

The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him [for the temptation of grace seems to him to have a tainted source] and shot her three times [echoing Peter's triple denial of Christ] through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

But it is important to note, as O'Connor does, that “Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking.” He is shaken. Perhaps he recalls that Christ came too, according to Matthew, not to send peace but a sword (10:34); perhaps he recalls that Christ asked the lesser ones to carry forth His message. Or perhaps he finds himself, in his references to imprisonment and false arrest irretrievably mirrored in the Christ he has tried to deny. Or perhaps he finds himself mocked in the mirroring grandmother, a sinner like her. Most likely, it is all of these: he cannot run from the hound of God's grace no matter how insistently he tries. No one can.

Still O'Connor's pointed parable continues.

“She was a talker, wasn't she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life.”

It is another astonishing moment in a whole series of surprising moments of recognition. For this theologically perceptive criminal has also recognized that when endangered the grandmother has (for the first time?) suggested grace herself—“‘you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children,’” just as Christ did, but that even if her sense of reaching out first arose because he was wearing her son's shirt and because she was deeply distressed she has found the spirit of Christ in her last moments. At the crucial time for faith she has achieved salvation. Thus she not only brought The Misfit face to face with the occasion of grace; she made him into the agent of her own sense of grace. She saved both of them in spite of both of them. So did he.

The difference is that she worked by instinct once she threw off convention. The Misfit's instincts always betray him, until he works out their deeper meanings. She reaches out. He recoils. Now he has learned from her that reaching out is the only way. Earlier he had told the grandmother this, too, when he invited her to pray, but he had refused that counsel for himself. “‘I don't want no hep,’ he said. ‘I'm doing all right by myself.’” Now he knows that is not true. He is not doing all right by himself. He needs someone to help him; he needs to help someone; he needs to help himself.

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It's no real pleasure in life.”

He has told us just moments ago that there is real pleasure in life, and he has told us what it is. Meanness. If there is, now, no real pleasure left it can only mean that there is no meanness left. Just as a selfish grandmother dies selflessly thinking of another in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” so The Misfit's mean pleasures have, at this striking moment of grace, come to an end. Grace comes, it would appear, randomly—The Misfit reaches for the grandson's shirt and puts it on—and unexpectedly—at the hands of a selfish old woman and a reckless criminal—and surprisingly—“‘She would of been a good woman … if it had been somebody to shoot her every minute of her life’”—and surely—“‘Shut up, Bobby Lee. … It's no real pleasure in [this] life’”—in the fictions, long and short, of Flannery O'Connor.


In The Violent Bear It Away, Rayber remarks that “Children are cursed with believing.” Often in O'Connor the child is father to the man. Even blinded Hazel teaches Mrs. Flood; perhaps Bevel's joy will teach old, dull Mr. Paradise; the grandmother, at the point of death, returns to childlike prayer. They have, all of them, become children of God when grace steals on them, as Tarwater sets out for “the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping,” unawares. O'Connor's monstrous readers did not always get the point—and precisely because they did not always want the point, because too they were the point. But she kept on warning them even when paralysis spread upward and outward through her body. She might have found some consolation in a fellow sufferer, a fellow poet, a fellow reader of Hopkins, John Berryman. “Oil all my turbulence,” he writes in “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,”

Oil all my turbulence as at Thy dictation
I sweat out my wayward works.
Father Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ.
Let me lie down exhausted, content with that.

The reference is to a letter Hopkins wrote in June 1878 to Canon Dixon. “Fame,” he remarks,

whether won or lost is a thing which lies in the award of a random, reckless, incompetent, and unjust judge, the public, the multitude, The only just judge, the only just literary critic, is Christ, who prizes, is proud of, and admires, more than any man, more than the receiver himself can, the gifts of his own making.

It is, really, another way to interpret Augustine's dictum that the heart is restless until it abides with the Lord.

Flannery O'Connor's last writing, scrawled six days before her death on August 3, 1964, is to her friend Maryat Lee and concerned with an anonymous telephone call. The note was found on O'Connor's bedside table by her mother after her death, and she dutifully mailed it.

28 July 64

Dear Raybat,

Cowards can be just as vicious as those who declare themselves—more so. Dont take any romantic attitude toward that call. Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions. And call the police. That might be a lead for them.

Dont know when I'll send those stories. I've felt too bad to type them.



If not stories, then perhaps a letter; if not a typewriter, then a crippled hand. Reaching out, in whatever fashion, can also be construed an act of grace.

Bill Oliver (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Oliver, Bill. “Flannery O'Connor Compassion.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 15 (1986): 1-15.

[In the following essay, Oliver analyzes O'Connor's unique sense of compassion in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgment Day.”]

Compassion is the quality O'Connor's fiction is supposed to lack. John Hawkes, in an early and still influential essay, said that her characters “are judged, victimized, made to appear only as absurd entities of flesh” (399). Jesse Hill Ford suspected that she hated human kind. “Her fiction,” he said, “has an axe-murder feel to it” (Martin 216). More recently, the French critic André Bleikasten asserts that between O'Connor and her characters “lies all the distance of contempt, disgust, and derision” (56). Not even O'Connor's many apologists make great claims for her tenderness; by emphasizing her role as an embattled Christian calling for repentance in the wilderness of American secularism, they imply that she could not afford much compassion.

O'Connor claimed it was not human kind she hated but the spiritual obtuseness of the age in which she lived: “My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have in these times the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable” (Mystery and Manners 33-34). Her sharp eye saw much that was grotesque, perverse, unacceptable-and she did not hesitate to judge these aberrations harshly. She scorned “hazy compassion,” which she said encouraged the writer to excuse all human weakness “because human weakness is human” (Mystery and Manners 43).

She believed, however, in another kind of compassion:

There is a better sense in which the word can be used but seldom is—the sense of being in travail with and for creation in its subjection to vanity. This is a sense which implies the recognition of sin; this is a suffering-with, but one which blunts no edges and makes no excuses.

(Mystery and Manners 165-66)

Compassion, she held, does not deny the facts of sin and guilt. It grows out of the conviction that all men, though fashioned in God's image, are sinners and therefore need the aid and comfort of their fellows. But is this type of compassion—the kind bestowed upon one sinful mortal by another—really to be found in O'Connor's stories? More particularly, is it to be found in her treatment of her own characters?

What one misses in O'Connor's fiction, says W. S. Marks, is “‘the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust’” (27). If O'Connor sometimes regarded the human dust she wrote about with more disdain than sympathy, it is because she found the pride and presumption of her characters intolerable. Her fellow Catholic Walker Percy once observed that man in the twentieth century “could not take account of God, the devil, and the angels if they were standing before him, because he has already peopled the universe with his own hierarchies” (The Message in the Bottle 113). The statement certainly applies to O'Connor's falsely pious characters, who not only set themselves above the “niggers” and the “white-trash” but above God himself. They claim to believe in God, but they do not really think they need him. They feel they are saved simply by being themselves—clean, honest, and hardworking. The pharisaic Ruby Turpin (“Revelation”) may stand for them all:

Her heart rose. God had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.

(Complete Stories 497)

O'Connor wants her characters to feel their true weight, especially the weight of their sin and guilt. Time and again, she deprives them of their buoyancy, returning their dust to dust. She called this humbling process a “modest achievement” for the fiction writer “but perhaps a necessary one” (Mystery and Manners 168)—necessary lest her audience, failing to appreciate the effects of original sin, also fail to comprehend the need for grace.

There is no doubt that O'Connor was particularly well suited by talent and temperament for the job of exposing human folly and wickedness. Even if the task had not been, in her view, “necessary,” one suspects she would have done it anyway. She did it so well and took such pleasure in it. She does not, however, lack compassion. True, her compassion is often obscured by her satiric wit, but it is there. Some of her best short fiction is remarkable precisely for its quality of mercy. Four such stories are “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgement Day.”

O'Connor said that writers must understand their limitations, work within them, and try to make virtues of them (Mystery and Manners 27, 152). Believing her most serious limitation to be an audience largely unsympathetic or indifferent to her Christian theme, she honed a narrative voice capable of shocking readers with its austere accounts of sinners in the hands of an angry God. But she did more than turn aesthetic constraints into virtues; sometimes, as in the four stories I have mentioned, her fiction entirely transcends those constraints, particularly the ones imposed upon her by the adversary role she felt she must adopt in relation to her readers and characters.

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgement Day” are not “typical” O'Connor stories. On the contrary, they deserve our attention partly because they are exceptional. O'Connor managed in these stories to temper satire with sympathy, to speak in a voice at once disapproving and gentle, and thus to convey a viewpoint more complex and humane than we sometimes associate with her. These stories epitomize the special brand of compassion that she described, the kind that blunts no edges and makes no excuses. It is a compassion that emerges most clearly from her handling of character. In each of these stories, O'Connor allows one of the characters to express sentiments akin to her own; she allows the protagonist to experience an epiphany and have the chance to react to it; and she grants him the capacity to view the world with an almost childlike sense of wonder. Through these means, O'Connor not only extends her aesthetic landscape but creates in her own work the possibility of compassion.


O'Connor spoke frequently of her urge to “write against” the current of secularism that she felt all around her. She vented that urge, for the most part indirectly, through satire. A common feature of the four stories under consideration, however, is that each contains a character who openly and adamantly voices anti-secular sentiments. These characters are too unsophisticated to be called spokesmen for the author, but they do air opinions that appear to approximate O'Connor's own.

The twelve-year-old girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” regards with undisguised suspicion and dislike the antics of her more worldly cousins:

All weekend the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly. … They came in the brown convent uniforms they had to wear at Mount St. Scholastica but as soon as they opened their suitcases, they took off their uniforms and put on red skirts and loud blouses. They put on lipstick and their Sunday shoes and walked around in high heels all over the house, always passing the long mirror in the hall slowly to get a look at their legs. None of their ways were lost on the child.

(Complete Stories 236)

In their eagerness to shed their convent uniforms and to parade themselves in “red skirts and loud blouses” (and thus, in the terms of the story, to profane the temples of their bodies), the two teenage girls reflect the usual indifference of O'Connor's characters to their spirituality. What is unusual about the scene is that the author's disapproval of the girls is shared by one of her characters—the child, on whom none of the teenagers' ways are lost. After a few hours of observing her cousins, the twelve-year-old decides that they are “practically morons.” Her opinion is partly the result of her pride and her bad temper at being left out of the girls' activities. But also the child is honestly offended by the teenagers, who joke about what she takes seriously—the Church's teaching that confirmed Christians are temples of the Holy Ghost.

Impiety also arouses the ire of Tanner (“Judgement Day”) and of Mr. Head (“The Artificial Nigger”), who share with their author a particular distrust of that apex of secularism, the big city. Tanner would rather die than live in New York; he suffers a fatal heart attack trying to escape his exile there. Mr. Head's nine-year-old grandson, on the other hand, is proud that he was born in the city and years to see it again. Mr. Head, in agreeing to take the boy there for a day, thinks of the trip as a “moral mission,” a way to cure the child of his infatuation:

Mr. Head had been thinking about this trip for several months but it was for the most part in moral terms that he conceived it. It was to be a lesson that the boy would never forget. He was to find out from it that he had no cause for pride merely because he had been born in the city. He was to find out that the city was not a great place.


Far from being a “great place,” the city, in Mr. Head's imagination, is fraught with temptation and peril. But he believes the journey there is worth the risk, if it will teach the boy once and for all where his true country lies.

Sarah Ruth Cates, who marries O. E. Parker in “Parker's Back,” does not have to look as far as the city to discover profanities that anger her. Parker first feels her wrath when he tries to attract her attention by pretending to hurt his finger while working on a truck engine—he begins swearing loudly from the imagined injury. The next thing he knows, Sarah Ruth has attacked him with a broom: “Parker's vision was so blurred that for an instant he thought he had been attacked by some creature from above, a giant hawk-eyed angel wielding a hoary weapon” (511-512). This avenging angel does not relax her vigilance after marriage: “Parker did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn't change his ways” (519).

An interesting thing happens in these stories in which O'Connor permits one of the characters to share some of her own antagonism toward the secular world. Although she grants the character the strength of his opinions, she reveals those opinions to be narrow ones. It is as if, by giving the role of Christian polemicist to a twelve-year-old child, or to Tanner or Mr. Head, or to Sarah Ruth, O'Connor frees herself to examine that role objectively and to explore its shortcomings. Those readers who have criticized her for a lack of compassion, for the harshness of her attacks on human nature and the things of this world, have sometimes overlooked the fact that her fiction comments negatively on these very tendencies.

In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the twelve-year-old's reasons for disliking her cousins accord more or less with the author's. At the same time, the story shows that the child's readiness to scoff at her shallow teenage relatives and at every sort of human folly threatens to dim her perception that holiness may dwell within all people and things, even the apparently inane. Similarly, Tanner's hatred of the city obscures from him its variety and nuances and completely alienates him from his daughter, who has chosen New York as her home. As for Mr. Head, who views the city merely as a backdrop for the moral lesson he proposes to teach his grandson, O'Connor throws him upon the mercy of the urban complex, thus forcing him to confront its mysterious reality and the possibility that it contains moral lessons of its own. Sarah Ruth, who is oblivious to all lessons but those she herself imparts, is so insistent on the spiritual nature of God and on the corruption of the physical world that she fails to recognize the spiritual promptings that underlie her husband's admittedly crude attempts to gratify his sense of wonder about life.

Because all these characters are suspicious of the world, they miss much of its beauty and mystery. They do not have a sacramental view of life, which holds that grace comes to man not in direct infusions from on high but through the things of earth. It was the sacramental view that informed O'Connor's own writing, or so she said in her essays. Critics have often disagreed with her on this point. And indeed, her laughter, like that of the young girl in “Temple,” so belittles its objects at times that it seems on the verge of denying them the intrinsic value a sacramental perspective would claim for them. This is not the case in the four stories we are studying. One reason may be that O'Connor, by giving some of her polemical impulses to a character, feels less constrained herself to write against the world and is thus free to adopt a more tolerant, one might say a more compassionate, attitude toward her material.


Our four stories have something else in common. They end differently from most of O'Connor's short fiction. Her work is renowned for its violent conclusions. A foolishly prim and self-righteous grandmother is shot to death in a ditch by an escaped convict, but not before she realizes her spiritual kinship with the killer. A high-school counselor who prides himself on helping an underprivileged delinquent but who neglects his own son confronts the extent of his iniquity when he discovers his child hanging from a rafter in the attic, a suicide. A young man who dreams of a life of genteel leisure is forced instead to the threshold of a “world of guilt and sorrow” by the sudden death of his mother whom he has mistreated.

Such endings, though dramatically powerful, no doubt contribute to O'Connor's image as a writer more interested in punishing her characters than in reforming them, a writer, in other words, more vindictive than merciful. This is the impression of her that persists among many readers despite her attempts to explain the purpose behind her apocalyptic endings. “I have found,” she wrote, “that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work” (Mystery and Manners 112). Certainly, there is nothing flattering or even comforting to human nature in O'Connor's observation that violence is often necessary to penetrate the hardheadedness of her characters. But there is a kind of rough compassion in her willingness to administer the shock treatments that she believed must precede conversion. The endings of her stories do not merely punish her characters; they hint at the possibility of redemption for those who accept their initiation into suffering.

Most of O'Connor's stories, however, show us nothing of this redemptive process, nothing of the lasting effects on the individual of his epiphany. The stories leave out such experience, quite simply, because O'Connor usually concludes each of them just at the moment when the protagonist's old self has been devastated and the new self has yet to emerge.

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgement Day” depart from this pattern. In each, the epiphany occurs prior to the ending. The main character experiences a sudden spiritual insight, and he has a chance to react to it. Even when the revelation involves substantial physical or psychic violence, the shock is not catastrophic. It does not destroy the protagonist but initiates in him a process of reflection and maturation. O'Connor, in turn, is free at the end of each story to explore the positive effects of the experience upon the character.1

In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” the twelve-year-old child's epiphany comes on the last night of a local carnival. She has not been allowed to go to the carnival, but her older cousins attend, and when they return, they tell her about a freak they saw in a tent—a human with male and female organs. Fascinated by their account, the child lies in bed, suspended between sleep and waking, trying to picture the hermaphrodite. She makes a surprising discovery. “I am a temple of the Holy Ghost,” she imagines the hermaphrodite saying to those who have paid to come and stare (246). The twelve-year-old's intuition, at this moment, builds upon her earlier sense that she, and all Christians, are temples of God. In her dream-like state, she divines that even scandalously grotesque creatures, like the carnival freak, are potentially holy vessels.

The story does not end there. The next day, the child and her mother take the cousins back to their convent school, where they all attend mass. When the priest elevates the host, the child remembers the carnival freak and its words to the crowd as reported by her cousins: “I don't dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be” (248). Intuitively, the child perceives, in the freak and in its words, a parallel to Christ as embodied in the Eucharist—Christ the man-god, the spirit-become-flesh, a kind of “freak” himself. Furthermore, she begins to see, through the examples of Christ and the hermaphrodite, that wonder, humility, and resignation are the fitting human responses to a God who works in mysterious and even shocking ways.

Although O'Connor's characters seldom reach such depths of understanding, the child in “Temple” is not unique in her penetration. One thinks of Ruby Turpin, for example, or of Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater in the novels; they also attain (though more reluctantly than the child) a profound knowledge of themselves and their relation to God.

The same is true of the protagonists in “The Artificial Nigger” and “Judgement Day.” After Mr. Head becomes frightened and betrays his grandson during their trip to the city, his pride is destroyed and the would-be moral guide is forced to recognize his own weakness. It is then that he feels God's saving mercy: “He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as he forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise” (270). Tanner is another who grows through humiliation. Rather than “lower” himself by working for the black doctor who has bought the land where he is a squatter, he goes to live with his daughter in New York. But as he is made to endure the indignities and brutalities of the city, his longing for home and friends overcomes his pride. He prays for deliverance, imagining his return to Alabama as a triumphant day of judgment, an occasion for emotional and spiritual rejuvenation.

Vanity is also assailed with positive results in “Parker's Back,” although in this story it is not the self-righteous Christian, Sarah Ruth, who forsakes pride, but her hedonistic husband. O. E. flatters himself that he is his own man; the tattoos that adorn his body reflect his self-infatuation. But, at the same time, he feels vaguely dissatisfied with his life and is driven, by instincts he does not understand, to search for something outside himself. When a lightning bolt knocks him off his tractor, he goes to visit the tattoo artist once more—to have the face of Christ etched upon his back. He senses that his life is no longer his own: “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed” (527).

We are used to distinguishing the presence of grace in O'Connor's stories by its destructive and even fatal consequences. But for O. E. Parker, Tanner, Mr. Head, and the twelve-year-old child in “Temple,” there is life after revelation. These characters recognize their failings, suffer for them, and gain a new perspective that betokens continued growth. By portraying the redemptive process, O'Connor makes more explicit the effects of grace that she only hints at in other stories. More importantly, she gives us a sense of God working through human nature, not against it. Grace, in these stories, is manifest less by sudden violence than by the soul's halting progress through time. Consequently, the characters are granted the dignity of cooperating in their regeneration instead of simply capitulating before an inexorable Lord.

O'Connor sympathizes with the desires and failings of these characters. She feels compassion for them. But it is her brand of compassion, and few readers will mistake it for sentimentality, the word she applied to much of what passed for compassion in contemporary fiction. “Sentimentality,” she wrote, “is the skipping of the process of the Fall and Redemption in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence” (Mystery and Manners 148). However kindly she may feel toward a character, O'Connor never loves him for his faults, never overlooks his faults, never excuses them. It is not enough for her that a person “just be himself,” for there is no self-justification in her world. Her compassion “blunts no edges” because it has been sharpened by the knowledge that human beings are terribly imperfect and that grace, whatever its powers, necessarily works through a fallen world. Innocence, therefore, is a state arrived at, if at all, only after much backsliding and struggle. The twelve-year-old in “Temple” begins to see the world in a mysterious and holy way, but this new vision does not immediately transform her sour personality. On the trip back to the convent with her mother and cousins, she sticks her head out the car window rather than listen to the insipid conversation or breathe the air made foul by Alonzo, the perspiring fat boy who drives them. When a “big, moon-faced nun” at the convent tries to hug her, she fixes the woman with a frigid frown. Later, however, the nun swoops down and hugs the child anyway, “mashing the side of her face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt” (248). Although the twelve-year-old refuses to be implicated in the “stupidity” of those around her and sometimes dreams of being transfigured by a quick and glorious martyrdom, O'Connor implies that it is the slow and ignominious way of the cross that awaits her, and most of us.


Mr. Head, Tanner, and O. E. Parker, like the twelve-year-old child, retain faults that O'Connor refuses to ignore. Why is it, then, they evoke in her an unaccustomed sympathy? Surely one reason must be that, despite their limitations, they have the capacity to respond with childlike wonder to the mystery of things. They differ radically from most of O'Connor's characters, who fear and try to suppress what they cannot grasp immediately through reason.

Few of O'Connor's characters possess the sort of imagination she described in an early draft of “The Fiction Writer and His Country”:

The fiction writer's true country is … the world of uncorrupted imagination. … Of course, we have all been expelled from the Garden of Eden … and this is why the world of imagination is so hard for us to enter. … It demands a pull against gravity.

(Asals 127)

The “uncorrupted imagination”—O'Connor sometimes called it “anagogical vision”—confers the ability to see beyond the surfaces of life to a spiritual dimension (Mystery and Manners 72). Such vision is essential to the Christian as well as to the fiction writer; both need to see hidden meanings in reality. But, as O'Connor implies, the imagination is not uncorrupted. Human perceptions, she would argue, have been dulled by sin, and the fallen world seems at times devoid of spiritual content. The protagonists in our four stories, nevertheless, manage to inhabit the world of imagination. They do so by disregarding sharp distinctions between matter and spirit, between the visible and the invisible. Their vision is characterized by a literalness that discovers improbable truths normally obscured from all but the very young, who have the innocence and daring to see them.2 The twelve-year-old in “Temple” can see Christ in a carnival freak because she takes church doctrine at its word, vividly imagining that God dwells within his creatures. Mr. Head can imagine that sewer openings are portals of hell and that beams of light are blessings from on high because, for him, a trip to the city is a great spiritual trial. Tanner can envision himself literally bursting forth from his coffin because the fact of his approaching death pales beside his anticipation of judgment day.

The distinctive nature of the uncorrupted imagination is perhaps best observed in “Parker's Back,” in which the “motion of wonder” imparted to O. E.'s life by the color, variety, and sheer vastness of the world contrasts sharply with the pious complacency of his wife, who judges the world to be nothing but a “heap of vanity.” Sarah Ruth has “icepick eyes” that probe reality only deep enough to detect occasions of sin. But Parker's eyes are “the same pale slate-gray color as the ocean”; they reflect “the immense spaces around him as if they were a microcosm of the mysterious sea” (514). Parker senses the mystery of things, including the mystery of his own existence. When, as a teenager, he sees a tattooed man at the fair, with an “arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin,” he is “filled with emotion” (513). Later, when he meets Sarah Ruth and is inexplicably attracted to her, he feels as if he has been “conjured.” And finally, when he encounters the face of Christ in a tattoo artist's book of designs, he is enthralled by the picture's “subtle power.”

Though puzzled and frightened by the pull these things exert on him, Parker cannot deny the urgency of his feelings. He must find a way to express them and typically does so, as a child might, by acting them out. Moved by the “intricate design of brilliant color” that adorns the man at the fair, he sets about having his own body decorated. Parker, however, derives little more than immediate gratification from the tattoos; eventually, they only deepen his impression that he is somehow incomplete, half-created:

Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. … As the space … for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.


Parker begins to look for fulfillment in ways that are less egocentric and harder for him to understand. He marries Sarah Ruth against his better judgment. She is skinny and poor. She cannot cook. Worst of all, she claims to hate his tattoos. Parker is ashamed that he stays with her. But the fact is, her inexorableness, her demands, appeal to him. She helps to answer his need for something outside himself, something to which he can sacrifice himself in opposition to common sense.

Thinking to please Sarah Ruth and make his marriage go more smoothly, Parker decides to have a picture of God tattooed on his back. He has no particular image of God in mind—“just so it's God.” “She can't say she don't like the looks of God,” he reasons (525). But once again Parker's imagination gets the better of his reason, as he becomes mesmerized by “the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ” (522). The Christ's “all-demanding eyes,” which make Sarah Ruth's eyes appear “soft and dilatory” by comparison, hint at an authority more compelling than any Parker has known, and he feels that he must submit to it. It seems that he cannot permit himself even the uneasy repose he has found in his wife. Against self-interest and common sense, his imagination keeps trying to answer his feelings of incompleteness by launching him into a “worse unknown.”

Parker's unusual spiritual quest makes him feel like a fool, and he wishes “that he would return to doing things according to his own sound judgement” (524). Desperately, he hopes that Sarah Ruth will be able to put his actions in perspective and tell him what he should do. But she only adds to his distress. Instead of liking the tattoo, she considers it idolatrous:

“Don't you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain't anybody I know.”

“It's him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God? God don't look like that!

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain't seen him.”

“He don't look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He's a spirit. No man shall see his face.”


Sarah Ruth, the avowed Christian, cannot recognize God in the picture on Parker's back because her imagination fails to see him reflected in any aspect of the material world. She is guilty, O'Connor once noted, of believing “that you can worship in pure spirit” (Habit of Being 594). Parker, more nearly a Christian than his wife, suffers her persecution, as she beats him and drives him from the house. The last we see of him he is leaning against a tree, “crying like a baby.”

We are invited, in this final scene, to laugh at O. E.'s simplicity and his confusion over the unexpected turns his life has taken. But our laughter is sympathetic. It does not diminish O. E.'s worth; it enhances it. O'Connor, who worried about getting the right tone in this story (Habit of Being 427), tempers satire with compassion in her portrayal of the conceited bumpkin who, though comically stupid and bungling, possesses a large soul and an irresistible “attraction to the Holy.” We often laugh at O'Connor's characters for their grotesque deficiencies; we laugh at Parker because he has a strong and resourceful imagination that he does not understand and cannot control. In other words, we laugh at him for what he is in a positive sense as well as for what he is not. We feel, moreover, that we understand Parker, not because we have studied him from a superior height, but because we know what it is to experience ineffable longings and to be ashamed of our clumsy attempts to express them. Even as we laugh at Parker, we are “suffering with” him.

O'Connor did not apologize if her beliefs offended humanistic sensibilities. Her God, like Pascal's, was not the God of the philosophers and scholars but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “This is an unlimited God,” she said,

and one who has revealed himself specifically. It is one who became man and rose from the dead. It is one who confounds the sense and sensibilities, one known early on as a stumbling block. There is no way to gloss over this specification or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.

(Mystery and Manners 161)

Far from wanting to gloss over the less appealing aspects of her faith, she seemed at times determined to emphasize them. She did not believe that the truth of religion depended on how emotionally satisfying it was to its followers:

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of us all … when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.

(Habit of Being 100)

In addressing an audience that she felt had made truth subservient to personal desires, she tried to force her readers to confront the disturbing essence of her message by stressing those immutable and imponderable elements of religious truth least flattering to human vanity. Such an approach has led some readers to conclude that she lacks compassion, that her God is actually the enemy of man.

The stories we have been examining help to temper the impression of O'Connor as a human scourge. They help us to see that her religion was not an excuse for her to vent “fury of a very irreligious kind” (Hendin 26), that her statements about anagogical vision and the sacramental view of reality were not a smoke screen for her essential misanthropy. These stories support her claim that in a world less hostile to her beliefs, one peopled by characters with even a rudimentary religious sensibility, a world, in other words, not unlike the one she creates in these stories, she might have relaxed and used “more normal means of talking” to her readers (Mystery and Manners 34).

It is when she modulates her voice in this way that we detect the compassion in it. It is in these few stories, moreover, that we glimpse the direction her growth as a writer might have taken. We know from her letters that she was interested in trying a different kind of story, in exploring the possibilities of understatement as opposed to exaggeration and distortion:

I keep thinking more and more about the presentation of love and charity. … I keep seeing Elias in that cave, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord in the thunder and lightning and wind, and only hearing it finally in the gentle breeze, and I feel that I'll have to be able to do that sooner or later, or anyway keep trying.

(Habit of Being 373)

O'Connor's stories are so remarkable for their thunder and lightning and wind that the occasional gentle breeze passes almost unnoticed. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgement Day” help to remind us of that sometimes forgotten element in her work.


  1. Diane Tolomeo (336) makes this point about the last three stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge: “Revelation,” “Parker's Back,” and “Judgement Day.”

  2. O'Connor said of her own work that it is “literal in the same sense that a child's drawing is literal.” This feature of her writing has been commented upon by Asals (126-27), by Claire Katz (58), and also by Joyce Carol Oates (97).

Works Cited

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: U. of Georgia Press, 1982.

Bleikasten, André. “The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor.” Les Americanistes: New French Criticism on Modern American Fiction. Eds. Ira D. Johnson and Christiane Johnson. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat, 1978.

Hawkes, John. “Flannery O'Connor's Devil.” Sewanee Review 70 (1962): 395-407.

Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O'Connor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970.

Katz, Claire. “Flannery O'Connor's Rage of Vision.” American Literature 46 (1974): 54-67.

Marks, W. S. “Advertisements for Grace: Flannery O'Connor's ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1966): 19-27.

Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1969.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Visionary Art of Flannery O'Connor.” Fiction by American Women. Ed. Winifred Farrant Bevilacqua. Port Washington, N. Y.: Associated Faculty P, 1983.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

———. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Tolomeo, Diane. “Home to the True Country: The Final Trilogy of Flannery O'Connor.” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 335-40.

Ted R. Spivey (essay date April 1987)

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SOURCE: Spivey, Ted R. “Flannery O'Connor, The New Criticism, and Deconstruction.” Southern Review 23, no. 2 (April 1987): 271-80.

[In the following essay, Spivey encourages various critical perspectives on O'Connor's work, contending that relying on only one will result in a limited and one-sided view of her fiction.]

Since Flannery O'Conner's death in 1964, her work, like Faulkner's, has attracted the attention of critics and scholars throughout the world. In fact, she is now generally acclaimed as the modern South's greatest novelist after Faulkner. Yet we may well ask if both Faulkner and O'Connor, for all the excellent criticism their work has received, do not still await adequate examination in the context of their thought and their total life experience.

One aspect of O'Connor that requires our attention is her own concern with the many aspects of meaning in her work; it is for this reason, among many others, that her letters are so important to those who would understand her and would experience her imaginative power. In a sense, O'Connor was an intertextual critic long before the appearance of deconstructive criticism. Writing about deconstruction and semiotics, Jonathan Culler recommends an intertextual approach that relates literary to nonliterary texts for the following reason: “Since students do not take for granted that literature is something they ought to study, teachers have to be able to relate literature to what they do take for granted or to alternative accounts of human experience in order to make apparent the virtues of literature as an object of study and a source of pleasure.” O'Connor believed that everyone, not just college students, needed teaching, and that the critic as well as the creative writer could take part in a form of teaching that relates literature, philosophy, theology, religion, history, and psychology. The new critics of the eighties, Culler says, steeped in the views of semiotics and deconstruction, are “able to discuss literature in its relations to more familiar cultural products and in its relations to other ways of writing about human experience, such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history.” Both O'Connor's letters and fiction reveal a concern with the kind of interrelationship of texts Culler suggests. Indeed, my own friendship with O'Connor from 1958 until her death in 1964 was based in large part on discussions about connections among books on philosophy, theology, psychology, and mythology that we had exchanged.

My first concern in writing critically about O'Connor's work was the fear of becoming caught up in the intentional fallacy. Because I had talked with the author about her literary intentions and about her religious and philosophical views, I wondered if I could work very well within the tradition of the New Criticism that I had inherited and still very much believed in. Furthermore, I was not really sure I understood certain aspects of O'Connor's work. When The Violent Bear It Away appeared, I was greatly impressed with its imaginative power, but certain aspects of its meaning escaped me. I began to understand this novel's chief theme when I first read in the summer issue of the Sewanee Review O'Connor's novella entitled “The Lame Shall Enter First.” I was also struck by John Hawkes's article in the same issue for the reason that the role of the devil, which Hawkes believed was central to her work as an artist, was essential in understanding her second novel and the novella which followed. I wrote an essay on “The Lame Shall Enter First” and her reply of January 27, 1963, was heartening. Her letter began: “You have certainly got my intention down on this story. I'm not sure myself that I carried out the intention dramatically so well. To tell the truth, I haven't read the story over since it was published because I didn't want to be confronted too strongly with my failure with it: also I am still too close to it, but your analysis is cheering and makes me feel I'll be able to read it soon.” O'Connor not only went on in the letter to offer her criticism of the article, suggesting a few changes, which I made, but she also advised me where to try it:

I guess the South Atlantic would be a good place to send it since you know somebody there, or maybe the Ga. Review or maybe the Sewanee, since this has considerable to do with the devil and they have already published one thing about me and the devil which was pretty off-center as far as I am concerned.

After being rejected by the Sewanee, with an encouraging note from the editor, Andrew Lytle, the article appeared in Studies in Short Fiction in 1964 and was reprinted in 1968 in a collection of essays from the B. Herder Book Co. of St. Louis entitled Flannery O'Connor.

Flannery's letter to me concerning my article was an encouraging as any letter from a writer to a critic could be. The concluding paragraph led me to resolve to continue my own study of her work for the rest of my life. She went on to say quite simply: “I do thank you for writing this. It's a great help to know that somebody understands what I am after [sic] doing.”

My own previous immersion in the New Criticism still made me worry about trying to understand O'Connor's intentions and about what might appear to some to be too much personal involvement by both the writer and the critic in the process of criticism. Yet one of the values Flannery most often spoke up for in all of her writing, particularly in her letters, was the necessity of taking into account the personal factor in all activities. Her writing, including much of her best fiction, continually warned against the increasing emphasis in the modern world on the abstract and the impersonal. In this matter she reminds us of Jacques Derrida's attack on logocentrism. I began to ask myself at this time if the New Criticism had not always placed too much emphasis, in its efforts to rid the world of impressionistic and moralistic criticism, on an impersonal, objective analysis of meaning and form in individual work. I think even then my mind was moving toward the kind of criticism that in the eighties has become dominant in academic circles. Flannery would not have agreed with certain aspects of deconstruction, but I think she would have wholeheartedly endorsed the concept of intertextuality and the opposition to logocentrism. She was intensely concerned with the interrelationship among many kinds of texts—being interested not only in the usual kinds of literary, sociological, psychological, philosophical, and historical texts but also in letters, newspaper advertisements, and comic strips as texts.

An example of O'Connor's use of a nonliterary text in her work is her fictional use of an advertisement taken out regularly in an Atlanta newspaper by a religious fundamentalist. The advertisement always bore this title: “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” In an expanded version of my first essay, originally given as a lecture at Georgia State College and eventually published in a booklet entitled The Humanities in the Contemporary South, I mentioned the fact that Why Do the Heathen Rage? was the tentative title for the new novel she was working on when she died, part of which appeared in Esquire in the summer of 1963. She and I had several times discussed the advertisement, and I think she must have liked my referring to it in the expanded essay, which I read as part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Georgia State University's founding. In February 1964, she wrote to Louise Abbot concerning the new version of the original article: “He [Spivey] sent me a paper on my stuff which he read recently at Georgia State. I liked it very much, much more than the last one. It seemed better put together, maybe because it had to be spoken.” I would not know about this remark until Sally Fitzgerald's edition of the letters appeared in print.

After more than twenty-five years of studying Flannery O'Connor's work, I have concluded that, as important as the New Criticism is for studying her work, deconstructive and biographical criticism can also provide important insights into her often difficult art. The New Critics, of course, minimized the role of biographical facts in criticism, but unless one understands O'Connor's involvement in intellectual concerns and influences on her work stemming from a variety of texts, there is the danger that she will be seen as no more than a writer in the southern Gothic tradition, or, at best, as a novelist of manners who gave a Gothic twist to social satire. Seeing O'Connor through the eyes of the deconstructionists, using the concepts of intertextuality and logocentrism, will help readers understand how much she sought to avoid the influence of writers like Faulkner and Welty, both of whom she admired. To see O'Connor in intertextual terms, one must consider Nathanael West, an atypical writer of the thirties who first found an audience in the fifties. West gave O'Connor a vision of what could be accomplished technically in a new kind of ironic short fiction. Robert Fitzgerald tells us that O'Connor urged on him only two books—As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts—and that “it is pretty clear from her work that they were close to her heart as a writer.” What drew O'Connor to West's Miss Lonelyhearts was its brevity, its concentrated irony, and its power to shock the reader out of his complacency. West gave O'Connor a vision of the collapse of logocentric attitudes in modern America and helped her to achieve a kind of vision not found earlier in southern fiction.

As for the influence of other novelists, she told me in 1958 that more than anyone else it came from two French authors, Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. These two authors, for her, were the chief figures in the modern Catholic literary tradition. For instance, she tells Father John McCown in a letter that “anybody who wants to be introduced to Catholic fiction will have to start with the French—Mauriac and Bernanos.” She also admired, she tells Father McCown, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, J. F. Powers, Walker Percy, and Wilfred Sheed. The one book by a Catholic author she insisted that I read was Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest. In a letter to the correspondent “A” she writes: “Also reading a book called The Eclipse of God by Martin Buber that Dr. Spivey sent me. I have introduced him to Bernanos whom he likes.” Flannery O'Connor was puzzling to many because her interest in intellectual Catholicism and her prophetic viewpoint placed her in both the past and the immediate future. To understand the O'Connor who belongs to the future we need the deconstructionist viewpoint because O'Connor seems in her fiction to cry out prophetically, as much as Derrida himself, against logocentrism. Yet as a daily reader of Aquinas, O'Connor sought intertextual links with her own religious heritage and with that medieval theologian who helped to launch the logocentric rationalism of the West, the demise of which the author's best work often records detail.

Because of the paradoxes of O'Connor's fictional vision, a deconstructionist view of her work is inevitable. She has in all of her humanity not yet been deeply studied, though Fitzgerald's edition of her letters is opening new doors to scholars and readers who would know her better. The New Criticism is partly responsible for this. O'Connor knew well several archons of this tradition, chiefly John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Caroline Gordon. But the New Criticism in estimating her work never took into full account her devotion to West nor did it consider O'Connor as a woman of letters; chiefly, however, the New Critics seemed unaware of her view of the action of grace that could shatter all logocentric viewpoints.

Another significant reason why her attack on logocentrism has been ignored is the action of the public press, which often has tried to see her as a recluse who wrote in the mode of the southern Gothic. The danger is that she might eventually be summed up by journalistic slogans that even exhaustive biographies like the one Sally Fitzgerald is writing cannot dispel. William Faulkner became in the hands of journalists the Sage of Yoknapatawpha County at a time when, though a Nobel Prize winner, he was struggling with alcoholism. What is needed to dispel the inevitable influence of journalistic criticism is an understanding of both the deconstructive and the traditionalist sides of Flannery O'Connor. I think we must avoid Sally Fitzgerald's belief, expressed in her introduction to the letters, that there is “one true likeness of O'Connor.” No one likeness of any writer exists, no matter how good her letters were. There is much that she spoke in conversation to me and to others that does not appear in her letters. There is much in her fiction that is unlike anything she ever wrote, spoke, or even understood.

Flannery O'Connor was fortunate in knowing both Sally Fitzgerald and her husband Robert, and she was also fortunate to have the friendship of Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Caroline Gordon, and Katherine Anne Porter. As a young woman she found a literary tradition waiting for her, one that included the New Criticism, and she stepped into it with understanding but also with restlessness and pain. The restlessness and pain she kept from the older generation and sometimes even from herself. She often, I think, repressed an anger toward a logocentric intellectual tradition that she also studiously cultivated. The same may be said of her attitude toward the South. For instance, Fitzgerald says that “it is clear from her correspondence that she cherished” her life in the South. Yet I have heard her complain bitterly of the South and say she wished she were living again in New York. She benefited from knowing Agrarians like Ransom, Tate, and Gordon; but she was only in part an Agrarian, even though she lived on a farm much of her creative life. Like the Agrarians, she sought to maintain the values of a southern culture based in large part on agriculture, but she was in her fiction the prophet of an age that has now replaced the Agrarian South, that of the sprawling modern city. Thus in many ways she was two people.

I once told Flannery of a dream I had had of her being a middle-aged woman of letters, very well dressed and magisterial; yet in a back room in the dream she kept locked another side of herself, who was Carson McCullers dressed in blue jeans. Ever since I had first met her in 1958, she had told me how much she disliked Carson McCullers' writing. I never heard her give a reasoned statement concerning her critical views of McCullers, nor is there one in her letters. Yet as she grew older her prejudice against McCullers seemed to grow stronger. In 1961 she wrote in a letter of McCullers' last book, Clock Without Hands, that “I believe it is the worst book I have ever read.” Of this book she told me she believed it was the worst book “in the history of man.” In 1963 she would write in a letter: “I dislike intensely the work of Carson McCullers.” Nevertheless, a deconstructive spirit similar to McCullers' can be found in her work. When I told her of my dream, she almost gave assent, though she did not speak.

O'Connor was always drawn to the stability that still existed in southern culture, to people like Ransom, the acknowledged leader of the Agrarian tradition of southern literature and one of the founding fathers of the New Criticism. Ransom, on the other hand, knew that he had found in O'Connor a writer worthy of carrying on many of the concepts honored by the Agrarians. In his late seventies Ransom gave public lectures on her work; yet he understood only one aspect of her fiction, that side of her that clung to the stability of a declining social order. The Agrarians believed that southern culture contained values which sprang from the acceptance of a tragedy not known by other Americans and from relationships with nature and inherited religion. O'Connor agreed with this viewpoint, but another side of her psyche fully accepted the growing cultural disorganization of the modern South. She saw personal disintegration everywhere in the years after World War II and recorded her awareness of this disintegration in all her best work, beginning with Wise Blood.

O'Connor often wrote and spoke like an Agrarian, but in conversation with someone like me, born two years later than herself in 1927, she revealed emotion and thoughts at variance with Agrarian viewpoints. She told me in 1958, for instance, that her writing was not understood by many people but that the best letters about her work came from penitentiaries. She understood the criminal mind, and she believed that people born after World War I often had hidden criminal characteristics found only occasionally in people born earlier. Her work in part is a deconstruction of principles and concepts that had once served older, stable societies, but which seemed meaningless to individuals, like Haze Motes in Wise Blood, who believed that possessing an automobile rendered theological concepts unnecessary.

O'Connor belongs in many ways to the decade of the fifties, the last fully stable decade of Western Civilization, the last that could maintain a logocentric viewpoint. In this decade an artificial stasis existed that hid a continuing cultural collapse. This in fact is the underlying situation of most of her best stories. In “The Artificial Nigger,” “The Displaced Person,” and “Revelation” a middle-aged individual has created a stasis that is upset by a young person alienated from all systems. Sometimes the result is comic but more often it is tragic. She dramatized the struggle of age and youth as a representative of both sides. O'Connor thus held in tension two ways of life within her psyche, but she tended to repress the rebellious side that sought to overthrow old systems. Her partial repression of a hidden anger toward logocentric systems might account for the depression that helped to cause her death. Her physical problems aggravated the depression, but they were not, necessarily, the cause of it.

Possibly the saddest sentence in all of O'Connor's letters was one written in her last year to Sr. Mariella Gable: “I've been writing eighteen years and I've reached the point where I can't do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.” She had obviously reached that period of depression many artists experience as middle age approaches. T. S. Eliot, for instance, thought he had lost his poetic gift in the early nineteen-thirties, but he found a new creative life in the poetic drama and in the composition of the Quartets. From the conversations I had with Flannery in the late fifties and early sixties I noted a search for deeper understanding of the new decade, which some of her best work brought into focus. Yet O'Connor's last letter, written to Maryat Lee and signed “Tarfunk,” reveals her state of mind in her last days. Tarwater was the name she gave the protagonist of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, and it stands for the traditional religious view of the human nature as consisting of the water of life and the black tar of destructiveness, represented by the Devil in traditional theology and by the Jungian archetype of the shadow. To call herself Tarfunk is to admit that her shadow side and the state of funk—caused, in part, by inner panic at being unable to carry on her rigorous writing discipline—had become an important element in her life.

The roots of O'Connor's depression are not easy to discover, but they are, in an intertextual manner, related to the whole tradition of southern letters. She several times mentioned to me how much Poe meant to her. The one reference to Poe in her letters is to the volume The Humorous Tales of E. A. Poe. “This is an influence I would rather not think of,” she wrote. As a traditionalist, O'Connor was immersed in southern culture with its stoicism, religiosity, and exaggerated respect for European culture. Poe represented for her these aspects of the South, but he also stood for a southern violence that threatens all cultural restraints. Poe's mingling of the humorous and the horrible undoubtedly found its way into stories like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Like Poe she was deeply concerned with form in literature, but like Faulkner she was caught up in the turmoil of southern culture without being able to throw off the burdens of that turmoil. Her well-regulated life and her concern for artistic form indicate that she made powerful and stoical efforts to achieve both a personal and an artistic control. Her search for artistic control grew in part out of her deep awareness of the New Criticism and its concern with structure and texture. Yet much in her best writing cries out against her own control over her fictional material. “Deconstruction is decomposition,” Derrida thus succinctly defined deconstruction in a speech given at Georgia State University in September 1985. I have thought since hearing this pointed remark that O'Connor was seeking, quite unconsciously most of the time, to decompose her own view of the world, if not her style, in order to exorcise from her mind a logocentrism that governed many aspects of her life and work. These unconscious efforts sprang in part from her perception of profound changes in American culture.

The cultural unity of America was breaking up in the early sixties, and the presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson paralleled the collapse of southern culture into a megalopolitan sprawl. O'Connor, politically liberal on many subjects, welcomed changes like those in the area of civil rights; yet she was inwardly amazed at cultural collapse all around her. As a visionary writer she foresaw much that would happen in the psyches of young people in the latter half of the twentieth century; nevertheless, as a woman of letters following in the footsteps of Caroline Gordon in particular, and of the Agrarians in general, she clung to images of a way of life rapidly dying. Her early attachment to the Agrarians might have hindered her own acceptance of psychic changes going on within herself. The Agrarians were sometimes rigid in their viewpoints. The one thing O'Connor needed above all was less rigidity of viewpoint, less of the logocentrism in herself and her work that she sometimes clung to and yet distrusted.

The Agrarians embraced O'Connor because they recognized her genius, but they also took her to be a writer like themselves. O'Connor, however, knew that her philosophical and fictional vision derived in many ways from a disintegrating Western tradition and from a religious response to that disintegration. The South was the necessary background for her worldwide vision of the eclipse of God (to use Buber's term) taking place within young people at war within themselves and with their elders. To read O'Connor with a deconstructionist viewpoint is to encounter a largely suppressed vision, one that appeared in the late sixties and was largely denied in the seventies, a decade that officially proclaimed itself to be like the fifties. This vision is that of a strong yearning for cultural renewal. How O'Connor deals with what is possibly the emergence of cultural renewal in America in the late twentieth century is, along with her deconstructive insights, the subject of much of her work.

During her lifetime most critics thought of O'Connor as one of many important new writers of the fifties; she is now thought by some critics to be the profoundest writer of her sex in this century. Inevitably, critics now view her work from a large number of viewpoints. By the end of the seventies Robert Coles was writing of her as if she were a literary sociologist; Sally Fitzgerald would explain that the blacks she knew “were as primitive as some of the Whites she wrote about, and they perhaps served as trees obscuring her view of the social forest” and that “perhaps … it was her well-met responsibility to her gift to give dignity and meaning to the lives of individuals who have far fewer champions, and enjoy considerably less sympathy, and are far lonelier than they.” Inevitably, many schools of criticism will find that their methods will help to explain her complex fiction. New Criticism and deconstruction and other schools yet to appear will struggle with her writing in order to discover new understanding and new imaginative power.

O'Connor, on the other hand, saw her work as a service to God. She was deeply aware of the prophetic element in her fiction. Marion Montgomery has demonstrated in the thirteen hundred pages of his trilogy, The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age, that she attacks the belief that through knowledge alone the good life could be brought into being. Her attitude towards social science, for instance, is often quoted:

In college I read works of social science, so-called. The only thing that kept me from being a social-scientist was the grace of God and the fact that I couldn't remember the stuff but a few days after reading it.

The social sciences provide much of the material that modern gnostics have used to create their logocentric construction of reality. Montgomery demonstrates how O'Connor's characters deconstruct many of these logocentric viewpoints. With the help of Eric Voegelin, Montgomery describes the “New Man” of modern gnosticism, who encounters an inevitable crossroads “that leads either to the divinization of man or the humanization of God.” O'Connor and I talked several times about Voegelin, and at her urging I read his work. Yet it must be noted that in her fiction she not only attacks the logocentric gnostics of the social sciences, but she also batters the logocentrism of Agrarian southerners. More often than not her target is a woman like Mrs. McIntyre in “The Displaced Person.” What Mrs. McIntyre has in common with the logocentric psychologist of “The Lame Shall Enter First” is a belief, above all else, in an artificial stasis. Her greatest fear is that Jesus, who according to the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” had thrown everything off balance, will upset her Agrarian oasis. For O'Connor, as deconstructionist, the artificial stasis must at last collapse so that grace can descend. In a handful of her epiphanies grace does bring love and affirmation with the kind of benediction that occurs in Joyce's yes in Ulysses, that key word which Derrida has written about at great length.

O'Connor at her best reveals that opening in human affairs, created by grace, in which logocentrism collapses. Those of us, like O'Connor, who were once firmly entrenched in the New Criticism must now, in order to understand this grace shown in her art, turn to insights derived from the most significant critical movement of the past twenty years. O'Connor's fiction demands, because of the way she worked, the careful analysis that the New Critics inculcated; yet it also calls for that understanding of logocentrism and intertextuality that the deconstructionists have brought to the critical process. Surely her work is important enough to receive the careful attention of those who still work in the New Critical tradition as well as those who are now firmly entrenched in deconstruction.

John Byars (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Byars, John. “Prophecy and Apocalyptic in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 16 (1987): 34-42.

[In the following essay, Byars underscores the importance of prophecy in O'Connor's work and asserts that “in a real sense her fiction is a form of prophecy, both revelatory and admonitory, telling a modern secularized world of the presence of grace and the imminence of judgment.”]

Critics have often noticed the crucial role prophets and false prophets play in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor. She names characters Enoch and Obadiah; she transforms three adolescent vandals into “prophets dancing in the fiery furnace”; she assigns important revelatory roles to those as diverse as the enormous Mrs. Shortley, an ugly Wellesley student, a young criminal, and a Bible salesman; and finally she makes the struggle against their vocations as prophets the major action that envelops the protagonists of her two novels. In a real sense her fiction is a form of prophecy, both revelatory and admonitory, telling a modern secularized world of the presence of grace and the imminence of judgment. It is less easy, however, to establish two important facts about her fiction as prophecy: the precise direction it takes and the manner, within the fictional process, by which it arrives at such a point.

The nature of her vision and the shape it takes are not now regarded as they were once by some critics as mutually contradictory, Christian by intention and nihilist-existentialist in realization. At the same time some critics like Miles Orvell do recognize a certain ambiguity in her work. Orvell asks:

Are we dealing with a world where matter is penetrated by spirit and evolves towards spirit or a world where the flesh is burned clear by divine reality? With a balance of grace and nature, reason and faith, or with an all-devouring Lord who divides the spirit?


While Orvell sees the answer to these questions embodied in the mystery of Christ's incarnation and crucifixion, a paradox that provides the central theme and symbolism of O'Connor's work and her source of strength as an artist, it is instructive to ask the same questions about the nature of man that Orvell addresses to the representation of the Divine in her work. She presents two contradictory images of society in most of her fiction: one in which the power and prevalence of evil seem so deeply embedded that only total destruction may root it out, and another in which the community or even an aggregate of individuals, though radically flawed, may discover within itself the potential for regeneration. From this perspective the fictional process evolves as a tension between the imminence of total destruction and the possibility of restoration.

These two different directions may be illuminated by the distinction between the prophetic and apocalyptic modes of vision. In his Dark Conceit Edwin Honig cites the traditional definitions for the two:

Prophecy and apocalyptic both claim to be a communication through the Divine Spirit of the character and purposes of God and his Kingdom. Prophecy believes that God's goodness will be justified in this world; apocalyptic almost wholly despairs of the present and its main interests are supermundane.


Recent biblical scholarship, though recognizing certain elements in apocalyptic's form and subject matter that make them less distinct from prophecy, still accepts this basic difference. Most of these scholars agree that what distinguishes prophecy is its attempt to relate the divine plans which the prophet witnesses into terms of “plain history, real politics, and human instrumentality” (Hanson 11). The assumption is that “the historical realm [is] a suitable context for divine activity”; hence it was the prophet's function to act as translator, mediator, transferring “the vision of divine activity from the cosmic level to the level of everyday life” (Hanson 12). It was, then, the duty of prophets, as Honig affirms, to remind men who had strayed to return to their “higher social and religious duties” (107).

O'Connor's knowledge of the Bible, increased by her study of modern theologians and biblical scholars, reflects a similar understanding of the Old Testament prophets. In a review of William Lynch's Christ and Apollo, O'Connor extols the Hebraic imagination in its devotion to the concrete, everyday world. Out of such a source O'Connor sees not only meaningful prophecy but “genuine tragedy and comedy” coming from where “the definite is explored to its extremity” (94). She recognizes not only prophecy's link to the concrete but its essential conservative role. In her review of Bruce Vawter's The Conscience of Israel, she remarks: “Twentieth-century biblical criticism has returned the prophets to their genuine mission which was not to innovate but to recall people to truths they were already well aware of but chose to ignore” (Zuber 141). In her personal copy of this book she underlined the link between such a role for the prophets and the people: “We must see them [the prophets] for what they considered themselves to be and were, devoted Israelites, believers in the destiny of their people, looking for a regeneration of Israel that it might continue to be what Yahweh had planned for it” (Kinney 42).

Apocalyptic, on the other hand, moves quite dramatically from a belief in the destiny of a chosen people, its claim to the New Jerusalem “Yahweh had planned for it,” to an awareness that shatters such certainty and poses another, the sense of a people who through excess of evil have lost such claims on God and can only be assured of the terrible power and finality of His judgment upon them. Apocalyptic vision springs from a sense of crisis, appearing when a well-ordered society is obviously disintegrating, and though prophecy shares such a sense of crisis, apocalyptic spokesmen do not share with prophets the need to translate vision into everyday life, since these visionaries hold that the institutions and people are too corrupt or weak or both to be restored. The focus in apocalyptic is another world or its impingement upon the present. The drama enacted there is cosmic in scope: the forces of light and darkness, pictured as dreadful monstrous beasts, are engaged in a battle whose end will be nothing less than total destruction of the created universe. A leading figure in this battle is the Antichrist, conceived as the complete antithesis of Christ but one who may claim that identity, who works miracles and tempts and destroys many, including the faithful and witnessing prophets Enoch and Elias. So desperate, so complete in apocalyptic vision is the “collapse of a well-ordered world-view which defines values and orders the universe” (Hanson 2) that nothing less than “the imminent cataclysmic eruption of divine power into this world to bring about its destruction” (Rowland 24) will come to pass. O'Connor's writings outside her fiction testify to little interest in such a vision. When asked by a friend apparently for the names of Catholic apocalyptic writers, she replied, “I can't think of any really apocalyptic writers to offer you. … It's the nature of the church to survive all crises” (HB [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor], 299). Such a comment betrays a peculiar lack of comprehension of (or sympathy for) apocalyptic, for if the friend were asking for all Catholic writers, not just twentieth-century ones, then O'Connor is ignoring a whole body of medieval writers, including Aquinas, who devoted considerable study to apocalyptic. We can only speculate about the lack of references to this tradition in her letters, lectures, and book reviews: the possibility that she associates such a view with Protestant fundamentalist emphasis on the parousia (the imminence of the day of Judgment), that she may associate such a view with the tendency in the Renaissance by Protestant apologetics to identify the Antichrist of apocalyptic with the Catholic Church, or more likely, that she holds the tradition as a misdirected and distorted form of true prophecy that should be bound to the concrete world and a faith in the survival of God's people.

Whatever reasons she may have entertained for not commenting on apocalyptic, the omission is all the more striking in light of the fact that her fictional world is dominated by such a vision. The cities in this world, a network of sewers or alleys “fit for cats and garbage,” represent the mother image of civilization transformed into the Whore of Babylon. The first “sign” the prophet-protagonist of Wise Blood reads in the city is an address of a prostitute in the railway-station toilet, and this becomes his first destination. The protagonist of her other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, gets his first real vision of the city as a blaze of electric lights which he associates with the fire of destruction. On the farm, so often the setting and world of O'Connor's stories, destruction seems no less imminent, for there in the unit of civilization man imposes on wilderness and forest O'Connor shows no pastoral refuge but rather a place where authority is disintegrating, weak, or illusory. In both locations, urban or rural, impending destruction threatens from heaven, foreboding in its immensity, “a blank gray sky that went on, depth after depth, into space” or featuring a sun threatening “to burn through any second.” Posted also like signs of doom are reminders of recent holocaust: boxcars loaded with people bound for gas chambers, heaps of naked dead bodies piled on top of each other, and the cryptic understatement about a veteran's experience that “the war had done something to his insides.”

It is a world where the devil is busily and successfully at work, often assuming the role of his agent the Antichrist, depicted as the grotesque parody of Christ metaphorically rendered in Hazel Motes' sermons in Wise Blood as the “new Christ” and appropriately realized as a shrunken mummy, or as the protagonist in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a one-armed tramp whose figure forms a “crooked cross” and betrays other characteristics of the type. There are other more subtle representations of the type in the fiction, such as The Misfit of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” denier of Christ and agent of destruction. In addition, O'Connor peoples her world with terrible apocalyptic beasts, an “old wart hog from hell,” a colossal false prophetess who “stood on two tremendous legs [like] a mountain, and rose up narrowing bulges of granite, to two icy-blue points of light that pierced forward, surveying everything” or an ugly old man who mocks a true prophet and sits like “an old boulder half-hidden in the bushes” to appear later to a drowning child “as a giant pig with a red and white club.” The whole panorama of evil seems infused with the warning cry of one of its prophets: “Who will remain whole? Who?” (This is a close parallel to Revelation 6:17: “For the day of its wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?”)

It is difficult in such a world to find much faith in the institutions or laws of civilization. The authority of the law seems most often brutal, ineffectual, or simply irrelevant to the situations confronting the characters. Those who regard themselves as acting on humanitarian impulses like Mrs. Cope or who pride themselves on being responsible citizens—among them, Ruby Turpin and Mrs. May—as well as the more “enlightened” intellectuals like the schoolmen of “The Lame Shall Enter First” and The Violent Bear It Away are the most dangerously self-deceived of O'Connor's characters, representing those who, as one of her prophets observed, “may be good … but ain't right.” The ties that bind society in this world seem more those of mutual weaknesses or antipathy than anything more positive, and loyalty to family or community seems to promote distrust, suspicion, and hatred rather than trust and love.

On the other hand, there is also present in the fiction another spirit, less dramatic and notable, one that implies, in terms of prophetic vision, “that God's goodness will be justified in this world” (Honig 105). An unsentimental respect for human nature is expressed through characters who display sound common sense and the capacity to resist tyranny, to endure suffering, to recognize and reverence the holy, even in its grotesque forms. In “The Enduring Chill” Dr. Block's ability to diagnose the protagonist's supposedly fatal disease exactly corresponds to the no-nonsense assessment of the state of the young man's soul by the priest; Mrs. Connin of “The River” refuses to accept babysitting wages from the cynical, godless parents of her charge, and Mary Fortune Pitts puts up a fierce battle to prevent her grandfather's unjust treatment. The impact of the symbol of black suffering, the lawn ornament in “The Artificial Nigger,” provides one of the most positive revelations in all O'Connor's fiction; and a similar recognition on the part of minor characters in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and The Violent Bear It Away of the presence of the sacred in the retarded Lucynell Crater and Bishop also offers a sense of community quite different from apocalyptic vision.

Though the presence of such a community or aggregate of individuals testifies to a different direction from apocalyptic vision, the shape of the stories might seem to confirm such vision. At least the closures suggest such. The kind of force that concludes an O'Connor story seems distinct from institutional, communal, or familial agencies or ties, one that seems most often cosmic in dimension, descending from above in a storm or from an expanding vista where “gaunt trees … thickened into mysterious dark files that were marching across the water and away in the distance” or again as a “tree line … a dark wound in a world that had nothing but sky” or as a “tide of darkness” that “sweep[s]” over the protagonist. It may appear most obviously otherworldly, as a “purple streak” that opens to a “visionary light” from which comes “a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.” Or the force can appear more obviously purgatorial: “rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it could consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame.” In each instance, whether it represents the fiery devastation of the farm belonging to the protagonist or a reminder of loss, guilt, or impending punishment, the force literally or figuratively expresses the destruction of the protagonist's world as he or she has known it.

The dramatic value of such closures can scarcely be criticized since they move the reader from the constricted world of the protagonist to a sense of cosmic grandeur and immensity. As apocalyptic visions the endings seem perfectly satisfactory: devastatingly final, terrible and awesome. At the same time they raise certain important questions involving the relationship between judgment and revelation. In the first place the suddenness by which destruction moves into the protagonists' consciousness leaves revelation in its human dimension rather dubious. The grandmother's “head” clears only for “an instant” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” before she has a chance to voice her compassionate awareness and be shot; Julian of “Everything That Rises Must Converge” scarcely has time to move emotionally from satisfaction at his mother's humiliation to grief at her death; Mrs. Cope's shocked expression in “A Circle in the Fire” testifies to her lack of comprehension of what the fire destroying her woods and fields is doing to her way of life or view of herself. Yet the character who apparently absorbs the least at the conclusion is Mrs. May of “Greenleaf,” whose destruction by the bull allows no moment of consciousness. Certainly by shifting the point of view, O'Connor renders most ambiguous the degree of the protaganist's consciousness of what has taken place, for we are told that, after she has been gored by the bull, the dead person might seem to have assumed only the “look of a person whose sight has been restored but who finds the light unbearable” (emphasis mine). What underlines the problematic state of Mrs. May's awareness is that, after Mr. Greenleaf has shot the bull and Mrs. May is obviously dead, O'Connor arranges a gesture by which the woman is lifted upon the bull's horns, assuming the posture of one “whispering” a secret just learned. The gesture seems almost a parody of anyone communicating an awareness of the mystery of grace.

In the second place, these conclusions pose a destruction so annihilating that we are left with nothing, at least nothing human, on which to see the possibility of regeneration. The classic instance of such is the conclusion of Wise Blood when Mrs. Flood, suitably apocalyptically named, shuts her eyes to “see” into the eyes of a blind man who is dead and comes to the conclusion that “she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin.” In “The Displaced Person,” O'Connor's longest short story, the world of the farm, the only one we inhabit in the story, simply disintegrates and is abandoned, and we are left with a protagonist paralyzed and bereft of the power of speech.

In the third place, these endings most often depict the destructive force as limitless sky or a line of trees or a river so that we seem in the presence of something of much more than human dimension. It has the same effect as other symbols in her work, the peacock's spread tail or the sun as “a huge red ball like an elevated host.” These images certainly express divine mystery, yet, placed within the fictional context of modern life, with its holocaustal pile of naked bodies or hermaphrodite circus freak, seem rather to express a violent contradiction or separation between the two worlds, the divine and human, rather than an ideal fusion or connectedness. In this sense they come close to what Yeats deliberately chose to do with his symbols of Unity of Being in “Among School Children,” images that are “Self-born mockers of man's enterprise.” Of course, such was not O'Connor's intention.

Considering these characteristics of her closures, we could conclude that O'Connor is deliberately diminishing the human role in the focus of her fiction, regeneration through grace. Such diminishment would represent her own failure as prophet as she defines that role to “explore the definite … to its extremity,” granting primacy to consciousness, which contains man's potential to be reawakened to essential truths that have been forgotten, to reassume the role as God's chosen in the domain of everyday reality. Other elements in her fiction, however, do point towards such a domain and indicate a pattern at odds, or seemingly at odds, with the apocalyptic frame of opening and closing in the narrative structure.

An example of such a pattern occurs in the otherwise apocalyptic “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” O'Connor does carefully establish and develop the meaning of the grandmother's revelation, a development that gives some scope to human consciousness and will. First, by a series of incidents O'Connor “places” the grandmother's gesture of reconciliation towards The Misfit. The grandmother first warns Bailey of the Misfit, then ironically, though unintentionally, leads the family to him, recognizes him, thus ensuring their destruction, and then pleads with him not to be an agent of evil but to be the Good Man. This pattern of incidents magnifies the drama of her final understanding and acceptance of The Misfit that begins in an awareness of evil as an alien presence and moves to her gradual sense of her own involvement in evil as she, through the shock of the encounter with him, strips away every vestige of comfortable pseudo-Christianity with which she has shielded herself from knowledge. A second means by which O'Connor expresses the meaning of the grandmother's revelation is by the parallel the author draws between protagonist and antagonist. The good manners of The Misfit are a grotesque parody of the grandmother's, revealing the inadequacy of this behavior by the incongruity between his politeness and brutal actions. The childlike fantasies of the grandmother further provide an ironic reflection on The Misfit's nursing his sense of alienation as a refuge from belief and moral responsibility. The grandmother's mentally misplacing the mansion in Georgia when it was in Tennessee (an expression of her wishful thinking), together with the description of the “secret panel” hiding the family treasure there, parallels The Misfit's explanation of his own inability to “place” the nature of his crime; his search for the answer in prison not only expresses his baffled sense of frustration but also reads like directions to a secret panel of sorts: “Turn to the right, it was a wall. Look up, it was a ceiling, look down, it was a floor.” In addition, both characters perceive something awry in the world and at the same time deny complicity or responsibility for such a state. Most important, what binds them, their mutual need for the Good Man, gives point to the title of the story. The Misfit's anguished denial of his desperate need ironically “triggers” the grandmother's recognition of her own need and willingness to share in his. In the final description of both, O'Connor seals the parallel that links the two in the similar effect that their encounter has on them. In death the grandmother's face of smiling innocence suggests the state to which she has been restored, and the “defenseless” appearance of The Misfit without his glasses reveals similarly how his grim denial of Christ is no longer a secure one.

Though such a pattern is part of the structure of the story, other features, besides the apocalyptic framework of the narrative, point in another direction. These include the focus on the inevitability of destruction, a realization that comes after the accident occurs but is foreshadowed much earlier. In fact, one of the ironies of the story is the family's reiteration of what has happened to them as an “ACCIDENT” when the context, including the “cloudless” sky, reflects instead an inexorable judgment on those whose very ordinary American typicality reflects something more seriously wrong than folly and ignorance. In the grandmother's dramatic story-telling, in the exhibition of June Starr's tap-dancing skills, we see a tendency towards mimicry, while the children's exchange of similar comic books on the trip, the identical daily outfits and innocuous expression of the daughter-in-law, Bailey's constant irritability, and the iteration of stock phrases particularly by the grandmother mark a mechanical sameness of language and behavior. O'Connor uses animals in the story to illuminate this way of life, animals most associated with mimicry, a monkey and parrots. At Red Sammy's the monkey's delighted biting of his own fleas provides an emblem showing the self-satisfaction of those who feed on their own parasitic existence and culture and seem thus immune to growth or change. The transfer of Bailey's shirt with its bright blue parrots from Bailey to The Misfit marks the story's reversal: the family is removed from its ordinary context to face ultimate judgment by which its parody of human nature becomes no longer ludicrous but woefully inadequate. Finally, if Christ is the Good Man so hard to find, then The Misfit who finds the family becomes, as Christ-denier and agent of destruction and judgment, the Antichrist, the embodiment of a terrifying vision in a world in which even nature becomes devouring monster, appearing as a “line of trees [that] gaped like a dark open mouth.”

Examining the story from the perspective of these contrasting elements uncovers two forms of irony at work. One points to the disparity between “all sanguine expressions of hope in social ideals and in benevolent intentions and the unregenerate condition of human actuality” (Honig 130). The other represents unexpected potential for regeneration uncovered there. That these ironies are contradictory and distinct is an abstract truth we derive from naming and analyzing apocalyptic features; yet in the flow of the narrative the ironies seem to merge, just as the exposure of the emptiness and selfishness of the family and of the grandmother, as its matriarch and representative, moves concurrently with the preparation and definition of the meaning of her revelation. But that very simultaneous movement and apparent fusion of perspectives on man really heightens the tension between the two truths so that one ultimately must be seen to prevail finally, or at least some sort of reconciliation between the two has to be reached. In this instance, despite the evidence of corruption and the apocalyptic carnage that has pronounced terrible judgment on it, the validity of the grandmother's gesture of reconciliation, even based on so fleeting or instantaneous a glimpse of the truth of grace, gives primacy to the prophetic mode of vision and the ironic truth it expresses. Yet the apparent tenuousness of her “victory” hardly renders meaningless the claims of the other mode of vision and form of irony.

Works Cited

Hanson, Paul D. The Dawn of Apocalyptic: The Historical Roots of Jewish Apocalyptic Eschatology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.

Honig, Edwin. Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory. Providence, RI: Brown UP, 1972.

Kinney, Arthur F. Flannery O'Connor's Library: Resources of Being. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1971.

———. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage, 1980.

———. Three by Flannery O'Connor. New York: Signet, 1962.

———. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, 1960.

Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1972.

Rowland, Christopher. The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity. New York: Crossroads, 1982.

Zuber, Leo J., and Carter W. Martin. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews by Flannery O'Connor. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Helen S. Garson (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Garson, Helen S. “Cold Comfort: Parents and Children in the Work of Flannery O'Connor.” In Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited, edited by Karl-Heinz Westarps and Jan Nordby Gretlund, pp. 113-22. Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Garson regards the theme of parents and children as an important one in O'Connor's fiction.]

Her world was narrow, said the poet, Elizabeth Bishop, of Flannery O'Connor's stories. A limited number of themes interested O'Connor; and certain character types and relationships appear and reappear to form a pattern in the two novels and the two short story collections. More than half the stories focus on parents and children: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons. Rarely are there two parents. Sometimes there are surrogate parents, grandfathers, uncles, granduncles. Just as most of the families have a single parent, almost always there is only one child, very rarely siblings.

The family in O'Connor's stories bears no resemblance to most we associate with Southern fiction, although unquestionably they are of the Gothic, grotesque school. There is, as one critic states, “horror … at the core of family life,”1 in the stories of O'Connor. In all her work, parents and children want and expect things of each other that can never be given. Either the parents are cold, calculating, selfish, or totally indifferent to the child, as in her stories of parents with small children; or the children are people who are grown up only chronologically, who remain adolescents, totally dependent, hostile, and filled with a sense of self-importance and superiority. In the smoldering atmosphere of anger, rejection, and repulsion, violence usually erupts. If the child does not kill himself or the parent directly, something he does leads to an act which is a type of violation. Fear and repression often bring about a displacement of anger. Sometimes, but this is rare, the result of the explosive act is the beginning of understanding. But more often, the reader is left to sort out the effects of the final deeds on the characters.

Because there are too many stories to discuss in a short paper, I have chosen a few which seem to me to represent major character types as well as significant concerns about relationships in O'Connor's stories. In some of the stories the parent-child relationship is central; in others it is peripheral. Yet, whether or not the focus is on the family, the basic behavior remains unchanged. “I really don't know much about children, that is … what goes on in their minds. I like to watch them from outside.” (HB [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor] p. 529). O'Connor wrote in a letter to a friend. But a number of her stories concern small children. In “The River” and “The Lame Shall Enter First” the central theme pertains to the failures of the parents to care for or about their sons, so that both boys commit suicide. In an ironic contrast, although both children want to escape, Harry, away from his mother, Norton, to his dead mother, both seek the same thing basically. They want escape, but more than that, Harry longs for an unknown kingdom of love that has been promised him, and Norton longs for reunion with the loving dead mother he knew. For each child, life as it is contains coldness, emptiness, and cruelty. Although both boys are too young to have any comprehension of death, nevertheless, death holds more expectation for them than life does. The fact that Norton has only a father, and Harry has two parents, or that Norton's father is ostensibly an upright man, whereas Harry's parents seem to have no purpose whatsoever, does not alter the resemblances between the families. In each, the boy appears to be little more than a nuisance that the adult has to bother with. Not that much is done for or given to the child, but his very existence interferes with the parent's life. The burdensome children have no place in the world. Harry is sent off with baby sitters so that the parents are free of responsibility; Norton's father sees him as a trial he must put up with. Harry's mother, Mrs. Ashfield, speaks of her child as a liar; Norton's father, Mr. Sheppard, constantly refers to his son as selfish. Neither parent seeks or finds anything of value in the child. Mrs. Ashfield and Sheppard remain locked in their own lives, and the lost children find a way out of the dread of the emptiness of daily existence. Without conscious recognition that he is seeking death because he longs for love, each child kills himself: Harry by drowning, Norton by hanging—violent, and Gothic choices, but logical for the child. Harry has been promised by a preacher the “River of Faith, … of Life, … of Love, … the rich red river of Jesus' blood.” (CS [The Complete Stories] p. 165). In seeking that love the child chooses literally to become a part of the river. Norton, promised by an older boy that he will be reunited with his mother in heaven if he does not live long enough to become a sinner, tries to launch himself into space, where he is certain he has seen his mother. When Harry tells his mother about his baptism he states: “… I'm not the same now … I count.” (CS p. 171). The disinterested mother makes no effort to learn what he means, and the next morning, Harry returns to that “strange country” he had been baptized in, determined to baptize himself again, but without the help of anyone, and to continue until he “found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.” (CS p. 173). Sheppard, like Mrs. Ashfield ignores the signals. He either misses, or underestimates, or is hostile to what he perceives to be his son's view of religion, space, and most of all the child's continuing grief over the loss of his mother. The father finds the boy's sorrow excessive and unnatural. For his child has no charity.

Many critics have pointed to O'Connor's ironic naming of the father in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Sheppard, the father, does not protect his own flock, but seeks others to shepherd. In “The River,” the family name of “Ashfield” stands in stark contrast to the natural environment where the boy seeks and finds his death, “the strange woods” that he has never seen before—the woods a symbol of the mystery of religion,—and the muddy river in which he seeks the love he has never known. The fact that O'Connor has a four year old boy take another name needs to be noted, because the writer stresses it at several points in the story and because it is something she does also in “Good Country People” and “The Comforts of Home.” Name changes tell us about the other self the character wants to be. Difficult as it is to accept even the unconscious desire for such change in a small child, it is significant in the structure of the story, “The River.” Harry, upon hearing the preacher's name, decides to adopt it. He renames himself “Bevel.” Since name changes are made not only for their own sake—that is, as an indication of conflict in the character—but also because they hold a particular meaning in a story, we find some interesting possibilities in the name Bevel. Bevel is the slant of a line when not at right angles with another; a bevel gear cuts into a surface; a bevel square is an adjustable instrument for drawing angles or adjusting the surface of work to a particular inclination. The fact that the preacher's full name is Bevel Summers serves to reinforce the difference between Harry Ashfield, the child, and Bevel Summers, the boy preacher. When Summers takes hold of Harry to baptize him, the child recognizes in the preacher deep intent and seriousness of a kind he has never encountered before. Thus, symbolically, the name suggests what Harry seeks. O'Connor stresses the importance of the name change in a subtle way throughout the story. At the beginning, as soon as the baby sitter takes him from the family apartment and asks his name, the child tells her it is Bevel; from that point on, the author speaks of him as Bevel, until the sitter returns him to his home that night. There, Mrs. Ashfield speaks of him as Harry, and she mocks his change of name. When Harry leaves the apartment the next morning, intent on returning to the river, the author gives him no name at all: he is neither Harry nor Bevel, but only “he” for the remainder of the story. Harry/Bevel, the lost child is the seeker, the slant of line, the adjustable instrument.

The endings of the two stories are different in ways that are characteristic of changes between the early and later stories. Where the story “The River” concludes with the death of Harry, “The Lame Shall Enter First” bears a resemblance at the end to another parent child story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” In that story, at the moment of his mother's death, the son feels a rush of love for her—too late of course—and we are told that a burden of guilt and sorrow lies before him. In that same collection of stories, the father in “The Lame Shall Enter First” recognizes that he has done more for a stranger than for his own son. Three times he repeats that statement—which is an affirmation of his betrayal, yet ironically, recognition comes too late. Thinking he can make it all up to the boy, and filled with “a rush of agonizing love” (CS p. 481) he rushes to tell his son that he loves him, and that he will never fail him again. But for Sheppard as for Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” self-knowledge comes too late. Both Sheppard and Julian will live out lives in sorrow and guilt. O'Connor strikes the perfect chord, poignant and melancholy in both endings. She touches the reader's deepest feelings, the recognition of the might-have-been's of human relationships.

Another type of parent child dissociation is seen in two stories in which the parent child figures are mother and daughter. In one, “Good Country People,” they are central; in the other, “Revelation,” the mother and daughter are significant in the role they play for the major character, who has the revelation.

“Good Country People” has a familiar type of O'Connor character, the “thirtyish adolescents [who] do battle with their old mothers.”2 Each is a grown single child who lives with his or her parent. In “Good Country People,” Mrs. Hopewell and her daughter, Joy, live together on a rural Southern farm. Like the boy, Harry, in “The River,” Joy tries to change her identity by changing her name to Hulga, a name whose sound and connotation suggest the heavy physical ugliness which she emphasizes as well as the heaviness of spirit which is hers. Joy/Hulga sees the change of name as a major triumph in her lifelong battle with her mother, for “her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy,” but she “had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.” (CS p. 275). Hulga has an artificial, wooden leg, a weak heart, a Ph.D. in philosophy, and very little to do in her life. The wooden leg has deformed “her whole character,”3 states Miles Orvell. Her body, says Josephine Hendin, “has formed her mind, shaped her identity, and turned her life into a reaction against her own body.”4 Carter Martin sees the artificial leg as the symbol of Hulga's soul.5 On the other hand, Stanley Hyman sees Hulga as an intentional self-caricature, of the “cruelest” kind.6

In addition to her obvious resemblances to O'Connor Joy/Hulga has attributes that relate her to Mary Grace in “Revelation,” to Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” to Mrs. May's two sons in “Greenleaf,” and to Asbury in “The Enduring Chill.” Hulga despises or denies everything her mother values; yet for the mother the daughter “becomes a symbol of everything Mrs. Hopewell wants to deny.”7 The mother's world is the life of the farm, which she, a divorced woman, runs with the aid of a tenant family. Her perceptions are so limited she cannot understand human suffering, certainly not her daughter's. She is certain that if her daughter looked on the bright side of things she could be beautiful. Instead, her glum daughter, who is “brilliant” but “without a grain of sense,” dislikes what the bright side holds: “dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men.” (CS p. 276). Although Joy/Hulga is a grown woman, Mrs. Hopewell treats her as if she were a child. And while the daughter resents the mother's overprotection, she continues to play the role of the child. She is dependent, does not work on the farm, behaves badly with guests, is sullen and rude, and childishly calls attention to herself constantly by needlessly dragging the wooden leg across the floor. Her clothing is that of an adolescent; and when she meets a Bible salesman, thirty-two year old Joy/Hulga tells him at first that she is seventeen. Literally crippled in her physical body, Joy is also crippled by her mother's “love.” Mrs. Hopewell's views are uttered, as Orvell says, “with a force … staggering in its banality.”8 All the cliches and platitudes one can think of are Mrs. Hopewell's: “It takes all kinds to make a world,” she tells Mrs. Freeman, the tenant farmwoman. “Nothing is perfect.” “Other people have their opinions too.” (CS pp. 272-273). But her sweet banalities are only surface expressions, for the irony is that Mrs. Hopewell doesn't accept her daughter's difference. Mrs. Hopewell, certain that she knows what a lady is, wants her daughter to fit that description. Equally convinced that she knows what good country people are, Mrs. Hopewell identifies the Bible salesman as one of that breed, thus indirectly and unwittingly encouraging her daughter to take up with the man. Hulga, thinking to deceive him, is left deceived and helpless at the end, a victim not only of her own making and his, but also of her own childlike, though hidden, acceptance of her mother's views.

The mother-daughter relationship in “Revelation” bears multiple similarities to the earlier story. The unnamed mother of Mary Grace is like almost all of the mothers in O'Connor's stories; they are women who expect “their children to conform to stereotyped, though alien, patterns of behavior and outlook.”9 And Mary Grace, herself, resembles the other daughters of the fiction; she is unattractive, overweight, clumsy looking. Her face is blue with acne. Her clothing while different reminds us of Hulga's. Further, Mary Grace is another daughter who is an intellectual. Like Hulga, she reads constantly. But reading for both of the young women is more than a desire for knowledge. Each tries desperately to escape the mother, to close out sight and sound of the person she wants to be freed of and cannot be. Hulga is not free because of her illness, and Mary Grace is still a student. Dependency on the parent is so great that it plays an important part in the contempt with which each of the young women regards her mother

Mary Grace's mother, well-dressed, well-mannered, speaks the same banal language as Mrs. Hopewell. She chats meaninglessly at first with the central character of the story, Mrs. Turpin, in a doctor's reception room, where she waits with her daughter, and Mrs. Turpin waits with her husband. As the wait becomes longer, the mother-daughter relationship becomes well-defined. A strong hostility exists between the two, one that neither voices directly, but the tension is obvious. As the daughter focuses her anger on Mrs. Turpin, rather than on her mother, who is the real source of it, the mother uses Mrs. Turpin as a means of talking indirectly about her daughter. Mary Grace is a bookworm, who goes to a college her mother does not approve of. And she spends all her time reading, never going out to have fun, something the mother, like Hulga's mother, thinks the daughter should be doing. The mother turns remarks of Mrs. Turpin's about tempers and pleasantness to her advantage so that she can needle her daughter. “‘I think the worst thing in the world,’ she said’is an ungrateful person.’” (CS p. 499). She continues, more pointedly and explicitly with each statement, as she mentions knowing “a girl” who has everything anyone could want, and who is an unpleasant, critical complainer. No matter that the Turpins ignore her, as the mother does. The intimacy between her mother and total strangers, making her the target, becomes unbearable for Mary Grace and she strikes out. But Mary Grace cannot attack the real focus of her anger, her mother; in fact, she cannot even admit to herself that it is the mother she would like to injure. No longer able to contain her rage, she hurls her book at Mrs. Turpin. A twin of Hulga, who protects herself from her relationship with her mother by using the tenant farm woman, Mrs. Freeman, as a deflector of sorts, Mary Grace avoids any direct encounter with her mother. Her infantile dependency is revealed as the girl lies on the floor, her fingers “gripped like a baby's” (CS p. 501) around her mother's thumb. Though the mother moans as she sits on the floor next to her daughter awaiting an ambulance and then leaves quietly with her as Mary Grace is taken out, nothing has changed or will change. The temporary friendship the mother struck up will be forgotten, but Mary Grace has once more proved, this time more forcefully and devastatingly, that she lacks all the qualities the mother prizes. Further, her dependency on her mother has only been reinforced. The damage she has done has been to herself.

“The indefatigably optimistic mother,” a phrase used by Josephine Hendin, appears even more obvious in those stories in which the relationship is that of mother and grown son: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Greenleaf,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Comforts of Home,” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Although the mothers are different in various ways, their similarities far outnumber the differences. Julian's mother, Mrs. Chestny, resembles the grandmother, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in her concern about proper clothing, about recognition of social status, in her distorted memories of an elegant past, and her sense of racial superiority. Their focus on appearance, on correct behavior, on class structure is also akin to that of Mrs. May in “Greenleaf.” The five women live with their children; all have a blindness to their offspring's failings and failures; all have a kind of innocence about the world (although Mrs. May has less than the others); and all, except Asbury Fox's mother in “The Enduring Chill,” die as the result of violent action.

Just as the women remind us of one another, so do the sons. With the exception of Bailey, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the sons are unmarried and dependent on their mothers, physically and financially. Yet, the mothers take considerable pride in the children, exaggerating their achievements and praising them to anyone and everyone, to friends, relatives, neighbors, and total strangers they encounter. The sons appear to take the exaggerated pride of the mothers as their due, even when they themselves have moments of doubt and recognition about their limited abilities. Filled with a sense of superiority to their mothers, they not only accept the excessive regard in which they are held, they feel misunderstood and unappreciated by those very parents.

Like the mothers in “Good Country People” and “Revelation” these women dominate their children, who respond with acts of deflected hatred. The politeness and platitudes infuriate the sons. They long to rebel, yet fear it. They live in an atmosphere of silent fury, of repulsion, and impotence. Direct confrontation must be avoided and rage displaced. The sons long for freedom which can come only with their own deaths or their mother's; ironically, they are too weak, too unprepared for a life on their own, too dependent on others, to be able to function without the strong mother. But, directly, or indirectly, the sons play some role in the death of the mother, as the fathers do in the death of the sons in “The River” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Bailey's inability to assert himself against his mother's pressures leads the family to the fatal area in which they are all murdered by The Misfit; Julian's deliberate provocation of his mother and the subsequent attack on her by a black woman lead to her death; Wesley and Scofield May's refusal to help their mother capture the Greenleaf's bull brings about the death Mrs. May has predicted would come to her at any moment; and Thomas, in “The Comforts of Home,” accidentally shoots his mother, while aiming to kill the young woman he sees as the rival for his mother's affections.

Only in “The Enduring Chill” is there no death, although Asbury Fox, because of serious illness which he thinks is a prelude to his imminent death, has come home reluctantly and angrily to die. Asbury's relationship to his mother, as well as her views of him, their physical surroundings and the ironic turn at the end of the story, remind us of the mother and daughter in “Good Country People.” Each, wanting to thwart the mother, yet afraid of direct confrontation, takes action which injures him or her, not the mother. Warned by the blacks on the farm of his mother's injunction about drinking unpasteurized milk, yet not knowing the scientific reasons for it, Asbury defiantly breaks the rule. Hulga, constantly told by her mother about young girls having a good time with nice young men, sets out to seduce the apparently simple, apparently religious Bible salesman. In each situation, they pay a heavy price for their actions: Asbury ruins his health and will be dependent on his mother for the rest of his days; Hulga loses her artificial leg, the symbol of her freedom, the loss is a mocking reminder of her dependency.

The most complex of the mother-son relationships is that of Thomas and his mother in “The Comforts of Home.” As in the father-son story, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” a third person becomes involved in the situation. But the complexity is greater here because in this instance the son is a grown man in his thirties and the outsider is a woman. A name change occurs also in this story; however, in “The Comforts of Home” it is the outsider who rejects her original name for a new one. Sarah Ham becomes Star Drake; from hog to male duck, the suggestion is made. But a drake is also a term for an eighteenth century cannon. The name suggests a masculine force that Thomas himself lacks. Sarah/Star's presence undermines Thomas in ways that become more and more untenable. Like a child, he is unwilling to share his mother with anyone; he is jealous of the loss of complete attention, and he insists that his mother choose between him and the stranger. He has an ever growing sense of panic and rage when his mother ignores his ultimatum. Feeling threatened to the core of his being, Thomas begins to sense the constant taunting presence of his dead, violent, and exploitive father. The father's physical power and force are referred to both specifically and obliquely in ways that outline Thomas' own lack of these. In the final scene, in the struggle between Thomas and Sarah/Star, it is the father's voice that yells “fire” in Thomas' ear, when the mother thrusts herself in front of the younger woman “to protect her.”

As the reader looks at the quick sequence of events, it is easy to read the violent conclusion as an accident. Surely, Thomas did not mean to shoot the mother he has loved, the one whom, as we are told earlier in the story, “He loved because it was his nature to do so.” Yet, we are also told “there were times when he could not endure her love for him … times when … he sensed about him forces, invisible currents entirely out of his control.” (CS p. 385). At the end of the story, it is not Sarah/Star in front of him as he holds the gun and hears his father's words, but his mother. And he shoots. The deliberate listing of the order of events leads the reader to the fact that on some level the son wants to, acts to rid himself of the mother, to destroy finally and irrevocably all that she represents; his dependency on her, his endless childhood, his impotence. Only through her death can he free himself. It is a strange turn of the oedipal cycle. Thomas, through his violent action, unconscious though it appears, does what other adult children long for, but never do. They insult or provoke, as Julian does in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; they snarl and quarrel, as the May boys do in “Greenleaf”; they are sullen, like the children in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”; or they write secret Kafka-like letters, like Asbury does in “The Enduring Chill.” But only in “The Comforts of Home” is the confrontation a direct one.

One comes to the end of an examination of parent-child relationships in O'Connor with the recognition that here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the narrow world with which she dealt, as one critic has said of her general approach, “she found the human heart a pretty dark place.”10 From the ties and bonds of blood there is no escape. Entrapped and dependent emotionally or physically because of age, or inability, or malaise, or illness, the child struggles in a circle from which there is no way out except death; and the darkness of death becomes preferable to the darkness of life. On O'Connor's darkling plain where there is neither joy nor love nor certitude, nor peace nor help for pain, it is not human love that protects, saves, or heals; there is only the light one must reach beyond the far, dark tree line.


  1. Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O'Connor (Bloomington, Indiana, 1970), p. 150.

  2. Hendin, p. 31.

  3. Miles Orvell, Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor (Philadelphia, 1972), p. 139.

  4. Hendin, p. 72.

  5. Carter Martin, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor (Kingsport, Tennessee, 1969).

  6. Stanley Hyman, Flannery O'Connor (New York, 1970).

  7. Hendin, p. 73.

  8. Orvell, p. 137.

  9. Martin, p. 223.

  10. Warren Coffey, “Flannery O'Connor,” Commentary 5, vol. 4 (November 1965), 99.

Martha E. Cook (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Cook, Martha E. “Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: Forms of Entrapment.” In Modern American Fiction: Form of Function, edited by Thomas Daniel Young, pp. 198-212. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Cook offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of Wise Blood.]

On May 18, 1952, the Sunday New York Times had the following as its predominant headline: “20,000 parade on fifth avenue to hail armed forces day.” The major sports headlines proclaimed, “giant rally tops cubs, 9-8; dodgers rout pirates, 12-7.” And the cover story for the Book Review was a large article on George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia by Granville Hicks entitled “george orwell's prelude in spain”; it carried the heading, “the story of an idealist who fought a lost cause, but who never lost faith in mankind.” In such a context of patriotism and tradition, one is surprised that Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood was even reviewed in this and other major papers and magazines when it appeared in the late spring of 1952. But this unorthodox first novel was thoroughly reviewed, by reviewers who ranged from the well-meaning to the vituperative, from some who tried to understand what O'Connor was doing to one who commented in Time that “all too often it reads as if Kafka had been set to writing the continuity for L'il Abner.”1

Wise Blood is an artistic creation of considerable sophistication, undeserving of such a flippant attack as that of the anonymous reviewer for Time. It is tightly unified by patterns of images, by parallel events, and by doubling of characters, all of which function together to develop a convincing theme. Reading carefully, following O'Connor's clues (which are more obvious than subtle), the reader moves with Hazel Motes through a series of events that reveal his acceptance of his role as a believer. O'Connor's theme is not what Hazel believes or how he or anyone else practices belief; it is rather the necessity of acknowledging one's spiritual heritage, whatever it happens to be. The careful reader, understanding this theme, will see Hazel at the end of the novel as a positive character because he is finally able to accept the faith that has been his since birth and to practice it in his own way.

One of O'Connor's recent critics maintains that in her fiction in general O'Connor “was manifestly hesitant to ‘tell’ enough to make textual meanings unambiguous to the nonreligious.”2 I would not think of arguing that O'Connor's fiction, particularly Wise Blood, is easy reading. There is ambiguity, but it is an ambiguity that challenges, and not merely confuses, her reader. The text of Wise Blood contains all that any reader, religious or nonreligious, needs in order to discover O'Connor's theme. Whether Hazel's faith (or O'Connor's, of which I will say more later) is the reader's is not the point; what affects the reader is finally the power of O'Connor's words as she unfolds the story of this strange, troubled, lonely young man.

The form of the novel is circular: Hazel moves around, but he continues to come back to the same place, either literally or symbolically. On the one hand, he is seeking the security of a place, a home, which he has lost through the passage of time; on the other, he is trying to stay on the move to escape what he sees as the entrapment of the religious faith that is his heritage. Through blindness, the loss of his physical sense of sight, Hazel is able to see, to understand, to believe again; within the positive limits imposed by belief, he finds the ultimate freedom that religious faith offers and thus finds his true identity and his true spiritual home.

Wise Blood opens with Hazel Motes on a train going, the reader quickly learns, away from his rural childhood home toward the city of Taulkinham. This scene introduces the major patterns of imagery that recur as O'Connor moves Hazel around in circles through the course of the novel until he stops at the place where he began, not literally, but symbolically. Instead of feeling the freedom of movement that the train might represent, Hazel seems to feel trapped in the train car, afraid of being unable to escape, as the opening sentence reveals: “Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car.”3 Though Hazel professes to be eager to get to the city, where, he says, “I'm going to do some things I never have done before” (13), his actions indicate that he is not looking forward to where he is going, but rather backward to where he has been.

Hazel's physical appearance likewise serves an important function. In this scene he is dressed in new clothes, and he has “a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear” (10). Shortly the reader learns of Hazel's grandfather, whose “own face was repeated almost exactly in the child's” (22), and Hazel's desire to survive his army experiences “uncorrupted” so he can return home, even though all of the members of his family have already died, “to be a preacher like his grandfather” (21). Before he goes away, Hazel is sharply aware that his faith is his heritage. “He had a strong confidence in his power to resist evil; it was something he had inherited, like his face, from his grandfather,” he thinks (23). Having suffered a serious physical wound and severe loneliness and alienation, he returns with a desire to reject his heritage. But his appearance indicates how difficult such a rejection will be.

In these first pages of the novel O'Connor begins to develop one of her most effective patterns of imagery, using place and places after the fashion of the best southern fiction, as well as with deeper significance because of the religious dimension of this work. In the train scene O'Connor uses place to represent not only home but also status and position in society. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock is able to place Hazel by the $11.98 price tag on his coat sleeve (10). Hazel in turn is able to place the porter as “a Parrum nigger from Eastrod” (12). He is angry at the man for refusing to accept his identity with his home, yet he rejects his own homeplace in talking with Mrs. Hitchcock. When he went into the army, Hazel had determined to tell anyone who tempted him “that he was from Eastrod, Tennessee, and that he meant to get back there and stay back there” (23). But Eastrod as a place has disappeared; his home is only “the skeleton of a house” (26). When Mrs. Hitchcock asks the natural question, “Are you going home?” Hazel replies, “No, I ain't” (13). But O'Connor foreshadows the circular movement to the concluding scene of the novel in this first scene, for Mrs. Hitchcock's pronouncement, “Well, there's no place like home” (11), will be echoed by Hazel's landlady in the final scene.4 Home turns out to be exactly where Hazel is headed, though in a spiritual rather than an earthly sense.

Hazel goes to the city of Taulkinham to escape his faith; yet ironically it is in that place rather than in Eastrod, the place of his ancestors, that he finally acknowledges the power of his religious belief. But first he again rejects his homeplace in a conversation with Enoch Emery, a strange, lonely young man who has more in common with Hazel than Hazel wants to recognize. Enoch is struggling to place Hazel, to find some connection with him; he mentions the town of Melsy, near Eastrod, where Hazel has in fact caught the train. But Hazel disclaims any knowledge of the place. Later Hazel openly admits his own feeling of placelessness, of not belonging. when he buys a car which can also serve as a “house.” “I ain't got any place to be,” he explains (73). By emphasizing Hazel's homelessness, O'Connor is emphasizing that he does not belong in the world of Mrs. Hitchcock and Enoch. He is aware of his homeless state not only in a literal but in a metaphorical way, yet at this point he is unable to accept the belief that would provide him with his true spiritual home.

A car more traditionally functions as a symbol of mobility than of security, as an instrument of motion instead of a place, and Hazel sees his car in this way as well. To the mechanic who is honestly telling him how worthless the car is, he says, “I told you this car would get me anywhere I wanted to go.” The mechanic replies prophetically, “Some things … 'll get some folks somewheres” (127). Hazel persists in believing that he needs to move to find his place, his home. Yet the reader senses that Hazel does not need to move; he needs only to accept the heritage of faith passed on from his mother and grandfather. By the end of Wise Blood, the significance of earthly place has been subsumed in the larger significance of spiritual place. Hazel Motes is then seen as having found his real place, his true home, when he acknowledges the faith that he has inherited and accepts his true identity; in other words, he has come back where he started.

The notion of place associated with belief appears a number of times in Wise Blood, often when Hazel is attempting to convey his new unbelief. When he is told that he should have a church to preach in, he explains, “My church is the Church Without Christ. … If there's no Christ, there's no reason to have a set place to do it in” (106). Hazel seems to have forgotten his grandfather, who was controlled by an overpowering belief in Christ but who used his car as a church: “His grandfather had traveled three counties in a Ford automobile. Every fourth Sunday he had driven into Eastrod as if he were just in time to save them all from Hell, and he was shouting before he had the car door open. People gathered around his Ford because he seemed to dare them to. He would climb up on the nose of it and preach from there and sometimes he would climb onto the top of it and shout down at them” (21). As Hazel's grandfather illustrates, Hazel's desire to escape Christ by avoiding a place will not work. When Hazel discovers the hypocrisy of the supposedly blind preacher Hawks, he preaches his first real sermon—“from the nose of the car,” just like his grandfather. And the theme of his sermon is place: “Where is there a place for you to be? No place. … Nothing outside you can give you any place. … If there was a place where Jesus had redeemed you that would be the place for you to be, but which of you can find it?” (165-66). Hazel will find the place for him to be, but first he must destroy the falseness of Solace Layfield and Hoover Shoats's Church of Christ Without Christ.

The central pattern of imagery that functions to show Hazel's attempts to deny his faith is coffin imagery. Through real coffins, coffinlike objects or places, and imagined or dreamed coffins, Flannery O'Connor reinforces the reader's growing sense of the inescapability of the faith that Hazel first encounters through his preacher grandfather, whose identity Hazel eventually assumes. The first mention of a coffin in the novel is Hazel's memory of the first coffin he ever saw, his grandfather's; Hazel is disillusioned that his seemingly all-powerful grandfather allows the coffin—or “box,” in the country idiom Hazel often employs—to be shut. Immediately following this remembered scene is the account of the deaths of two of Hazel's brothers; at the death of the second one, he is upset at the thought of himself in the coffin in place of his brother: “what if he had been in it and they had shut it on him” (20). Then comes the bizarre description of his father's burial; Hazel sees his father, like his grandfather, as powerless to prevent being shut up in his coffin.

The opening chapter of the novel ends with Hazel's dream of his mother's burial. During the dream, his berth on the train becomes like a coffin to him. Significantly, it is the porter from home, from the place associated with his grandfather, who refuses to respond to Hazel's cry, “I can't be closed up in this thing” (27). Of course Hazel is not only closed up in the sleeping berth; he is symbolically trapped by his close identification with his grandfather, even to the point of reflecting the old man's appearance. In time he will accept that identification and with it the belief that he accepted without question when he was a child. But he will also find his own individuality. Although he resembles his grandfather, he is not his grandfather; he is an individual who must come to terms with his own spirituality.

O'Connor reminds the reader of this crucial scene in a grimly comic way through the stories of Sabbath Lily Hawks, another lonely character who seeks out Hazel's company as Enoch Emery does. Her stories involve unwanted children, such as she is, and entrapment or enclosure in coffinlike or prisonlike structures. The first portrays a beautiful mother who rejects her unattractive child, finally strangling it and hanging it in the chimney. It haunts the woman, “staring through the chimney at her,” the girl emphasizes (52). The second depicts an evil grandmother who rejects her grandchild because of its goodness. She locks it in a chicken crate where it prophesies her death and damnation: “It seen its granny in hell-fire, swoll and burning, and it told her everything it seen and she got so swoll until finally she went to the well and wrapped the well rope around her neck and let down the bucket and broke her neck” (122-23). Surely Hazel must be affected by these tales; regardless, they function for the reader to reinforce the feeling that Hazel is trapped by his past and his own sense of mortality.

The scene in which Hazel imagines himself instead of his brother in the coffin prefigures a crucial scene in which Hazel dreams that he is “not dead but only buried. He was not waiting on the Judgment because there was no Judgment, he was waiting on nothing.” Most tellingly, he expects his release to come through Asa Hawks, the fake blind preacher: “He kept expecting Hawks to appear at the oval window with a wrench, but the blind man didn't come” (160-61). Earlier, Hazel had chastised Hawks for not trying to save him. When Hazel awakes from this dream, he goes to Hawks, picks the lock of his room, and strikes a match before his seeing eyes.

Reflection, mirroring, and doubling serve many functions in Wise Blood. The most obvious is to identify Hazel's heritage of faith to the reader through repeated references to his resemblance to his grandfather. Hazel is first seen with his preacherlike hat, which turns out to be so important to him that he misses the train after a stop because he is running to retrieve his hat, which has been blown off by the wind. With the hat goes the identity of being a preacher like his grandfather, which he at first denies. The taxi driver who takes Hazel to Mrs. Leora Watts, the prostitute, says, “You look like a preacher.” He adds: “It ain't only the hat. It's a look in your face somewheres” (31). And of course Mrs. Watts torments him: “Momma don't mind if you ain't a preacher” (34). Early on Hazel identifies himself as a preacher, and of course he continues to wear the hat. When Mrs. Watts mutilates what she has referred to as his “Jesus-seeing hat” (60), he buys a completely different one that in his hands turns out to look “just as fierce as the other one had” (111). This is the hat that Sabbath Lily Hawks throws across the room as she seduces him. From the first scene the hat and other images function as links between Hazel and his grandfather, to reinforce his sense of being trapped by his spiritual heritage. Eventually he will discover his own way of acknowledging his belief and find his identity as an individual rather than a reflection of the old man.

Characters such as Enoch Emery, Onnie Jay Holy, Solace Layfield, and, most important, Asa Hawks also mirror Hazel, but they ultimately serve to move him around to the greater freedom that his heritage ultimately represents. Emery, for example, not only supplies the “new jesus” for Hazel's Church Without Christ, a mummy found in a “coffin-like” case (97), but he also takes on a new identity himself as the godlike Gonga the gorilla. This transformation may well be a comic foreshadowing of Hazel's eventual assumption of the role of the only true prophet in the novel.

The character of Onnie Jay Holy tries to pervert the teachings of Hazel by creating a mirror image of Hazel's “church,” called the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, for purely materialistic purposes. Holy, actually a fraud with the equally wonderful name of Hoover Shoats, turns up with an imitation Hazel in the person of Solace Layfield. The ironically labeled “True Prophet” even drives a “rat-colored car” like Hazel's, which itself reminds Hazel of the Ford from which his grandfather delivered his sermons. When asked by a woman on the street if he and Layfield are twins, Hazel responds ambiguously: “If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it'll hunt you down and kill you” (168). Hazel is of course thinking of his attempts to destroy the religious faith of his grandfather, which haunts him. This image of killing is clearly related to the pattern of coffin imagery in the novel. In fact, death proves to be the ultimate confinement for Hazel—but it is not a negative confinement. It is within the security of belief that Hazel moves through death to his true spiritual home.

O'Connor skillfully uses the false prophet to illustrate to Hazel the falseness of what he is doing in preaching of the Church Without Christ. Hazel looks at Solace Layfield and sees not just someone who resembles himself, but himself. “He was so struck with how gaunt and thin he looked in the illusion,” the narrator says, “that he stopped preaching. He had never pictured himself that way before. The man he saw was hollow-chested and carried his neck thrust forward and his arms down by his side; he stood there as if he were waiting for some signal he was afraid he might not catch” (167). Hazel is reminded by the image of Layfield of what he is trying to escape, but he also seems to get the proper signal, for he realizes that he must destroy this fake prophet. He does so by the heavily symbolic act of destroying the imitation car, then repeatedly running over Layfield with the true car, the Essex. Because of the fraud and hypocrisy involved in Shoats's and Layfield's operation, the reader must accept the validity of Hazel's acts of violence, which are seen in the context of the novel to be carried out in the name of true religion, regardless of Hazel's pretense that he is preaching the doctrines of a church with no Savior. The instrument of violence is the car, which symbolically carries the faith of Hazel's grandfather from the past into the present, as well as carrying Hazel toward a state of acceptance of that faith.

Reflection is used even more significantly through the character of Asa Hawks, the fake blind preacher. Hawks has attempted to blind himself as an act of faith, but he failed. Hazel's literal destruction of the fake prophet Solace Layfield is foreshadowed in the novel by his symbolic destruction of Hawks through the exposure of his hypocrisy. Sneaking into the supposedly blind preacher's room, Motes strikes a match in the sleeping Hawks's face: “The two sets of eyes looked at each other as long as the match lasted; Haze's expression seemed to open onto a deeper blankness and reflect something and then close again” (162). The reader subsequently learns that the reflection here is of the greatest significance when later in the novel Hazel attempts to blind himself as an act of faith—and succeeds.

Before making that commitment, though, Hazel must destroy Layfield and then experience the destruction of his own car. Frustrated by the attempts of Hoover Shoats and Sabbath Lily Hawks to control him, he determines to leave Taulkinham. The real meaning of having a car has, he believes, become clear to him as he makes his plans: “The entire possibility of this came from the advantage of having a car—of having something that moved fast, in privacy, to the place you wanted to be” (186). After killing Layfield, Hazel spends the night in the car, then heads out of the city. In a truly comic scene a stereotyped southern highway patrolman learns that Hazel does not possess a driver's license, so he pushes the Essex over an embankment, just as Hazel had pushed Layfield's car into a ditch. The policeman drawls, “Them that don't have a car, don't need a license” (209). In destroying Hazel's car, the policeman has destroyed what Hazel originally saw as his instrument for freedom, the means of moving away from his past, and also as his security, his home. The car actually represented further entrapment, further repetition of the role of his grandfather. O'Connor does not allow Hazel a simple resolution of his conflict, however. Rather than freeing Hazel from that role as a prophet, the loss of the car paradoxically allows Hazel greater mobility, freeing him instead to find his own belief, to be himself instead of being his grandfather. In a symbolic circular movement, he goes directly from the place where the car is destroyed back into the city and blinds himself, using lime, as Asa Hawks had tried to do, succeeding where Hawks had failed. Hazel thus accepts his role as a believer, but shows that he must practice that belief in his own way.

Imagery and symbolism of eyes, of seeing and blindness, are central to the novel, functioning to connect parallel events and to link characters, as well as to convey a central theme of seeing or understanding. O'Connor begins with Mrs. Hitchcock's seeing into Hazel's eyes in life and ends with Mrs. Flood's seeing into Hazel's eyes in death. Isaac Rosenfeld, reviewing the novel in the New Republic, said of Hazel's act of blinding himself: “Hazel Motes' mutilation is the inevitable consequence of his religious position; there is no escaping Christ. But the author's style … is inconsistent with this statement. Everything she says through image and metaphor has the meaning only of degeneration.”5 Yet one does not have to be a biblical or classical scholar to be aware of the rich positive symbolism associated with blindness. Throughout Wise Blood, in fact, the eye imagery is a source of contrast to the imagery of entrapment. From the beginning, Hazel's eyes are seen by Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock as a clue to his true self: “Their settings were so deep that they seemed, to her, almost like passages leading somewhere” (10). Sensing the depth of Hazel's character, she tries to see into his eyes, to understand him. But his eyes lead to the self he is attempting to deny.

Even the unperceptive Sabbath Lily realizes that Hazel's eyes are unusual: “They don't look like they see what he's looking at but they keep on looking” (109). He is of course looking for a way out, a release from what he perceives as entrapment. Mrs. Flood asks, “Why had he destroyed his eyes and saved himself unless he had some plan, unless he saw something that he couldn't get without being blind to everything else?” (216). She is of course precisely correct here. When Hazel realizes that nothing else matters but belief, he cuts himself off from everything else. When the novel ends, Mrs. Flood looks into Hazel's eyes until “he was the pin point of light” that even she could see (231). The eye imagery and other images of reflection function not to convey degeneration, as Rosenfeld suggests, but to indicate the inevitability of Hazel's acknowledgment of belief—a positive rather than a negative theme for O'Connor.

From the point of Hazel's blinding himself until the conclusion of the novel, O'Connor focuses on this inevitability of Hazel's role as a believer. He puts rocks in his shoes, as he had done as a youth to punish himself for his first awareness of his own sexuality; this awareness is symbolically connected to the experience of seeing a naked woman in a coffinlike “box” at a carnival sideshow (62). He even puts strands of barbed wire around his chest. Mrs. Flood, who seems to need the spiritual cleansing her name suggests, has not acknowledged her own spirituality. So she attacks Hazel for these practices, for doing “something that people have quit doing,” but his reply is simple: “They ain't quit doing it as long as I'm doing it” (224). His self-punishment, like his blinding himself, serves ironically as a source of liberation for his true self.

Though Mrs. Flood in her limited view tries to convince Hazel that he has no place in the world except his place in her house, the reader sees that Hazel's blindness not only gives him identity but moves him into another world. In the words of an old Protestant hymn, this world is not his home, and he pleads with the policemen at the close of the novel to let him “go on where I'm going” (230). When in death he returns to Mrs. Flood's house, she says more wisely than she knows, “I see you've come home!” Images of seeing and of motion dominate the concluding passage of Wise Blood: Mrs. Flood “shut her eyes and saw the pin point of light but so far away that she could not hold it steady in her mind. She felt as if she were blocked at the entrance of something. She sat staring with her eyes shut, into his eyes, and felt as if she had finally got to the beginning of something she couldn't begin, and she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light” (231-32). With the powerful conclusion, the reader realizes that not only has Hazel Motes gone home to the spiritual place where he has been headed since the days of his childhood, but he has possibly drawn Mrs. Flood along with him.

In an early review that is more perceptive than most, Carl Hartman makes the point that “in the process of denying the validity of all martyrdom and its accompanying mysticism and perversions, Haze has ended up placing himself in a position which is susceptible of a similar interpretation; the only forms he can find for his denial are those traditional ones which, because of the very nature of their place in society, can only serve to trap rather than free him.”6 If I read Hartman correctly, all he needs to do is to take this line of reasoning one step further, to see that what appears to be negative entrapment—Hazel Motes's inability to escape the faith of his grandfather and his own practice of his belief—is rather freedom from the confinement of the earthly world. Thus, O'Connor's character Hazel is seen to be truly free only when he appears to be restricted by his bizarre ways of practicing his faith, above all, by blinding himself. About the midpoint of the novel Hazel says ironically that he is peaceful because “my blood has set me free” (141). At that point he is neither peaceful nor free, but he is both at the conclusion of the novel.

The power of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood as a work of art is seen as she draws her reader, like Mrs. Flood, not necessarily into a particular state of belief, but into an acceptance of Hazel Motes's state of total commitment to belief. For Hazel, entrapment by faith becomes the greatest freedom of all. In Wise Blood, as in some of O'Connor's later works, one is tempted to see images and symbols of entrapment—coffins and other tomblike enclosures—as related to the author's growing feelings of being confined by physical illness. She worked to revise this novel extensively after she became ill and was forced to return home to Georgia. She did not know at first how severe her illness was or that she would never be able to live independently again, but she must have suspected both. Since her father had died with lupus, she knew precisely how serious a disease it can be. Here and elsewhere, however, these images and symbols must also be seen as womblike, reflecting feelings of another kind of confinement, not at all negative, represented by the definite beliefs of her Catholic faith. One can easily see that Hazel's life is simplified once he turns from fighting the idea of Christian belief back to accepting that belief and expressing it, albeit in extreme ways.

However, the early reviews of Wise Blood indicate that many readers in addition to Isaac Rosenfeld and Carl Hartman missed O'Connor's point; they were either unable or unwilling to see the positive dimension of Hazel's character. Martha Smith, writing in the Sunday Atlanta Journal and Constitution, summed up Hazel in the following manner: “Molded into his fearful character by an environment and heritage of horror, he moves undeviatingly on to his personal disaster, helped on his way by as unsavory a bunch of helpmates as you'd find under any stone.” This failure to see Hazel's final experience as positive is not simply provincial narrowness. William Goyen, himself a master of the grotesque, said in the New York Times Book Review: “The story of this novel, darting through rapid, brute, bare episodes told with power and keenness, develops the disintegration and final destruction of Hazel.” Goyen appreciates O'Connor's art but misses her theme, seeing Hazel as falling apart rather than finding the spiritual wholeness that O'Connor intends. Oliver LaFarge missed both the theme and the art, saying sarcastically in the Saturday Review that “Perhaps Miss Flannery's aim was a savage and bitter study of the nethermost depths of a small town, with special reference to the viciousness of itinerant preachers.”7 O'Connor's careful artistry deserves a closer reading than most reviewers seem to have given, and one is tempted to see not only her youth but her sex and her region as responsible for the kind of condescension LaFarge, the anonymous reviewer in Time, and others displayed.

Given the continued popularity of Wise Blood, such reviews might be simply amusing now. But they were no doubt responsible for O'Connor's feeling the necessity of adding a preface to the novel on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of its publication. Since 1962 the novel has carried its author's statement of the theme. Acknowledging that the novel “was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations,” O'Connor continues: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to” (5). In other words, she wants to be sure that her reader understands her “certain preoccupations”—the primacy of the religious faith that is operating both in her characterization of Hazel and in her own life.

Perhaps the preface, more than the novel itself, has been responsible for the antagonism some critics have expressed concerning O'Connor's attitude toward her reader. I think particularly of Carol Shloss's recent study and Martha Stephens' earlier one. Both express the view that O'Connor's work on the whole is aimed at the religious, perhaps even the Catholic, reader and is not intended by the author to be appreciated by the lay reader.8 Much of the most positive criticism of O'Connor's work comes indeed from critics who openly profess a sympathy with O'Connor's own religious views, and attempts to look at her work from a purely literary perspective have been few. Thus Shloss notes that “the publication of her first Christian essay … dramatically changed the tenor of critical response” to O'Connor's fiction.9 This point is true in that the essay seems to have given Christian readers an approach to her work and thus resulted in more positive responses than the early reviews. Yet this essay and others like it may have inhibited the kind of artistic analysis that is, as I have shown here, so rewarding.

Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor's first novel, has been subjected to many readings and misreadings since its publication in 1952. Though it has received more positive criticism since O'Connor added an explanatory note in 1962, critics still have difficulty in viewing Hazel Motes's acceptance of belief in the way O'Connor intended. For example, in a recent volume aimed at the general reader, the student of O'Connor's fiction and nonfiction, the author maintains that in Wise Blood “the movement of the story is towards Haze's conversion; the tension develops through Haze's inner conflict.”10 A careful study of the symbolism and imagery reveals that O'Connor is not portraying a traditional conversion, in which one goes from a state of disbelief to belief or from a lack of faith to true faith. Hazel Motes is presented in the novel as struggling against the acceptance, the acknowledgment of the belief that has been his since childhood but that he has tried to reject. Rather than a conversion, O'Connor presents a circular movement back to an original state of belief.

One should not have to resort to studying O'Connor's essays and speeches reproduced in the volume Mystery and Manners or the letters in The Habit of Being or elsewhere in order to understand the theme of Wise Blood. However, looking at these sources reveals support for the interpretation I have developed and may help the reader who has difficulty with the nature of belief as O'Connor presents it. Understanding how she views dogma in another context may help the reader who sees any particular set of beliefs as confining. O'Connor makes it plain in speeches and essays and letters that she is very comfortable with the dogma of the Catholic church, for she saw it not as a restricting, but as a liberating element of her religion. Although she states in a letter to a friend with whom she had many discussions of religion, “If you're a Catholic you believe what the church teaches,” she also explains, “For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.”11 As O'Connor spells out in her 1962 preface to the novel, this kind of freedom is a difficult concept: “Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen” (5). Characterizing the role of a Christian novelist in the 1957 essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” O'Connor emphasizes the same idea of freedom: “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.”12

Interesting and valuable as such sources are, all one need do is give Wise Blood a close, careful, sophisticated reading. The text of the novel includes all the evidence one needs to follow Hazel Motes's inexorable path to the acceptance of his own kind of belief. Whether the reader shares this belief is not essential to experience the power of Flannery O'Connor's words in Wise Blood, to appreciate the ambiguities and richness of style that mark her literary achievement. The Violent Bear It Away likewise gives O'Connor an opportunity to develop a rich pattern of imagery and symbolism that is simply not possible in the confines of the short stories for which she is better known.


  1. “Southern Dissonance,” Time, June 9, 1952, p. 110.

  2. Carol Shloss, Flannery O'Connor's Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference (Baton Rouge, 1980), 126.

  3. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (New York, 1962), 9. Subsequent references to the novel are to this edition and will be given in the text.

  4. John R. May makes this connection in “Flannery O'Connor,” in Jeffrey Helterman and Richard Layman (eds.), American Novelists Since World War II (Detroit, 1978), 382-83. Vol. II of Dictionary of Literary Biography, 40 vols. to date.

  5. Isaac Rosenfeld, “To Win by Default,” New Republic, July 7, 1952, p. 19.

  6. Carl Hartman, “Jesus Without Christ,” Western Review XVII (1952), 79.

  7. Martha Smith, “Georgian Pens ‘Wise Blood,’ a First Novel,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, May 18, 1952, p. 7; William Goyen, “Unending Vengeance,” New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1952, Sec. F, p. 7; Oliver LaFarge, “Manic Gloom,” Saturday Review, May 24, 1952, p. 22.

  8. Martha Stephens, The Question of Flannery O'Connor (Baton Rouge, 1973).

  9. Shloss, O'Connor's Dark Comedies, 13.

  10. James A. Grimshaw, Jr., The Flannery O'Connor Companion (Westport, Conn., 1981), 66.

  11. O'Connor to “A,” in Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, 1979), 103, 92.

  12. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York, 1970), 31.

Kathleen G. Ochshorn (essay date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Ochshorn, Kathleen G. “A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.” Studies in American Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1990): 113-17.

[In the following essay, Ochshorn explores the contradictions between readers' interpretations of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and O'Connor's intentions regarding the story.]

Flannery O'Connor was often shocked to find how people interpreted her stories. Some readers of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” believed the grandmother was evil, even a witch. Soon O'Connor set out, quite explicitly, in letters and lectures to detail the theology of the story and the importance of the grandmother as an agent of grace. In a letter to John Hawkes, she explained how violence and grace come together:

More than in the Devil I am interested in the indication of Grace, the moment when you know that Grace has been offered and accepted—such as the moment when the Grandmother realizes the Misfit is one of her own children. These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances.1

When O'Connor speaks of her Catholicism and its expression in her fiction, she is clearheaded, eloquent, and convincing. In Mystery and Manners, the posthumous collection of her occasional prose, she claims the assumptions that underlie “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” “are those of the central Christian mysteries. These are the assumptions to which a large part of the modern audience takes exception.”2 O'Connor was upset with critics who were determined to count the dead bodies: “And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies.”3 For O'Connor, grace is “simply a concern with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concern with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action.”4

Flannery O'Connor was most sincere in her Catholicism and her view of its expression in her fiction. She was troubled that her readers often identified with the wrong characters or with the right characters for the wrong reasons. She felt readers “had a really sentimental attachment to The Misfit. But then a prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother, and you have to let people take their pleasures where they find them.”5 When she learned readers were identifying with Hazel Motes' rejection of Christ, O'Connor added a preface to the second edition of Wise Blood claiming Motes' integrity lay in his inability to shake the ragged figure of Christ from his mind. Generally O'Connor chalked up all the misreadings and confusion to the spiritual shortcomings of the modern reader: “Today's audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental.”6

But the discrepancies between how O'Connor is often read and how she claimed she should be read cannot simply be explained by her theology of grace or by the lack of religious feeling among readers. Critical opinion over the years has tended to line up behind O'Connor's own explanations; however, O'Connor's analysis of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” still seems baffling and occasionally a critic has questioned the theology of the fiction. Andre Bleikasten, focusing on O'Connor's novels, claimed that

the truth of O'Connor's work is the truth of her art, not that of her church. Her fiction does refer to an implicit theology, but if we rely, as we should, on its testimony rather than on the author's comments, we shall have to admit that the Catholic orthodoxy of her work is at least debatable.7

And Frederick Asals recalls D. H. Lawrence's advice that a reader should trust the tale and not the teller. Of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Asals claims:

One can easily pass over her [O'Connor's] hope that the grandmother's final gesture to The Misfit might have begun a process which would “turn him into the prophet he was meant to become”; that, as she firmly says, is another story, and it would be a reckless piety indeed which would see it even suggested by the one we have.8

Finally, any work of art must speak for itself, and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” speaks much louder than O'Connor's claims. It depicts evil with a power akin to Dostoevsky. Yet Dostoevsky presented holy innocence in characters like Sonia and Alyosha as well as evil in Smerdyakov and Raskolnikov. O'Connor focuses her story on what is sinister in The Misfit and satirical in the grandmother and her family. O'Connor is dark and negative in the modernist tradition, albeit with religious preoccupations. She depicts pure evil in The Misfit as he obliterates the whining grandmother and her clan. This fine story, one of O'Connor's best, derives much of its power from the anger and vengeance it expresses. And that pile of dead bodies cannot be canceled out when the grandmother touches The Misfit.

Yet O'Connor is not diminished by the contradictions between her work and her explanation of her work; she is made richer. The fury that lights up her art keeps “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from being reduced to a theological exercise. The complexity of this story in part explains its broad appeal to audiences who do not see the story as a parable of grace. Grace is the uneasy cloak O'Connor designed to cover and justify the violence in the story. The grace is a guise, a rationale that is not brought off. O'Connor's naive and deluded mothers and grandmothers are often brought low by a violent encounter that shakes them out of their petty superiorities and their would-be aristocratic and genteel trappings. They are forced to realize their vulnerability, their ridiculous condition.

The character of the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for several reasons, contradicts any reading of her as an agent of grace. First, the grandmother's judgments of others are totally twisted. She pronounces Red Sammy Butts “a good man” despite the evidence he is a lazy slob who treats his wife like a slave. Throughout the story the grandmother is a full-blown agent of disaster, a Geiger counter for catastrophe. Her fuzzy fantasies about a southern mansion combined with some assistance from the smuggled cat manage to cause the car wreck. Then her pronouncement “You're The Misfit” seals their fate.9 The few pleasures in the story involve the grandmother's false sense of superiority. She chuckles over how a “nigger boy” (p. 120) ate the watermelon Mr. Teagarden (E.A.T.) had left for her when they were courting, and she wishes to paint a picture of the “cute little pickaninny” (p. 119) she sees standing, without pants, in the doorway of a shack. Her pleasure and self-esteem increases directly in relation to the degree of superiority she manages to feel. Her limitations are so extreme that it seems impossible to imagine her thinking about anyone but herself, even for a moment.

Then the grandmother deals with The Misfit by appealing to his gentility. She keeps insisting he is a good man, from good people: “You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!” (p. 127). She waves her handkerchief and adjusts the broken brim on her hat, insisting she is a lady and should not be shot. In one of the more bizarre moments in the story, she suggests suburban propriety for what ails The Misfit: “Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time” (p. 129). Later, when she asks him to pray, she again appeals to the fact that she is a lady, and she adds, “I'll give you all the money I've got!” (p. 132). The contents of her purse seem an unlikely ransom when the rest of her family has already been shot.

O'Connor does say that the grandmother's head clears before she tells The Misfit “why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” (p. 132) and reaches out to touch him. But by that time he is wearing Bailey's shirt, the yellow one with the blue parrots. And more than extending grace, the grandmother appears to be insisting on what is not real or true, as she has throughout the story. The touch expresses her final hope that her noblesse can alter her fate. But when she wishes upon a Misfit, she is likely to be murdered.

In a sense, O'Connor admitted that the grace she saw in the grandmother's touch could not have run deep. In a letter to John Hawkes, she restated and edited The Misfit's remarks: “She would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. True enough.”10 Though O'Connor claims the grandmother's limitations do not prevent her from being an agent of Catholic grace, it seems a hard won and shaky grace indeed, dependent, as The Misfit says most precisely, on “somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (p. 133). And in death the grandmother smiles up with a child's face, still without comprehension.

Despite their obvious differences, The Misfit and the grandmother are bound by their concern with appearances and superficial respectability. The Misfit reddens when Bailey curses at the grandmother and adds “I don't reckon he meant to talk to you thataway” (p. 127). He admits he would prefer not to shoot a lady. He appears embarrassed when the family huddles in front of him. He apologizes: “I'm sorry I don't have on a shirt before you ladies” (p. 129). The grandmother dresses for accidents; The Misfit, for murders. He gets Bailey's shirt from Bobby Lee.

The power The Misfit has in the story resides not only in his gun and his violent sidekicks. He is energized by his keenness, his experience, his knowledge of evil. Though he claims to be confused about the extent of his own guilt, his view of human nature is certainly more direct than the view of the grandmother and her family. He is the opposite of the children's mother, “whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage …” (p. 117). He has been many different things, including a gospel singer and an undertaker. He has been in a tornado and even says he has seen a woman flogged. He has the same “all or nothing” mentality of Flannery O'Connor herself, who said “I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.”11 The Misfit says of Christ:

“If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

(p. 132)

While O'Connor clearly feels Christ is all, The Misfit thinks he is managing fine without Him. When The Misfit shoots the grandmother he is recoiling from whatever grace she offers. He is rejecting not just any warmth conveyed in the touch, but also the revolting world she represents and the repulsive notion that he is her child. With good reason, The Misfit is unwilling to be adopted by this grandmother.

Essentially, the story is a stronger indictment of the grandmother and her pathetic view of life than of The Misfit. It is no accident that the grandmother and her entire crew are killed off in the story: this family vacation was doomed from the outset. And it is with no small degree of pleasure that O'Connor finishes off this family. Her fictional world is basically satirical, not theological. She casts a plain and cold eye on a sorry sight, a real world, and renders it mercilessly. A mean pleasure sustains the satire and nourishes the reader. Though The Misfit finally decides “it's no real pleasure in life” (p. 133), there is pleasure in this story.

A personal wrath oozes from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and from most of O'Connor's fiction. The wrath is O'Connor's strength and her idealism, her refusal to believe the world around her was all. But apparently her anger left her with guilt enough to cause her to insist on an impossible reading of her own story. In her version a moment of kindness mixed with a plea for mercy would carry the day and push the massacred clan into the background, minimizing the survival of The Misfit.

The story reveals the hidden Flannery O'Connor glimpsed by Katherine Anne Porter. Porter was struck by the discrepancy between O'Connor's appearance and her fiction and suggested that the famous self-portrait with the peacock revealed an inner Flannery:

Something you might not see on first or even second glance in that tenderly fresh-colored, young, smiling face; something she saw in herself, knew about herself, that she was trying to tell us in a way less personal, yet more vivid than words.

That portrait, I'm trying to say, looked like the girl who wrote those blood-curdling stories about human evil—NOT the living Flannery, whistling to her peacocks, showing off her delightfully freakish breed of chickens.12

The force of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” speaks for an angry outsider, a person without illusions or sentimentality. The grandmother does not go to Florida, and O'Connor has her way. A world of propriety and illusion is laid low by wrath, not redeemed by grace.


  1. Flannery O'Connor, Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, second ed. (New York: Random House, 1980), pp. 367-68.

  2. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), p. 109.

  3. Mystery, p. 113.

  4. Mystery, p. 204.

  5. Mystery, p. 110.

  6. Mystery, p. 161.

  7. Andre Bleikasten, “The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor,” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Beverly Lyon Clark (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985), p. 156.

  8. Frederick Asals, “The Limits of Explanation,” Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor, p. 52.

  9. Flannery O'Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), p. 127. Subsequent citations will appear in the text.

  10. Letters, p. 389.

  11. Letters, p. 147.

  12. Katherine Anne Porter, “Flannery O'Connor at Home,” The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter (New York: Dell, 1973), p. 297.

Lisa S. Babinec (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Babinec, Lisa S. “Cyclical Patterns of Domination and Manipulation in Flannery O'Connor's Mother-Daughter Relationships.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 19 (1990): 9-29.

[In the following essay, Babinec examines mother-daughter relationships in O'Connor's fiction from a feminist perspective.]

Flannery O'Connor's fiction is witty, grotesque, and entertaining, and, at the same time, complex, ambiguous, and undefinable. Since her death in 1964, many scholars have attempted to analyze O'Connor's fiction in a variety of ways; specifically, they have focused on the representation of Christian values and the issue of grace and redemption, psychological and biographical interpretations, formal textual analysis, and her work's relation to the Southern literary tradition. However, with the exception of Louise Westling's Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens, no one has studied issues of mother-daughter relationships from a feminist perspective. Those scholars who do briefly mention mother-child bonds in O'Connor's work usually go no further than to assert that her fictional family ties parallel her own life.

Scholars who reach this conclusion may only be reflecting O'Connor's own thoughts and, in particular, the statements she made in letters to “A”:

Whether the male or female is the superior sex ain't going to ruffle his [Father Walter Ong's] orthodoxy any; or mine. You may be right that a man is an incomplete woman. It don't change anybody's external destination however, or the observable facts of the sex's uses.

(HB [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor] 128-29)

On the subject of the feminist business, I just never think, that is never think of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex.

(HB 176)

In light of these comments, O'Connor does not appear to be interested in feminism or in questions of gender; indeed, her fiction, with its dominant and abusive men and its obsessive and controlling women, seems to indicate that she believes in inherent male and female incompleteness. Nevertheless, another O'Connor comment reveals an ambiguity concerning her understanding of masculine and feminine roles and stereotypes: “What you say about there being two [sexes] now brings it home to me. I've always believed there were two but generally acted as if there were only one” (HB 136). Thus, I feel it necessary to question O'Connor's own remarks in relation to her feelings about feminism and gender.

Previous scholars have argued that O'Connor lacks feminist sensitivity: Westling suggests that O'Connor, by reading predominantly male authors, has “formed her imagination through male conventions of misogyny so that, when she returns to herself, she is more deeply imprisoned than ever” (Sacred 57). Claire Katz maintains that O'Connor “simultaneously confirmed and escaped the repugnant feminine role by identifying in her authorial power with the divine masculine authority which punishes people like herself who try to deny their femininity” (qtd. in Westling, Sacred 173). Frederick Asals asserts that O'Connor would have made “fictional mincemeat … of a feminist character” (111). Far more beneficial than these approaches, I argue, is the use of contemporary feminist theory to ascertain whether or not feminist readings can be drawn from O'Connor's fiction.

In my analysis of three O'Connor short stories—“Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Circle in the Fire”—I will consider four damaging aspects of mother-daughter relationships: the patterns of maternal domination, failed expectations, the effects of manipulation, and the ready acceptance of the masculine work ethic. After focusing on numerous O'Connor and contemporary feminist scholars, I have concluded that recent work by Marianne Hirsch and Sara Ruddick provides the best foundation for talking about current “maternal thinking.” Therefore, before analyzing O'Connor's fiction, I will discuss their theories to determine the cyclical patterns that evolve from attempts at domination and manipulation and to ascertain why mothers and daughters fail to interact successfully. The concluding overview of the mother-daughter action/reaction, I anticipate, will provide possible reasons for O'Connor's presentation of abusive family relationships.


Marianne Hirsch addresses the problem of motherhood in The Mother-Daughter Plot by focusing on women's role as portrayed in literature throughout the centuries. She cites feminist scholars who share her theories on the powerlessness of the mother in society, including Luce Irigaray's hypothesis that Western culture is “inherently matricidal.” Hirsch reinforces Irigaray's point of view by suggesting that women must break the bond between mothers and daughters so that the latter may become women; however, in order to break this bond, female genealogy must be suppressed in favor of the relation to the son. The result is the same as it is in Chodorow's theory on the formation of gender identity; when the bonds between mother and daughter are broken, the idealization of the father and husband occurs, leaving the female in a position of domestic slavery and, therefore, submission (43).

Hirsch also discusses Adrienne Rich, who stresses the debilitating effects on women of a distinctively patriarchal society. Rich believes that women have neither wealth nor power to hand onto their daughters; hence, the most mothers can do is teach a daughter the tricks of surviving in a patriarchy by “pleasing, and attaching themselves to, powerful and economically viable men” (44). In doing so, women once again sacrifice any sense of self-identity; therefore, they relinquish power and control to a distinctly male institutional voice.

Hirsch then uses these theories to formulate a basis for her own feminist theory by examining the position and action of women within the framework of the novel. For example, Hirsch determines that motherhood in the Victorian era, as represented in novels by the Brontës, Austen, Eliot, and Chopin, suggests confinement and potential for destruction; the fictional female characters are unable to combine motherhood with the freedom and expansiveness necessary for artistic creativity. Accordingly, these Victorian mothers become powerful and angry to the point of madness, or they become frustrated, inconsequential, and comic (47); in most cases, the women/mothers lack wealth and influence and, at times, the only positive maternal figures are dead. As a result, Hirsch believes, the women writing the novels are reflecting their lowly position in a patriarchal society; the authors and the feminine characters are one. For Hirsch, then, in literature, as in life, marriage and children symbolize entrapment and self-annihilation; moreover, this entrapment perpetuates an ongoing cycle of abandonment and isolation within the female psyche.

What is more important, Hirsch thinks, is that mothers, exposed through the codified activities of their world, reveal the terrible failing of it. As a mother gives proper nurturance to her child, she unwittingly drains herself of all possibilities of self-interest, sexuality, and activity outside the home (51); in other words, mothers and daughters fail to prosper when engaged in activities that may further their position in the outside world. Motherhood and achievement are seen as incompatible; consequently, for many mothers, maternity signifies a necessary death rather than a new beginning (67).

Hirsch's next relevant point concerns the subject of the “female family romance.” She relates that, in nineteenth-century literature, romance for a heroine revolves around attachment to a male figure or a “man who would understand.” In contrast, the female family romance of the 1970s de-emphasizes the male role; literature of this period focuses on a retreat to the pre-oedipal as the basis for adult personality and a concentration on mother-daughter relations. Mother-daughter bonding becomes a celebration of female relationships as mutual nurturance that leaves only a secondary role for men; although O'Connor's women tend to fall into a nineteenth-century category of dependence on a man, that these women are actually surviving on their own suggests an underlying struggle for feminine liberation and recognition.

Referring to Chodorow for insight into the role of father, Hirsch believes a daughter's connection to her mother does not easily shift to a father or husband; rather, the daughter continually strives to recreate the primal connection between the mother and child. At best, the father appears to offer protection and some relief from a stifling or overbearing mother-daughter connection (133); no longer central, the father essentially becomes an alternative to the mother. Although this idea works well in theory, it does not address the effects of the absent father, in which case mother-daughter relations may become complicated because the woman attempts to mediate between the need and desire to mother and the socially conditioned masculine role of protecting and providing. Accordingly, serious confusions about nurturance, status, and power arise within a mother's psyche and necessitate a choice between a male or a mothering role.

While Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking concurs with many of Chodorow's and Hirsch's theories, it also defines the three basic demands of motherhood: preservation, growth, and social acceptability. These three demands constitute maternal work, and for Ruddick, to be a mother is to be committed to meeting these demands by works of preservative love, nurturance, and training (17). Of the issues raised by Ruddick, the most relevant to Flannery O'Connor's work lies in a mother's desire to rear her child according to the standards of her social group, not those of her daughter. This process is enormously complicated as acceptable standards vary widely from group to group. At times, mothers regard the inability to meet these standards as a personal failure; while maternal failure is not usually the case, these same mothers develop an early sense of incompetence (29-30). Because they do not realize that every child is often ill, lonely, disagreeable, and dispirited, these mothers do not always succeed or prosper. The resulting development of a maternal identity from biased, external perceptions leads to internal anguish, induces a sense of helplessness and guilt, and later encourages volatile tensions, as well as resentment between mother and daughter.

Ruddick also stresses that when mothers succumb to the temptations of work—i.e., “possessiveness, parochialism, fearfulness, cheery denial, high-mindedness, self-righteousness, self-sacrifice and a rage for order” (30)—they tend to infuriate their children and disappoint themselves. The inability to keep work and power separate can lead mothers to disregard their children and ignore real problems; in turn, children can become disenchanted with their “powerful mother” and feel “wildly unmothered” (36). As a result, the children feel compelled to separate themselves from this “powerless power” and to treat their mothers with contempt, a contempt that breeds rebelliousness and hate and ultimately promotes alienation between mothers and daughters.

Finally, Ruddick feels that women want power, and to have it is to have the individual strength or collective resources to pursue one's pleasure and projects (37). For mothers, power includes keeping children healthy, prevailing over people who frighten or demean children, creating jobs and schedules that accommodate maternal efforts, forcing children to associate with certain social groups, as well as to have ambitions that both find suitable. When mothers' and daughters' desires differ, many daughters fear mothers will use their limited maternal power to create children who are their mirror images. Thus, mothers repress or do not recognize the daughters' individuality, and the results are immature, disagreeable, homebound children who continue to depend on overbearing and intimidating mothers for a livelihood, never becoming self-sufficient.

Without a background in current feminist theory, readers may have difficulty drawing conclusions about mothers and daughters in O'Connor's complicated world. While many issues concerning O'Connor's mother-daughter relationships lend themselves to examination, those such as domination, unrealized expectations, the effects of manipulation, and the ready acceptance of the masculine work ethic seem to predominate in the fiction. Highlighted by current theories, these aspects of the relationship provide the most insight into her female characters and into the internal and external influences that affect mother-daughter bonding. In addition, even though three short stories—“Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Circle in the Fire”—are my base for analyzing mother-daughter relations, these same stories, I argue, represent the typical interaction of female characters within the context of O'Connor's entire body of fiction.


Domination, a practice by which one controls another's psyche, becomes, at times, an obsessive and all-consuming desire that can cause a loss of self-discipline, which, in turn, inhibits proper maturation. “Good Country People” is a story rich in this inhibiting domination; the root of the problem lies in Mrs. Hopewell's desire for her daughter, Joy-Hulga, to act in a manner the mother considers “normal.” Joy-Hulga's having lost a leg in a hunting accident twenty years before the story begins creates complications because Mrs. Hopewell refuses to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy; Joy-Hulga, therefore, cannot adequately adjust to what has happened to her.

As Constance Pierce suggests, Mrs. Hopewell's main dilemma is a deep need to classify people according to their level of usefulness to her; if they can serve her needs, they are “good country people,” but if they cannot, she categorizes them as “white trash.” As a result of Mrs. Hopewell's overprotective mothering, Joy-Hulga becomes useless and lazy. Mrs. Hopewell cannot extend to her daughter the maxim “it takes all kinds” (CS [The Complete Stories] 293), nor can she label her own daughter as white trash (Pierce 30-31). Mrs. Hopewell then copes with her dilemma by subtly dominating Joy-Hulga, treating her as a child: “It was hard for Mrs. Hopewell to realize that her child was thirty-two now and that for more than twenty years she had had only one leg. She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal good times” (CS 274).

Mrs. Hopewell tries to dominate Joy-Hulga so that she behaves in so-called “normal” ways, which include having male companions and being a social “butterfly”; Mrs. Hopewell wants to transform the daughter into a mirror image of the mother. To effect this end, Mrs. Hopewell tells others that Glynese and Carramae are “two of the finest girls she [knows] and that Mrs. Freeman [is] a lady and that she [is] never ashamed to take her anywhere or introduce her to anybody they [may] meet” (CS 272). This assessment of the Freeman daughters is flawed: first, Mrs. Hopewell fails to realize that Carramae and Glynese are fifteen and eighteen respectively, seventeen and fourteen years younger than Joy-Hulga; second, neither has had an accident that has physically and mentally marred her development; and third, Mrs. Hopewell does not recognize that these women represent a stereotypical female sexuality, which makes them the sexual objects of men. Mrs. Hopewell attempts to dominate by encouraging Joy-Hulga to be like Glynese and Carramae; she reveals she is ashamed of her own daughter and, in essence, denies Joy-Hulga what Ruddick terms preservation, growth, and acceptability.

The result of Mrs. Hopewell's domination is a sullen, withdrawn, immature, lazy daughter who is unwilling and unable to exist in the social world. Nonetheless, Magistrale's conclusion that O'Connor's children feel an academic degree is an “entitlement to worldly scorn and condescension” (112) neither excuses nor explains Joy-Hulga's choice to remain an abusive child. Still, it is easy to understand that Joy-Hulga emotionally withdraws and verbalizes anger and contempt in an effort to protect herself and to survive in her confusing, unsatisfying world. While Joy-Hulga's decision to continue the cycle of domination is far from admirable, she seems somewhat justified in viewing her seduction of Manly Pointer as an opportunity to hold power over another, a lesson learned from her mother.

Reasoning illogically, Joy-Hulga seduces Manly neither as a “hidden acceptance of her mother's views” (Garson 118) nor as an attempt to dominate, but as a means to take his inevitable “remorse in hand and [change] it into a deeper understanding of life” (CS 284); indeed, she believes that she can take his “shame away and [turn] it into something useful” (CS 284). However, Joy-Hulga mistakenly thinks Pointer's behavior is the result of shame because, in the attempt to deal with her own anger and defeat, she projects her sense of shame onto Manly. Unfortunately, after she submits to Pointer and gives up her leg, Joy-Hulga resorts to her mother's familiar sentiment and asks Manly, “[A]ren't you just good country people?” (CS 290) Thus, she perpetuates an ongoing cycle of abandonment and isolation within the female psyche.

Moreover, because Joy-Hulga fails to deal with the loss of her leg and thereby metaphorically cripples her identity, she becomes an extension of her mother. Nevertheless, Louise Westling's proposal that, in O'Connor's stories, “male assault crushes female independence, forcing daughters into alliances with mothers as victims” (“Revelations” 21) is, I believe, questionable. While Pointer, I agree, nullifies Joy-Hulga's attempt to assert independence, I do not feel that the daughter identifies with the mother. Even though in a moment of panic Joy-Hulga instantly and subconsciously reaches for her mother's words, she does not ally herself with her mother as a victim because this decision implies a conscious choice. Rather, I believe, Joy-Hulga's being left in the hayloft to contemplate her failure to dominate and to exist as separate from her mother ultimately ensures complete isolation and self-imposed exile, not an emotional tie with her parent.

Ruddick suggests that some mothers tend to regard low status as personal failure: in other words, when daughters do not measure up to the standards defined by the “social group,” a sense of maternal failure and incompetence develops and leads to anguish and a sense of helplessness and guilt, feelings that promote volatile mother-daughter relations. To compensate, some mothers build high expectations for their daughters; when these are frustrated, as O'Connor's fiction demonstrates, the dissatisfaction and anger that result create deeper isolation.

The failure to live up to maternal expectations, a failure that predominates in O'Connor's fiction, could be a result of maternal domination; at the same time, however, these frustrated expectations may stand on their own as a distinct flaw in mother-daughter relations. While the focus of this study is on maternal failure, it is important to understand that just as daughters do not live up to their mothers' expectations, so mothers do not live up to their daughters' expectations; thus, once again a cyclical pattern of failure and disappointment exists between the two.

Mrs. Hopewell's expectations are frustrated because her notion of success—i.e., being a beautiful, submissive homemaker—coincides with that of the stereotypical Southern lady and, therefore, significantly differs from Joy-Hulga's. Instead of being proud that Joy-Hulga holds a doctorate in philosophy, Mrs. Hopewell succumbs to the principle that motherhood and achievement are incompatible, that mothers and daughters fail to prosper when engaged in activities that will further them professionally. In fact, Mrs. Hopewell laments that Joy-Hulga's Ph.D. had “not brought her out any” (CS 276):

That the girl had taken a Ph.D. in Philosophy … left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a schoolteacher,” or even “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans.

(CS 276)

Mrs. Hopewell considers this unusual degree to be her personal failure because it does not meet the criteria of acceptability recognized by Mrs. Hopewell's social group. Nonetheless, Mrs. Hopewell ultimately fails to understand and respect her daughter because she does not realize that Joy-Hulga's pursuit of a degree in philosophy is really an intellectual rather than an emotional attempt to deal with personal tragedy.

Joy-Hulga counteracts her mother's disappointment by deliberately wearing every day a “six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it” (CS 276) and by refusing to go on walks with Mrs. Hopewell because she knows that her mother does not approve of her lazy lifestyle and mental attitude. In return, Mrs. Hopewell finds that Joy-Hulga's behavior is “idiotic and [shows] simply that she [is] still a child” (CS 276); she does not understand that Joy-Hulga engages in these “questionable” activities not only to define her individuality and separate interests but also to provoke recognition from her mother.

In the same way that people dominate in order to maintain control, they also manipulate in order to undermine self-confidence and identity. As Hirsch notes, many times mother-daughter manipulation results from the ambivalence generated when the daughter attempts to differentiate herself from her mother and the mother wants to keep the daughter close. Furthermore, when mothers, as Ruddick points out, succumb to the temptations of work, they often disregard their children, ignore real problems, and, thus, force the children to treat their mothers with contempt.

As domination is a means of interaction in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, so too is manipulation a device by which mothers and daughters communicate. Because relations between them are strained at best, the female characters within these three stories vent their frustrations and disappointments in the constant attempt to usurp each other's power. Moreover, because these women do not share significant maternal bonding, love, or affection, manipulation becomes the manner in which mothers and daughters recognize each other's existence.

Mrs. Hopewell's most effective means of manipulation is incessant use of maxims such as “Nothing is perfect,” “That is life,” “Everybody is different,” “It takes all kinds to make the world,” and, the most important, “Well, other people have their opinions too” (CS 272-73). These axioms allow Mrs. Hopewell to cope with problems on a surface level or worse, to avoid facing them altogether. Moreover, Mrs. Hopewell does not really practice these maxims: she will not allow her daughter to be different and will not accept other people's opinions; she manipulates Joy-Hulga by using time-worn platitudes to create the illusion that she grapples with the painful issues in her life and to suggest that her daughter should, therefore, do the same.

Manipulation also occurs in Mrs. Hopewell's perception of Joy-Hulga. While the mother does not articulate her feelings, the reader is aware of them. For example, Mrs. Hopewell thinks that, if Joy-Hulga will only “keep herself up a little,” she will not be “so bad looking” (CS 275). To Mrs. Hopewell it seems that every year Joy-Hulga grows “less like other people and more like herself—bloated, rude, and squint-eyed” (CS 276). Finally, Mrs. Hopewell cannot “imagine what kind of conversation [Joy-Hulga can] possibly have had” with the Bible salesman (CS 277). Although the subtle tone of the narrator influences readers to identify with Joy-Hulga, it is also clear that the young woman acts as she does to express her individuality and to gain recognition.

More disturbing, however, is that, when Mrs. Hopewell fails to effect the maternal conditions of preservation, growth, and acceptance, Joy-Hulga senses her mother's perceptions, resents Mrs. Hopewell's pity, and retaliates by refusing to communicate on any level. To avoid conversation, Joy changes her name to Hulga, for she, like her mother, regards this name as a representation of herself, an “ugly sweating Vulcan who [stays] in the furnace” (CS 275). Believing that changing her name will prevent her mother from being “able to turn her dust into Joy,” the “big spectacled Joy-Hulga,” nevertheless, frowns and reddens when Mrs. Freeman uses the new name, regarding the act as a violation of “her privacy” (CS 275). Thus, the reader knows that Joy-Hulga's life is an unhappy one and that her attempts at retaliatory manipulation do nothing but reaffirm her dissatisfaction with her mother and her world.


“Revelation,” like “Good Country People,” offers another vivid picture of a mother and daughter's failure to communicate or emotionally bond on any level. Mary Grace's mother and Mrs. Hopewell resemble each other in the inability of each to accept her daughter's individuality. In “Revelation” the conflict escalates because Southern etiquette does not allow Mary Grace to express her frustration openly. Even though O'Connor usually privileges Ruby Turpin's perspective and focuses on revealing her protagonist's place in God's universal scheme, Mary Grace's mother actively reflects Mrs. Turpin's bigotry, pomposity, and false assumptions of class position. As a result, Mary Grace directs physical and emotional abuse toward Mrs. Turpin (and, indirectly, toward her mother), ultimately bringing Mrs. Turpin to a greater understanding of her misdirected religious ideals. While the relationship of Mary Grace and her mother is not central to the story, it follows typical patterns of mother-daughter domination. However, where Joy-Hulga, in a private or domestic environment, may openly confront her mother, Mary Grace, in public surroundings, must project her contempt and aggression onto Mrs. Turpin, a mirror image of her mother.

The conflict between the mother and daughter begins when Mrs. Turpin engages Mary Grace's mother in casual conversation concerning weight. Because Mary Grace is overweight, her mother, apparently using Mrs. Turpin's opening as an opportunity to dominate and instruct Mary Grace, says, “Well, as long as you have such a good disposition … I don't think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You just can't beat a good disposition” (CS 490). The two women, as they continue to share the same convictions and prejudices, disgust Mary Grace, who directs ugly scowls and sounds at Mrs. Turpin. Her behavior may seem odd because Mary Grace clearly recognizes her mother as separate from Mrs. Turpin. The strict rules of social order and the decorum of the waiting room, however, dictate that Mary Grace not openly attack her mother and that her mother not openly chastise her daughter. Therefore, the daughter directs her animosity at an outside party, and the mother-daughter struggle takes place through Mrs. Turpin.

As Mary Grace's negative responses to Mrs. Turpin become more audible, her mother, as Westling suggests, moves from subtly suggesting more positive attitudes and manners to explosive confrontation and attempts to dominate through public humiliation (“Mothers and Daughters” 514). After Mary Grace blatantly refuses to answer Mrs. Turpin's question, the mother says, “I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone on earth” (CS 498). Mary Grace responds with a loud, ugly noise; her mother, however, continues to speak as though her daughter were not there:

“I think the worst thing in the world … is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not appreciate it. I know a girl … who has parents who would give her anything, a little brother who loves her dearly, who is getting a good education, who wears the best clothes, but who can never say a kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and complains all day long.”

(CS 499)

Mary Grace's mother obviously does not allow her daughter to be free of domination or to pursue her own life. The mother attempts to choose for her daughter a life that will serve them both; thus, in order to protect herself from her mother's overpowering presence, Mary Grace, like Joy-Hulga, defies her parent by withdrawing and expressing anger.

By continually criticizing her daughter, Mary Grace's mother verbalizes feelings of maternal failure; Mary Grace does not appear to measure up to the standards of her mother's social group. The mother, not realizing that her social stratum prohibits variation in identity, suffers because she fails to value the individuality her daughter expresses. Instead of openly confronting her mother's mental domination, Mary Grace attempts to perpetuate the cycle of power by physically dominating Mrs. Turpin; unfortunately, as with Joy-Hulga, the result is turmoil and confusion with both daughter and mother reduced to the “tremulous moans” (CS 501) of isolation, loss, and exile.

Her mother's unfulfilled expectations for Mary Grace intensify the conflict that ultimately destroys them both. Although tolerating her daughter's choice to go to Wellesley and recognizing that she does very well there, Mary Grace's mother says that her daughter “ought to get out and have fun” (CS 498). Her mother wants Mary Grace to emulate the perfect Southern lady by dressing attractively, smiling often, maintaining a “good disposition” no matter how she really feels, relinquishing intellect and, therefore, the opportunity for prosperity in the outside world. Mary Grace, resenting this intrusion and rebelling against this Southern ideal and her stylish mother's prejudices, reads books on human development, refuses to answer questions in public, and wears “Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks” (CS 491).

Although Mary Grace has effectively maintained a separate identity, her mother refuses to let her become self-sufficient. In Chodorow's terms, Mary Grace's mother, caught between the desire to keep her daughter close and the necessity to push her into adulthood, only fosters more anxiety in Mary Grace and provokes her, as Deutsch and Balint attest (qtd. in Chodorow 135), to break away. The conflict culminates when Mary Grace's mother says, “There are just some people you can't say anything to. They can't take criticism” (CS 499); while alluding to Mary Grace, her mother actually verbalizes the helplessness and powerlessness she feels as a result of not being able to control her daughter's actions. Mary Grace, then, understandably tries to deny her mother's perception, ends up on the floor, her fingers “gripped like a baby's around her [mother's] thumb” (CS 501). As Margaret Whitt maintains, Mary Grace's matrophobia is so intense at the beginning of the story that she sets out to be the exact opposite of her mother, but the Southern code of manners decrees that conventional behavior be maintained; therefore, Mary Grace, reduced to a submissive, weak, crying female, or a Southern daughter, becomes her Southern mother (49). Moreover, like Joy-Hulga and like Sally Virginia in “A Circle in the Fire,” Mary Grace, humiliated and alone, has no choice but to return to the mother whom she disappoints.

After failing to manipulate her daughter through the form of dress, Mary Grace's mother expounds her bigoted ideologies—“I couldn't do without my good colored friends” (CS 495)—in conversation. Nevertheless, Mary Grace, remaining an unwilling subject and becoming more resentful of her mother's prejudiced Southern beliefs, continues to rebel against her parent's manipulations. When her mother says, “[I]t takes all kinds to make the world go round,” Mary Grace snaps her teeth and turns her lower lip “downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside of her mouth” (CS 495); like Joy-Hulga, she refuses to communicate civilly and behaves in ways that her mother considers unworthy of the Southern lady or her social group.

Thus, Mary Grace, acting predictably, ultimately manipulates her mother in a horrific manner by throwing a book at Mrs. Turpin, whom she then attempts to strangle. In the aftermath of this violence, Mary Grace's mother sits and cries while Mary Grace, focusing on Mrs. Turpin, shouts, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog” (CS 500). Even though Mary Grace really directs this telling remark at her mother, she has no choice but to vent her resentment and contempt on Mrs. Turpin, who becomes an outlet for the daughter's frustrations.


Although the mothers in “Good Country People” and “Revelation” dominate and manipulate their daughters, the most extreme example of maternal domination appears in O'Connor's “A Circle in the Fire.” Whereas Mrs. Hopewell and Mary Grace's mother usually attempt to exert power over their daughters in order to create mirror images of themselves, Mrs. Cope is so obsessed with power that she must control everyone and everything that she comes in contact with. Her obsessive desire to dominate manifests itself in her attitude toward her farm, where she works “at the weeds and nut grass as if they [are] an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place” (CS 175).

Mrs. Cope frequently dominates others by mandating conversation topics; for example, when Mrs. Pritchard talks about subjects that offend or disturb Mrs. Cope, she “always [changes] the subject to something cheerful” (CS 175) and sings out, “Every day you should say a prayer of thanksgiving. Do you do that?” (CS 177) In a similar way, Mrs. Cope incorrectly assumes that people want to take advantage of her; when her Black worker decides to drive around rather than through the gate, Mrs. Cope feels he is deliberately “going the long way around at her expense” (CS 176). In order to eradicate this threat to her authority, Mrs. Cope forces him to stop, raise the mower blade, and go through the gate. While she honestly believes that her “Negroes [are] as destructive and impersonal as the nut grass” (CS 177), Mrs. Cope also projects motives onto them and, as a result, wastes their time and energy dictating the way her employees perform their jobs.

Mrs. Cope's obsession with domination leads to the destruction of her farm and alienation from her daughter. Because she is determined to keep her farm successful, she concentrates only on the land and issues related to it; thus, she has no time for her daughter, who retaliates by refusing to participate in running the farm. Mrs. Cope reacts by pushing her daughter aside and verbalizing an obsessive fear of fire; her constant repetition of “Oh Lord, do pray there won't be any fires, it's so windy” (CS 176) forces Sally Virginia to scowl and taunt her with comments such as “You better get up and smell around and see if the woods ain't on fire” (CS 176). In essence, Mrs. Cope demonstrates Hirsch's theory that motherhood and achievement are incompatible; her desire to be recognized as successful prohibits her from lavishing nurturance and love on Sally Virginia: understanding, affection, and love are reserved solely for the land, which, in a sense, becomes Mrs. Cope's surrogate daughter.

The real conflict arises when the three boys threaten Mrs. Cope's tyrannical control because, like Sally Virginia, they will not let her dictate their actions. When the boys wreak havoc on the farm equipment and livestock, Mrs. Cope remains passive, mistakenly believing that she maintains power over them. Sally Virginia counteracts this passivity by resolving to use domination to end the crisis. She says to her mother, “If I had that big boy down I'd beat the daylight out of him” (CS 185). Mrs. Cope turns on Sally Virginia and fiercely says, “You keep away from those boys. … Ladies don't beat the daylight out of people” (CS 185). Because variations of this conversation occur three times, I conclude that, while Mrs. Cope may appear to be upholding the conditioned role of “proper” female behavior, she is, in fact, concerned that her daughter will be successful in removing the boys and will, therefore, usurp her power.

When Mrs. Cope foolishly tells the boys about her intense fear of fire, she makes herself vulnerable and concedes authority to them; they then realize how they can destroy her control. Mrs. Cope convinces herself that she has scared the boys and declares, “[T]hey've gone and now we can forget them” (CS 189); then, “as she sometimes [does] when one thing [is] finished and another about to begin” (CS 190), she acknowledges the presence of her daughter. When Sally Virginia, dressed like a man with pistols at her side, takes an active role in banishing the boys, Mrs. Cope watches her with a “tragic look” (CS 190) and shouts, “Suppose company were to come?” (CS 190) Concerned only with her farm and with dominating her daughter's action in order to maintain desired appearances, Mrs. Cope fails as a mother because she cannot give the emotional support Sally Virginia needs but no longer expects.

Ultimately, Sally Virginia defies her mother, shouting, “Leave me be. Just leave me be. I ain't you” (CS 190). She crashes through the woods, pretends she is stalking an enemy, and eventually discovers the boys. When she sees them, Sally Virginia forgets previous threats to “beat them up”; instead, she hides behind a tree and watches them set fire to the woods. While Margaret Whitt reads Sally Virginia's running back to the farm shouting, “Mama, Mama, they're going to build a parking lot here” (CS 193), as an indication that the fire is too much of a “horror” for her (49), Sally Virginia, I believe, understands that a parking lot where the woods are would destroy her avenue of escape from a domineering mother. Moreover, Sally Virginia is not, as Westling suggests, just “a girl after all, frightened of male violence” (“Mothers and Daughters” 520); rather, as the naked boys awaken her sexuality, she becomes a young woman aware of the power men may hold over women. By failing to nurture Sally Virginia properly, Mrs. Cope restricts the girl's ties with the outside world; thus, the daughter has no option other than running back and seeking refuge with her powerless mother. Like Joy-Hulga and Mary Grace, Sally Virginia, with her pitiable attempts at domination, becomes an extension of her mother, unable to achieve anything save isolation.

“A Circle in the Fire” also follows patterns of failed expectations similar to those in “Good Country People.” Mrs. Cope expects her daughter to observe the same work ethic she does and to share her concerns, especially the obsessive fear of fire that she frequently expresses. Whenever Mrs. Cope attempts to engage her daughter in conversation about fires, Sally Virginia will only “grunt from behind her book or not answer at all because she [has] heard it [the expression of fear] so often” (CS 176). Sally Virginia resents her mother's overbearing demeanor and feels compelled to rebel because her parent refuses to recognize or allow for any individuality in choice of values, ethics, and mores. Aware that her mother treats her in an indifferent manner because she does not measure up to Mrs. Cope's high expectations of social acceptability, Sally Virginia hides in the house and refuses to help around the farm. This rebellion damages her psyche even more because, in hiding, Sally Virginia fails to learn competent interaction skills with other people and, therefore, completely isolates herself from any relationships in the world outside her room.

The best example of Mrs. Cope's thwarted expectations occurs when Sally Virginia chooses to wear a man's hat and overalls over her dress. Mortified, Mrs. Cope thinks only of herself: “Why do you have to look like an idiot? … When are you going to grow up? … I look at you and I want to cry! Sometimes you look like you might belong to Mrs. Pritchard!” (CS 190) Because she devotes her life to the farm, Mrs. Cope cannot understand that most twelve-year-olds play dress up, that they are not supposed to be grown up. The real tragedy, though, is that Mrs. Cope focuses her attention on appearances rather than on the cultivation of healthy emotions; she does not consider why Sally Virginia dresses as a man and does not act like a typical Southern belle. Mrs. Cope's accusation that Sally Virginia looks as if she belongs to Mrs. Pritchard is ironic, I believe, because the woman's compassionate, down-to-earth nature suggests that, if she were the mother, Mrs. Pritchard might understand Sally Virginia's needs and might not force her to mature in a manner that is not conducive to positive nurturance and growth.

Even though having high expectations for her daughter and refusing to accept her daughter's separate identity prevent Mrs. Cope from demonstrating any form of maternal love, Sally Virginia, as an observer, benefits through the codified activities of her mother's world because she is able, as Hirsch suggests, to see where her mother fails. For instance, while Sally Virginia perceives that changing the topic of conversation puts “Mrs. Pritchard in a bad humor” (CS 176), Mrs. Cope is oblivious to this mood change. Therefore, even though Sally Virginia must socially develop on her own, she manages to escape the fantastical world of perception that her mother sometimes creates for self-protection.

Mrs. Cope's and Sally Virginia's manipulation of each other is similar to that experienced by Mary Grace and her mother because it is revealed primarily through the daughter's observations of her mother's wants and actions. Mrs. Cope's manipulation manifests itself in the neglect of her daughter and in the oppression of her employees. Sally Virginia perceives she is being manipulated when she hears her mother constantly say, “I have the best kept place in the county and do you know why? Because I work. I've had to work to save this place and work to keep it” (CS 178). Mrs. Cope does work hard, but by incessantly reminding others of her work ethic, she loses their respect and distances herself through arrogance.

In addition, by refusing to let her daughter interact with the boys who invade her farm, Mrs. Cope manipulates Sally Virginia. For instance, Mrs. Cope demands that her daughter not “go anywhere near those boys” (CS 187); instead of explaining when Sally Virginia asks why not, Mrs. Cope, evading the issue, only says, “I'm going out there and give them a piece of my mind” (CS 187). In essence, Mrs. Cope denies her daughter the right to learn social association on any level: Sally Virginia has no recourse but to accept her mother's order and return to her hiding place upstairs, where silent, ignorant, and alone, she continues to observe.


This study focuses lasts on the effect that the absent father has on the development of the masculine work ethic among mothers in O'Connor's fiction. Ruddick's assertion that fatherhood is a role determined more by cultural demands than by children's needs is, I feel, debatable because, as O'Connor's stories demonstrate, without the father's influence daughters find that developing social relationships with men and obtaining security through them are difficult or impossible. Still, Ruddick does raise interesting points concerning the historical role of the father; she does not, and rightfully so, regard a father as the male counterpart of a mother. Instead, a father provides material support for child care (in full or in part) and defends the mother and child from outside hostilities. Fathers are meant to represent the “world,” and in some cultures they may possess legal control over important aspects of children's lives, including the moral authority to judge their choices (Ruddick 42). That a woman can act the role of father in an equal or superior manner may be argued; however, in O'Connor's mother-daughter stories, the absence of this historical father figure creates serious problems within mother-daughter-male alliances.

The most obvious effect of an absent father manifests itself in a daughter's inability to interact socially with men. On a literal level, Mrs. Cope forbids Sally Virginia to associate with the three boys; nonetheless, on a psychological level, the previous lack of male interaction would obviously prevent any successful associations. For example, when the boys arrive, Sally Virginia hides in her room and keeps a silent watch from her window. When she does make an attempt to communicate, the girl sticks her head out the window, says, “‘Ugggghhrhh,’ in a loud voice, [crosses] her eyes and [hangs] her tongue out as far as possible as if she [is] going to vomit” (CS 185). Her behavior is not in any way an appropriate response, nor does it create a healthy vision of male-female associations.

In a similar manner, Joy-Hulga fails to interact successfully with a man; although she appears to relate well to Manly Pointer, her ultimate goal of seduction demonstrates her psychological incompetence to deal with men on an emotional level. Joy-Hulga does not witness love and affection between a husband and wife; thus, she views a man as an opportunity to exert power over another and is, therefore, incapable of a male-female relationship in which the healthy drives are love, affection, giving, and sharing. In Sally Virginia's and Joy-Hulga's case, the absence of a father figure results in uncomfortable, insecure, and confused relationships with men.

The second effect of the absent father manifests itself in a severely strained relationship between mother and daughter. As Chodorow says, fathers offer protection and relief from a mother-daughter connection that threatens to be too overpowering and, thereby, become alternatives to the mothers. She also feels that hatred and ambivalence develop more easily in relation to the father because the daughter perceives him not as she does her mother but as a being separate from the child, a being who always has different wants and needs (79-80). In O'Connor's stories, no father is present to act as a mediator between the mother and daughter; consequently, the mother expects too much of the daughter, and in turn the daughter directs unnatural levels of hate and ambivalence toward a central, isolated mother.

As a result of having to be both protector and provider, in addition to a nurturing source of love and affection, O'Connor mothers tend to accept a masculine work ethic. Societal expectations require a mother to provide a comfortable livelihood for the child, as well as to soothe hurt feelings and heal physical wounds; the interests of the mother are split, and the pressure to be both mother and father builds. In O'Connor's fiction, the mother usually succumbs to the temptation of work and loses her desire (if, in fact, she ever possessed it) to remain in the nurturing role. For instance, Mrs. Cope does not, as Mary Morton believes, accept the stereotypical masculine values of profit and revenge in order to disregard the “feminine principles of compassion and mystery” (61); on the contrary, Mrs. Cope is so totally committed to these male values as a means of surviving the rigors of farm life that she is blind to Sally Virginia's physical and emotional needs.

Finally, as Ruddick says, even the most clear-sighted mother has difficulty keeping power and powerlessness in focus. O'Connor mothers, I argue, accept the masculine work ethic not, as Westling says, to find power and action in the male world (“Mothers and Daughters” 54) but to find stability in the providing routine of fathers—a routine that becomes the alternative to O'Connor's representation of maternity as signifying a necessary death rather than a new beginning.

As is evident in O'Connor's fiction, the absence of the father forces the mother to mediate between a productive and a nurturing role. In these three stories, the mothers choose to act in a masculine world, remaining emotionally detached from their daughters, but, at the same time, attempt to live through these daughters or to determine their children's lives for them. As a result, serious confusions arise within the psyche of both mothers and daughters: domination and manipulation alienate these mothers from their daughters, and a cyclical pattern of mental abuse leaves both frustrated, disappointed, and alone.


Whether or not Flannery O'Connor is/was a feminist is irrelevant; relevant, however, is recognizing that feminist readings enrich an understanding of the mother-daughter relationships she portrays. Patriarchal culture, in particular, places limitations on women and forces children to adopt gender-specific roles and behavioral expectations. Limitations seen in O'Connor's mother-daughter relationships are the inability to cohabitate peacefully and the frequent repression of emotions and affection; moreover, when mothers attempt to mold their daughters into extensions of themselves or to make their daughters' appearances and intellectual aspirations acceptable to the mothers' social groups, the daughters react through indirect aggression. In other words, when mothers try to dominate daughters by refusing to recognize achievement or intelligence, children rebel by remaining homebound and continuing to engage in the activities that disturb their mothers. This indirect process of abuse is cyclical: the more a mother tries to mold her daughter, the more the daughter refuses to act; and ultimately the constant attempts to undermine each other destroy any possibility for love, affection, and respect.

In O'Connor's fiction the feminine world is not conducive to achievement other than that of a maternal, submissive nature. Daughters are lazy, useless, and physically unappealing; their mothers are hard, domineering women who possess an obsessive desire to exercise authority and control over their farms, families, and employees. While the masculine world may not be the only place these women can find achievement, certain aspects of that male world, I believe, offer a relief from the traditional position of women in Southern society. The masculine world, which permits mothers to cope with being both mother and father, allows them to escape feminine repression and maternal responsibility because the role of the detached, productive father may be theirs.

Finally, at the end of these three O'Connor mother-daughter stories, when a male force in some way defeats the daughter, she has no choice but to return to the mother who has pushed her away. Many scholars believe that the daughters return to their mothers as allies; however, an ally, I feel, suggests a choice, and in the context of these stories, there is no choice. The daughters have nowhere to go beside the home in which they have been imprisoned by patriarchal forces, by their mothers' mothering, and by their own will. This situation is not entirely the fault of these women; instead, those who live in a hostile, patriarchal society have no option but to live a submissive, subservient lifestyle or suffer the detrimental consequences of defying patriarchal rule.

Important to recognize, I think, is that while O'Connor's fiction depicts severely dysfunctional family relationships, it does not necessarily represent families as a whole. Through her characters O'Connor reveals the destructive hegemonic values of the patriarchy: the notions that men are inherently superior, that women should remain in traditional homemaker roles, and that, when women attempt to break out of these roles, feminine defeat occurs on some level. Also important to note is that, when women challenge these patriarchal expectations, they must give up affection and love in the struggle to assert independence. When these struggles ensue in O'Connor's fiction, there are clearly no “winners”; instead, defeat in physical and psychological terms always incapacitates mothers and daughters.

That O'Connor was aware of the problems of being female in a male-ordered world is, I believe, apparent in her fictional mother-daughter conflicts resolved only when maternal domination results in a daughter's failed attempt at manipulation. Perhaps the most important feature of O'Connor's mother-daughter stories is that a mother cannot dominate and manipulate without undermining her daughter's confidence and, hence, without generating cyclical patterns of abusive feminine relationships that seem destined to continue for many generations. Furthermore, O'Connor's fiction attempts to effect feminine liberation by challenging traditional Southern female roles. Her stories contradict her statement to “A”—“What you say about there being two [sexes] now brings it home to me. I've always believed there were two, but generally acted as if there were only one” (HB 136)—and ultimately hint at the strength and power of women.

Works Cited

Asals, Frederick. Rev. of Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens, by Louise Westling. The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 14 (1985), 111-14.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Garson, Helen S. “Cold Comfort: Parents and Children in the Work of Flannery O'Connor.” Realist of Distances: Flannery O'Connor Revisited. Ed. Karl-Heinz Westarp and Jan Nordby Gretlund. Aarhus, Den.: Aarhus UP, 1987.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother-Daughter Plot. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Magistrale, Tony. “Flannery O'Connor's Fractured Families.” Journal of American Studies 21.1 (1987): 111-14.

Morton, Mary L. “Doubling in Flannery O'Connor's Female Characters: Animus and Anima.” Southern Quarterly 23.4 (1985): 57-63.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Farrar, 1971.

———. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969.

Pierce, Constance. “The Mechanical World of ‘Good Country People.’” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 5 (1976): 30-38.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: Norton, 1976.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Westling, Louise. “Flannery O'Connor's Mothers and Daughters.” Twentieth Century Literature 24 (1978): 510-22.

———. “Flannery O'Connor's Revelations to ‘A.’” Southern Humanities Review 20.1 (1986): 15-22.

———. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Whitt, Margaret. “Flannery O'Connor's Ladies.” The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 15 (1986): 42-50.

Nancy T. Clasby (essay date fall 1991)

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SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy T. “‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’: Flannery O'Connor as a Visionary Artist.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 4 (fall 1991): 509-20.

[In the following essay, Clasby offers a Jungian reading of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”]

Flannery O'Connor's reservations about psychoanalytic readings of her work have not deterred several critics from producing interesting Freudian and Lacanian studies. Some of these studies attribute O'Connor's rejection of psychoanalytic commentary to her unacknowledged fear of the unconscious as “a material realm that threatens to displace the domain of ‘spirit’” (Mellard 628). It may be, however, that her reservations are based in part on an accurate perception of the limits of Freudian thought as applied to the image-making activity of the artist. The “bleeding stinking mad shadow[s] of Jesus” peopling O'Connor's stories cannot successfully be reduced to portraits of individuals suffering castration anxiety. Carl Jung's theories were somewhat more interesting to O'Connor; she reviewed the work of Victor White (Getz 158, 145), a prominent Jungian analyst and Catholic priest, but because she understood Jung in Freudian terms, she found his approach unsympathetic as well. Nevertheless, when taken on its own terms, a Jungian hermeneutics offers a way of opening up O'Connor's extraordinary image structures.

Such Lacanian critics as James Mellard and Andre Bleikasten have indeed provided new insights, allowing us to “reread her strange fictions as if we read them for the first time” (Bleikasten 10). The difficulty with Freudian theory is that it ascribes the formulation of images to personal trauma or repression. This limits its application to literary materials, which proceed from a different source and cannot be accounted for solely in terms of the artist's personal experience. The grotesque elements, the distorted, surrealistic images essential to O'Connor's work, resist interpretation in the Lacanian framework of the “Name of the Father,” the absent, abstract principle of authority. They are products of an immersion in the unconscious and can be understood best in a register of meaning that validates the revelatory nature of mythic patterns. O'Connor's grotesques link her with such artists as Blake, Goethe and Hoffman, whom Jung called “visionary artists” because, in his view, their imagery emerges in an almost unfiltered rush from the collective unconscious (89). “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is particularly rich in symbols of interacting masculine and feminine elements and in images of the sacred child; “The View of the Woods,” which Mellard has interpreted in Lacanian terms, presents a similar morphology. I will try to show how a Jungian reading can illuminate matrices of imagery that often remain obscure in Freudian readings.

Carl Jung's work is not a heretical variant of Freud's thought; it is an interpretive system premised on a hermeneutics of archetypal images in dreams and in art. Mythic archetypes, such as the Great Mother and the Hero, are patterns of images springing from the internal structural elements of the mind. The psyche is a product of eons of evolution, and its native language is imagery. Conceptual thought is a relatively late development. The tendency to shape and respond to patterns of imagery is innate in the human species. Such motifs as the wise old man, the hostile brethren, the helpful animals, are common to all cultures. These tendencies to build and recognize pattern are what Jung calls archetypes. Edward Edinger says “An archetype is to the psyche what an instinct is to the body” (Ego 20). For Freud, the images in dreams and poetry are an elaborate code devised to conceal the psyche's “real” thought. They are products of the devalued subconscious and are to be understood not as symbols, but as symptoms of repressed, infantile drives. For Jung, these dream images “are the thought, in the natural, undisguised language of the psyche” (Welch 8).

From a Freudian perspective, the grotesque in art is a product of a personal effort to master “threatening infantile material” by diminishing “the threat through degradation or ridicule” (Kahane 114). Like whistling in the dark, the production of grotesque images is an instinctive reaction designed to conceal the true response of fear based on personal trauma. Freud coined the term das Unheimliche, the uncanny, in an effort to account for the response of fear and attraction inspired by the eruption into consciousness of numinous, often grotesque archetypes (Bleikasten 8).

In Jungian thought, the grotesque is a product of a “visionary” art. All poetry is based on archetypes, but in realistic works the archetypes are clothed in layers of plausible detail, and are thereby integrated into the world of the conscious mind. The realistic artist's imagination filters (or in Jung's term, “clarifies”) the primordial images and gives them particular faces and forms. The archetype of the Great Mother emerges as, for example, Madame Bovary. In “visionary” works, however, the bare bones of the imagination are close to the surface. Sometimes the starkness with which the archetypal image emerges lends a quality of caricature or cartoon to the artwork. For Jung, the rich distortions and dreamlike qualities that characterize the grotesque are the hallmarks of the unconscious mind at work.

O'Connor's “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has proven difficult to fit into the usual critical categories and terms. It has been called “a theological cartoon … little more than a caricature” (see Gentry 113). The story presents the reader with a powerful tableau of primitive figures from the unconscious, frozen in a struggle that cannot be resolved. O'Connor's grotesques are striking projections of archetypal figures playing out the dramas that engage the modern psyche. O'Connor has lavished on it a wealth of irony and carefully observed realistic detail, but much of the power of the story lies in its clear delineation of archetypal motifs.

The setting is the wasteland, a “desolate spot,” where a cast of mythic figures enacts an abortive fertility ritual. The antagonists are a grim and ravenous personification of the Great Mother and a maimed hero who seeks to cheat her of her treasure. In the mythic pattern the hero must defeat the dragon-mother to win the prize, heal his wound, and bring life to the wasteland. O'Connor's version of the ancient myth is poignantly ironic in that the hero is unable to recognize the prize even when he has it within his grasp.

The treasure is, of course, the captive princess, the Daughter, Lucynell, another aspect of the Great Mother. Both women are named Lucynell Crater. The daughter's potential identity as the beautiful anima, or soul figure, can emerge only when the hero has defeated the dark forces of the Terrible Mother. In numberless retellings of the myth—from the rescue of Andromeda, chained to the rocks, to the story of Snow White—the hero thwarts the dragon, marries the princess, and rules over the kingdom. But this is not the outcome of the confrontation between the Lucynells and Tom Shiftlet.

The drama that O'Connor presents so starkly and yet with such fine shadings of irony is the confrontation that Jung saw as an expression of a central problem of our time. The particular form of developing consciousness favored by modern cultures has systematically suppressed the unconscious side of the self. Feminine images are associated in the imagination with the unconscious, with feelings and instincts. Masculine images are associated with consciousness; the hero (of either gender) is the developing human ego. Erich Neumann says:

In the course of Western development, the essentially positive process of emancipating the ego and unconscious from the tyranny of the unconscious has become negative. It has gone far beyond the division of conscious and unconscious into two systems and has brought about a schism between them. …

(Origins 436)

The split between the masculine and feminine elements of the psyche is the characteristic wound of the Fisher King, so familiar as an image in twentieth-century literature.

In the normal development of consciousness the life-bearing Great Mother at first provides support for the newborn consciousness. Further development requires, however, that the ego separate itself from the primitive realm of feeling and instinct and emerge as a separate center of consciousness. This growth process is perceived as a struggle in which the hero must resist the downward pull of the unconscious, now seen as the Devouring Mother. In normal development the child leaves “the instinctual land of the Mothers” and aspires to the abstract plane of the Fathers, the arena of law and light. Thus far, the Jungian and Lacanian myths parallel each other, as the narcissistic “I” of Lacan recognizes first the “m-other” and then the “Symbolic Other,” the controlling Father of the Oedipal power struggle. The subject emerges from the contest wounded by the castrating power of the Father or, in Jungian thought, by the loss of the unconscious or “feminine” part of the self that has been cut off or suppressed. The Lacanian account essentially ends here. Efforts that the subject may make to reintegrate the feminine aspects are regarded as regressive denials of the Oedipal outcome. For Lacan, normal development requires acceptance of the authority of the “absent” or abstract signifier, the “phallus.” In the Jungian scheme, the subject seeks to find wholeness by re-assimilating the lost feminine capacities. This mandates a heroic quest into the domain of the unconscious, symbolized finally by images of death and rebirth. O'Connor's work is typical of much twentieth-century wasteland literature in that the hero is unable to risk the loss implicit in transformation. The Lacanian formula works well with the elements of myth preliminary to the death/rebirth imagery, since these struggles can be understood as narcissistic or Oedipal. Within these limits, Lacan provides a workable matrix for delineating the destruction of the ego unable to accept or to transform the power of the Father. But the dynamic of O'Connor's narrative always includes an abortive or vestigial effort to go on to the phase of the heroic rescue of the feminine. The images generated by this phase of the myth are troublesome leftovers, difficult to integrate into a Freudian analysis.

To succeed in his quest, the hero must perceive that there are two aspects of the feminine, one frightening and one beautiful, essential to his or her own full development. Erich Neumann says the “elementary” character of the feminine, as Great Mother, “tends to hold fast to everything that springs from it. … Everything born of it belongs to it and remains subject to it” (Great Mother 25). This aspect of the archetype is the Devouring Mother, the embodiment of the prepersonal forces of the unconscious. Powerful images of the feminine as womb and tomb characterize this aspect of the archetype.

At a higher level of development a second character appears that “drives toward motion, change, and in a word, transformation” (Great Mother 29). The transformative aspect of the Great Mother is embodied in the anima or soul image, which is the feminine side of the ego liberated from the unconscious. When the hero successfully confronts the Devouring Mother, the anima crystallizes, and part of what had been the alien, the feminine, the unconscious, becomes an ally. Only when masculine and feminine, the conscious and unconscious elements, are joined is the psyche made whole. Joseph Henderson describes this process of synthesis: “Man's knowledge (logos) then encounters woman's relatedness (eros) and their union is represented as that symbolic ritual of a sacred marriage” (126). Together, the ego and the anima, head and heart, form a living personal center capable of bringing forth new life.

In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” the daughter has “long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a Peacock's neck” (161). The waiter at the diner says, “She looks like an angel of Gawd” (169). Lucynell is, potentially at least, the transformative side of the old woman who, in contrast, is an elementary figure, standing solid as “a cedar fence post,” arms folded, looking as if “she were the owner of the sun.” But the daughter is deaf and retarded. Her plump hands dangle helplessly at her sides. Lucynell's defects indicate that she is a captive of the negative aspects of the Great Mother. Unlike the spirit-birds with which she is associated, she cannot fly. The healing, transformative aspects of the unconscious, which she represents, are too bound up with the frightening, pre-personal forces of the unconscious to be available to the developing male ego figure. It is the task of the hero to free the princess by confronting the dragon.

Tom T. Shiftlet, the hobo protagonist, comes to the desolate Crater farm looking for a job, a task to perform. He carries a tin tool-box, representing his potential for creative work, but he is also maimed. His left arm is cut off at the elbow. His “face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steeltrap jaw” (160). He is associated with metallic objects and a hard-edged, calculating rationality. He tells Mrs. Crater that he can fix anything on the place: “I'm a man … even if I ain't a whole one.” “I got,” he says, “a moral intelligence” (164). Shiftlet successfully applies his skills to repairing the woman's ancient car:

With a volley of blasts it emerged from the shed, moving in a fierce and stately way. Mr. Shiftlet was in the driver's seat, sitting very erect. He had an expression of serious modesty on his face as if he had just raised the dead.


Images of the heart, or unconscious, run as a counterpoint to the masculine images associated with Shiftlet. Shiftlet tells an anecdote about a doctor who cut the heart out of a man's chest and held it in his hands to examine it; the doctor “‘studied it like it was a day old chicken, and lady,’ Shiftlet said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored eyes brightened, ‘he don't know no more about it than you or me’” (162). The mysteries of the heart are impenetrable to Shiftlet because the heart is associated with the archetype of the transformative feminine. In Neumann's words, the heart is the source of “the spirit-nourishing ‘central’ wisdom of feeling, not the ‘upper’ wisdom of the head” (Great Mother 330). In other places O'Connor refers to this source of understanding as “wise blood,” or the “underhead” (body, what is “under the head,” Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away).

At one point in the story it appears that Tom Shiftlet may indeed be able to restore life to the wasteland. He has spent a week on the farm, patching and building, and has taught Lucynell to say the word “bird.” “The big rosy-faced girl followed him everywhere, saying ‘Burttddt, ddburrttdt,’ and clapping her hands.” At night, the “fat yellow moon appears to roost in the branches of the fig tree with the chickens” (163). These images suggest a potential richness in the barren farm. Old Mrs. Crater offers to turn the farm over to Shiftlet if he will marry Lucynell. Shiftlet agrees to the arrangement, but plans secretly to run away with Mrs. Crater's other treasure, the old car.

“A man,” he says, “is divided into two parts, body and spirit. … The body, lady, is like a house: it don't go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile; always on the move” (166). The farm house is associated with the static, elementary aspects of the feminine. The masculine spirit, on the other hand, is an active element that needs, at a certain level of development, to break away from the containing womb of the unconscious. From Shiftlet's point of view, the old woman is the Devouring Mother, “ravenous for a son-in-law” (164). He feels that he must escape the slide back into the unconscious represented to him by marriage to the mindless Lucynell. The car, a mechanical womb, where he sleeps, like “the monks of old slept in their coffins” (164) is his means of escape. It is also a mechanical anima figure, a princess whom he has brought back to life. After the wedding he abandons Lucynell at the diner and drives on alone with his mechanical bride. His rejection of the feminine expresses “the desire to deny one's origin in the womb and to become the omphalos, which is to say, to be alive without knowledge of death” (Paulson 102, re Tarwater).

Shiftlet appears to have executed his plan, but he is nevertheless troubled. He has indicated from the beginning his awareness that “The world is almost rotten.” He is unsatisfied by the routine legalities of the wedding at the courthouse. The blood test reminds him that no one really knows a thing about his blood or his heart. In an effort to live up to his new responsibilities as the owner of a car, and perhaps to “save his own life,” he picks up a hitchhiking boy. Flannery O'Connor experimented with a number of different endings for this story, including one in which we learn that Shiftlet is a married man with a family (Kessler 4). The 1950s Schlitz Playhouse production of the story (starring Gene Kelly) introduced a happy ending, in which Shiftlet returns to Lucynell. O'Connor said, “I did have some trouble with the end of that story. I got it up to his taking the girl away and leaving her. I knew I wanted to do that much, and I did it. But the story wasn't complete. I needed that little boy on the side of the road, and that little boy is what makes the story work” (qtd. in Muller 33). In mythic terms, the runaway child may represent Shiftlet's own vulnerable ego. Shiftlet attempts to effect a reconciliation between the boy and his mother: that is, between the masculine and feminine elements in his own psyche. He warns the child not to wander too far from the realm of the Great Mother, and he applies the phrase, “angel of Gawd” (164), the waiter's description of Lucynell, to his own remembered mother. He says he “rues the day” that he left her. The intractable boy, however, curses Shiftlet and jumps from the slowly moving car, shouting, “My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!” His irreverence adds exactly the right acerbic tone to cut the potentially over-sweet sentiment of Lucynell's abandonment.

A mythic reading suggests yet another interpretation of the boy's significance: he may function as the “Divine Child,” whose appearance at the conclusion of the hero's tale is not uncommon. Ordinarily, the child represents the new birth, the product of the successful hieros gamos, or divine marriage. His presence signifies the return of life to the wasteland. In O'Connor's story, of course, such a motif can have only a negative or ironic application. The child's appearance also links him to a secondary aspect of the role of the daughter, Lucynell. She is also a child. Although Lucynell is nearly 30, her innocence makes it impossible to guess her age. Her mother calls her “Babydoll,” and Shiftlet asks, “Is she your baby girl?” The Mother replies, “My only … I wouldn't give her up for a casket of jewels” (163). In spite of her innocence, this divine child will be sacrificed, in a pathetic turn on the usual fate of the babe.

O'Connor's “The View of the Woods” involves a similar displacement of the hero's death and rebirth onto an innocent child. James Mellard's Lacanian analysis casts the story in terms of the Oedipal struggle. The characters are an old curmudgeon named Fortune, his look-alike (mirror-image) granddaughter Mary Fortune Pitts (“an angel! a saint!” [76]), and her authoritarian father, Mr. Pitts, who beats her in the woods to demonstrate his control over her. From a Lacanian point of view, Fortune's attachment to the girl (mother figure) is a regression from the Oedipal situation to infantile narcissism. In the last scene, the old man and the child are locked in a death struggle over Fortune's plan to humiliate his rival, the Father, by spoiling his view of the woods. Mellard sees the daughter as an extension of the old man's “Oedipal arch-enemy, Pitts” (641). Fortune refuses to submit to the child, as agent of the Father: “Were the old man to remain beneath Mary Fortune Pitts, he would signify his ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ relation to the Other for which she now substitutes” (Mellard 640). Fortune dies (of a heart attack) because he will not adjust to the “knowledge of the limits imposed by what Freudians call castration, what we might call limitation or finitude, and Lacan calls the Law of the Name of the Father” (640). Before Fortune dies he maims the Father through killing the child, so a mutual “castration” appears to have occurred.

From a Jungian point of view, the child, like Lucynell, is an anima figure, held captive in the wasteland. The cruel father is a displacement of the Devouring Mother figure and the name Pitts suggests both a seed and a grave, two emblems of the feminine unconscious. When Mary Fortune Pitts resists the plan to desecrate the woods, Fortune is forced to recognize her “Pitts” side. He can choose to embrace her as she is, thus incorporating saving feminine elements, or he can reject her, choosing a display of ego power instead. This matching pair of figures, male and female, roll across the forest floor in a fatal embrace. Fortune wins, cracking her skull on a rock and declaring, “There's not an ounce of Pitts in me.”

The central symbolic matrix involves blood flowing in the woods. When the Father beats the child she clings to a pine tree, suggesting crucifixion. The woods prefigure her death: they appear to “be raised in a pool of red light that gushed from the almost hidden sun setting behind them … as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood” (79). Old man Fortune, separated from the unconscious, lacking the capacity for symbolic understanding, sees “just woods … a pine trunk is a pine trunk” (79).

In Mellard's Lacanian reading, the blood is that of castration and suggests the setting of limits, the imperative to maintain the status quo of ego authority. From a Jungian viewpoint, the blood of the child's death is the sacrificial blood of the lamb. The failed hero “saves his life,” refusing to undergo transformative death and rebirth, and brings about the death of the holy innocent, the devalued feminine capacities (cf. Pharaoh and Herod). Mellard, in dealing with the complex motifs associated with the bloody woods, attempts to stretch the Lacanian structure to include the category of the “sacred.” He sees the bleeding “sacramental woods” as the Other: “the Otherness they represent is God, or God's Other and double, Christ” (639).

Tom Shiftlet, at the conclusion of “The Life You Save,” has, like old Fortune, rejected the feminine powers of transformation and destroyed the anima or soul figure. Lucynell's eyes, “blue as a peacock's neck,” are closed, as she sleeps in the implacable hold of the unconscious. Shiftlet, alone now in the wasteland, and “feeling that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him,” cries out, “Oh, Lord! … Break forth and wash the slime from this earth” (170). A turnip shaped cloud descends, and “after a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet's car.” This conclusion is a parody of the mythic rainfall bringing new life to the desert wasteland. The raindrops, like tin can lids, are emblematic of Shiftlet's futile embrace of the car, the mechanical anima figure.

When Tom Shiftlet makes his first appearance on the Crater farm the sun is setting: “He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross …” (161). Most critics have dismissed the idea of Shiftlet as a Christ figure as ironic. The crooked cross is seen as a sign that Shiftlet is “a grotesque Christ figure who is decadent and evil” (Muller 32).

An archetypal reading suggests another view of the image. Edward Edinger analyzes the symbolic significance of the figure of Ixion, who is also a crucified hero (Melville's … 138-40). Ixion was a mortal who offended Zeus by attempting to seduce Hera. As punishment for his hubris, for making himself equal to the gods, Ixion was bound, spread-eagle, to a fiery wheel. In Jungian terms, the sin of hubris is the identification of the ego, or the conscious mind, with the entire psychic entity. It connotes an inability to perceive the existence of a higher psychic authority than the self-constituting ego. Jung differentiated between the personal factors of experience and environment that shape the ego and the transpersonal factors, “collective … internal structural elements” (Neumann, Origins xx). The Self includes not only the ego, essentially a construct, but also the unconscious aspect that is fitted for participation in the collective unconscious through instinctive capacities for symbol and myth. The Self emerges as a synthesizing entity that reconciles the forces of personal experience and transpersonal, or collective patterns of development. Often the Self is symbolized by a mandala, or circular figure, such as the sun silhouetting Tom Shiftlet like Ixion's burning wheel.

The conscious persona, the ego, may reject the unconscious elements as “not me” or “not real,” and thus usurp the place of the Self, which, as the product of the developing interplay of conscious and unconscious elements, is the highest reality of the psychic organism. Ixion was punished because he showed no respect for the transpersonal reality of the gods. In a well-ordered psyche the ego and the unconscious interact harmoniously, and the emerging self enhances both components. But if the ego attempts to make itself the center, it will suffer. The conscious mind cannot successfully separate itself from the unconscious, but it can so distort the relationship as to cripple the entire organism. The self, meant to bloom like Dante's rose from the interplay of conscious and unconscious, becomes instead a fiery wheel of torture to which the struggling ego is bound. Paul Ricoeur translates the biblical injunction, “Who would save his life must lose it,” to “Whoever would posit himself as a constituting consciousness will miss his destiny” (115). For Tom Shiftlet, the life he would save is the life he loses.

Old man Fortune, in “A View of the Woods,” is similarly punished for his assault on the sacred woods and on Mary Fortune Pitts. As he fights with the child, he “rolls like a man on fire.” His heart “enlarges”:

It expanded so fast that the old man felt as if he were being pulled after it through the woods, felt as if he were running as fast as he could with the ugly pines toward the lake. … On both sides of him he saw that the gaunt trees had thickened into dark mysterious files that were marching across the water and away into the distance.


Shiftlet and Fortune demonstrate that the forces of the unconscious cannot be resisted by the subject who refuses to ally himself with them.

By stripping her characters of ordinary social context and realistic detail, O'Connor reveals the archetypes underlying the narrative. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” presents us with a tableau of grotesque forms acting out the central modern psychomachia of the wasteland. The male protagonist appears preoccupied with universal questions (“What is a man?”) that he will never answer because he protects himself from engagement with the mortal, passionate eros represented by the female archetype. Because the hero evades the quest, “a dead day” is born. The archetypal figures are rendered trivial, almost ridiculous. And yet, because O'Connor's visionary art flows from the deep wells of the unconscious, it brings strange and wonderful images to the surface. The numinous aura of the archetypes clings to her pathetic grotesques, and her narratives perform the function for society that dreams serve for patients in therapy. They allow patterns of the most personal, original, and yet archaic images to reveal the wounds, the pathologies that impede growth. O'Connor's art shares in those qualities that St. Bernard of Clairvaux saw in the grotesques of gothic art: “A wonderful sort of hideous beauty and beautiful deformity” (Muller 2).

Works Cited

Bleikasten, Andre. “Writing on the Flesh: Tatoos and Taboos in ‘Parker's Back.’” Southern Literary Journal 14.2 (1982): 8-18.

Edinger, Edward. Ego and Archetype. New York: Putnam's, 1972.

———. Melville's Moby-Dick: A Jungian Commentary. New York: New Directions, 1978.

Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.

Getz, Lorine. Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews. New York: Mellen, 1980.

Henderson, Joseph. “Ancient Myths and Modern Men.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl Jung. New York: Dell, 1968. 95-156.

Jung, C. G. “Psychology and Literature” [1930]. Collected Works of C. G. Jung. 20 vols. Bollingen Series 20. New York: Pantheon, 1953-79. 15: 89-102.

Kahane, Claire. “Comic Vibrations and Self-Construction in Grotesque Literature.” Literature and Psychology 29.3 (1979): 114-19.

Kessler, Edward. Flannery O'Connor and the Language of Apocalypse. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Mellard, James M. “Flannery O'Connor's Others: Freud, Lacan and the Unconscious.” American Literature 61 (1989): 625-43.

Muller, Gilbert H. Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1972.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Trans. Ralph Manheim. 2nd ed. Bollingen Series 47. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

———. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Bollingen Series 42. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1954.

O'Connor, Flannery. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Three by Flannery O'Connor. New York: Signet, 1964. 160-70.

———. “A View of the Woods.” Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, 1965. 54-81.

Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. “Apocalypses of Self, Resurrection of the Double: Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away.Literature and Psychology 29.3 (1980): 100-10.

Ricoeur, Paul. Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Welch, John. Spiritual Pilgrims. New York: Paulist, 1982.

Mark Walters (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Walters, Mark. “Violence and Comedy in the Works of Flannery O'Connor.” In New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, edited by Regina Barreca, pp. 185-92. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1992.

[In the following essay, Walters views O'Connor's fiction from a feminist perspective in order to examine the relationship between violence and comedy in her work.]

Flannery O'Connor is not often read from a feminist perspective. This is not surprising; she herself made clear that she was largely concerned with spiritual matters, with the “demonstration of God's mystery at work in the world.” Understandably, then, much O'Connor criticism has centered on the metaphysical implications of her fiction. But certainly that fiction should be addressed within contexts other than those she herself deliberately articulated, and certainly the effects on her art of her being female, female in a patriarchal South, merit attention. I believe, in fact, that looking at O'Connor's work from a feminist perspective can add much to the ongoing discussion of its most significant and mystifying element, i.e., the relationship between violence and comedy.

For O'Connor, or any American woman, to make comedy was and is in itself an act of defiance. Humor, of course, has long been connected to rebellion or, at the very least, irreverence. But for the female writer this rebellion seems three-fold: she typically debunks a certain convention, as would any male humorist; in the very process of debunking, she revolts against traditional expectations of female passivity; and by engaging in comedy, she calls into question the long-standing American belief that women are not and should not be funny.

As Alfred Habegger suggests in his study of 19th-century writers, because women were perceived as saints, they could not indulge in comedy and still maintain that particular illusion; to be funny was to be unladylike (141). Obviously, one effect of making women saints, making them “ladies,” is to deny them sexuality, to keep them “little girls” forever. Habegger asserts that this attitude still exists; and I believe that it is one conflict point from which we might read O'Connor's humor.

In a 1955 letter to her editor, Catherine Carver, O'Connor writes:

I have just got through talking to one of our honorable regional (with a vengeance) bodies. … After my talk, one lady shook my hand and said ‘That was such a nice dispensation you gave us, honey.’ Another said, ‘What's wrong with your leg, sugar?’ I'll be real glad when I get too old for them to sugar me.

(Letters [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor] 120)

Because O'Connor was not only aware of but seemingly perturbed by the Milledgeville community's seeing her as the eternal child (she was thirty years old at the time of this letter), one function of her humor may have been to assert her adulthood, and in turn, her sexuality. Comedy may have allowed her to become something other than a saint. Moreover, it is significant that those whom O'Connor perceived as most culpable in the maintenance of that saint/child illusion were the ladies of the community themselves.

Habegger also asserts that “American humor has been the literature … of bad boys defying a civilization seen as feminine” (119). Certainly, if this is true, a woman is forced to identify against herself while reading American comedy (cf. Judith Fetterley's The Resisting Reader). But to begin practicing that art, to begin writing, necessarily entails not just identification against the self, but an attack on that self. Whether the writer's protagonist is male or female, the convention being defied is, in American humor, feminine. Naturally this places the woman humorist in a quandary: to relinquish her art is to confirm women's exclusion from comedy and to exercise it is to rebel against her “self.”

But this is in fact a quandary only if the female humorist buys into the notion that women are to be equated with civilizing forces. If she does not buy into this, then she becomes a kind of resisting writer, either depicting the forces to be rebelled against as unmistakably masculine or, alternately, manifesting them in grotesquely ladylike figures who are then killed off. It is perhaps more than coincidence that the Southern ladies of Milledgeville—ladies for whom propriety assumed great importance—were among the most disapproving critics of O'Connor's work, and that such ladies repeatedly meet violent (and comic) ends in that work.

I want to assert, though, that O'Connor was more than a little ambivalent about killing off such ladies, that she could never detach herself completely from them, and that this simultaneous sympathy and repulsion for the women about whom she grew up informed and darkened her comedy. In support of this reading, I want to look particularly at O'Connor's treatment of mother-daughter relationships in her work and at her own relationship with her mother, Regina O'Connor. I also want to suggest how this ambivalence leads into her usurpation of the mother-in-law joke and, further, how such a joke inevitably becomes an attack on the self.

Louise Westling has noted the mother-daughter patterns in O'Connor's short stories and has pointed to the recurrent “hardworking widow who supports and cares for her large, physically marred girl” (510). That the mother is representative of patriarchal values—she is, most often, a “lady”—and that the daughter is just as often disagreeable and defiant, but unable or unwilling to relinquish entirely the mother-daughter bond, is significant. A daughter's ambivalence toward her mother marks these stories and, as I will point out, O'Connor's personal letters.

A number of critics have suggested that a specific strain of humor—the mother-in-law joke—arose from men's perception of the strong mother-daughter bond. The humor of these jokes rests most often upon the doing of violence to the mother-in-law, who is equated with civilizing forces. It is especially helpful to look at this particular kind of comedy with regard to O'Connor because, unlike humor in general, it explicitly demands that female bonding which critics have often overlooked in her fiction. Seeing that O'Connor exercised a darker and more complex variation of the mother-in-law joke while not denying the bond on which it rested, clarifies the possibility that her violent comedy arose from ambivalent concerns inseparable from her femaleness.

Loxley F. Nichols has traced the humor of many of O'Connor's personal letters to a playful conflict between the writer and her mother, a conflict that, she suggests, at times became uneasy and more clearly angry (28). For instance, O'Connor writes:

The other day she [Regina] asked me why I didn't try to write something that people like instead of the kind of thing I do write. Do you think, she said, that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don't write something that a lot, a LOT, of people like? This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my bloodpressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can say is, if you have to ask, you'll never know.

(Letters 326)

Obviously, Regina was a lady for whom decorum was primary. O'Connor, on the other hand, was the daughter who was at once repressed by and dependent upon her. On a larger level, with Regina as representative of the female community of Milledgeville, O'Connor is again “sugar,” the eternal child whose mother is likewise an eternal innocent in the patriarchy that sees them both as saints. But O'Connor could never completely extricate herself from the ladylike idea which held her in check; in fact, Nichols argues convincingly that O'Connor's letters indicate that she was “more like Regina than she realized or cared to admit” (25). And so like those male humorists who write mother-in-law jokes in response to the threat of female bonding to their own primacy and control, O'Connor's own sense of her relationship to her mother(s) may have contributed to her version of the same joke.

In “Greenleaf,” for instance, O'Connor describes Mrs. May in terms which establish her as the conventional mother-in-law figure, this despite the fact that her only children—two sons—remain unmarried. We first see her standing at her bedroom window: “Green rubber curlers sprouted neatly over her forehead and her face beneath them was smooth as concrete with an egg-white paste that drew the wrinkles out while she slept” (311). O'Connor further plays out the lines of the joke by setting Mrs. May up as that oppressive and civilizing force against which is pitted the easygoing male, Mr. Greenleaf, her hired-hand, who is responsible for her land and livestock—that to which she is most closely bound—and so is representative of the persecuted son-in-law in this daughterless story. Appropriately, Mrs. May sees Greenleaf as lazy and irresponsible, as “too shiftless to go out and look for another job” (313). Mrs. May will of course get her come-uppance, violently.

But what distinguishes O'Connor's joke from the masculine version and what suggests that she was not extricating herself completely from that mother figure is that she restricts the point of view to Mrs. May, giving us the sense that—despite the irony of the narrative—the males are indeed outsiders. O'Connor also depicts the males closest to Mrs. May—her sons—as decidedly unsympathetic and, further, in the habit of addressing their mother in the very sorts of terms against which O'Connor herself bristled: “sweetheart” and “sugarpie.” Finally, by not providing Mrs. May with a literal daughter, O'Connor allows her to assume a version of that role herself: Mrs. May is at once matriarchal protectress and wooed maiden, a grotesque representative of the very bond upon which the mother-in-law joke rests. Her would-be lover is the bull who stands beneath her bedroom window, “gaunt and long-legged … chewing calmly like an uncouth country suitor” (312).

Despite at first portraying the bull as an awkward and naive country youth—traditionally the least threatening of a girl's suitors—O'Connor begins to make clear that something is in fact to be feared and that that something is unmistakably masculine, Dionysian, sexual. Still beneath Mrs. May's bedroom window: “The bull lowered his head and shook it and the wreath slipped down to the base of his horns where it looked like a menacing prickly crown. She had closed the blind then; in a few seconds she heard him move off heavily” (312). But what is just darkly hinted at in the early stages of the story is realized at the conclusion: the bull, that ostensibly bumbling youth who calls for his sweetheart beneath her bedroom window, meets Mrs. May on his own turf, so to speak, and brutally consummates their relationship:

[Mrs. May] stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip.


O'Connor has, at this point, played out the mother-in-law joke: the aggressive matriarch has been dispatched forcefully before the representative son-in-law—Mr. Greenleaf—can arrive to help. The persecuted male has indirectly (here, through the bull) reasserted his dominance and ruptured the mother-daughter bond without relinquishing the appearance of being likeable and easygoing.

But O'Connor also plays out this joke from a decidedly feminine perspective. She merges the matriarchal identity with that of the pursued daughter, and she strips the country youth of his guileless appearance, depicting his ultimate conquest in frightening and sexual terms. O'Connor thus rewrites one version of the marriage myth.

But perhaps most significant, overall, is that O'Connor does in fact kill Mrs. May. Through her story she is able to overthrow the well-bred lady to whom she could only respond with frustrated silence in her actual life. But because she could not seem to separate herself entirely from that ladylike idea, those ladylike figures, O'Connor would seem to be killing a part of herself in these stories, a necessary consequence of such ambivalence. To get at this issue more precisely, it is helpful to consider the theme of female self-hatred.

Ellen Moers suggests that “the savagery of girlhood,” the themes of “self-hatred” and “the impetus to self-destruction,” account for the persistence of the Modern Female Gothic (107). She attributes these themes to “the female's compulsion to visualize the self,” to consider whether or not she is pretty. Moers concerns herself with the way this compulsion is expressed in Southern women writers' depiction of “freaks,” and she calls attention to Freud's study, “The Uncanny,” as a means of getting at the base of Southern Gothic horror.

Moers, however, does not do as much with Freud's work as she might to connect it to the Southern writer's creation of the “grotesque.” Freud asserted that the uncanny exists “when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (157). Elements making up the uncanny can include fears of castration, penetration, and being devoured. (Significantly, not only is Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” penetrated, but at the beginning of the story she dreams of being eaten by the bull.) Especially important to our discussion of O'Connor, though, is a point made by Claire Katz, that the “grotesque” results from the “admixture of the uncanny and the comic” (59). In other words, we might see the “grotesque” as the striking manifestation of the meeting between fear and the desire to revolt against or overthrow that fear. Moers makes a similar point, but she neglects to mention the comic, an omission that results in a one-sided reading of the Female Gothic, the dark side only.

We might, however, make use of Moers' thesis that the employment of the grotesque signals a “self-hating self,” a response to the patriarchal emphasis on beauty that women have adopted and maintained with rigor.

Hulga is the name that Joy Hopewell, in “Good Country People,” assumes to mark her ugliness. She goes clomping about on her wooden leg, wearing a “six-year-old skirt and yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it,” and, according to her mother, she has “never danced a step or had any normal good times” (274). She is, according to traditional feminine standards, a freak; and she must be, according to Moers' thesis, an expression of O'Connor's self-hate. But this is the point at which I want to leave Moers and suggest a way in which we might read a concluding scene in the story as a comic display of anger directed away from the self.

With the arrival of Manley Pointer, we are set up for another version of the naive country suitor unmasked and, consequently, another rewriting of the marriage myth. Pointer, the young Bible salesman, after portraying himself as an innocent, sexually seduces Hulga in order to steal her wooden leg.

Louise Westling argues that in this seduction scene, O'Connor is providing “the profound symbolic material … for an understanding of rape” (519). But what Westling fails to account for is O'Connor's use of the grotesque, her merging of the uncanny and the comic, and how this allows her and Hulga to triumph over Manley Pointer.

Nichols, again with reference to the personal letters, shows that “even on those occasions when O'Connor appears not to have the upper hand, when laughter is seemingly provoked at her expense, a closer look reveals that she is still in control, still manipulating the scene” (21). She cites O'Connor's recordings of a number of exchanges in which Regina is allowed the last word, a last word whose absurdity is amplified by O'Connor's own silence. A review of the concluding lines of dialogue in most of O'Connor's short stories will, I contend, demonstrate the same strategy.

At the conclusion of the Manley-Hulga seduction scene, a scene in which two elements of the uncanny—penetration and castration—are enacted, O'Connor grants Manley the final and most obviously ridiculous line: “‘you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born’” (291). In other words, O'Connor turns her wit on the violator, rebels against him, by allowing him to speak and Hulga to remain silent.

But O'Connor does not end the story with that scene. She takes us back to those representative ladies, Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, and, in the final comic indictment of that group's passivity, blindness, and resulting complicity in at least one version of the marriage myth, gives them, respectively, the following lines: “‘[Manley] was so simple … but I guess the world would be better off if we were all that simple.’” And “‘Some can't be that simple … I know I never could’” (291).

Certainly O'Connor's choosing to conclude with “the lady” as comic target suggests her own understanding of what oppressive force needed first to be overturned in the struggle for freedom, just as her earlier allowing of Joy/Hulga to be as easily duped suggests how close she was to the limitations of that oppressive force. In this proximity to and distance from her subject matter we find the roots of that ambivalence which gave rise to her humor. We see the comic writer's necessary denial of and bonding with the Lady within herself, a process which provokes her art and makes it uniquely female.

Works Cited

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” On Creativity and the Unconscious. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper, 1958. 157.

Habegger, Alfred. Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Katz, Claire. “Flannery O'Connor's Rage of Vision.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 46.1 (March 1974): 54-67.

Nichols, Loxley F. “Flannery O'Connor's ‘Intellectual Vaudeville’: Masks of Mother and Daughter.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 20.2 (Fall 1987): 15-30.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. 1976. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

O'Connor, Flannery. “Good Country People.” Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1978, 271-91.

———. “Greenleaf.” Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1978, 311-34.

———. Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

Westling, Louise. “Flannery O'Connor's Mothers and Daughters.” Twentieth-Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal 24.2 (Winter 1978): 510-22.

Henry M. W. Russell (essay date 1995-96)

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SOURCE: Russell, Henry M. W. “Racial Integration in a Disintegrating Society: O'Connor and European Catholic Thought.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 24 (1995-96): 33-45.

[In the following essay, Russell maintains that O'Connor's ideas about race were profoundly influenced by her Catholic faith.]

Flannery O'Connor's thoughts on race are more informed by her Christian faith than by her geographic roots. American critics have long acknowledged the importance of her statements about being a Catholic writer in the South, but the dismal failure of the American church to communicate orthodox Catholic teaching since the 1960s has obscured to many what such a commitment implies. To be an intellectual Catholic like O'Connor meant engaging serious theologians and philosophers who labored to tease out the implications of Church dogma for yet another new era. So earnest was O'Connor about the necessity for an educated faith that she quixotically attempted to direct the readers of her diocesan newspaper to the riches of mid-century Catholic writing by reviewing major books. Thus she demonstrated her citizenship in another world, populated densely by French, Italian, and German philosophers with complex arguments about the way to reconstitute social relations after the disasters of totalitarian socialisms had tattered confidence in scientific and rationalistic solutions. Her views on race should be seen within the richer context of this debate.

In an essay to be found in O'Connor's library, “Christian Humanism,” Jacques Maritain contemplates the conditions for a just social order in Europe, writing that a

new age of Christendom, if it is to come, will be an age … in which temporal things, philosophical and scientific reason, and civil society, will enjoy their autonomy and at the same time recognize the quickening and inspiring role that spiritual things, religious faith, and the Church play from a higher plane. Then a Christian philosophy of life would guide a community vitally, not decoratively, Christian … in which men belonging to diverse racial stocks … would work at a temporal common task.


The issues of race are here framed by the demands of a spiritual order, not by a secular polity.

In another essay “The Democratic Charter” that uses the language of cultural rather than racial integration, Maritain warns that the

effort toward integration must not only be brought about on the level of personality and private life: it is essential to culture itself and [to] the life of the community as a whole, on the condition that it tends toward real cultural integration, that is, toward an integration which does not depend on legal enforcement, but on spiritual and freely accepted inspiration.


In “The Fiction Writer and His Country” O'Connor makes an analogous point about the artist's free, if initially unconscious, acceptance of the manners and mysteries of the country in which he learns to dwell:

When we talk about the writer's country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country that is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the inner and outer worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other.

(MM [Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose] 35)

Adjustment that integrates the inner and outer worlds must be freely undertaken by the artist and by every exile from what Boethius calls the “true country.” If the manners of a country or a culture are lived on the level of sensibility (as O'Connor suggests), then those manners cannot be changed by swift, legal fiat without generating a welter of lies at the deepest core of life—a cure worse than the disease.

The intellectuals whom O'Connor engaged argued that a Christian society is the result of an integration of the material, intellectual and spiritual riches of life as well as the free acceptance of others within the culture. Post-Enlightenment history has been seen as the story of the disintegration of the spiritual and the intellectual, as literary witnesses from Alexander Pope to Walker Percy make clear. More specifically, questions of the racial integration of colonized or previously enslaved peoples, especially after World War II, came to be framed by Catholic intellectuals within a larger dilemma of societal integration. With so much of the Western world sundered from its Christian intellectual roots, so much of its behavior lived according to (at the least) agnostic norms, a question naturally arose as to what further disintegration was tolerable and on what basis? Should a Catholic attempt legally to re-impose a religious conception of laws on divorce, extra-marital sexuality, contraception, or pornography? Apparently not—the social body would not accept such laws with “spiritual and freely accepted inspiration,” as Maritain wrote. Then should the federal government solve America's long racial shame with a set of integrationist fiats? For Flannery O'Connor, the answer, unlike that of many of her fellow Americans, was again, apparently not. Her community had its own cultural integration, to which forced racial integration seemed fatal.

This stance of O'Connor outside the Civil Rights Movement has caused many of her admirers to feel a certain amount of pain, but the stance grows less out of Georgia than out of a conception of society as intimately involved in the body of Christ. Such involvement cannot be forced on a culture or on a person even though it is precisely the function of law to institutionalize moral norms. One might well allow the question of just why, when so much in our society is anti-Christian, the federal power should legislate that racial issues must follow a Christian ideal, like that of equality. Yet clearly racial justice is a demand of Christian spirituality. In “Christian Humanism” Maritain's vision specifically condemns racism, as he condemns both Socialist and National Socialist theories: “Racism, on its irrational and biological basis, rejects all universalism and breaks even the natural unity of the human race, so as to impose the hegemony of a so-called higher racial culture” (192). He was writing, of course, about biological theories of race, but his comments are applicable to sociological theories as well.

O'Connor, like her European contemporaries, was not sanguine about the norms a state would be likely to use in regulating morality in a secular age. The experiences to date had not been promising; their most obvious fruits were totalitarianism and World War II. The dangers of an imperial democracy were not emotionally apparent to Americans, even as their own government became ever larger, swelling into a global power with a large and permanent presence in their lives. In a tired historical irony the government that conquered statist regimes would come partly to resemble what it had defeated. As America turned increasingly to social engineering on the grand scale, O'Connor's thoughts were informed by thinkers like Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain, who had seen freedom crushed and horror unleashed by states devoted to visions of rationalized social perfection. Marcel's and Maritain's counter-visions of government were based on the action of the holy spirit in history, with all the inefficiency of personal choice and conversion of the heart which the spirit implies. But Marcel warned that one should not be optimistic about such a development:

The totalitarian catastrophe which has unleashed its hell on Europe bears witness to the immense gravity of this historical phenomenon. If the true city of human rights, the true democracy, does not succeed in disengaging itself from the false, and in triumphing at the same time over antidemocratic enslavement, if in the ordeal of fire and blood a radical purification is not accomplished, then Western civilization risks entering upon an endless night.

(The Mystery of Being 19)

Radical perfectionism, whether advocated by totalitarian or more genial democratic elites, promised to lead to a similar enslavement of the spirit.

Thus O'Connor found herself in thoughtful opposition to her fellow American intellectuals on the issue, not of race, but of a civil rights movement that hoped to trigger federal intervention to impose a racial solution on a deeply ambiguous situation. In some ways the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect product for America after the war, for two incompatible strains of thinking have always dwelt in the house of the American psyche. One is a fierce millenialism born of Edenic myths of America; the second is an imperturbable pragmatism. Americans seldom ask themselves whether X agrees with their foundational principles. They ask themselves, “Does it work? Does it solve the problem?” If policy X helps ameliorate an undesirable situation, then X must be good, regardless of its unintended consequences or its cost to other principles. The Civil Rights ideal both satisfied a millennial hunger to make the world just and offered convenient solutions to hundreds of years of prejudice, thousands of years of human nature.

O'Connor's opposition to the Civil Rights Movement seems based on two beliefs. One was the aforementioned conviction that social life is bound up in a spiritual unity, not merely a legal one. Such ideas point toward a gradualist, organic model of social change, not to massive legal reshuffling. This belief is one basis of her many statements of attachment to the culture, the manners, the ways of her Southern community. A second conviction was her deep personal distrust of the social reformer as she knew him or her, including pre-eminently her friend Maryat Lee, to whom most of her racial comments are written in verbal sparring that lasted for years. What is perfectly clear is that O'Connor did not trust a social conscience divorced from Christian principles. For her, virtue in the public sector was necessarily accompanied by humility in the private. Her letters make it clear that she sensed a lack of such humility in James Baldwin and the whites who made civil rights a cause, and even sometimes in Martin Luther King. The social reformers of her later stories, unlike the genial liberals of her Iowa thesis fiction, are uniformly grotesque. These “progressives” range from the nihilistic Joy/Hulga Hopewell of “Good Country People” and Mary Grace of “Revelation” to the agnostic Sheppard of “The Lame Shall Enter First” and his more developed counterpart Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away. But the more specifically manipulative defenders of Negro rights like Asbury Fox of “The Enduring Chill” and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” as well as the Machiavellian racial game players—Walter Tilman and Oona Gibbs of the unfinished novel, Why Do the Heathen Rage?—all demonstrate a cynical pride that turns the sins of others into an occasion for self-gratification and self-congratulation.

It is difficult to know to what degree O'Connor anticipated that the moral claims of the Civil Rights Movement would grow into the entitlement claims of the Great Society. Certainly the transition between battling for equal voting rights and school desegregation to defending the status of welfare clients now seems very short. It took little genius to perceive the pattern of grievance and governmental programs used as a means for attaining power and wealth. Mrs. May's portrait of O. T. and E. T., the Greenleaf “boys,” is a prophetic satire of the welfare state as it developed in white America after World War II:

They had both managed to get wounded and now they both had pensions. Further, as soon as they were released from the army, they took advantage of all the benefits and went to the school of agriculture at the university—the taxpayers meanwhile supporting their French wives. The two of them were living now about two miles down the highway on a piece of land that the government had helped them to buy and in a brick duplex that the government had helped to build and pay for.

(CS [The Complete Stories] 318)

While it is true that the Greenleaf boys did fight for their country and are far less immediately unsavory than Mrs. May's sons, they remain nameless men with interchangeable faces, so far removed from civil behavior that they will allow a deadly bull to run wild for three days and then leave the shooting of the animal to their father, even though he feels he is betraying their prosperity. Their taciturn and sullen children are bilingual, and their cows give milk that need never be touched by human hands. Mrs. Greenleaf prays to Jesus in wild agonies of love, but her sons seem to love only the material symbols of the modern world.


The deeper question of O'Connor's views on race, rather than on the Civil Rights Movement, has been examined in many useful ways by Ralph Wood in his essay “Where Is the Voice Coming From? Flannery O'Connor on Race.” He posits that O'Connor was never a racist in her convictions but was so in her personal opinions, suggesting that “opinions are often quickly formed and quickly abandoned. … Convictions, by contrast, are slowly acquired and firmly maintained” (96). Wood clearly demonstrates, however, that O'Connor's stories support the dignity and humanity of black people at almost every turn even when, like most of her whites, the characters are acting sinfully.

At the risk of “straining the soup too thin,” I would posit that the distinction between personal opinion and conviction does not quite explain O'Connor's much quoted statement that she “is an integrationist by conviction, but a segregationist by sensibility.” O'Connor was not racist in either opinion or conviction, but she clearly understood herself to have a sensibility attuned to race as it had become a part of the manners of her region. In a distinction that O'Connor would have known from her own copy of The Mystery of Being, Marcel argues that “opinion is a seeming which tends to become a claiming.” In other words, opinion is a reaction of the senses that claims to be knowledge. To believe is more forceful still; it is to “assert that I have come to the conclusion, once and for all.” Marcel goes on to note that opinions may be related “only to the immutability of my interior disposition” but a belief is a “judgement arbitrary or not, which bears on the object itself.” He calls this judgmental sort of belief a “belief that.” Yet beyond either opinion or “belief that” is faith, which is a belief in, “which absorbs most fully all the power of your being” (78). Wood seems to use the word opinion in a way that resembles most closely Marcel's term “belief that,” thus implying that O'Connor's racial comments are a judgment, and a rather arbitrary one, on the material being of black folk, even though she realized that these judgments contradicted what she believed spiritually. Marcel's subtler distinctions, on the contrary, imply that much of what we call racism is neither opinion (a sense phenomenon elevated to a claim) nor judgment (“belief that”), but something more akin to an unrationalized defect of the senses.

It is disturbing but true that all groups seem to have some instinctive, unreasonable sense of superiority to another group. While we can clothe this instinct in phrases such as “a compulsion to marginalize the other” or “valorization of one's own group,” all such jargon really says is that we dislike what is not us, or worse, that we despise what is too much like us and seems not very pleasant. One is shocked to read in one of her letters that O'Connor claims she does not like Negroes or to see her tell a racial joke. But it comes as no radical claim to say that O'Connor did not much like white people either. She loved them instead, a much harder task. Using Marcel's terms, one cannot say that Flannery O'Connor had racist opinions. Her racial statements are not “seemings” that she wished to claim as true. She knew her feelings about race occasionally rubbed against her faith and her opinions on right and wrong. In such cases she did not try to defend the validity of her responses; they were simply her reactions. Perhaps this honesty about one's sensibilities rather than one's opinions is part of what she is referring to in “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” when she writes,

though the good is the ultimate reality, the ultimate reality has been weakened in human beings as a result of the Fall, and it is this weakened life that we see. And it is wrong, moreover, to assume that the writer chooses what he will see and what he will not. What one sees is given by circumstances and the nature of one's particular kind of perception.

(MM 179)

The academy's desire for a racially edifying novelist whose sensibilities always match her opinions and beliefs may prove to be as elusive and naive as the 1950s desire for an “edifying” Catholic novelist, a desire that O'Connor mightily resisted. Like religious orthodoxy, racial orthodoxy may make the mistake of pursuing the “sentimental,” which “wishes to circumvent our slow participation in Christ's death” and instead arrives “at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite,” as O'Connor noted in “The Church and the Fiction Writer” (MM 148). Demands that O'Connor should have “spoken out” on the racial question ring strangely hollow in a time when so few are speaking out about why the fruits of Civil Rights and the Great Society include the murder of more young black men on ghetto streets and more black babies in abortion mills than avid Klan mobs could conceive of in their most apocalyptic dreams.

O'Connor's life and fiction go beyond a human distaste for the exterior of the “other” and see into the worth that Christ sees and seeks. She is not sensitive; she is charitable. Her “feelings” or “opinions” on race should be viewed—and I think that she so viewed them—as analogous to the same kind of defective sense that impedes belief in the mystery of the Eucharist. The contradictions between one's sense, one's opinions, and one's convictions are familiar to every Catholic who confronts the Real Presence of Christ's body and blood in the apparent bread and wine of the Eucharist. It is a disjunction to which the Catholic becomes accustomed and about which he ceases to worry. The senses are not, after all, our masters but our servants. No guilt inheres in seeing bread or wine upon the altar. There is no necessity to attempt to make oneself believe one sees or tastes what one does not. It is enough to know that the Host is the blood and the body; it is helpful but not necessary to believe it at every moment. In similu modo, one may have sensible reactions to skin color or cultural markers, reactions formed deep in the manners and bones of a self formed before one knows oneself, and it is foolish and pathological to lie about such things. One needs only to know that the other person is the son or daughter of God.

Looking at O'Connor by this standard may explain better why she could allow herself the use of locutions that we find out of place. O'Connor did not feel that she was making any situation worse, just as she would not believe that avoidance of the word nigger makes better any soul's evaluation of dark-skinned people. Her comments varied with the occasion and her mood. O'Connor was not judging black people morally, existentially, or essentially in her sensible reactions any more than she was judging Shriners, old ladies in funny hats, or newspapermen. These are simply lived reactions of flawed being. In “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O'Connor is quite specific about this distance between sense and thought. Here she writes,

[Y]ou don't write fiction with assumptions. The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all, and the South impresses its image on us from the moment we are able to distinguish one sound from another. By the time we are able to use our imaginations for fiction, we find that our senses have responded irrevocably to a certain reality. This discovery of being bound through the senses to a particular society and a particular history, to particular sounds and a particular idiom, is for the writer the beginning of a recognition that first puts his work into real human perspective for him.

(MM 197)

In O'Connor's fiction, her faith comes clear. Her stories are written from the position neither of “opinion” or “belief that,” but “belief in,” which demands total surrender. Here words from Marcel, which are also resonant of O'Connor, help us again:

As I really contemplate the landscape a certain togetherness grows up between the landscape and me. But this is the point where we can get a better grasp of that regathering or regrouping process … is this state of in-gatheredness not, in fact, the very means by which I am able to transcend the opposition of my inner and outer world?


Marcel continues, “Ingatheredness is not a state of abstraction from anything,” but is rather, “essentially a state in which one is drawing nearer something, without abandoning anything” (128). At this level of ingathering, at this true source of the convergence of which O'Connor writes, the Christian writer separates “belief in” from the reaction of the passions. There, for the believer, racism is not permissible. At this same place of ingathering, Marcel writes that a man is forced to ask himself, “Who am I to condemn others? Do I really possess the inner qualifications that would make such condemnation legitimate?” (128).

At this point it might be helpful to examine briefly the practical consideration of whether the “racial” comments made by O'Connor in her correspondence with Maryat Lee justify full and separate publication, as some scholars desire. Having read all of the O'Connor-Lee correspondence available in the excellent collection of O'Connor materials in the Ina Dillard Russell Library at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, I find that in some ways this is a dreary exchange since Lee was herself almost a caricature of the resentful Southern socialite turned perverse artiste. Lee's side of the correspondence is a drone of bohemian imitations and delusions about her efforts and talent. Many of O'Connor's most withering phrases are part of a long-term attempt to puncture Lee's sanctimony about matters artistic, racial, social, and religious. More damaging to a fair analysis of the evidence is the fact that Lee's letters vanish from the record just as the national situation begins to turn more confrontational and O'Connor's last responses, more specific. Thus we do not know to what provocations a sick and dying O'Connor was responding.

What becomes most striking about the correspondence and the recent debate about race in O'Connor is that almost every time the occasional negative racial remark appears—for example, O'Connor's reaction to James Baldwin—Sally Fitzgerald has already included the letter inThe Habit of Being. This includes O'Connor's important statement: “My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute” (580). Indeed, almost all of O'Connor's statements on race are in that volume already. But what happens is that such references become part of a vast web of concerns, comments, loves, and sacrifices that O'Connor pours forth from her home in Georgia. Because there is no lurid spotlight heightening her every phrase—as if race is all she thinks about or worries about—her comments look lucid, tart, usually fair, and quite consistent with all that we know about her.

I visited Milledgeville convinced that, whatever the response to it, the lovers of O'Connor deserved a book that examined the race issue, put forth all the relevant letters, and laid out the evidence for all to use, even though the word racism is frequently employed with McCarthyite irresponsibility in much modem criticism. I now believe that separate publication would be a grave and foolish mistake. True, we all wish for a somewhat expanded version of Sally Fitzgerald's collection, but that is only because her magnificent job has made us want more. To quell uninformed speculation it would certainly be helpful if the very few unpublished racial references could be included in a revised edition of The Habit of Being, just as Fitzgerald has given us all the others, within a full context of the author's many concerns and ideas, not blown out of proportion for the sake of academic contentiousness.

Beyond this practical matter it seems more important to stress that what is needed is a far more European and Catholic appreciation of O'Connor's ideas on race, nationalism, society, and church. Thinkers who disagreed, such as Gilson, Maritain, Guardini, Bernanos, Bloy, Voegelin, Aquinas, and even Chardin, Rahner and Küng, formed a larger part of her mental landscape than American politics. “We shall overcome” is a fine phrase, but O'Connor's reaction to it needs to be examined, as she might have examined it, in the light of more complex formulations of Marcel, such as this reflection on freedom:

What I call true political emancipation is the philosophy and the social and political practice (and the corresponding emotional orchestration) based on the true manner of understanding the conquest of freedom; and it is not to a myth that it leads, but to a concrete historical ideal and to a patient labor of forming and educating the human substance.

The misfortune, in the eyes of the philosopher of culture, is the fact that the great democratic movements of modern times, especially those in Europe, have most often sought true political emancipation under the standards of false political emancipation, that is, under the standards of a general philosophy forgetful of Gospel inspiration, from which the democratic élan proceeds and from which it is in reality unseparable.

(The Mystery of Being 18)

Flannery O'Connor lived in a world vastly larger than Georgia or New York. Her views were formed, as has been truly noted, by her region, by the manners and the habits of the South. But she was a citizen of a world of ideas far beyond these local concerns. She believed that her fellow Georgians should read the social, political, and religious thinkers she reviewed; certainly we should take her seriously enough to read them in order better to appreciate her.

Works Cited

Marcel, Gabriel. “Reflection and Mystery.” The Mystery of Being. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1950. 2 vols.

Maritain, Jacques. The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain. Eds. Joseph W. Evans and Leo R. Ward. NY: Scribner's, 1955.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1987.

———. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

———. Mystery and Manners. Eds. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1957.

Wood, Ralph. “Where Is the Voice Coming From? Flannery O'Connor on Race.” Flannery O'Connor Bulletin 22 (1993-4) 90-118.

John F. Desmond (essay date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Desmond, John F. “Flannery O'Connor and the Idolatrous Mind.” Christianity and Literature 46, 1 (autumn 1996): 25-35.

[In the following essay, Desmond investigates O'Connor's view of the modern idolatrous mind through an analysis of her story “An Artificial Nigger.”]

It was Flannery O'Connor's fellow Southern-Catholic writer Walker Percy who defined central features of the modern idolatrous mind in his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World.” Speaking of our present-day diminished religious capacities, Percy said:

The question is not whether the Good News is no longer relevant, but rather whether it is possible that man is presently undergoing a tempestuous restructuring of his consciousness which does not presently allow him to take account of the Good News. For what has happened is not merely the technological transformation of the world but something psychologically even more portentous. It is the absorption by the layman not of the scientific method but rather of the magical aura of science, whose credentials he accepts for all sectors of reality. Thus in the lay culture of a scientific society nothing is easier than to fall prey to a kind of seduction which sunders one's very self from itself into an all-transcending ‘objective’ consciousness and a consumer self with a list of ‘needs’ to be satisfied. … Such a man could not take account of God, the devil, and the angels if they were standing before him, because he has already peopled the universe with his own hierarchies.


Percy's references here to science and the “magical aura of science” should not be understood in any narrow disciplinary sense. What he means by these references is the modes of thinking that came to dominate Western consciousness in the aftermath of the Copernican revolution—that is, a way of seeing the world and human experience from a fundamentally empirical-instrumentalist viewpoint, or what Percy calls “an all-transcending ‘objective’ consciousness.” Such a view precludes seeing the world and the self's relation to it in sacramental terms. The mind which, to use Percy's phrasing, has “peopled the universe with [its] own hierarchies” is a mind that has created its own idols to bow down before and worship, and its self-absorption with these idols makes hearing the Good News virtually impossible.

That O'Connor shared Percy's view of the modern idolatrous mind is evident from her fiction, her letters, and her many statements about her artistic intentions. In her essay “The Regional Writer,” O'Connor describes a distinctive feature of her region as follows: “In the South, we have, in however tenuated a form, a vision of Moses' face as he pulverized our idols” (MM [Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose] 59). Her statement both contemporizes the problem of idolatrous vision—they are our idols—and suggests an antithetical vision that must be registered by shock and violence. Her business as a writer, then, was to “pulverize” the idolatrous minds of her characters and readers through force. If she could not entirely restructure the modern idolatrous mind, she would at least open it to new ways of seeing by shattering the many false hierarchies her culture had given itself over to. My aim here is to provide a conceptual grounding for understanding O'Connor's presentation of the idolatrous mind, and to show her method of shattering idols through one representative action from “The Artificial Nigger.” But to grasp O'Connor's strategy requires some understanding of the nature and history of idol-making itself.


Owen Barfield, in his classic study Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, bases his understanding of idolatry on the twofold principle of participation and representation. He defines participation as the “extra-sensory relation between man and phenomena” (40). Participation is the fundamental nature of all reality, according to Barfield; stated differently, he argues that a spiritual or extrasensory bond exists among all things. Second, he argues that “the world is a series of collective representations” (18). These representations or appearances are created by the human mind as it penetrates the phenomenal world to discover the truth of reality and name it. The principles of participation and representation affirm our subjective as well as objective relationship to the world, contrary to the presumption of detached objectivity that Percy finds characteristic of the modern secular mind. Consequently, the existence of phenomena in the world depends upon our participation in them and our capacity to represent them in image and language. Given these two principles, one definition Barfield gives of an idol is that it is a representation taken to be independent of the human mind. Another definition of an idol is that it is a “representation collectively mistaken for an ultimate truth” (62). Not only is the idol mistakenly thought to be independent of the human mind, but also the relation between the mind and phenomena is taken to be only sensible (62-63). Barfield summarizes as follows:

Idolatry may be defined as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons; and an idol, as an image so valued. More particularly, idolatry is the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object.


In tracing the historical evolution of idolatry in Western culture, Barfield focuses upon several turning points. One is the experience of the Jews and their attacks on the idolatry practiced by their Gentile neighbors. In the original forms of idolatry, the worshipers believed that the idol contained a spiritual force which was of the same nature as the worshiper (42-43). The Jews, as Barfield notes, attacked this notion vigorously. “Their idols, the Psalmist insisted, were not filled with anything. They were mere hollow pretenses of life. They had no ‘within’” (111). In rejecting this idolatry, the Jews seemed to reject the notion of participation itself. But in fact they replaced this original participation, which they saw as idolatrous, with a deeper form of participation or identification with the divine. For them God had only one name—I AM—and not many iconic representations, and that Name was “participated by every being who had eyes that saw and ears that heard and who spoke through the throat.” As Rabbi Maimonides wrote, it was “‘that name in which there is no participation between the Creator and any thing else’” (114).

The Jews, Barfield argues, transformed the experience of participation into an experience of inwardness and self-consciousness:

[They] tore the phenomena from their setting of original participation and made them inward, with the intent to reutter them from within as word. They cultivated the inwardness of the represented. They pinpointed participation to the Divine Name, the I AM spoken only from within, and it was the logic of their whole development that the cosmos of wisdom should henceforth have its perennial source, not without, and behind the appearances, but within the consciousness of man; not in front of the senses and figuration, but behind them.


The Jews' rejection of idolatry opened the way for the experience of the divine both as other—not represented in any thing—and as within, or as an inward experience of the Divine Name and Divine Presence (158). Barfield argues that the Jewish experience prefigured a second crucial turning point in the evolution of idolatry: the Incarnation of the Divine Word in the person of Jesus. This is for Barfield, and I would claim for O'Connor also, the principal turning point in the history of idol-making in the world. What is its significance in terms of a genealogy of idolatry?

Barfield describes the Christian Incarnation as an action, an event, opening the path to what he calls final participation. That is, in Jesus' complete identification with his Creator-Father, he sees the fulfillment in one man of the “inwardness” of “the Divine Name.” It is “the final participation, whereby man's Creator speaks from within man himself. … The Word has been made flesh.” Barfield then links this realization of final participation, as indeed O'Connor does, to the mystery and sacrament of the Eucharist. As he states, “All who partake of the Eucharist first acknowledge that the man who was born in Bethlehem was ‘of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made’; and then they take that substance into themselves, together with its representations named bread and wine” (170).

Notable here in Barfield's view is his linking of the Holy Eucharist and eucharistic action to the evolution of phenomena in the world—that is, to the notion that the phenomena of the world reach their ultimate fulfillment of being through the action of the Eucharist. If we accept this view, as I believe O'Connor certainly did, then it seems to me impossible to view her as possessed of a “medieval” mind, as some have argued, as if her thought were a throwback in some simplistic way to a premodern mentality. On the contrary, given her commitment to the Eucharist, she was in fact forward-looking, moving her characters toward final participation by shocking encounters with the real. Any notion of “medievalism” is incompatible with a genuine sense of eucharistic action going on in the world, a sense that I think O'Connor deeply possessed and represented in her fiction. What she was about was the ultimate saving of appearances through the hard process of redemption.

But both the rejection of idolatry by the Jews and the incarnational vision of participation that developed within Christianity were contravened by the new idolatry that grew out of the scientific revolution, the root of our present-day idolatrous mind. Barfield traces this modern idolatry to the rejection of the concept of participation during the medieval age and the confusion over the meaning of the literal that subsequently developed. For St. Thomas Aquinas and those of a participatory mind, the literal was not the thing or object itself but what it represents. For example, in the image of a “sword” as a representation of “power,” the literal is the power represented by the sword, not the sword itself. The true literal is that which is represented by the object, not the object itself.

The idolatrous mind that emerged from the scientific revolution fell victim to a fundamental confusion in which the object itself was taken to be the literal; hence, Barfield sees literalism as the besetting idolatry of our day. The identification of the literal with the object itself is a basic flaw in the scientific viewpoint, going back to the time of Copernicus. It is the root of the problem Percy identified in the earlier quotation I cited as the idolatry of scientism in the modern mind. One way to see the action in O'Connor's stories, as I shall exemplify later, is to see it as a struggle over the meaning of the literal, a struggle over the meaning of representations or appearances—of things such as peacocks, tattoos, stray bulls, automobiles, woods and treelines, sunset, wooden legs, and so on. This is a struggle over vision, over how to “see” (and read) the meaning of the world of representations, for both her characters and her readers. Much of O'Connor's strategy is to shatter the dominant literalism and open her characters and readers to new ways of seeing.

What O'Connor wants to represent is the invisible true literal expressed through things. In her essay on “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she distinguishes this sense of the literal from the naturalism that is the bias of the scientific mind: “In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement” (MM 70).

The metaphysical and theological basis of O'Connor's view of the literal can be found mainly in Aquinas, one of her favorite thinkers. Her whole treatment of idols and the idolatrous mind flows from this basis. To the mind imbued with a participatory view of reality, both the phenomena and their names are understood as representations. Barfield explains Aquinas's thought here:

On the one hand, ‘the word conceived in the mind is representative of the whole of that which is realized in thought. …’ (Summa Ia, Q.34, a.3). But on the other hand the phenomenon itself only achieves full reality (actus) in the moment of being ‘named’ by man; that is, when that in nature which it represents is united with that in man which the name represents. Such naming, however, need not involve vocal utterance. For the name or word is not mere sound, or mere ink. For Aquinas, as for Augustine, there are, anterior to the uttered word, the intellect-word, the heart-word, and memory-word (verbum intellectus, verbum cordis, verbum memoriae). The human word proceeds from the memory, as the Divine Word proceeds from the Father. Proceeds from it, yet remains one with it. For the world is the thought of God realized through His Word. Thus, the Divine Word is forma exemplaris; the phenomena are its representations; as the human word is the representation of intellectus in actu. But, once again, the phenomenon itself only achieves its full reality (actus) in being named or thought by man; for thinking in act is the thing thought, in act; just as the senses in act, are the things sensed, in act.


Crucial to an understanding of this metaphysic of representation and its implications for idolatry is the belief in God as Pure Act, the one Pure Being who is the antecedent source of all representation. O'Connor acknowledges this in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” following Sts. Thomas and Augustine in saying that “the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the mind of angels and physically into the world of things” (MM 157). Barfield reinforces the philosophical basis of this view:

Being is potential existence; existence actualizes being. Yet, in the universe, actus precedes potentia; for out of potentiality a being cannot be brought except by a being that is actual. The being of God is wholly actual, and is at the same time His existence; but, for creatures, it is only their existence which actualizes—actualizes not their own being, but the being of God, which they participate. Everywhere around us we must see creatures in a state of potentia being raised to actus; yet behind the appearances, the actus is already there.

(88; my emphasis)

In other words, given O'Connor's participatory theology of representation, idolatry involves taking the object itself both as literal and as independent of any ultimate source of being—of God as actus. But in order to do this, the idolator first has to see himself as independent of the source of being; he has to make of himself an idol before becoming an idol-maker. As Psalm 135:15-18 says:

The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of man's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths. They that make them are like unto them: so is everyone that trusteth in them.

So also the prophet Isaiah: “They that make a graven image are all of them vanity. … They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes that they cannot see; and their hearts that they cannot understand” (44:9, 18; qtd. in Barfield 176-77). Think of Hulga Hopewell in this regard, with her idolatrous act of self-naming and her mental identification of her soul with the literal object, her artificial leg, making both herself and the object into idols. Yet against Hulga's idolatrous mind stands O'Connor's creative intellect, rooted in a participatory theology, systematically smashing the idols to bring the things of the world and those who would create idols back into true relationship with the source of being.


O'Connor's fiction is replete with characters possessed of an idolatrous mind. The idols they create take many forms—dilapidated automobiles, artificial legs and corrective shoes, purple hats, tattoos, the land itself, and of course, most of all, the idolatrous self-images that her characters create and worship until the shattering force of revelation is leveled against them. But to underscore the process by which O'Connor reveals and pulverizes this idolatrous mind, both in her characters and in her readers, I want to concentrate on one exemplary action: Mr. Head and Nelson's encounter with the statue of the Negro in “The Artificial Nigger.”

By the time Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson reach the white suburb near the end of the story, the old man's arrogant self-righteousness has been thoroughly exposed. Earlier, on the train, Mr. Head revealed his idolatrous view of Negroes when he chided young Nelson for not recognizing them as he did, and then objectified them with the remark, “They rope them off” (CW [Collected Works] 217). His false literalization of the Negro—reducing the living human mystery of a person to the sense data of skin color—is the typical action of an idolatrous mind. Yet such an act flows inevitably from the antecedent idolatrous act: Mr. Head's self-conceived image of himself as both superior to and detached from (“roped off”) from the world of the Negroes. At this point Mr. Head feels no inward bond, no participatory union, with such people.

But such “objectifying” is not to be sustained, and O'Connor begins to undermine it when Mr. Head and Nelson become lost in the city and are led to seek directions from a huge black woman in what Mr. Head refers to sarcastically as “this nigger heaven” (CW 222). Mr. Head is loathe to ask for help, of course. Such an act would be an admission of need, of dependence, and of human bondedness. Under these circumstances the woman is not someone who can be objectified and controlled by his mind. So Mr. Head keeps his distance. At the same time her true, literal mystery—irreducible to a matter of color—attracts and enfolds Nelson. And when Nelson does get directions from the woman, Mr. Head must have his revenge. Getting lost in the city is the action that begins to undermine the exalted idol he has made of himself, and he does not like it. It threatens to bring him closer to the inner truth of human contingency that he has tried to deny since the beginning of the story.

Because he is too cowardly to avenge himself directly against the black woman for his diminished status, he transfers his resentment to Nelson, making him the object of scorn. “And standing there grinning like a chim-pan-zee while a nigger woman gives you directions. Great Gawd!” (CW 224), he exclaims. His scorn and scapegoating of Nelson are the overt manifestation of the inner anguish he is beginning to feel as his self-image starts to crumble. In an attempt to revive it, Mr. Head will subject Nelson to the same aloneness he himself now feels by temporarily abandoning the youngster when he falls asleep. As justification he claims the moral need to teach a lesson to a child who “is always reasserting his position with some new impudence” (CW 225). Of course it is his own position that he really wishes to reassert. But his attempted reassertion rebounds against him when he denies any kinship with Nelson after the boy awakens and then accidentally knocks a woman down on the sidewalk.

Having “objectified” and denied Negroes earlier in the story, he now objectifies and denies Nelson in turn by claiming that the youngster is no kin to him. And so the inexorable logic of justice unfolds as Mr. Head himself is then objectified and denied when Nelson subsequently refuses to admit connection with him. Kinship denied, followed by forgiveness denied, projects the old man into the hell of isolation. Mr. Head now experiences the isolated awareness of the modern idolator turned inward upon itself, what Percy saw as the predicament of the modern consciousness separated from a sense of participatory communion with the world and with the order of being. And all evolved from Mr. Head's initial act of erecting himself as an idol of righteousness and then reducing the world outside himself—especially Negroes—to the status of inert, reflecting images of his own superiority.

Now that his claimed superiority has been exposed as a hollow image, Mr. Head begins to suffer, and hence to live. Suffering is the hard road back to participation. After denying Nelson, the old man is “lost” more profoundly than any simple sense of missed directions can suggest. “He knew that he was wandering into a black strange place where nothing was like it had ever been before, a long old age without respect and an end that would be welcome because it would be the end” (CW 228). Yet he has begun to recognize his lostness, and so has begun to see himself and the world in a truer light: “He felt he knew now what time would be like without seasons and what heat would be like without light and what man would be like without salvation” (CW 229). What he needs, and what O'Connor gives us, is a way to show this new understanding and to acknowledge his bondedness with the world in a non-idolatrous way. What is needed is an image that reveals the truth of human suffering and rejection which Mr. Head now feels himself to be a part of, an image through which he can acknowledge his own and others' capacity for destructive idolization. Such an image is presented in the statue of the artificial Negro.

Mr. Head may now recognize the hollowness of his own once-proud self-image, but he needs help from Nelson to overcome his isolation and reconcile him to God, humankind, and the true order of being. He must acknowledge his link to the experience of suffering and loss undergone by the Negroes. Having recovered directions to the train, but not the connection with his grandson, Mr. Head suddenly confronts the mysterious statue, which “was meant to look happy because the mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead” (CW 229). Grandfather and grandson stand “staring at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy” (CW 230).

The statue of the artificial Negro is a perverse idol created by whites. It is a hollowed-out, despiritualized image of the Negro fashioned by whites according to their own idolatrous imaginings. As such, it reflects back their own spiritual hollowness. As the Psalmist says, “They that make them are like unto them.” In a sense O'Connor summed up the whole moral history of race relations in America in the statue of the artificial Negro. But for Mr. Head (and the reader) O'Connor shatters the idol these whites intended to create. The statue's “wild look of misery” conveys the truth of Negroes' suffering and, beyond that, the mystery of that suffering's power to heal and save. It touches the deeper mystery of mercy, which Mr. Head and Nelson are now capable of experiencing together.

Having known suffering and rejection and the need for reconciliation themselves, Mr. Head and Nelson participate in the true experience of the Negroes. In some mysterious way they are united with the agony intimated by the “wild look of misery” on the Negro's face. Mr. Head now senses that in his racism he too had created an idol of black people, “roping them off” in his mind as surely as he had seen and approved their segregation from whites on the train. He was the maker of the statue. For like the white suburbanites' iconic statue, Mr. Head's idolization of black people is a shadow image of the real idol he worshipped—his image of himself.

But Mr. Head also sees the hollowness of the suburbanites' statue, sees that it is a false representation of the experience. The idol they have constructed is a perverse diminishment of the reality—the inwardness—of the Negroes' suffering, endurance, and capacity for grace. All this is recognized intuitively and summed up in his apt remark, “They ain't got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one” (CW 230). With this remark Mr. Head separates himself from the false idol. But as for all O'Connor's protagonists, it has been a difficult road to recognition, one traveled only with pain and humiliation.

Idolatrous consciousness is the real target of O'Connor's use of violence in her stories. She assaults the idolatrous mind to shatter it, yet she implicitly affirms the human capacity for true self-knowledge and conversion. This spiritual violence she enacts, like the parables of Jesus, is an affront to the idolatrous vision of both her characters and often her audience. The reason, as Barfield notes, is the inner connection between idolatry and “a certain hardness of heart,” the idolator's resistance to deeper illumination. As Barfield says, “An attempt is being made, of which he is dimly aware, to undermine his idols, and his feet are being invited to the beginning of a long road, which in the end must lead him to self-knowledge, with all the unacceptable humiliations that involves. Instinctively he does not like it” (163). The idolator resists, in other words, that repentance of which St. Paul spoke, and to which O'Connor pointed when she observed that most of her characters were so hardened in their ways that only some shattering violence could begin to change them. Fortunately, Mr. Head has had the self-conceived idol, the artificial statue of his own false self, pulverized into a thousand pieces.

Barfield argues that in the evolution of mind there is no escaping our need to create representations, to participate in creating the world we imagine and inhabit. The question is how we do it: as idolatrous self-worshipers who act presumptuously, as if we were autonomous, objective minds; or as self-conscious shapers and savers of the appearances, recognizing our participatory roles in an invisible order of creation authored and sustained by God. O'Connor witnessed to both possibilities, using her art like a two-handed sword to shatter the idols and to clear a path toward liberating the images and their meaning in the light of the Divine Word.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. 1957. Rpt. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

O'Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988; abbreviated CW in text.

———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969; abbreviated MM in text.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, 1975.

Joseph Zornado (essay date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Zornado, Joseph. “A Becoming Habit: Flannery O'Connor's Fiction of Unknowing.” Religion & Literature 29, no. 2 (summer 1997): 27-59.

[In the following essay, Zornado explores the relationship between O'Connor's Roman Catholic faith and her art and finds parallels between her literary sensibilities and those of Thomas Merton.]

Its almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively.

—Flannery O'Connor, Habit [The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor] 144

Much of Flannery O'Connor's fiction undermines the notion that her texts, or any text for that matter, offers the reader a chance at fixed comprehensibility. In fact, O'Connor's fiction often clears itself away as a meaning-bearing icon in order to introduce the reader to something other, to the mystery latent and invisible in the manners. O'Connor remains remarkable as an avowed Catholic and as a writer because she resisted spelling out that mystery though her Catholic faith offered much in the way of dogma that might have sufficed. Even so, there is an indissoluble link between the writer and the Catholic that critics have recognized since the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood in 1952.

From Wise Blood to her final story, “Parker's Back,” O'Connor wrestles with the tension between her faith and her art.1 Baptism in O'Connor's work serves as a cursor by which we observe her attempts to address the limits of fiction as a sacramental ritual—or if fiction should even be considered in these terms. Yet, for O'Connor, there existed a relationship between the sacramental and mundane, the religious and secular, however strained the relationship. It was across this gap she wrote, and it is through examining her handling of the baptismal ritual that we can trace the evolution of her thought. In a way, the nature of baptism and of the short story occupy similar ground. The baptismal ritual, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas argue, is somehow a “sign for an inward thing,” and at the same moment, “the inward thing itself” (Aquinas 358). How can the text be the inward thing itself? The outward thing, that is, the self-consuming, provisional, metaphoric, unstable, and paradoxical qualities of the text share similar qualities with the inward thing, and hence, the inward thing can be known only through its paradoxical relationship with the outward, but there remains (at least) one caveat: the outward thing can in no way embody the inward thing. How then can the inward thing be known if the outward thing can only fail in its representation of the inward? In O'Connor's work, the answer is simple: by its failure to hold.2

For some readers and critics of O'Connor problematizing the ritual of baptism—and the ritual of reading for that matter—constitutes a violation of her fiction that, ultimately, threatens to erode a critical consensus some think exists about the relationship between her faith and fiction. For these critics the outer ritual of baptism and the inner transformation are one for O'Connor. This position, however, ignores the evidence in O'Connor's life, letters and art that she held a far more complicated, mysterious notion of Orthodoxy than this monolithic perspective can accommodate. Further, it ignores entirely thirty years of literary theory in favor of a kind of tyrannical authorial intention that, to my mind, does little to enhance the fiction or O'Connor's reputation as artist.

In her correspondence, O'Connor reveals a cautious curiosity about Thomas Merton's response to her latest work, The Violent Bear It Away, presuming of course he would have the opportunity to read it.3 In a letter to Robert Giroux she coyly comments that, “if Fr. Louis [Merton] reads it, I'd like to know what he thinks,” revealing that, for some reason, O'Connor felt uncomfortable with the idea of sending Merton her work directly. Yet if Giroux sent it along, she intimated, Merton's response to her second novel would be a theologically informed, impartial assessment from a man who shared her faith. Her letters and essays show clearly that O'Connor recognized in her own work what she hoped educated Catholics would also recognize—and if Merton failed to appreciate O'Connor's seemingly perverse form of Catholicism, who would? What Merton thought of the book, or if he ever received a copy from Giroux, remains uncertain. What remains certain, though, is Merton's Prose Elegy on O'Connor after her untimely, though not unexpected, death. He praises O'Connor unequivocally. O'Connor's work is “Humorous,” Merton writes, “yes, but also uncanny, inexplicable, demonic, so you could never laugh at it as if you understood. Because if you pretended to understand, you, too, would find yourself among her demons practicing contempt. … The only way to be saved was to stay out of it, not to think, not to speak” (Friedman 70). Merton, a literate and literary figure in his own right, deeply respected O'Connor's peculiar vision of the world, frightening and unsettling as it was. And as a mystic, Merton intuitively knew that one must silence the mind and voice if one wanted to be saved from the world O'Connor fictionalized.

At a more profound level, O'Connor and Merton share another literary/theological concern. Though O'Connor and Merton never worked through the literary and theological implications of their shared vocations as writers the spiritual and literary nexus joining them reveals a fascinating and altogether challenging perspective on O'Connor's work, casting it in an unfamiliar, though powerful, Catholic and literary tradition. O'Connor's interest in the desert fathers, though less overt than Merton's, nonetheless influenced her writing. In her letters O'Connor addresses Dr. Spivey regarding Violent, and offers an explanation for the novel's strange, esoteric title. “This is the violence of love,” she explains in a typically paradoxical statement familiar to O'Connor's readers. “I had never paid much attention to that verse either until I read that it was one of the Eastern fathers' favorite passages … those desert fathers interest me very much” (Habit 82). Like the aphorisms of the desert fathers, O'Connor's fiction revels in the paradoxical, the contradictory, the clash of opposite notions that the human mind cannot reconcile: Hazel Motes's self-mutilation as a quality of his Christian faith, Tarwater's drowning of Bishop as testimony to his acceptance of the role of prophet. And throughout the short fiction, O'Connor dramatizes violence as a prelude to moments of unknowing, as with Mrs. May in “Greenleaf,” Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People,” or the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Though O'Connor's strategy has grown familiar as she has grown in popularity, her fiction has moments that continue to strike us as radically un-reasonable. The unsettling effects of un-reasonableness are not only trademark O'Connor, but they are also a primary quality of the sayings of the desert fathers. Merton captured this perplexing quality in his translations of the Verba Seniorum, the sayings of fourth-century Christian monks who sought out a hermetic existence in Near Eastern deserts. Selecting and translating these aphorisms, Merton revealed his affinity for the kind of impact produced by the Zen mondo. For similar theological reasons, it seems, Merton and O'Connor found themselves attracted to the unsettling tension inherent in an unresolvable paradox.

For Merton, this paradox manifests itself in the lives and writings of contemplative monks. Through a process of meditation similar to Eastern Zen practices, the contemplative monk meditated on koan-like aphorisms providing enlightenment, not by way of intellectual reasoning, but through the quieting of the mind, and of the voice. A typical example from The Wisdom of the Desert reads at first as a deceptively simple lesson for the aspiring monk to dwell on and incorporate into his life. “One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor” (37). There is, of course, perfect sense in selling the book which directs that we sell all and give to the poor. What can be more meaningful than for a monk to sacrifice a beloved possession—his biblical text? But on further reflection, difference—like a fault line—begins to manifest itself in the aphorism's logic. How can I sell the book that teaches me about charity? How will I learn about charity without a text to teach me? But how can I not sell the book that commands me to sell all and give all if I am sincere in my desire to become a true monk? Like a mobius strip, there is no end and no beginning to the riddle—only a logical, reasonable text that curls around on itself, leading at its end to its beginning. For a monk, this is an exercise in contemplation. Significantly, it is an exercise in contemplating difference: The aphorism thrusts to the fore the gap between intellectual solutions and silence, text and no-text, owning and selling, and ultimately, knowing and unknowing.

Still, even to frame the issue as a decision between paradoxical polar opposites, that is, to sell or to not sell, reduces the aphorism from a perplexing mystery to a simplistic puzzle with a didactic lesson. Merton's attraction to the desert monks, and to O'Connor's fiction, intersect here. The aphorism provides the ultimate two-part challenge to the human mind: as a physical text, it challenges the reader to abandon it—to let go of the intellectual safety net the physical text, the physical icon represents—and accept that the aphorism is an unreliable narrative guide for the terrain it introduces to the contemplative. To accept that the text provides only questions, only gaps, with no reasonable answers leads to the second part of the challenge, and the most difficult: the contemplative must remain in a state of decided unknowing. The aphorism reveals the limits of reason, and in almost violent manner, draws the contemplative's mind to the edge of reason and invites him to look into an absolute silence that cannot be known, only acquiesced to. If the contemplative returns to the text and fails to silence his mind, in one sense he has failed. Desiring only union with God, the contemplative must remain in a decided state of intellectual darkness and maintain an absence of knowledge by a massive force of will. Like a kind of intellectual prison house, there is no “outside” to the aphorism.4

I am interested in the similarities between Merton and O'Connor's literary sensibilities because they reveal how, independently of one another, both writers recognized the power—and the definitive limits—of text. As a result of this recognition, O'Connor and Merton use their audience's desire for a readily consumed aphorism or short story, and frustrate it. I believe that O'Connor's short, pithy, quickly-read fiction clearly deconstructs and fails to deliver implicitly promised positive, consumable knowledge. Instead, O'Connor, like Merton's desert fathers, communicates mystery negatively.

Merton's aphorisms and O'Connor's short stories work negatively in that they operate as a didactic one-two punch to the intellect. The first blow strikes at the mind's ferocious desire to cognitively master the world. This desire is questioned, even comically mocked both by the strikingly simple form of the aphorism, and in O'Connor, the anonymous, presumably objective presentation of the text; the mind is taught to unlearn what it knows. The second blow levels the notion that wisdom and faith result from positive intellectual mastery over text. Instead, Merton and O'Connor's texts suggest, a moment of aporia opens up like a gap between vehicle and tenor, and more profoundly, between signifier and signified, destabilizing the relationship between conventional categories of knowing and unknowing.

What this has to do with O'Connor is this: Both writers independently manifest an interest and an indebtedness to a long philosophical, theological tradition with its inchoate beginnings in Paul's epistles, and before that in the Hebraic writing thought to have influenced them. This tradition of negativity continues in the fourth-century desert fathers, and is taken up and developed by what some have called the father of the via negativa, the sixth-century Syrian Monk Pseudo-Dionysius. Medieval and later mystics, such as St. John of the Cross, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and others continued the discussion. And the twentieth century continues to explore the negative way, including the writings of the French evolutionist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and, most importantly for this study, O'Connor. Further, the writings of Barthes and Derrida, two apparently atheistic French post-structuralists, suggest yet another incarnation—though not at all explicitly Christological—of the via negativa, or apophatic thought.

According to O'Connor's stated intentions, she wanted to bring “the Word” to her readers, and “the Word,” as she noted in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” often manifests itself as a “stumbling block. … The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man's encounter with this God is how he shall make the experience—which is both natural and supernatural—understandable, and credible, to his reader. In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one” (Mystery [Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose] 161). O'Connor believed that a Roman Catholic writing in a predominantly Protestant South might confound an audience that, for the most part, had adopted Christianity primarily as a cultural rather than a spiritual force. Whether ignorant, or simply uninterested in spiritual concerns, recent scholarship locates O'Connor's literary achievement on a kind of literary desert island. Seemingly off the main trade routes, her work betrays a terrifying, unruly domain that critical missionaries attempt to civilize with a more accessible kind of Christianity, while the greatest explorers consider the island either too wild, or already tamed. A few intrepid post-structuralist explorers have ventured into O'Connor's territory, recognizing that, “though there is much that is disturbing and even ambiguous about O'Connor's world,” as Frederick Crews writes, “critics who seek to justify her in post-modern terms would do well to cease evading her intellectual and emotional loyalty to a single value system” (51).

O'Connor's oft-professed “single value system,” as Crews puts it, has in many ways severely limited the methodological approaches scholars entertain when considering her work. Further, short glosses of O'Connor's religious beliefs have reaffirmed O'Connor's “single value system,” reading the theological underpinnings of O'Connor's thought as religious faith grounded on “knowing,” that is, on the positive philosophical grid Catholicism provided. This, I think, vastly underestimates Catholicism, O'Connor and O'Connor's work. James Grimshaw's The Flannery O'Connor Companion represents a type of O'Connor scholarship that is, to my mind, unsatisfying and not uncommon. Grimshaw spends merely two pages discussing the topic of religion. His discussion is actually only a gloss, introducing the subjects of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and their somewhat ambiguous relationship to the fiction. Grimshaw's common approach results in what might be called a static conception of religion and his attempt to map out its significance ultimately leaves the reader unclear about religion's role—if it has any—in O'Connor's fiction. His synopsis suggests that the religion in the stories can be raked out, identified, and explained. As he states it, “a special knowledge of religions is not necessary to enjoy her fiction … [thought] religion does play an underlying role which when recognized enhances meaning and appreciation” (13). True enough. Unfortunately, the brevity with which he addresses the topic leaves one wondering just where the religion occurs in her fiction and how one will be able to recognize it. O'Connor would have undoubtedly bristled at this dismembering of what she believed to be an entirely organic art form that could not survive any thematic dismemberment.

The interpretive results of O'Connor's work that follow from Grimshaw's methodology result in what O'Connor would call allegorical, or tropological readings, but not anagogical. O'Connor writes,

the Medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literary level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities.

(Mystery 72)

I cite this quote at length because it demonstrates that O'Connor's use of the term anagogical clearly anticipates what Barthes calls the “writerly” approach to text. Both approaches share a philosophic skepticism, O'Connor's strongly influenced by negative theology, and Barthe's influenced by the philosophic skepticism of deconstruction.

O'Connor's letters and occasional prose reveal a literary sensibility well aware of the levels of reading that the Church developed for interpreting scripture, and also reveal her keen intellect, her interest in Thomas Aquinas. The “participation in the divine” for medieval commentators on Scripture, and for O'Connor, remained the most crucial, necessary element in the interpretive process. O'Connor demonstrates her awareness, and acceptance, of the role the reader's response plays in the creation of meaning during the reading process. The materials that provoke the reader's response, for example, the formalistic qualities of the text itself, the intellectual ideas that it contains, which include the literary, historical, cultural, economic, philosophic, and theological influence, fall under the rubric of manners.


The sacramental elements combining to create the best of O'Connor's work operate both in the shorter fiction and the novels with differing degrees of success. In The Violent Bear It Away the entire novel bends—almost breaks—around the thorny problem of documenting the mystery of baptism. O'Connor suggests her frustration in a letter to “A” where she wonders how a text can possibly “document the sacrament of baptism?” (Habit 171) Determined to try, O'Connor attempted this “documentation” first in a short story, “The River” and later in her second novella, The Violent Bear It Away. Young Tarwater undeniably fails. In his attempt to distance himself from Old Tarwater's call, he succumbs, yet in his succumbing he baptizes Bishop, yet drowns him in the process. In Young Tarwater's failure goes the novel's inability to document the sacrament. Yet, in this failure resonates a kind of negative of success: O'Connor indirectly preserves mystery because metaphor cannot contain it.5

As an exploration of this question, O'Connor's second novel seeks to provide an altogether unstable experience of baptism. Like Zen koans, O'Connor's works exist not so much to be answers as to be experienced in all their peculiarity. The Violent Bear It Away resists easy intellectual appropriation from either a secular or Orthodox perspective. In fact, the novel undermines any notion that Orthodoxy exists to explain mystery. With this in mind, Tarwater's baptism/drowning of Bishop obscures, and even undermines, traditional Orthodox definitions of baptism and dogmatic explanations that might be applied in order to make sense of it. This is not to say that the novel rejects orthodox notions of baptism. This is to say that O'Connor attempts to reinvest notions of baptism with something other than the pious, superficial understanding she often witnessed around her. O'Connor's difficult notion of baptism—like Robert Frost's notion of poetry—consumes itself and in the process of consumption points to mystery. Baptism, like Frost's notion of poetry, “rides on its own melting” (Frost 4).6

“The River,” first published in 1953 and later included in A Good Man Is Hard to Find marks O'Connor's first attempt to handle a narrative with baptism at its “center.”7 Though the short story is less sure than the later novel in its handling of the problem of baptism, “The River” remains an early example of O'Connor's power as a writer. In the story O'Connor weaves a narrative that draws its energy from the combination of her theological sensibility and her philosophic skepticism. The result is a short story dense in its weave of biblical allusions, Protestant Southern Baptist traditions and life and death imagery. The story represents what might be considered a “stress test” of the relationship between vehicle and tenor: Harry/Bevel's desire for baptism also reads as a desire for death and Harry/Bevel's death reads as a desire for peace, relief, love. Is he baptized? Or did he drown himself inadvertently? The ending of the story challenges both Protestant and Roman Catholic definitions of baptism that remain external to the narrative, and at the same time leaves Harry/Bevel's fate so over-determined as to make it seem almost ambiguous. “The River” exemplifies the tense relationship in O'Connor's own literary sensibility between the notions of art as positive incarnation and her intuitive suspicion that mystery could only be communicated negatively. O'Connor says as much in a letter when she writes, “Its almost impossible to write about supernatural Grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively” (Habit 144).

The gap in O'Connor's work between vehicle and tenor, between her desire to document baptism and at the same time preserve its mystery, reveals how O'Connor's own comments about her work found in her essays and personal letters discuss the indirectness of the artistic process, the paradoxical nature of Orthodoxy and the ambiguous mystery of faith and its relationship to her work. On the other hand, and often at the same time, she writes as if her fiction represents a successful form of positive incarnation that speaks directly to the redemptive qualities of the sacraments operating in her characters' lives and deaths.8 For instance, in a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey in The Habit of Being, O'Connor writes about the symbols in The Violent Bear It Away and tries to explain their sacramental significance for her. “This book is a very minor hymn to the Eucharist. Water is a symbol of purification and fire is another. Water, it seems to me, is a symbol of the kind of purification that God gives irrespective of our efforts or worthiness, and fire is the kind of purification we bring on ourselves—as in Purgatory. It is our evil which is naturally burnt away when it comes anywhere near God” (387).

O'Connor's statements on her own texts often shift from one letter to the next, depending on her intended audience. When writing John Hawkes, an insightful if not entirely sympathetic reader, O'Connor generously accepted his evaluation and critical remarks about her fiction, especially The Violent Bear It Away. Though she disagreed with Hawkes's reading, she accepted a literary kinship with him though he was himself irreligious. O'Connor writes, “as you say, your vision, though it doesn't come by way of theology, is the same as mine. You arrive at it by your own perception and sensitivity, but I have had it given me whole by faith because I couldn't possibly have arrived at it by my own powers. This perhaps creates a gap that I have to get over somehow or other” (Habit 352-53).

Though O'Connor indicates regularly that her literary sensibility springs directly from her theological perspective, she recognizes Hawkes's grotesque literary vision as authentic, sensitive, and not theological. Further, this passage includes a rare admission for O'Connor, that the one-to-one correspondence between her faith and her artistic perception may have its limitations, as with Rayber, a character with a modern (and irreligious) sensibility. This, she says, caused her to struggle with her second novel for seven years. In the same letter, having confessed her fears that Rayber perhaps represents a mere caricature rather than a round character imbued with the modern mindset, she explicitly reveals the gap in her literary and theological sensibility mentioned earlier in the letter: “People are always asking me if I am a Catholic writer and I am afraid that I sometimes say no and sometimes say yes, depending on who the visitor is” (Habit 353). This gap, it seems, manifested itself differently depending on O'Connor's audience.

Much contemporary criticism of “The River,” excepting critics like Schenck, tends to accept O'Connor's scriptural reading of the story. They rely on O'Connor's assurances that the story is one of redemption, renewal, and hope. O'Connor and most commentators call it “a story of baptism” (Giannone 72). Baumgartner says that its story presents “sacrament—the outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace—in its most profound form … whether or not the preacher [in the story] realizes it, he is a sacramentalist” (90). According to Giannone, “The River” is best understood if approached from O'Connor's scriptural reading of the story. “Since her faithless readers would not know that Jesus' death makes any difference, O'Connor shows how the tragic destruction of a child of our time participates in a death that bestows the newness of life” (72), and Schenck finds that only O'Connor's belief in the Catholic doctrine of the innocence of children “can turn this story into one of salvation, and that belief is surely not shared by all readers. Even believers might question Harry's innocence … he resembles most O'Connor characters who … dupe themselves by creating a new identity based on a false understanding of language” (133).

When critics sympathetic to O'Connor's own reading of her work approach these stories, they have claimed that the ceremonial imagery operates as positive signifiers that directly represent, in a mysterious form of spiritual regeneration, the mysteries of the redemptive power of Christ. However, as O'Connor well knew, the ceremonial imagery, the religious sign systems employed in the text do not and cannot embody the sacraments. The literary representation of baptism functions (or, as I argue, actually fails to function) as an outward literary sign (the vehicle) of an outward ceremonial sign (another vehicle) meant to embody the invisible inward workings of grace (the tenor). What this means is this: The reader's experience of O'Connor's attempt to “document” baptism is not unlike entering a hall of mirrors. Which is the real one and which the simulacrum? That is, even when I experience baptism in the flesh, the ritual proper is nevertheless once removed from my own senses because it (and its result: grace) exists as a visible ritual meant to communicate invisible things. I receive grace by faith. Next, a textual embodiment of the ritual proper represents the second remove, and because young Tarwater's understanding of baptism is not O'Connor's, his version of baptism reflects the third remove. My approach to the text might constitute a fourth remove, and depending on one's acceptance of reader-response theory, I approach and experience the text differently each time I read it. Like the pitfalls of reading a foreign literature in English, something is lost in the translation.

Whatever is lost in the intellectual translation regarding baptism's significance for Harry/Bevel and young Tarwater, this loss functions as a kind of emotional block that prevents both of them from achieving an illuminating experience of grace. The contradiction between known imagery and unknown mystery can lead to any number of extreme theological views, from spiritless materialism, to a kind of bodiless gnosticism. Harry/Bevel's failure to penetrate the metaphoric sign system employed acts as a kind of warning to the reader, like the Grandmother's story in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Beware, the young Preacher warns the audience at “The River.” If you've come for a miracle show, “you might as well go home if that's what you come for” (40). Nevertheless, Harry/Bevel's failure to understand the sacrament of baptism is not O'Connor's failure. The failure belongs to Mrs. Connin, to the young Preacher, Harry/Bevel, and most important, to Harry/Bevel's self-involved parents. Reading the story solely as a misfiring of O'Connor's talent obscures something vital about it; whether O'Connor intended it, Harry/Bevel's story is a self-consuming tale about tales that consume themselves. It is a story without a definitive moral center; it is a story about the failure of moral centers to hold and provide relief; it is a story about the mystery of death. It bears repeating that the literary sacrament of baptism-as-insufficient-sign-system negatively emblemizes the mystery of spiritual transcendence. As St. Augustine wrote in the tenth book of The City of God, “A Sacrament is a sacred thing,” while also stating that it is “the sign of a sacred thing.” St. Thomas reasons along this rhetorical fault line, considering baptism as a sacred event in and of itself, and in a subtle, though crucial difference, he also suggests, like St. Augustine, that baptism is a visible sign of a sacred, invisible event. This is crucial because the tension between O'Connor's professed Catholicism and her Protestant subject matter falls squarely along these doctrinal lines. Because her Protestant subjects have no sacramental dogma, but only a dramatic sense of faith, her literary and theological concerns focus on the gap between Catholic and Protestant.

St. Thomas's arguments on the baptism of children are crucial. The theological issue becomes the central literary concern in O'Connor's second novel, and as a literary problem, her solution leads to her greatest literary achievement—“Parker's Back”—in her second collection of short fiction. St. Thomas writes that, “even in the Old Law there were certain sacraments, that is, signs of a sacred thing—for example, the paschal lamb and other legal sacred signs of sacraments which, however, did not cause grace but only signified or indicated the grace of Christ.” He continues that “the Sacraments of the New Law, on the other hand, both contain grace and confer it. A sacrament of the New Law is a visible form of invisible grace. Thus, the exterior washing which takes place when the water is poured in Baptism represents that interior cleansing which takes away sin by virtue of the Sacrament of Baptism.” (358). For St. Thomas, then, the New Law, that is, the New Covenant of Christ provides the sacraments, and in and of themselves a minister can confer grace as he would draw water from a well: grace exists and the sacraments are the tools by which he draws it forth.

Later, though, Thomas discusses the baptism of children (a constant concern for O'Connor) and reasons that child baptism is necessary, even though the child has not committed any sin, and remains without his or her full use of reason. Nevertheless, because scripture commands that one must be “born of water and spirit,” Thomas determines a child must be baptized or risk the loss of heaven. Though children are protected by their parents, safe in the spiritual womb they provide, scripture commands that all must be baptized to enter heaven. Hence, it follows that, though a child may not have committed any sin, he or she must instead be infected with original sin. And because the Church and the Scripture are infallible, this justifies the baptism of children (St. Thomas 342).

Though O'Connor unequivocally accepts the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church on the baptism of children, many of the Southern Protestants in her fiction do not. For example, Baptists refuse to baptize children simply because, as St. Thomas points out, children must decide whether they want to enter into “God's Kingdom” and as children they do not have the full use of their reason. The differences between these baptismal doctrines represent a fascinating rift that O'Connor's two baptismal stories implicitly explore. If a child's will has nothing to do with it, as St. Thomas reasons, the literal act of baptism becomes of paramount concern, that is,

the Sacraments are made holy and have the power of sanctifying through the words which accompany the action. … Now, the words by which the Sacraments are sanctified are called the form of the Sacraments; and the things which are sanctified are called the matter of the Sacraments. … In each Sacrament there is required a minister, who confers the Sacrament with the intention of doing that which the Church intends. If any one of these three requirements is lacking, the Sacrament is not brought into being, viz, if there is lacking the due form of the words, or if the matter is not present, or if the minister does not intend to confer the Sacrament.


St. Thomas stresses that the letter of the law must be observed. The ritual—and its required symbols—must all be present and in place or else the conferring of the Sacrament may be impeded.

St. Thomas continues that “the effect of the Sacrament is likewise impeded through the fault of the recipient, for example, if one feigns to receive it and with a heart unprepared to receive worthily.” However, he problematizes the entire argument over the “letter of the law,” making it a moot point by indicating that “there are some who never even receive sacramentally, yet would receive the effect of the Sacrament because of their devotion towards the Sacrament, which they may have in desire or in a vow” (361). St. Thomas makes abundantly clear that, though the form, matter, and minister may not be present, grace can still be conferred if the recipient has fulfilled the spirit of the law. O'Connor's anxiety about how to document baptism remains the significant point here: Does the performative act—the form, the matter and the minister constitute the baptismal setting? This reading of St. Thomas is meant to suggest something of the Protestant in this Catholic Saint: The Sacraments represent a sign of an outward truth, not absolutely essential in and of themselves to confer grace; rather, grace is conferred in a far more mysterious manner, just as O'Connor's Protestant neighbors believed. Though there remain possibilities between these two positions, they remain in their basic forms the essential dialogue of the ritual's mystery and manners.

Neither “The River” or The Violent Bear It Away fulfills either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant letter of the law on baptism. Rather, she trains her literary vision on gaps within the intellectual efforts made to “explain” mystery. In other words, she could write a story of murder, of a farmer's wife, of boys in the field, and still attempt to reveal the grace she believed could be conferred from the gaps inherent in her metaphors. Her toughest challenge was to explore how baptism remains a sign of a sacred thing, but the sacred thing to human senses—and sensibility—remains the gap between the visible ritual and the invisible thing. The only visible signs of the experience of baptism are the trace elements that fly off in every direction, like some kind of sub-atomic experiment watched under an electron microscope. We cannot actually see atoms, only their traces. Only by watching the trails of escaping atomic particles can we be sure something happens on the sub-atomic level. O'Connor's fiction might be thought of as violent traces of invisible things, and only the emotional and intellectual effects—the literary traces if you will—on character and reader alike suggest that something has happened. But what?

O'Connor's baptismal narratives reveal their provisional condition as text, while at the same moment, they celebrate the provisional condition of the baptismal ritual. Only by drawing attention to the metaphoric play of difference can she open the baptismal theme to a reading that directs interpretations away from a static view of Orthodoxy and toward a view of baptism as a sign that “all matter is henceforth incarnate.” Not in rare moments, but in every moment, God has “poured [his] superabundant vigor into the Sacrament of the world” (de Chardin 239).

O'Connor presents baptism in both “The River” and The Violent Bear It Away as a performative act—a ritual invested with meaning by those who participate in it. Yet, like St. Thomas's argument, Harry/Bevel's dramatic self-baptism/drowning at the end of the story manages to skirt—even obscure—the letter of the Law as St. Thomas presents it. Harry/Bevel is neither a child nor an infant—he falls somewhere in between. At the age of “four or five,” he has committed sin—he steals a book belonging to Mrs. Connin, knowing that it belongs to her and that she prizes it. Unlike an infant corrupted only by Adam's original sin, Harry/Bevel requires an adult baptism for the remission of sins, though he cannot understand the abstract significance of the ceremony. According to St. Thomas's definition of the baptismal rite, the sacrament of baptism may or may not have been conferred on Harry/Bevel.

Hence, citing Harry/Bevel's drowning as his first step toward the Kingdom of God provides too neat a package, relying on an interpretive angle the story simply does not support. For example, the story does not include exposition or characterization that might clarify baptismal doctrine and allow his death to be viewed as a hopeful event; rather, the story's dramatic effect depends on an obscured presentation of baptism to avoid any too-neat packaging of the child's confusion. As a result, Harry/Bevel's struggle with the baptism ceremony does not offer “an apocalyptic and conclusive revelation but a disorienting experience” (Foster 261) which challenges the assumed relationship between sign, signifier and signified, leaving only a sense of ambiguous loss, a perplexing question mark at the end of the story, a sense of mystery in place of an absent, positive ending.

In “The River” baptism functions as the center to the story which can be known only through its absence, for after all, though the River is the Preacher's metaphor, he is also quick to point out that this is not the actual River, only a metaphorical river of blood. O'Connor depicts the manners commonly associated with some Protestant forms of baptism. But this depiction leads to no sense of grace or atonement, but rather, to a sense of unknowing with no theological center to explain or justify the consequences. The child Harry/Bevel exemplifies an aspect common to O'Connor's fiction: He lives along a symbolic rift lost somewhere between his two distracted parents, falling through the emotional cracks for so long that, in a sense, he becomes a narrative null-space. He is neither Harry nor is his real name Bevel. In an attempt to shuck off his old identity, he steals the name Bevel, yet he truly is neither Harry nor Bevel. He rejects the first and cannot steal the second. His behavior does not suggest an innocent's, nor do Mrs. Connin's children behave as innocents. Indeed, the Connin children are sly, cunning and bent on persecuting an outsider without provocation. Harry/Bevel's habitual thievery may suggest a child in desperate emotional need. However, he understands the value of the book he steals, revealed in his concealing Mrs. Connin's property inside his coat. Clearly, Harry/Bevel understands certain things, like the subtle difference between ashtrays accidentally and deliberately spilt. He cleverly estimates exactly how many he needs to tip over, then carefully and vengefully rubs the ashes into the carpet.

Mrs. Connin and Harry/Bevel meet at a crucial moment in the young boy's life. The Ashfields have hired a new babysitter to watch their young boy so his mother can recover from her hangover. “‘He ain't fixed right’ a loud voice said from the hall” (O'Connor 30), and Mrs. Connin proceeds to take Harry/Bevel to the river and have him fixed. Afterward, Harry/Bevel is aware that in his parent's house he doesn't count. He is forced to forage for his own breakfast among the crackers and anchovy leftovers from last night's party. Hating the emotional ambivalence of the house and his parents, “he got up and wandered around the room … he decided he would empty a few of the ashtrays on the floor. If he only emptied a few, she would think they had fallen. He emptied two, rubbing the ashes carefully into the rug with this finger” (50). Here the carpet becomes a symbol for the young boy's life. As he rubs the ashes in with his finger, echoing the Christian ritual performed on Ash Wednesday, he foreshadows an imminent death: his own.

Though Harry/Bevel remains the central concern of the story, O'Connor's characterization of every other figure—including Harry/Bevel—can best be described as deeply ambivalent. This ambivalence leaves it difficult to determine whether there is a moral center in this story. Without a moral center, an evaluation (or an explanation) of the story's end becomes almost impossible, nor does the story offer an absolute fixed point by which we can measure Harry/Bevel's understanding of baptism. Some might argue that the preacher in the river stands as a moral center. Yet even the preacher is marked by ambiguity. His heightened metaphoric rhetorical style leaves even his adult audience unclear whether he can actually heal them. Oddly enough, he refuses to be placed at the center of the text, refusing the role of spiritual authority audience and text clearly need. When the young preacher reminds his audience at the river that he is merely an outward sign of inward spiritual things, he deflects their attempts to locate a discrete spiritual power in him.

The preacher, the other characters and in a way the story itself resists offering moral explanatory centers. At one turn Mrs. Connin seems endowed with an insight into the Ashfield home suggesting she might in some way save Harry/Bevel from his fate. Yet her misunderstanding of Harry/Bevel's parents and her benign negligence as a babysitter suggest she is not wholly free from responsibility regarding that fate. After all, she brought the young boy to the river expecting him to understand what baptism means yet was not sophisticated enough to realize that he may misunderstand.

Further, to suggest that his baptism provides a hopeful conclusion to “The River” reveals more of a particular reader's perspective on baptism than the story actually provides. For example, the death imagery surrounding Mrs. Connin, the river, the preacher, and baptism itself undermine any possible reading that Harry/Bevel “has gone to a better place.” O'Connor was one of the first to suggest this reading of the final baptism. Certainly, from a New Testament perspective, baptism represents a literal death of the old self and a rebirth of one's spiritual existence. This might help explain the plentiful death imagery that wends its way through the story, and by contrast, the lack of any substantive life imagery at the story's end. For instance, though Mrs. Connin clearly has more sympathy for Harry/Bevel's needs as a child, she is also associated with death. After picking him up, almost saving him from the dead cigarette butts and leftover debris from his parents' house, Mrs. Connin takes him to her house, providing food and some quasi-mothering. Nevertheless, the ease with which he deceives her reveals a simple yet fundamental oversight. She does not know his name. Later, on the bus, “she lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton” (O'Connor 33). Mrs. Connin's catering takes on a decidedly superficial aspect, suggesting negligence, but of the kind she had grown cleverly accustomed to, situating the child in such a way that she could catch up on her sleep, never considering that her fatigue might encroach on her ability to care for him. Her inattention here suggests yet another moment of abandonment the child has suffered, first from his parents, now by her. In a sense, she asks the child to take care of himself, to not leave her lap, while she blows like a comic, smiling prefigurement of his death.

Later, at her house, her own children casually, but with conviction, again loosely associate Mrs. Connin with death when they confess “she'd kills us” if Harry/Bevel wound up in the hogpen. Of course, Harry/Bevel's potential to misread baptism based on his book knowledge rather than experience is fully manifest in his visit to her place. “Bevel had never seen a real pig but he had seen a pig in a book and knew they were small fat pink animals with curly tails and round grinning faces and bow ties. He leaned forward and pulled eagerly at the board,” to release the hog when, “another face, gray, wet and sour, was pushing into his, knocking him down and back as it scraped out under the plank. Something snorted over him and charged back again, rolling him over and pushing him up from behind and then sending him forward, screaming through the yellow field, while it bounded behind” (36). Consequently, the child continued to scream from fright and shock caused by an actual pig, with deathly gray—rather than rosy pink—skin.

Rather than contrast the death imagery with its counterpart, the text links the destructive forces in Harry/Bevel's life with what appear to be redemptive forces. O'Connor's narrative associates parents and pigs along with Jesus and baptism. Here all are a kind of misinterpreted joke. Harry/Bevel's preconceived bookish notions are constantly disrupted by the reality of the gray, wet and sour experience of the real thing. Unable to navigate his parents' blasphemy and Mrs. Connin's condescending catechism, he learns that Jesus Christ is not merely an oath, like “damn,” but a carpenter who made him. The text clearly associates Harry/Bevel's superficial, ingenuous misunderstanding of pigs with a similar misunderstanding of Jesus in books “for readers under twelve.”

O'Connor juxtaposes the death imagery of the narrative against the broader allusions to John the Baptist and Christ's own baptism. For example, Mrs. Connin, Harry/Bevel and the rest of her children walk to the river, looking “like the skeleton of an old boat with two pointed ends, sailing slowly on the edge of the highway,” again prefiguring Harry/Bevel's death. But to read the story as a sympathetic recasting of the New Testament story is to fall prey to Harry/Bevel's level of reading. As the preacher in the river continually explains to his audience, the “rich red river of Jesus' Blood” does not flow like some kind of magic potion in the river before them. Rather, O'Connor inverts the crucial image in Christ's baptism, that of the dove descending, and instead uses another image associated with death. “While he preached, Bevel's eyes followed drowsily the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in the air. … The birds revolved downward and dropped lightly in the top of the highest pine and sat hunch-shouldered as if they were supporting the sky” (41). The holy spirit fails to descend in the shape of a dove as a sign of life, regeneration and God's grace, and instead two buzzard-like birds circle, waiting for the carrion that will wash downstream.

The death imagery in the story provides a built-in resistance to reading the river and the baptism as a moral or theological center from which a narrowly-exegetical Christian happy ending can be extracted. Furthering this theme of centerlessness, while at the same time undermining traditional Christian imagery, the text associates Mr. Paradise with pigs, clearly a “demonic” allusion drawn from the New Testament, while at the same time he remains the only character to enter the river free of any self-interest, diving in at story's end not to save himself, but to save the boy. Though described as an “ancient water monster” coming out of the water “empty-handed,” Mr. Paradise is neither the harbinger of hell nor an angel from heaven. Though he scoffs at the preacher's reputation as a healer, his characterization remains too thin to determine whether his name amounts to heavy-handed irony or, rather, a subtle naming of the gap his character might represent. This story is rife with such characters: Mr. Paradise, Harry/Bevel, Mrs. Connin, the Preacher, and the parents all lack essential qualities that might direct our sympathies and help us navigate.

By the end, “The River” leaves the reader bewildered, beating against a thematic current flowing in two contradictory directions at once: We are pulled by our own preconceptions of baptism—encouraged in part by O'Connor's own authorial comments suggesting the efficacious release baptism offers, which leaves the reader with a reductive conclusion: Harry/Bevel is better off dead. At the same time our moral and theological compass spins out of control by the simple, bare fact of Harry Ashfield's death-by-misunderstanding. How can the story support, thematically or otherwise, that Harry's death is a benefit to him? Yet can a Christian dare to presume otherwise? At the end only Mr. Paradise remains, waterlogged and empty-handed. Though he is not the central character, he stands for the story's central issue: intellectual skepticism, (not to be confused with theological skepticism). O'Connor's attempt at a sacramental narrative dramatizes his struggle—and our own—between intellectual knowledge and the ineffable mystery found only through experience. If the story succeeds at all, it does so as a kind of aphorism: The story demands a misreading of the manners of baptism, and cautions the reader at the same time against such an endeavor. O'Connor begins her second novel where “The River” ends in an attempt to document the mystery of baptism negatively.


The Violent Bear It Away received a good deal of attention when published some of it insightful, though none of it filled with the puzzlement her first novel encountered.9 And with the publication of O'Connor's letters in 1979, her intentions as a Catholic author became clearer, and what appeared as a decidedly Catholic, partisan voice, gradually increased its authority over the fiction and the manner in which it since has been approached ever since. Interpretive problems arise, or worse, are ignored, when O'Connor provides religious interpretations of her own work. When those interpretations have been accepted, for the most part, any counter-interpretations may seem to border on the heretical. “Such are the risks for critics attempting to discuss how the fiction of Flannery O'Connor creates meaning in addition to or in contrast with what she her self said about her work” (Schenck 125). Asals writes of O'Connor's self-assessment: “At one pole, she can be taken as the final and definitive authority on her own writing; at the other, she can be viewed as so unaware of what she was up to as to be irrelevant if not positively misleading” (4-5).

O'Connor's second novel is no exception to this critical dilemma. Though ostensibly about baptism, The Violent Bear It Away grapples ferociously with the sacrament in a bizarre and off-putting manner. Tarwater's understanding of baptism, like all of his religious training, has been imbued with the maniacal zeal of his great-uncle complemented by a storybook literalness. Throughout the novel Tarwater fears that the Lord will finally make his presence felt physically, his anger palpable, his Judgment sure and painful. In one sense, then, Harry/Bevel has grown up in Tarwater, his religious education has kept pace, but his literal-mindedness has not changed from the first moment on “The River.” The invasive memory of his recently-deceased great-uncle only serves to exacerbate Tarwater's egocentric, perverted literalness:

“If by the time I die,” he had said to Tarwater, “I haven't got him baptized, it'll be up to you. It'll be the first mission the Lord sends you.” The boy doubted very much that his first mission would be to baptize a dim-witted child. “Oh no it won't be,” he said. “He don't mean for me to finish up your leavings. He has other things in mind for me.” And he thought of Moses who struck water from a rock, of Joshua who made the sun stand still, of Daniel who stared down lions in the pit. “It's not part of your job to think for the Lord,” his great-uncle said. “Judgment may rack your bones.”

(Violent [The Violent Bear It Away] 128-29).

The ferocity of Young Tarwater's quest, or the ferocious rejection of his quest, is matched only by O'Connor's own drive to communicate its significance—a significance that the final aporia of “The River” does not deliver. “I don't set out to be more drastic” O'Connor wrote in a letter about her second novel, “but this happens automatically.” In The Violent Bear It Away, the “central action is a baptism, I know that for the larger percentage of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite; therefore I have to imbue this action with an awe and terror which will suggest its awful mystery. I have to distort the look of the thing in order to represent as I see them both the mystery and the fact” (Habit 401).10

Tarwater's misunderstanding of how signs operate, or indeed, if God even uses positive signs, parallels the text's own subversive impulse to undermine positive meaning-bearing metaphor. O'Connor's text implicitly asserts itself as a kind of icon, a symbol, a central theme, an image, a narrative filled with positive meaning, as all texts do. Old Tarwater, sympathetically embraced by O'Connor in her letters, teaches that the symbol means everything. He fears that without a cross on his grave, he may miss the Day of Resurrection. Symbols have a powerful effect in the world of Old Tarwater, powerful enough to override a life spent in prophecy, a life spent in wrestling with the mystery of God's terrible mercy. Without a cross, and without an intact corpse, he may miss his chance at Paradise. Nevertheless, O'Connor's narrative so over-determines the notion of the reliable positive icon (that is, baptism), that the analogy between the icon-in-the-text and the text-as-icon the novel implicitly offers collapses and leads to philosophical skepticism. This, of course, is the point. This is not to say the text's iconic collapse leads to nihilism or existentialism or atheism, but rather, philosophic skepticism, which should also be distinguished from religious skepticism. O'Connor was not a religious skeptic.

Baptism, then, stands as singularly emblematic of a broader spiritual life the great-uncle trained into both Rayber and Young Tarwater. Though the great-uncle was equally concerned with his grave, with a proper marking, with a properly prepared body for the Resurrection, Rayber and Tarwater both focus specifically on the sacrament of baptism as the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual battleground. If the compulsion to baptize, as Rayber calls it, can be overcome, the great-uncle's teaching can be overcome. For Young Tarwater, giving in to baptism will lead to baptizing the whole world, like some Old Testament Prophet sent as a scourge to God's people, excoriating in his indictments, inflexible in his judgments, harsh in his pronouncements, promising God's mercy as a form of quick but thorough destruction.

In Part One, Old Tarwater does not concern himself over the sacrament of baptism so much as with the concrete embodiments that, for him, mark his life and death in Christ. He remains fixed on concrete, performative metaphors, including his grave, which should be at least ten feet deep and marked by a proper sign of his Savior. Chapter two recounts Old Tarwater's arrival at his nephew's house in the City, and how both men in turn baptize the infant Tarwater. In an angry repudiation of Rayber's blasphemy, Old Tarwater steals the baby and raises it as a prophet “to burn Rayber's eyes clean.”

Rayber, on the other hand, fears that giving into his great-uncle's teaching will draw out the mystical love he feels for his dim-witted son, Bishop, and lead him to love the whole world unconditionally as “his idiot child.” Rayber fears the macrocosm, not like Tarwater, as a harsh prophet, but as the servant, loving all because, like Bishop, all are dim-witted and need spiritual and emotional guidance. Through an act of will, an act of reason, Rayber desperately struggles to control the overwhelming feelings of love that would crush his intellectual, knowing self. Like a Southern Henry Adams, Rayber the intellectual, with his “guts in his head,” has been fitted with an education ill-suited for the world he now lives in.

Just as Rayber's education fails him, so too Young Tarwater's, though inversely. Unfamiliar with machines, Tarwater cannot operate a telephone or understand the machine-like Rayber. Nevertheless, Both Rayber and Tarwater desperately resist the loss of self Old Tarwater has demanded of them. In his attempt to protect his sense of self, Tarwater flees his great-uncle's property in Powderhead and retreats to his Uncle's place in the City. There he meets Bishop and Tarwater slowly recognizes his calling, the calling his great-uncle has placed on him earlier on in his life. Faced with Bishop—the physical manifestation of his calling, Young Tarwater rejects it. “‘I won't have anything to do with him!’ He clenched his fist and lifted it … defiant like a challenge hurled in the face of his silent adversary” (179).

In rejecting his adversary, Tarwater rejects, possibly, his great-uncle's memory enjoining him to baptize the child, or possibly the devil's voice that haunts him throughout the entire book, encouraging him to destroy the child, or possibly God's silence, which weighs on Tarwater. What God requires remains a mystery, filled in with Tarwater's adolescent, naive expectations that God will reveal Himself in a whirlwind, in a burning bush, or that he can command the sun to stand still; Tarwater waits for a positive sign—encouraged by the seductive, friendly voice inside him. All the other prophets had signs, so why not Tarwater? his friend reasonably suggests. Without a positive sign, Tarwater remains in doubt, rejects the cost of losing his self—a battle begun early with his great-uncle and continued after his death.

Tarwater feels a strong kinship with the Old Testament prophets, but his sensibility is still more akin to Harry/Bevel's literary understanding of biblical myth. Raised on the stories of men who knew God and witnessed his presence in a powerful, positive manner, Tarwater expects the same. Because he never receives a sign from God, except those of his own making, Tarwater's ultimate fate remains unclear. He certainly struggles with those that would have him reject his great-uncle's madness. O'Connor is clear that Prophecy in this age can be seen only as a kind of madness by the modern world. Old Tarwater's tenure in an insane asylum remains testimony. Further, the constant barrage of reasonable advice from the Voice, from Meeks, from Rayber reinforce the notion that the modern world doesn't provide signs, just Reason. Ironically, the destructive, sterile, mechanical world of Reason acts as a sign to the reader—and hopefully to Tarwater—where his true calling lies: in the stinking, mad shadow of Jesus. Unfortunately, Tarwater's training makes both lives—the modern and the prophetic—extremely unappealing. Both lives represent a kind of madness: The modern represents the sterile, hopeless existence of a life spent resisting “the terrible speed of mercy,” a life shut-down, unfeeling, as Rayber trains his mind to a numb silence, antithetical to the mystical silence of spiritual contemplatives.

Conversely, Old Tarwater represents another, fuller madness. In believing in God's mercy, his presence, Tarwater constantly wrestles with the “rage of vision” in his blood, sure of God's direction, living a life of isolation, shunned by the human community, and in turn he shuns it right back. Further, his knowledge about God, as Chapter one suggests, is regularly shown to be of his own making, as he returns to the woods to receive God's rebuke for presuming. Both are lives of extreme presumption; Rayber presumes that he knows where God is and can therefore avoid him, whereas Old Tarwater presumes he knows where God is and can therefore more readily embrace him. That O'Connor feels sympathy for Old Tarwater merely suggests her respect for his desire to embrace the life of Christ, not in his having achieved anything.

Rayber, though entirely without a positive theological perspective of his own, is familiar with Tarwater's, and is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation: Tarwater does feel a deep compulsion to baptize Bishop. Further, Tarwater wrestles with guilt over his great-uncle's final resting place. Rejecting his great-uncle's commands, Tarwater instead gets drunk and burns down the house with his great-uncle's corpse still in it. Again, though the text suggests that baptism versus non-baptism is the central, crucial issue, Barbara Johnson's observations regarding the central role difference plays in generating meaning in text provide an illuminating parallel. In The Critical Difference she writes that the interplay of difference in texts

is subsequently shown to be an illusion created by the workings of differences much harder to pin down. The differences between entities are shown to be based on a repression of differences within entities, ways in which an entity differs from itself. But the way in which a text thus differs from itself is never simple: it has a certain rigorous, contradictory logic whose effects can, up to a certain point, be read.

(Johnson x-xi)

So too The Violent Bear It Away manifests initial differences, foremost the differences between Rayber's humanism and Old Tarwater's Christianity, manifested in their differing perspectives on baptism. This outward difference in fact is based on a “repression of differences” within baptism itself, and within Old Tarwater's theological sensibility, a sensibility that is handed down to both Rayber and Young Tarwater. As inheritors of Old Tarwater's theology, they become fragmented images of Old Tarwater's already fragmented theological sensibility. As the driving engine to the novel, this fragmentation allows the play of differences to be read “up to a certain point.” At first it seems that Rayber and Young Tarwater differ, but Young Tarwater differs from himself as well, just as Rayber betrays his own contradictory nature. Finally, and most significantly, the rigorous, contradictory logic within the notion of baptism differs from itself to such a degree that the ritual becomes meaningless as an act of grace, and becomes meaningful only as an act of plot, that is, as an act of murder. So the differences that once separated Rayber and Young Tarwater are no longer meaningful. The repressed differences within baptism itself become paramount—so much so that Young Tarwater must murder Bishop as an attempt to repress the differences. Consequently, baptism's status as a central, stable, determining metaphor no longer functions as a guide to understanding the primary differences of Old and Young Tarwater, Old Tarwater and Rayber, Rayber and Young Tarwater, Young Tarwater and Bishop. By the end of the novel baptism has become a central symbol not of grace, stability, essence, and truth, but of difference, of the gap, the abyss.

Old Tarwater makes absolutely no significant distinction between baptizing Young Tarwater as an infant without reason, and Rayber's baptism as a young, willing child. For Old Tarwater, the ceremony of infant baptism, like the cross Old Tarwater needs to mark his grave, assures one's entry into the Kingdom of God. Though, as an example of his contradictory theology, Old Tarwater, presumably baptized into the Kingdom of God, still fears it may be out of reach unless he receives a proper burial. Nevertheless, Old Tarwater's zeal remains slightly confused between the letter of the law, and the law of grace. His great-nephew, of course, responds to the literal, absolutist qualities of Old Tarwater, expecting the sun to stand still on his command, voices to pierce the noon-day silence, and bushes to erupt spontaneously into flame.

Rayber, on the other hand, utterly rejects Old Tarwater's maniacal religious appeal. Rayber recollects his own baptism at the hands of his uncle, revealing his own complicity regarding his religious upbringing. Unlike Tarwater's inauspicious ceremony as an infant, Rayber accepted, much like Harry/Bevel from “The River,” that he counted after baptism. Old Tarwater preaches to Rayber as a child, teaching the child what his life means for four days before baptizing him. However, Old Tarwater's free-wheeling practice of the sacrament of baptism embodies a significant contradiction in the text, a contradiction that St. Thomas similarly suggests in his writings on the same subject. Is there an essence to the performative ritual of baptism? Old Tarwater—a raging Southern prophet—contradicts himself, for he contains a multitude of differing views on baptism.

At one moment, Young Tarwater recalls-his great-uncle retelling the story of his time with Rayber just after Young Tarwater's birth. Rayber discovers that Old Tarwater has quickly baptized his nephew, Francis Marion Tarwater in the crib. “‘He's been born again and there ain't a thing you can do about it,’ Old Tarwater said. … ‘If one baptism is good, two will be better,’ Rayber said, having recovered from his anger. He turned Tarwater over and poured what was left in the bottle over his bottom and said the words of baptism again. Old Tarwater had stood there, aghast at this blasphemy. ‘Now Jesus has a claim on both ends, the nephew said’” (Violent 167). Rayber remains bitter and angry, blaming religion, and Old Tarwater, for his condition. Rayber's humanistic, intellectual perspective regards baptism as an essentially meaningless act. Nevertheless, Rayber's doubts about the ritual provide an increasingly important response to Old Tarwater's free-wheeling practice of baptism.

Does Tarwater's reason, or his will, have anything to do with conferring the sacrament of grace while he lies in the crib, baptized on both ends? St. Thomas certainly believes so, and O'Connor was a Thomist by her own admission. Still, this suggests that the ceremony itself confers the sacrament, just as the crosses that will be gathered on the last day indicate who will be resurrected, as far as Old Tarwater is concerned. Again, if all the elements required for baptism are in place, St. Thomas suggests that the ceremony does indeed have the power to confer grace. That is, if the form, the matter, and the minister are present, so is the sacrament of grace. Still, Rayber's blasphemous response after Old Tarwater baptizes Young Tarwater pushes this logic to the extreme. Does Rayber's unbelief, accompanied by his unholy baptism of the baby's butt nullify Old Tarwater's ceremony? The question remains: do these two competing myths—the religionist and the humanist—cancel each other out?

Rayber the humanist has renounced the life his uncle introduced him to as a child. Only after renouncing his uncle when fourteen does Rayber take up the laborious task of renouncing his uncle's education and entering into the modern world, a world of intellect, will-power, and technology, that is, machines. Rayber blames Old Tarwater for providing him with an education that is obsolete and useless for the modern world. In one sense, Old Tarwater is to blame for Rayber's condition. The hearing aid that “wires his head” is not a result of Rayber's humanism, but of Old Tarwater's maniacal zeal. Though Rayber becomes associated with “machines,” nearly a machine himself, Old Tarwater's shotgun—a machine of an earlier age—plays a large part in creating the bitter, angry character of Rayber. Though Rayber at times sounds too much like a whipping boy for atheistic humanism than a fully-drawn, round character, his exaggerated cynicism serves as a significant foil for Old Tarwater.

Rayber's need to free himself from his uncle's teaching, a teaching consummated by Rayber's childhood acceptance of baptism, hides the crucial difference embedded within the varied concept of baptism in the text. The submerged though crucial dilemma of infant and adult baptismal practices clashes beneath the surface narrative. As a child of this debate, Bishop's silence takes on symbolic import. His dimwittedness and childlike intellect become a metaphoric representation of the intellectual gridlock produced by atheistic humanism; Bishop represents the human capacity for Reason and rationality stripped of its power when faced with divine difference. For Rayber, Bishop is the result of divine in-difference.

Bishop is neither infant, nor child. Suffering from Downs syndrome, Bishop's status as an infant corrupted by Adam's sin suddenly becomes suspect, and as a child, Bishop cannot understand the ritual and the question remains whether he requires it for the remission of sins. Further, the name Bishop clearly suggests that he already belongs to the kingdom of heaven. In this moment of the narrative, the differences between Old Tarwater's theology, Rayber's humanism, and Young Tarwater's initiation are clear as they make Bishop's baptism their central concern.

Old Tarwater's theology at times suggests the extent of his literal-mindedness. He charges his great-nephew with his first mission. This is followed quickly by Old Tarwater's second request, though less crucial, for a decent burial in a grave at least ten feet deep. ‘Listen,’ the old man said, ‘if it ain't feasible to use the box when the time comes, if you can't lift it or whatever, just get me in the hole but I want it deep. I want it ten foot, not just eight, ten. You can roll me to it if nothing else. I'll roll. … All I'm asking you is to get me in the ground and set up a cross’” (131-32). In rhetoric reminiscent of St. Thomas, post-structuralist notions of language also provide insight into Tarwater's dilemma. Tarwater's understanding of baptism confuses “the sign put in the place of the thing itself, the present thing, ‘thing’ here standing equally for meaning or referent. The sign represents the present in its absence. It takes the place of the present” (Derrida 402).

Old Tarwater needs this grave and cross each for a specific reason. He does not want to be cremated and must be ten feet down because his whole body must remain intact for the day of Resurrection. The dogs might dig him up from a shallow grave and if he's cremated he'll be nothing but ashes, bodiless on the day the Lord calls him up. Further, his grave needs a cross on it so on the Last Day when all the crosses are gathered from all the graves, his, and he, will be among them.

Yet the voice of reason in Young Tarwater's head explains the grandfather's theological sensibility in a seductively rational, objective way reminiscent of Rayber's humanism: “don't you think any cross you set up in the year 1952 would be rotted out by the year the day of judgement comes in?” (O'Connor 144). This voice, the devil's according to O'Connor, argues that Old Tarwater's demand for a grave and cross resembles a kind of literal-minded madness. The voice reveals this for its own purpose, undoubtedly, but nonetheless, the logic remains irrefutable. “What about all those sojers blasted to nothing? What about all those that there's nothing left of to burn or bury?” (144). But Young Tarwater is challenged again by Buford. “‘He deserves to lie in a grave that fits him,’ Buford said. ‘He was deep in this life, he was deep in Jesus' misery’. … Buford lifted his hand. ‘He needs to be rested’” (151). Buford suggests, like Old Tarwater, that the act of burial in the ground with a cross on the grave is tantamount to being rested. Young Tarwater's struggle with the voice of Reason and the memory of his great-uncle's demands should not be underestimated. Without recourse to intellectual explanations of the theological significance of bodily resurrection, Young Tarwater, and the reader, are nearly forced to side with the voice in Young Tarwater's head. To reject the voice is to reject Reason altogether, and the text has not prepared Tarwater, or the reader, for that. Yet.

Before Young Tarwater rejects his great uncle's version of the mystery and misery of life, he reveals the extent of Old Tarwater's influence. Young Tarwater waits expectantly—and literally—for the Lord's call. “When the Lord's call came, he wished it to be a voice from out of a clear and empty sky, the trumpet of the Lord God Almighty untouched by any fleshly hand or breath. He expected to see wheels of fire in the eyes of unearthly beasts. He had expected this to happen as soon as his great-uncle died” (O'Connor 136). Of course, Young Tarwater is disappointed. Young Tarwater's education, though sincerely administered, has encouraged him to rely on traditional signifiers, a biblical parole in an attempt to understand how the world beyond his senses operates. He relies, that is, on concrete images in order to apprehend intellectually that which cannot be apprehended, and unearthly beasts is the best he can do in attempting to imagine the unimaginable. Nevertheless, in an attempt to rid himself of his great-uncle's memory, Tarwater burns the house, along with his great-uncle's body, in a symbolic attempt to erase the literal-minded influence of his great-uncle.11

Yet Young Tarwater moves from the beginning of the novel to the end wrestling with the notion of a reductively theological view of, for him, God. That salvation can be reduced to the ceremony of a proper burial, or the icon of a cross on a grave, or the ceremony of baptism suggests Young Tarwater's misunderstanding of the performative and arbitrary nature of language. These ceremonies act only as insufficient signifiers to some unapprehendable signified. Yet Young Tarwater mistakes them for the thing itself, as if the ceremony, the icon, had some inherent power.

Young Tarwater remains trapped in his great-uncle's sign system. After arriving at Rayber's house and seeing Bishop,

he only knew, with a certainty sunk in despair, that he was expected to baptize the child he saw and begin the life his great-uncle had prepared him for. He knew that he was called to be a prophet and that the ways of his prophecy would not be remarkable. His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.

(Violent 177)

Bishop had become the concrete sign of Young Tarwater's call, “that the old man himself had primed [Bishop] from on high that here was the forced servant of God come to see that he was born again” (178). For Young Tarwater the literal choice is clear: Either baptize Bishop, or deny his great-uncle's God. He chooses the second, rejecting the vision his great-uncle taught him, the vision of heaven where he sits “forever with his great-uncle on a green bank, full and sick, staring at a broken fish and a multiplied loaf” (O'Connor 160), a vision that equates ceremony itself with the sacrament it confers. Young Tarwater explains his burden to Meeks, the copper flue salesman: “my great-uncle learnt me everything but first I have to find out how much of it is true” (170). Young Tarwater must learn that the baptism, graves and crosses no more contain grace than does the electronic black box Rayber straps to his side contains hearing.

Young Tarwater's re-education reaches its violent climax when, in an attempt to silence the voice and his great-uncle's memory, he drowns Bishop. “‘I baptized him,’ Young Tarwater explains to the man in lavender after he hitches a ride on the highway. ‘It was an accident. I didn't mean to,’ he said breathlessly. Then in a calmer voice he said, ‘The words just come out of themselves but it don't mean nothing. You can't be born again. … I only meant to drown him,’ the boy said. ‘You're only born once. They were just some words that run out my mouth an spilled in the water’” (248).

Yet questions remain: Does Bishop need to be baptized? Can someone be baptized accidentally? More important, I think, is O'Connor's intellectual skepticism: As a fallen mortal, who am I to determine absolutely the difference between a murder-by-drowning and a baptism? Baptism is a drowning of sorts, and a spiritual rebirth. Conversely, drowning is a baptism of sorts, and if one believes in heaven, a spiritual rebirth awaits the victim. Young Tarwater attempts to end the intellectual and emotional wrestling match in his mind among the voices of Reason (Rayber), the “devil” voice, Baptism (Old Tarwater) and prophecy. In the process, though, he falls through the gap between the extremes in his head. Young Tarwater fails to recognize that baptizing Bishop constitutes a useless gesture for the child; Bishop's biblical associations and his very name reveal that this baptism constitutes a useless act as in relation to his spiritual condition. Bishop represents a living theological gray area, and his death symbolically drags Young Tarwater (and the reader) into a gray area of unknowing. Young Tarwater violently splits the difference between the two myths in his mind, and falls over the edge and into the abyss he so desperately tries to avoid.

Bishop represents a physical embodiment of the difference hidden within baptism, and as such becomes Tarwater's scapegoat; Tarwater needs to kill what cannot be killed, that is, he needs to reconcile (by annihilation) the paradoxical contradiction, the reminder of what he cannot know about baptism, about his calling, about God. Only by trying to annihilate the abyss in Bishop does Young Tarwater make himself vulnerable to it. Tarwater's vulnerability is authentic, and the individual in the lavender and cream colored car takes advantage of it. Thoroughly stripped of his old sense of self, introduced to his own corruption as a member of Adam's race, Tarwater returns to Powderhead, to his great-uncle's grave prepared by a Christ-like Buford, riding on a donkey. Having felt the blood of Abel rising in his own, he remembers the mark of Cain, and smears a handful of dirt from his great-uncle's grave onto his forehead. Only now, caught between innocence and guilt, grace and sin, baptism and drowning, Old Tarwater and Rayber, can Young Tarwater stand in the gap and set off toward the dark city, unknown and unknowing (267).

If “The River” questioned Harry/Bevel's literal interpretation of baptism, The Violent Bear It Away takes it much further. The novel does not merely question baptism, it attempts to rewrite it. O'Connor succeeds in creating a self-consuming artifact, or novel, that reflects the self-consuming ritual baptism itself represents. The success of the book, and the success of O'Connor's attempt to document baptism depends entirely on her refusal to do so in a positive manner. Through the intense, though subdued thematic pressure the novel brings to bear on the ritual of baptism, the positive term baptism suffers a crisis—and transformation—in its meaning, and reveals itself as a signifier rife with repressed differences the text does not attempt to reconcile so much as reveal. As the methodical, relentless intensity of the story progresses, baptism as a positive theological concept reveals its status as a concept of differences rather than of positive signification; it is a signifier not to be looked at, but to be looked through.

A negative reading of baptism at first is a difficult prospect simply because O'Connor's texts rely on a steady use of metaphor, striking imagery, biblical allusions and allegorical effects in order to give substance to the abstract ideas she explores in her fiction. However, the ritual of baptism as the central symbol in the novel functions as an allegorical representation of the storyteller's use of symbols. The meaning-bearing symbols in The Violent Bear It Away—baptism, graves, crosses—function as stumbling blocks to both character and reader because they resist the definitions text and characters place on them. Young Tarwater's literal-minded interpretation of baptism, and the extremes it takes him to contrasts violently with the coolly rationalistic Voice of Reason. The negative space, a vague sense of unknowing, a kind of symbolic vacuum, opens up at the end of the novel, like the pit in Tarwater's stomach.12

Even a provisional understanding of O'Connor's interest in “documenting baptism”—over-determined by the characters in the text and sometimes by O'Connor herself in her letters and essays—remains particularly difficult because of the literary moment in which she is now read. One can easily overlook O'Connor's seemingly unintended manipulation of meaning that paradoxically suggests a subversive, unorthodox reading, while at the same time seeming to support a traditional, static, narrowly-exegetical interpretation. Most important, a subversive reading of The Violent Bear It Away provides the realization that there exists no definite meaning to baptism in the text, or the text as symbol—and that kind of symbolic self-consuming action is what baptism enacts and celebrates. Tarwater's experience of baptism in one sense stands analogously for the reader's experience of the text. The Violent Bear It Away and “The River” are themselves forms of ceremony, an icon, a performative act using a system of signs that, ultimately, remain insufficient as metaphors of mystery.

As a performative ritual, the act of reading engages the audience not only in the story of Tarwater's actions, but also in the story of Tarwater's intellectual crisis. Tarwater's understanding of Christian ritual, and hence reality, is challenged and finally shattered as the narrative progresses. Just so, the text—as a collection of metaphors we engage rather than as plot describing Tarwater's actions—methodically undermines the central metaphor of baptism and reveals not a solid, meaning-bearing ritual that delivers a definable theme or meaning, but instead an interplay of contradictions, circular reasonings and differences for the reader just as it does for Tarwater. Baptism, it seems, does not explain Orthodoxy, or sacramentalism, but rather, it guards these mysterious metaphysical notions from too-easy explanations. From this “negative” literary sensibility, the gaps, fissures and differences that characterize O'Connor's second novel and so much of her fiction should not be read as accidents or omissions, but rather, as an attempt to articulate the inarticulable, as an expression of O'Connor's philosophic skepticism and as an expression of her devout religious faith.


  1. It has been argued that “Judgement Day” was O'Connor's last story because she completed it already having finished “Parker's Back.” However, because “Judgement Day” is a revision, though a drastic one, of an earlier story, “The Geranium,” I take “Parker's Back” to be the last story O'Connor wrote. See James J. Napier who sees “Revelation” as O'Connor's central story through which her other stories should be read. I disagree.

  2. Evelyn Underhill, Jill Rait, Walter Holden Capps, Cuthbert Butler, William Johnston and Julia Gatta all provide fascinating insights into the western mystical tradition, its relationship to Catholicism, Zen, and its relationship to the Positive Way and Negative Way Theologies. Old Testament Hebraic thought offers a fascinating look at what we might call today a contemporary distrust of language's ability to communicate “presence,” and a healthy respect for negativity. The Ten Commandments—six out of ten—are stated in the negative, that is, what one should not do. And Moses destroyed the “texts” soon after their inscription.

  3. Flannery O'Connor's correspondence mentions Thomas Merton only briefly; even so, she had a profound respect for Merton and the personal dedication required by the monastic life. Both artists shared not only their Roman Catholic faith but also a similar literary sensibility in expressing their Catholicism. Certainly Merton's ascetic life in the Conyers monastery proved attractive to O'Connor, as did all dedicated lives. Oddly enough, O'Connor's own life suggested a kind of monastic asceticism after she was forced to withdrawal to Milledgeville by a crippling and ultimately fatal disease, lupus.

  4. Paul's letter to the Phillipians addresses the mystery of Christ's kenosis. In chapter two, verses 5-8 Paul writes, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” The kenosis, or “self-emptying” suggests the paradox of Christ, for he claims to be both God and man, yet is neither, yet is both. In one important sense for my argument, the kenosis remains the central mystery of the Christian myth, suggesting that the physical life of Christ—having emptied himself of his divine state—represents an absence where a presence should be. Consider the desert fathers who display a ferocious distrust of the icon—of the via affirmativa—and embrace the silence that follows when the intellect exhausts itself. Merton's desert fathers, like the Catholic mystics that followed them dramatize the limits of the kataphatic, or positive theology. Also known as the via affirmativa, this way “is based most fundamentally upon the belief that God has revealed himself, and uses creatures for his self-disclosure” (Gatta 92). I would add that, for this study, the via affirmativa also uses language and metaphor as positive, meaning-bearing vehicles. On the other hand, the via negativa complements the via affirmativa in Christian theology, arguing that God cannot be known, much less embodied, in language or metaphor.

  5. Metaphor is used loosely here, as elsewhere, to suggest the limits of not only metaphoric language, but the rituals that grow out of our understanding of metaphor and the limits of language itself to bear sacramental weight.

  6. This is also a useful way to approach O'Connor's fiction. Her first collection of short fiction is marked by stories that “ride on their own melting.” “Good Country People,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The River” and others represent narratives that, in the telling, consume themselves—that is, the terms, characters, and plot points by which we usually measure meaning are swallowed up, murdered, or erased by the end of a typical O'Connor story. For a discussion of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” see Joseph Zornado.

  7. I place “center” in quotations marks because it is exactly this notion that the story crumbles around. Does baptism have a center? If not, does metaphor? Does a short story?

  8. O'Connor's remarks about “The Artificial Nigger” are a case in point. The Habit of Being contains substantial information on the drafting of completion of this story, a story O'Connor considers one of her best while many critics, I among them, disagree. The question regarding “The Artificial Nigger” is not unlike the question I am asking in this discussion. Does the metaphor, that is, the image of the artificial nigger take on sacramental meaning—or “gain altitude” as she says in her letters—by the end of the story as she says it does?

  9. For early, perceptive reviews of the novel see Albert Duhamel and Frank J. Wanke.

  10. O'Connor's first collection of short stories explores issues related to epistemology, or how we know what we know and how a knowledge of God (or lack thereof) impacts on how we know and what we know. As a Roman Catholic, O'Connor accepted Biblical text as the Word of God, while at the same time she felt deeply that human reasoning was a limited and highly untrustworthy authority. The paradoxical relationship here is obvious, and for some troubling. O'Connor's version of Orthodoxy remained, for her, crucial to a life of faith; and a part of her Orthodoxy was a deep respect for unknowing, that is, for mystery. As she put it, “I believe in Christian Orthodoxy.” Though these things are difficult to understand, “a God you understood would be less than yourself” (Habit 354).

  11. Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics—antecedent to post-structural linguistics—provides a useful theoretical paradigm through which to read Young Tarwater's dilemma. Saussure writes that, “language is a system of signs that express ideas and is thus comparable to the system of writing, to the alphabet of deaf-mutes, to symbolic rituals, to forms of etiquette, to military signals, etc. It is but the most important of these systems” (cited in Culler 97). Saussure goes on to distinguish between langue and parole. As Culler explains, “it is essentially a distinction between institution and event, between the underlying system which makes possible various types of behavior and actual instances of such behavior” (27). That is, langue, the system of language, makes possible parole, the actual speech act.

  12. Static ritual and the mystery of baptism have a complicated relationship, O'Connor suggests. The essence of ritual lies in paradox: ritual celebrates its own inability to embody itself. In other words, ritual celebrates the faith required to celebrate ritual. It follows, then, that the provisional nature of Orthodox ritual does not explain mystery, but rather, it guards it. O'Connor intuited—along with Teilhard de Chardin and Merton and countless other mystics—that God does not live exclusively as a positive presence in the sign, but rather, somewhere in the gap between the via affirmativa and the via negativa (between the signifier and the signified) can Orthodoxy be “understood” to offer the mystery of God's difference as a presence, “nameless and impalpable and indwelling in all things” (Teilhard 239).

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas. Ed. Anton C. Pegis. New York: Modern Library, 1948.

Augustine, St. The City of God. Trans. Gerald G. Walsh, S. J. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Butler, Cuthbert. Western Mysticism. Second ed. New York: Harper, 1966.

Capps, Walter and Wendy M. Wright, eds. Silent Fire: An Invitation to Western Mysticism. San Francisco: Harper, 1978.

Chardin, Pierre de Teilhard. Hymn of the Universe. New York: Harper, 1965.

Cloud of Unknowing, The. Ed. William Johnston. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Crews, Frederick. “The Power of Flannery O'Connor.” New York Review of Books. 26 April, 1990: 49-55.

Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Derrida, Jacques. “Difference.” Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Ed. Mark C. Taylor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

———. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Duhamel, Albert. “Flannery O'Connor's Violent View of Reality.” Catholic World. 190 (1960): 280-85.

Gatta, Julia. Three Spiritual Directors for Our Time. Cambridge: Cowley, 1986.

Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.

Grimshaw, James A. The Flannery O'Connor Companion. London: Greenwood, 1981.

Johnson, Barbara. The Critical Difference. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1981.

Johnston, William. Silent Music. New York: Harper, 1974.

———. The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion. San Francisco: Harper, 1978.

Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. New York: Doubleday, 1973.

———. Raids on the Unspeakable. New York: New Directions, 1964.

———, trans. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century. New York: New Directions, 1960.

Napier, James J. “Flannery O'Connor's Last Three: “The Sense of an Ending.” Southern Literary Journal 14(2): 19-27.

O'Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

———. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1969.

———. Three by Flannery O'Connor. New York: Signet, 1983.

Pseudo-Dionysius. Dionysius the Areopagite. The Divine Names and the Mystical Theology. Trans. C. E. Rolt. London: S.P.C.K., 1920.

Raitt, Jill, ed. Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation. New York: Crossroad, 1987.

Schenck, Mary Jane. “Deconstructed Meaning In Two Short Stories By Flannery O'Connor.” Ambiguities in Literature and Film. Ed. Hans P. Braendlin. Tallahassee: UP of Florida, 1988. 125-35.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. 1911. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Wanke, Frank J. “A Vision Deep and Narrow.” New Republic 14 (March 1960).

Zornado, Joseph. “Negative Writings: Flannery O'Connor, Apophatic Thought, and Christian Criticism.” Christianity and Literature 42 (1992): 117-40.

Cindy Beringer (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Beringer, Cindy. “‘I Have Not Wallowed’: Flannery O'Connor's Working Mothers.” In Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Salle Wolff, pp. 124-41. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Beringer elucidates the mother-child relationship in three O'Connor short stories: “The Enduring Chill,” “Greenleaf,” and “Good Country People.”]

The distinctive characters of Flannery O'Connor's stories are drawn masterfully from the red clay of southern agrarian life. The author blends humor, irony, and satire to create characters whose lives are thwarted and misguided. They believe they have progressed along the path of success, yet eventually most come to realize, albeit too late, that their actions have not led to personal fulfillment. The families in her stories exist in a grotesque state of permanent hostility, and any offspring exhibit such a lack of civilizing influence that O'Connor elicits little emotion other than nervous relief when a vengeful God exacts his mercy with what would otherwise be considered terrifying violence.

Most of O'Connor's stories are set on farms managed by single—usually widowed or divorced—women. Andalusia, a large farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, which O'Connor's widowed mother, Regina, inherited and operated, comes readily to mind. Like her mother's farm, O'Connor's fictional farms have large white farmhouses on hills, tenant farmers or sharecroppers, and African American laborers. While successful at agrarian capitalism, the strong-minded female farm managers are noticeable failures when they combine career with motherhood.

O'Connor spent the last thirteen years of her life under the care of her mother at Andalusia. Many critics have noticed that the sometimes vicious, often emotionally lacking offspring of O'Connor's fictional mothers may well be the author's self-parodies. Her unsuccessful mother-child relationships are remarkable for their bitter and bizarre dysfunctionality. In letters and essays about her fiction, O'Connor insists that the bleak social and psychological constructs of her narratives arise from the helplessness of mortals before God. She also relentlessly satirizes southern habits and manners she finds irritating—foolish pride, excessive vanity, deceitful courtesy, and false piety. She delights in skewering the pomposity of hypocrites. “Interlektuals” with educations rivaling her own, especially social scientists, receive the sharpest prods.

Aware of the economic realities of the material world she loved to satirize and of her privileged place within it, O'Connor posited a connection between the South's highly structured and antiquated socio-economic system and the failure of human relationships. In a 1963 interview, however, she defended the “charity and necessity” of formal southern manners: “The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together.” “Social discipline” may be interpreted as a society's means of separating the haves from the have-nots so as to avoid any threat to the status quo. Etiquette creates a certain social tension that, significantly, mirrors the adversarial bond between mother and child as depicted in O'Connor's fiction and mordantly alluded to by Erma Bombeck as “the ties that bind—and gag.”1

The challenge for O'Connor's female farm managers is to succeed in business and as parents within the South's peculiar feudal, paternalistic, hypocritical, and myth-steeped code of conduct. O'Connor bestows little praise on them, although her widowed or divorced working mothers are quite successful at wresting profit from the soil. Devout in their adherence to the American work ethic, they compete successfully in agribusiness, but are incapable of imparting to their children either the importance of that ethic, a sense of reverence for the land on which their fortunes and opportunities depend, or a nurturing atmosphere of love and spiritual guidance. The maladjusted children of the fiction spend their days trying to get even for what they perceive to be improper rearing.

The independent post-Civil War southern farmer relied on a system of cheap labor provided by tenant families and African American day laborers. For the female farmer, operating within this system was especially tricky, since she feared victimization by a system in which she was a vulnerable player. Such a farmer must at least appear to be in constant control of her workers. In O'Connor's stories the female farmer-to-worker relationship is typically one of parent to perpetual child. The female protagonists must compete in a world of men trained in the South's social code of treating women as either children, victims, or southern belles needy of protection—predictably, these characters often respond by playing the role of the helpless child, the martyr, or the manipulator of others. While these techniques are mostly successful in the business sphere, O'Connor's fictional mothers treat their own children as pawns in the socioeconomic struggle. Seemingly forced into roles of both tyrant and infantile manipulator when dealing with their progeny, these women set in motion an unhealthy cycle of mutual dependency, disrespect, and conflict.

In addition, the invisible rules of the social order permit, if not require, that those mothers, successful as free-enterprise farmers, must lavish prosperity upon their youngsters. This practice not only spoils the ungrateful children that O'Connor creates, but usually affords them an education and newly acquired pretense to intellectual superiority—all of which provides a convenient form of psychological distancing and escape from their mothers. The lack of true communication, begun with the mothers' role playing, is perpetuated, and the mothers never receive a real return on their investments.

O'Connor's stories often point to a poverty of the soul as the underlying cause of the failed relationships between mother and child. In “The Enduring Chill,” “Greenleaf,” and “Good Country People,” adult, educated, but dependent offspring live with shrewd, belittling, or even cloyingly doting mothers in permanent states of animosity. In these stories, a direct correlation is drawn between a woman's success in business and her abysmal failure as nurturer.


The sixty-year-old matron of “The Enduring Chill,” Mrs. Fox, has owned and operated a dairy farm since the death of her husband, “a lawyer and businessman and farmer and politician all rolled into one” who, like herself, “certainly had his feet on the ground.”2 She receives guests in the parlor of a two-story white farmhouse sitting on the top of a hill, a home she says many people “would give their eye teeth for” (552). She is proud to have put her daughter, Mary George, and her son, Asbury, “through college and beyond,” but she is wise enough to notice “that the more education they got, the less they could do” (551).

Neither daughter nor son has inherited the personal drive of their mother, and neither child shows the least appreciation for her efforts. Although she has some good, vinegary one-liners, Mary George remains a minor character. At thirty-three she is a country school principal who still lives at home. Her brother is quick to point out that her position is hardly the pinnacle of success in the education world, and her Girl Scout shoes are certainly proof positive that she has elected not to be a part of the “dress for success” crowd. Mary George detests her brother and seems merely to tolerate her mother.

Asbury's relationship with his mother is dysfunctional and even grotesque. At twenty-five, he has come home to die, a feat he could easily have accomplished by starving in his damp, freezing New York City walk-up where he slept in his overcoat bundled in several thicknesses of the New York Times. Though he might have preferred such an end, he sadistically does not want to deny his mother participation in the final event. He has lost his part-time bookstore job, and his savings are gone. When he gets off the train, he is delighted to see his mother's shock at his deteriorating physical condition. He tells her he is going to die and tries “to make each word like a hammer blow on top of her head” (562). Having adopted no real ports of anchor in his childhood, Asbury quickly embraced intellectual nihilism in college and ran with the existentialist crowd while living in New York. A writer, his magnum opus is a two-notebook letter to his mother, to be read following his death; he intends that when she reads it she will understand that he has magnanimously forgiven her for all he thinks she has done to him and will see, for the first time, exactly what she has done to him. He destroys all his other literary attempts, since he realizes that he has no imagination and no talent—for which he blames his mother: “Woman, why did you pinion me?” (554).

While her children thus pursue their warped lives, Mrs. Fox's condescension and arrogance surface. Unable to relax for a moment the meticulous control of her dairy operation, she is convinced that her workers are either incompetent or bent on sabotage. On the way home from fetching Asbury from the train station at six o'clock in the morning, she makes a stop to inspect a full-uddered cow, noting that, by failing to milk the cows, her workers have failed her—again. The two black men employed at the dairy, Morgan and Randall, are the only employees depicted; Mrs. Fox views and treats them, stereotypically, as naïve but not guileless children. She enumerates their many faults for Asbury. In her opinion, her workers will do “as little as they could get by with” (551), but “they know how to look out for themselves” (558). Her understanding of the southern work ethic requires only that her employees follow her orders; to see them as individuals capable of intelligent action would endanger the prevailing economic order.

Mrs. Fox treats her daughter and son with the same insufferable manner otherwise reserved for her workers—as children who have never grown up. She lapses into giddy nursery-rhyme language, announcing arrival at the farmhouse with a cheery “Home again, home again, jiggity jig!” (553). The grown woman and man, however, think such nonsense demeaning, as do the farm workers. The economic security of the offspring, however, unlike that of the workers, does not depend on paying attention or passively enduring these outbursts. Instead, the children consistently respond with essential immaturity and blatant disregard for their mother. The previous year, Asbury had been in the dairy barn gathering background material for an intended play “about Negroes” (551). When he begins smoking in the barn, Randall tells him his mother does not allow it. Nonetheless, the two workers agree to accept the free cigarettes Asbury offers them. This action results in the loss of two cans of milk, returned because they smell of smoke. Asbury's disobedience of his mother has resulted in her economic loss.

Asbury also proposes interracial milk drinking from a communal jelly jar, but Randall tells him, “That the thing she don't 'low” (559). Randall thus gets even with both his employer and with Asbury, the latter for his fawning and insincere protestations of brotherhood. By deliberately telling Asbury of Mrs. Fox's orders not to drink the milk—but neglecting to reveal the true reason—the danger of unpasteurized milk—he spurs Asbury to disobedience. Although Mrs. Fox obviously has not taken the time to teach Asbury about such dangers, any more than she has trained him how to operate the milking machines, she is convinced that hard work in the dairy would cure her son—although she knows “he would be a nuisance” (551). She simply issues orders and expects them to be followed. No commitment exists in any of these relationships. The participants step carefully around each other and interact according to a rigid code of manners. Resentment and a lack of trust builds from the superficiality, and desires for revenge emerge.

Asbury resents the treatment he receives from his mother, and views her behavior as childish. He plots his revenge, which he believes will cause her to face her childishness. By his death he will force his mother to confront reality, to “assist her in the process of growing up” (547). He feels that his letter will coerce her into acknowledging her role in “his tragedy” and “perhaps in time lead her to see herself as she was” (544-5). Infatuated by the idea of the significance of his death, he resists suicide because that would expose Mrs. Fox's failure as a mother to the neighbors; a private comeuppance will be sufficient.

Asbury realizes his mother's ability to make others bow to her will; when she looks at him sternly and asks, “Do you think for one minute … that I intend to sit here and let you die?” he fears for the first time that she might actually be able to prevent his revenge (562). What bothers Asbury most of all is her conviction that she is always right: “Her self-satisfaction itself [is] barely conscious” (554). Mrs. Fox has worked out a system of blame for everyone except herself. She credits her children's lack of a strong work ethic or the barest rudiments of civility to their education. Asbury's problems are confounded, she is convinced, by his “artistic temperament” (551). The priest's chiding for neglecting her son's prayers eludes her, and when it ultimately becomes known that undulant fever has caused her son's illness, she shows no remorse or recognition of responsibility for her behavior or Asbury's condition.

The educations she has provided her children by her hard work obviously fulfills some sense of obligation that Mrs. Fox feels society demands of her, although she certainly is not pleased with the results. Mary George's and Asbury's so-called intellectualism, in her estimation, has not enhanced their ability to communicate or achieve personal satisfaction. She is convinced that writing is not real work and that only physical labor, such as fence mending, will deliver Asbury. Since she was never able to instill in him a sense of responsibility for the farm, the long-suffering young man greets this idea with contempt. Only when his talk of dying scares her, Mrs. Fox indulges her son by encouraging his writing. Initiating conversations on topics she thinks would interest him, she forces him to sit on the porch and tortures his overly refined artistic sentiments by suggesting that their area of the country “need[s] another good book like Gone with the Wind” (560).

By thus manipulating her children through role playing, Mrs. Fox denies Mary George and Asbury their independence. Although her maternal actions have inspired only hatred, for some reason they remain bound to their mother in an unhealthy climate of manipulation and mutual dependency. Asbury is not sure why he blames his mother for his dependency and lack of imagination. “It was not that she had ever forced her way on him. … Her way had simply been the air he breathed and when at last he had found other air, he couldn't survive in it” (554-5). Asbury requests that his mother call a priest for him, knowing this will upset her. She makes the call because she realizes his condition is in fact deteriorating. Mrs. Fox feels obliged by good manners to inform the priest that her son's illness has affected his mind. Asbury leans over the banisters in order to eavesdrop on the call, just as he knows she will listen outside his door when he communicates with the priest.

Randall asserts his opinion that Asbury's nastiness arises from Mrs. Fox's not having “whupped him enough when he was little” (560). His comment rings of the pure genius that rises out of folk wisdom to confound the theoreticians. Even those strongly opposed to corporal punishment do not have to spend much time with Asbury before beginning to hope for a good thrashing, despite his fever and chills. Sympathy for Asbury starts to increase, however, when he begins to see himself more clearly. He realizes his life has been useless and frantically searches his mind for one justifying and meaningful experience before he dies. Unfortunately, following the meeting with Randall and Morgan in his room, he knows that for him there will be no “significant experience” (570). Blaming his mother seems too easy, but he senses that she is largely responsible for failing to provide meaning in the lives of her children. The unattractive Mary George—although her achievements are gargantuan compared to Asbury's—is not the southern belle Mrs. Fox believes a woman of her social stature should have for a daughter. Rather than praise her daughter for her accomplishments, Mrs. Fox instead nags her about improving her appearance. Mrs. Fox recognizes that “Mary George [is] not a happy girl herself” (552), but she stops thinking about it before she asks herself why or what can be done about it. Asbury for his part turned to the self-consoling activity of writing in response to his mother's false positivism—which is simply her emotional shield against her children's cries of pain.


“Good Country People” examines the relationship of the tenant family to the economic and social life of the female farm owner. A man must head this adjunct family, to do the majority of the farm work. Within the renting household, sons are considered a great asset and wives can prove very useful, but daughters, elderly mothers and fathers, and any other hangers-on must also pitch in and help. No matter how large, the family crowds into a small, rudimentary dwelling on the farm. The farm owner cannot fail to become involved, to some degree, in the personal lives of her tenants. Despite little or no education, social advantage, stability, or silver service sets, the tenant family fits—by virtue of skin color—on the class ladder above the African American day laborers and below the farm owner. In O'Connor's stories, the tenant often provides comic relief in addition to new twists on mother-child relationships.

Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People” is living embodiment of the title—at least in her own estimation. She becomes another butt of O'Connor's stinging criticism. A divorcée of many years, she runs a farm with the help of her tenants, the Freemans. In addition to her management duties, she must also contend with the antagonism of her daughter Joy. She is proud of her home, which she describes as elegant; her status as a shrewd, but good, country person; and her many favorite sayings, which allow her to live almost entirely by cliché. As her name suggests, she remains cheerful and positive at all times, but she is not proud of her daughter, although one of Mrs. Hopewell's aphorisms is “nothing is perfect.” Joy is thirty-two years old, and her given name is the antithesis of the general attitude of this “large hulking” woman “whose constant outrage [has] obliterated every expression from her face.”3 She changed her name to Hulga when she turned twenty-one, but her mother refuses to acknowledge it. The name change is both a desperate attempt to establish her own identity and a tremendous insult to her mother. Joy-Hulga has a wooden leg to replace the one blown off in a hunting accident when she was ten. She has a heart condition and, to make matters worse, a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Other psychological difficulties as well mar the daily operations of Mrs. Hopewell's farm. Mrs. Hopewell does not seem to share Mrs. Fox's need for constant hands-on management, perhaps because, if we take her at her word, she has “no bad qualities of her own but she [is] able to use other people in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack” (264). Before she hired the Freemans four years earlier, she had employed a new tenant family every year. This time, even though a previous employer had told her that Mr. Freeman is a good worker but Mrs. Freeman is rather unbearable in her nosiness, Mrs. Hopewell hired the family anyway, since they were her only applicants. In deciding what management technique to use with Mrs. Freeman, her reasoning is all but deranged: “Since she was the type who had to be into everything, … she would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into everything—she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in charge” (264).

What Mrs. Hopewell needs more than anything is companionship, and Mrs. Freeman provides her this commodity. The two women start the day's business at Mrs. Hopewell's breakfast table and spend a great deal of the day together. They walk the fields and pull onions while Mr. Freeman is presumably off operating the heavy equipment. Mrs. Hopewell, however, has the upper hand in the relationship. She is the boss and has the additional status of a property owner. Considering the closeness of the two women, etiquette demands that the relationship be handled delicately; Mrs. Hopewell is careful to establish that the Freemans are not “trash,” as were her previous tenants. Mrs. Hopewell tells everyone that “Mrs. Freeman [is] a lady and that she was never ashamed to take her anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet” (264). Mrs. Freeman has faults; she thinks herself never wrong and always the first to think of everything. Fortunately for their friendship, Mrs. Hopewell possesses an extraordinary amount of patience.

When Joy-Hulga returned home after a few years at school, her health problems were paramount. Her heart condition is her excuse to do almost nothing. She constantly reminds everyone that if she were healthy she would be far away, teaching. Those familiar with Flannery O'Connor's battle with lupus cannot help but see the parallel dependency resulting from a debilitating illness with Joy-Hulga, and to some extent Asbury. This reality exacts a painful toll on the sufferer and the relationship with her caregiver. Joy-Hulga certainly might do more with her life if she really wanted—she certainly manages to climb readily up into the hayloft with the Bible salesman. Though she is capable of living alone, she remains at home to prove to her mother on a daily basis that she is the opposite of her mother's hopes for her (hence the meaning of Mrs. Hopewell's name). In her motherly role, Mrs. Hopewell gets up early and lights her daughter's heater. She frets because Joy-Hulga has never danced, partied, or socialized in the way southern young ladies should. She blames Joy-Hulga's general nastiness on her education and her wooden leg. Instead of instilling in her daughter a sense of responsibility by having her walk the fields with her mother, Mrs. Hopewell does not even ask, fearing Joy-Hulga's negative reaction. Puzzled that her daughter does not “like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature” (268), Mrs. Hopewell fails to realize that such appreciations are usually acquired in early childhood with the help of a loving mentor.

Mrs. Hopewell abhors the slightest hint of ugliness; therefore Joy-Hulga is a constant thorn in her side. The two spar continually and are steady sources of mutual irritation. Mrs. Hopewell clings to a childish belief in the truth of sugary maxims like “A smile never hurt anyone” or “People who look on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they are not.” Joy-Hulga thumps around the house on her wooden leg just to annoy her mother with its ugly sound. Mrs. Hopewell tells the Bible salesman that her atheist daughter will not abide her keeping the Bible in the parlor. She lies when she tells him her Bible is in her bedroom, another indication of Mrs. Hopewell's willingness to bend the truth for the sake of manners. Mrs. Hopewell wishes that “the child had not taken the Ph.D.” because “it had certainly not brought her out any” (267). By habitually treating her daughter as a child, the mother fosters the daughter's vengeful rejection of Mrs. Hopewell's endless optimism and belief in the supremacy of the social graces. Joy-Hulga treats her mother as if she were an imbecile. Although Mrs. Hopewell is easily duped by the Bible salesman, believing his good-country-people spiel is “so sincere, so genuine and earnest” (272), she does not buy a Bible. She loses only the price of a dinner.

On the other hand, Joy-Hulga loses much more. She thinks she is going to seduce and control the salesman with her superior intellect. Instead, she loses her wooden leg and her dignity. She is shocked by the whiskey and deck of cards hidden behind the Bibles in his valise. She is flabbergasted to discover that he is a petty con man, not “just good country people” (282). She finally sees not only that the simple Bible salesman has duped her, but also that she has, against her better judgment, put all her assets into the stock of her mother's trite ontology. Both of their portfolios are now worthless on the open market.

O'Connor's sharp criticism of the mother figure is most piercing in her description of Mrs. Hopewell reactions to Hulga's education. Mrs. Hopewell wanted her daughter besieged by suitors, a social butterfly of little mind. But Joy-Hulga's intelligence is too great, her size too large, and her disposition too stubborn. Thus she has sought meaning in nihilistic philosophy, finding, as she tells the Bible salesman, “a kind of salvation” in seeing “through to nothing” (280). “Mrs. Hopewell thought it was nice for girls to go to school to have a good time but Joy had ‘gone through,’” (268) to become intellectually separated from her mother. It is bad enough that the daughter is “bloated, rude, and squint-eyed,” but her chosen field of study further compromises Mrs. Hopewell's social standing: “You could say, ‘My daughter is a nurse,’ or ‘My daughter is a school teacher. … You could not say my daughter is a philosopher.’ That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans” (268). Like Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Hopewell refuses to hear her child's cry for help. She blocks Joy-Hulga's requests with suggestions for “proper behavior” (266). When the Bible salesman tells Joy-Hulga that her wooden leg makes her different from anyone else, she surrenders to him completely and loses the leg she has treated as her soul.

Competition is as essential to social systems as to economic ones, linked as the two spheres are by greed and ambition—and even a tenant family can provide a landowner with competition. Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman engage in an ongoing contest to deliver the most clichés and engage in the most virtuous behavior. Joy, too, delights in a sarcastic rivalry with Mrs. Freeman. Competition occurs at its cutthroat best, however, when Mrs. Hopewell throws Joy-Hulga unwittingly into the ring with Mrs. Freeman's two daughters. Glynese is an eighteen-year-old redhead, admired mightily by the opposite sex. Carramae is fifteen, blonde, married, and pregnant. Together these two epitomize the proper combination of vapidity and fecundity to make a perfect southern belle, the kind of daughter Mrs. Hopewell has always hoped for. As Mrs. Freeman stands hovering over the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table, Joy-Hulga listens to Carramae's tales of the vomiting and gastric distress and reports of Glynese's backseat acrobatic antics. The two girls receive praise from her mother that Joy-Hulga has never received. Mrs. Hopewell feels that Joy-Hulga does not “have a grain of sense” (268), which is precisely what she admires most about the Freeman girls. No wonder she finds solace in a book that promises “nothing of Nothing” (269).


In “Greenleaf,” one of O'Connor's most technically competent stories, it is the bond with sons rather than daughters that is destroyed by the mother's spiritual bankruptcy. Mrs. May runs a thriving business and fancies herself a living martyr to hard work in a shiftless world. Spiritual blindness, egregious materialism, and stubborn willfulness in her dealings with the Greenleaf family, her tenants of fifteen years, fuel her frenetic management technique, poison her already revolting relationship with her sons, and eventually lead to her death.

All Mr. May left his wife and sons when he died was a piece of land purchased when prices were low. Mrs. May would have anyone believe that she single-handedly turned the tract into an impressive dairy farm: “When she looked out any window in her house, she saw the reflection of her own character.” When her friends in the city come to visit, she credits her amazing success to the “iron hand” with which she struggles to put down “everything [that] is against you … the weather … the dirt … and the help … all in league against you.”4 Her sons, two particularly unpleasant fictional siblings, object to the necessary move to the farm, after which their mother provides them with a more-than-adequate living, college educations, and doting personal attention. Although they hate every minute spent in country air, some inexplicable—and probably unhealthy—bond prevents them from leaving.

Scofield and Wesley May strive constantly to compromise any social standing that their mother has gained. Mrs. May refers to Scofield, the elder at thirty-six, as a “business type.” She does not object that he sells insurance for a living, but she disapproves of the fact that he sells “the kind that only Negroes buy.” That choice, she believes, prevents nice girls from wanting to marry him. But Scofield can make more money selling this type of insurance than any other kind, and, moreover, he enjoys undercutting his mother's obvious prejudice by announcing loudly in her company that “I'm the best nigger-insurance salesman in this country” (504-5). Mrs. May describes Wesley as an intellectual, though this claim is highly debatable. She blames his problems on rheumatic fever. Wesley's own musings remain for the most part unarticulated, but his intellectualism runs along the same lines as Asbury's and Joy-Hulga's: “He didn't like anything. He drove twenty miles every day to the university where he taught and twenty miles back every night, but he said he hated the twenty-mile drive and he hated the second-rate university and he hated the morons who attended it. He hated the country and he hated the life he lived; he hated living with his mother and his idiot brother and he hated hearing about the damn dairy and the damn help and the damn broken machinery. But in spite of all he said, … he never went even to Atlanta” (509).

As soon as Mrs. May had cleared her land for dairy farming, she hired the Greenleaf family. From Mrs. May's point of view, Mr. Greenleaf has been a completely unsatisfactory worker and has added nothing to the success of the business. Even though she views him as completely “shiftless” and believes that “no one else would have had him five minutes,” she has not fired him (502). She does not think she could find a better family—a cross she must bear, perhaps, or an indication of the size of the salary. She treats Mr. Greenleaf as if he were a child too dull to be insulted. She continually asks him if he understands, repeats instructions, and describes in detail the suffering she, a poor woman, has been forced to endure because of his inadequacy. “Over the years … Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf had hardly aged at all. They had no worries, no responsibilities. They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she struggled to put into the land” (509).

The arrival of the Greenleaf family, complete with their two sons, also marks the beginning of the competition arising from the inevitable comparison of the two sets of offspring. Mrs. May resents Mr. Greenleaf's obvious pride in his sons. “He acted,” she comments, “as if this [the fact that the boys are twins] were something smart they had thought of themselves” (507). O. T. and E. T. Greenleaf are a few years younger than Mrs. May's boys. They grow up on her farm, helping their father, learning the dairy business, and surviving on the hand-me-down toys and clothes from the more privileged Wesley and Scofield—a generosity for which Mrs. May expects gratitude to the grave. Mrs. May considers the Greenleafs to be trash, and she likens Mrs. Greenleaf's overzealous erotic faith-healing practices, in which the woman writhes obscenely in the dirt, to the wallowing of mules in the yard. In her mind the lowly Greenleafs are equivalent to the scrub bull that impregnates her cows and weakens the stock. Whenever Mrs. May feels threatened by the success of the Greenleaf boys, she consoles herself by thinking them stupid and ill bred: “Well, no matter how far they go, they came from that” (507).

World War II proved to be a stroke of luck for the young adult Greenleaf twins. They both joined the service during World War II, rose to the rank of sergeant, and had the good fortune to be wounded and net pensions. Returning home, they earned degrees in agriculture on the G.I. Bill. They bought land a couple of miles from Mrs. May and built a brick duplex and modern dairy farm with the help of government wartime subsidies. Mrs. May attributes the twins' success solely to the war and the taxpayer (herself). “If the war had made anyone, Mrs. May said, it had made the Greenleaf boys” (507). To make matters worse, both marry French girls while overseas. Mrs. May naturally assumes that because they are French, they are “nice girls” who have fallen for O. T. and E. T. because, “disguised in their uniforms, they could not be told from other people's children” (507). The Greenleaf boys each have three children, and, because their mothers are French, they will go to convent school that will eradicate the vestiges of social inferiority based on their relative lack of education and their speaking “Greenleaf English.” Such dumb luck in economic and social matters represents to Mrs. May a complete disruption of her sense of what is fair and deserved in her conservative and competitive understanding of the world. O. T. and E. T., who grew up without property and without learning correct manners, should have, in her mind, remained hired hands on the dairy farm. They should have been grateful for all she did for them. The Greenleaf twins eventually displace her and her childish, childness sons; thus all her work to maintain her economic status for the sake of Wesley's and Scofield's social status is wiped out.

Since the rearing of Wesley and Scofield is given scant attention, responsibility for the miserable outcome of their lives may belong to either the wretched mother or the wretched sons themselves, but the mother seems the safest bet. She overindulges them as adults (or, rather, as adult children). In order to maintain her elevated social standing, she prevents them from working on the farm or from helping Mr. Greenleaf and his boys get to know the place. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither has any appreciation for the land or for their mother's efforts. She tells them that if she hadn't “kept her foot on [Mr. Greenleaf's] neck all these years, you boys might be milking cows every morning at four o'clock.” Given her lack of humility, it is easy to sympathize with the sons' lapses of gratitude, although Wesley's comment, that “I wouldn't milk a cow to save your soul from hell,” seems a bit extreme (510).

Although she does not eat, Mrs. May hovers maternally over the breakfast table each morning to attend to her sons' needs, including preparing a salt-free diet for Wesley. Though she does not believe any of it, she thinks Christianity a fine religion, and urges the two to go to church to meet nice girls. She makes no attempt to throw them out or force them to grow up, and they make no attempt to leave. She constantly reminds them of her sacrifice for them and berates them for their inadequacies, especially by comparing them to O. T. and E. T. They respond with horrible taunts, calling her “sweetheart” and threatening to marry women like Mrs. Greenleaf. She calls them “boys” and makes excuses for their behavior. “Poor boy,” she says of Wesley, “he could not help making [his voice] deliberately nasty” (509). As a consequence of this emotionally hostile environment, Wesley and Scofield detest each other to completely that they resemble two vicious animals lying at opposite corners of a cage, each waiting for the right moment to go for the jugular. “I am the only adult on this place,” Mrs. May tells her sons in exasperation (510). The three characters thrive on mutual hatred.

All of Mrs. May's efforts—both maternal and social—are in vain. Her death resonates with the symbolism of judgment, for which she erroneously believes her work ethic makes her ready. On her Day of Judgment Mrs. May awakens to the sound of a stray bull chewing outside her window. She is concerned that the bull will weaken her stock—weakened stock, bovine or human, is one of her greatest worries—but again, it is a misplaced concern. The bull has pursued her relentlessly through the story and now resumes the fateful chase. Seeking respite, she reclines, exhausted, to rest on the hood of her car, and cries out the justification of her life: “Before any kind of judgment seat, she would be able to say: I've worked, I have not wallowed” (522). She thus believes she has led a correct life, but actually she has failed to see through the code of conduct and manners to what is important. Her self-satisfied statement is, from O'Connor's point of view, heavy with irony, weighing down her soul, for in truth, she has wallowed—in hubris and condescension, in arrogance and prejudice, in her failure to love and her lack of piety before God. In her unbelief, she does not recognize her culpability; judgment comes at a time and from a direction that she cannot anticipate; she has not seen, nor can she receive the light of God's mercy. Emerging from the trees, the beast—like the wrath of God—rams his horn through her loveless heart. She sinks down, burdened by her sins. “She had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” (333). What is unbearable at that moment is the shocking recognition that the social and economic code to which she gave her complete faith has failed to provide any meaning or substance to her life.

Mrs. May's death may constitute for her an epiphany of another sort: the ultimate triumph of the patriarchal social and economic system, which the southern manners defended by O'Connor helped keep firmly in place. All of the author's frantic and class-conscious female farm managers must operate in a system that devalues them while highly valuing men and fathers. When Mrs. May berates Mr. Greenleaf because his sons have not come to take their inferior bull from her property, she recognizes the problem: “They didn't come because I'm a woman. … You can get away with anything when you're dealing with a woman. If there were a man running this place. …” Mr. Greenleaf reminds her of two men on the place—her sons. This rejoinder is “quick as a snake striking” (519). Mrs. May has emasculated her sons by not teaching them respect for male authority, thus subverting the natural order of patriarchy; therefore, in their impotence, Wesley and Scofield cannot continue its traditions. Having displaced a man as the head of the patriarchy, Mrs. May must be brought down and forced to face her weakness before men as well as before God.


O'Connor often attributes her characters' lack of virtue and failed relationships to their ignorant refusal to acknowledge the mercy of God. Speaking at an orphanage, she once observed: “Children know by instinct that hell is an absence of love, and they can pick out theirs without missing.” She also bemoaned the unreflective student enthusiasm displayed at the local college for candlelight ceremonies, reasoning that these students had never experienced formal religious ceremonies “where these things have their proper place and are relegated to the background and have meaning.” The absence of love and meaning in the lives of the Fox, Hopewell, and May families explains a great deal about the failures of the mother-child relationship in these three stories. The sense of noblesse oblige is strong in the southern patriarchal social system. In order to maintain control of their “underlings,” those at the top of the social system were careful to keep up a public stance that exhibited the same cold objectivity in dealing with their family members and close friends as with their servants, tenants, and laborers. For many, this lack of emotional connection dominated all relationships.

O'Connor herself stoically endured the illness that left her bound to her mother's care, and she rarely missed an opportunity to acknowledge her debt to Regina. The tensions and strains within this mother and daughter relationship at Andalusia, however, are quite evident in the story told by O'Connor's letters. The relationship as she depicts it was one in which “the only emotion respectable to show is irritation.”5 O'Connor's letters are full of humorous and ironic tales about Regina's troubles and successes running her business enterprise. Many of these tales appear transposed into fiction in these three stories of businesswomen and failed mothers and their children whose pain is evident through the veil of sarcasm. The real lives and the fictional ones are connected, as are the successes and the failures.


  1. Flannery O'Connor, interview by C. Ross Mullins, in Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 233-4; Erma Bombeck, Family: The Ties That Bind—and Gag (New York: McGraw Hill, 1987).

  2. Flannery O'Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” in Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 551, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  3. Flannery O'Connor, “Good Country People,” ibid., 264-5, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  4. Flannery O'Connor, “Greenleaf,” Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988), 511, hereinafter cited parenthetically by page number in the text.

  5. Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), 244, 254, 163-4.

Rachel Carroll (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Carroll, Rachel. “Foreign Bodies: History and Trauma in Flannery O'Connor's ‘The Displaced Person’.” Textual Practice 14, no. 1 (2000): 97-114.

[In the following essay, Carroll asserts that repressed memories of crisis surface through the unconscious in “The Displaced Person.”]

We must presume … that the psychical trauma—or more precisely the memory of the trauma—acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must be continued to be regarded as an agent that is still at work.

(Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud)1

History and the irrational are revealed to exist in intimate proximity in O'Connor's texts: the past haunts the present by returning through the unconscious. The role of history in O'Connor's narratives could be addressed by drawing an analogy between the persistence of the unresolved conflicts of the past and the return of the repressed in the form of the uncanny. Freud defines the uncanny as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’2 and as that which ‘ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’ (‘The uncanny’, p. 345). The material which is subject to this mechanism of repression and return in O'Connor's fiction is history, and its violent disruptions reveal their imprint on the unconscious in the form of trauma.

History and psychoanalysis have traditionally been perceived as being at odds with each other. However, as Maud Ellmann has written, they are two discourses which urgently require a language through which to speak to each other: ‘What history needs is a science of tropes—that is, a psychoanalysis—to understand the ways in which the conflicts of the world are reconfigured in the conflicts of the mind.’3 An encounter between a crisis in subjective and historical memory is theorized in the concept of trauma. Cathy Caruth proposes the following definition of trauma:

Trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.4

According to Caruth, the quality of ‘latency’, which characterizes Freud's understanding of the deferred symptoms of shock, also defines the ‘structure of experience’ constituted by trauma: ‘The event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.’5 O'Connor's fiction is ‘possessed’ by history: the oppressions and conflicts of history return from repression and register their violence in the memory in the form of trauma. The historical experience of the American South is constituted, in O'Connor's fiction, by denials and displacements. Indeed, in a number of narratives, and most significantly in ‘The Displaced Person’ (1954), the repressed crises of American history, both past and present, find displaced expression in an event of profound historical crisis: the Holocaust. The memory of the Holocaust becomes the screen on which unresolved conflicts are re-enacted. Thus, a powerful model of history as trauma can be found in O'Connor's writing. As Caruth writes, trauma is ‘not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history’ (‘Introduction’, American Imago, p. 4).


In ‘The Displaced Person’, the visual evidence of the Holocaust, in the form of a cinematic screening of documentary footage of liberated concentration camps, is registered in a traumatic manner: the sudden and shocking image of a mass grave sweeps over Mrs Shortley's consciousness, ‘before [she] could realise that it was real and take it into [her] head’.6 Yet the image does return, compulsively and intrusively, in the form of an unsummoned memory: it thereby fulfils Caruth's definition of trauma. Mrs Shortley is visited by the memory of a liberated concentration camp:

A small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing.

(CS [The Complete Stories] p. 196)

The dispassionate quality of this description, with its grotesque motifs of fragmentation and dismemberment, suggests a stunned incomprehension. The violence that the image records seems immanent in the very medium which forcefully imprints it on the viewer's ill-prepared consciousness: the cinematic image has the uncanny stillness of a freeze frame or traumatic flashback. By an association which, in the course of the narrative, becomes fatal, Mrs Shortley places the Polish refugees (who have been resettled on her land) in the monochrome, two-dimensional plane of the screen as if they were shadowy simulations: ‘you reckon they'll know what colours even is?’ (CS, p. 196). The deadly progress of the deportation trains seems to represent the dreadful and interminable progress of history, and both are captured in the coffin-like confinement of each individual frame of film. The motto of the newsreel—‘Time marches on!’ (CS, p. 196)—identifies these images as belonging to the March of Time documentary series, but its heroic optimism is here in terrible juxtapostion with an apparently barbaric regression.

It is significant that in O'Connor's texts the experience of the Holocaust is mediated through two central signifiers of modernity: the cinema and the railway. The cinema transmits the visual documentary evidence of genocide. The railway is both a literal instrument and a symbolic signifier of the Holocaust.7 For O'Connor's deeply reactionary characters, the complicity of this apparatus of modernity in historical catastrophe only confirms their own revolt against the modern. Hence O'Connor's texts demonstrate a powerful problematic: that the Holocaust not only explodes a liberal myth of history as progress, but is itself enlisted by reactionary impulses in a renunciation of history as a process of change. Furthermore, the role allotted to the cinema and the railway in this problematic of history and modernity does not seem to be entirely accidental: both are implicated in the construction of the experience of modernity as shock. Moreover, they assume a compelling significance in their contribution to the relationship between trauma and historical experience.

In employing the railway as a signifier of the Holocaust, O'Connor captures the indelible imprint made on contemporary consciousness by its transformation from a benign agent of human mobility into an instrument of terror: the freedom of movement granted by the arrivals and departures of travel is forever haunted by the fact of mass deportations and the gates of Auschwitz. This alienation constitutes a translation of the uncanny from the subjective to the historical plane; the Holocaust casts into crisis the history in which we were ‘at home’. Elaine Scarry captures this quality of modern estrangement when she writes of the conversion of domestic objects—the window, the door, the chair, the bed—into instruments of torture:

The appearance of these common domestic objects in torture reports … is no more gratuitous and accidental than the fact that so much of our awareness of Germany in the 1940s is attached to the words ‘ovens,’ ‘showers,’ ‘lampshade,’ and ‘soap’.8

Nor is this horror entirely irrational. It is a lucid recoil from the barbaric destination at which the advance of rationality has arrived. Indeed, in one sense, the liquidation of human beings inflicted by the Holocaust represents the triumph of technology over the body; as such it is the ‘end’ of modernity not in the sense of its failure but as its product.9 Both film and the locomotive are implicated in a modernity which inflicts a certain violence on the body. Miriam Hansen characterizes modernity as the ‘traumatic reorganisation of perception’;10 the technology of the cinema, like that of the railway, imposes on consciousness the shocks inflicted on the body and senses by the automated mechanism of industrial capitalism:

With its dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, with the rapid succession and tactile thrust of its sounds and images, film rehearses in the realm of reception what the conveyor belt imposes upon human beings in the realm of production.

(p. 184)

Hence, the cinema and the train are two of a number of new technologies which ‘contribute to the detachment or dissociation of the subject from the space of perception’ (p. 190).11

Both the railway and the cinema contribute to an association between modernity and shock; they assume a significant role in the development of theories of shock and trauma. The earliest accounts of the pathology of shock emerged out of studies of railway accidents, the shell-shock of First World War neuroses being the second major contribution made by the twentieth century to the evolution of shock. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the first accounts of shock, in relation to the railway accident, describe a ‘sudden and powerful event of violence that disrupts the continuity of an artificially/mechanically created motion or situation, and also the subsequent state of derangement’.12 It is the very fact of human assimilation to the mechanized motion of the locomotive which makes such a shock possible: the passengers are absorbed into their surroundings as if to a second nature.

In O'Connor's fiction, it could be said that history, conceived as inexorable advance, is the second nature to which subjects succumb, as if to the soporific motion of the train. Relinquishing individual agency, they are possessed by its dynamics but all the while lulled by the impression of movement; the effortless conveyance that the train delivers mimics the myth of history as progress. The condition of shock is induced by a disruption of this continuity, but the experience is constituted by a failure to assimilate it into consciousness: it exerts its presence by eruptions from the unconscious in the form of flashbacks. As Caruth writes, ‘the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrolled repetitive occurrence of hallucinations’ (‘Unclaimed experience’, p. 181).

Latency, the delayed effect, is the defining characteristic of shock—one which Caruth takes from Freud. Freud takes the railway accident as his example to illustrate his theory of shock. Significantly, he articulates this proposition within a history, in ‘Moses and monotheism’, of the captivity, exile and return of the Jewish people:

It may happen that someone gets away, apparently unharmed, from the spot where he has suffered a shocking accident, for instance a train collision. In the course of the following weeks, however, he develops a series of grave psychical and motor symptoms, which can be ascribed only to his shock or whatever else happened at the time of the accident. He has developed a ‘traumatic neurosis’. This appears quite incomprehensible and is therefore a novel fact. The time that elapsed between the accident and the first appearance of symptoms is called the ‘incubation period’, a transparent allusion to the pathology of infectious disease. … It is the feature one might term latency.13

The period that has elapsed between the event and the symptom seems to suggest that the experience has been forgotten; the person was unharmed and so the delayed effects are incomprehensible. However, as Caruth suggests, it is ‘only in and through its inherent forgetting that [the traumatic event] is first experienced at all’ (‘Unclaimed experience’, p. 7). Caruth's theory of trauma is informed both by theories of shock and by the testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust. Hence, trauma provides a psychoanalytic account of the impact of catastrophic historical events. Trauma is constituted by unassimilated historical experience, but this is not to suggest that the past is lost to the oblivion of forgetfulness: on the contrary, history is preserved in the unconscious because it is not resolved and discharged by the conscious mind. Such a privileged role for the unconscious in the transmission of history is supported by Freud's distinction between unconscious memory and the conscious act of recollection, such that the latter has, as Fredric Jameson has described it, the effect of ‘destroying or eradicating what the former was designed to preserve’.14

In trauma, memory erupts from the unconscious in the form of intrusive symptoms which include the vivid visual memory. The cinematic technique of the flashback could be read as resembling this traumatic return of memory. Caruth writes that the ‘flashback, it seems … provides a form of recall that survives at the cost of willed memory or of the very continuity of conscious thought’ (‘Introduction’, American Imago, p. 418). The flashback preserves because it alienates; it disrupts the static present with the otherness of the past.15 In the particular case of the Holocaust, the failure to assimilate experience, when consciously chosen by a witness, could indicate an ethical reaction: a refusal to admit any philosophical system which could accommodate such an atrocity. Claude Lanzmann has spoken of a ‘refusal of understanding’ as a profoundly ethical position:

There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding. Not to understand was my iron law during all the eleven years of the production of Shoah. I had clung to this refusal of understanding as the only possible ethical and at the same time the only possible operative attitude.16

In O'Connor's texts, however, this ‘refusal of understanding’ indicates a failure of witnessing. O'Connor's American characters are not actual victims, bystanders or perpetrators of the Holocaust, yet such is the impact of the visual revelation of the Holocaust that they assume fantastic identifications as if obeying an unconscious injunction. Initially victims only of an overpowering fear, O'Connor's characters are transformed into agents of an arbitrary violence as if to evade becoming its victim.


The statelessness of the Displaced Person renders him strange and ominous on American soil; his reception is one evoked by Julia Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves: ‘He is a foreigner: he is from nowhere, from everywhere.’17 He is a person without origins: that is, without the family, ‘blood’ and soil which constitute the rootedness of identity in the rural American South. In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva identifies a paradox that emerges out of the common genealogy shared by the concepts of the universal ‘rights of man’ and of nationalism: the person without a state is a person without a claim to humanity. Kristeva concurs with Hannah Arendt in a belief that ‘the national legacy served as guarantee for Nazi criminality’ (p. 151). Arendt's lament for the fate of those deprived of the protection of nationality but subject to the extremities of nationalism captures the plight of the ‘displaced person’, both the refugee in the modern world and the character in O'Connor's text: ‘The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human. … It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man’ (quoted in Strangers to Ourselves, pp. 151-2). The perverse symbolic transformation of Guizac from a victim into a perpetrator, through Mrs Shortley's identifications, accords with a recurrent pattern of displacement evident in O'Connor's narratives. ‘The Displaced Person’ is indeed a narrative about displacement, not merely of people but of history, memory and guilt. That it is the Holocaust—with its place in an irrational ideology of racial purity and heredity—which revives this mechanism is revealing of the content of repressed historical material in this American context. That is, it exposes a persistent racial anxiety compounded by historical denial.

The trauma of the Holocaust, both as an event and as knowledge, encounters the suppressed conflicts of American history in O'Connor's fiction; the responses of O'Connor's characters carry this unresolved history and unwittingly re-enact it. The sequence of displaced identifications which O'Connor depicts in her narratives, especially in ‘The Displaced Person’, fulfil Robert Jay Lifton's account of ‘false witness’. Lifton suggests that when a witness to violence in turn becomes an instigator of violence, it is a result of ‘false witness’, a ‘compensatory process which is very dangerous’.18 The death anxiety provoked by such an experience is suppressed and converted into a desire to kill: that is, in order to ensure safety from violence, the victim adopts the extreme measure of assuming the role of agent of that violence. Lifton's proposition is an attempt to account for the disturbing phenomenon that the lesson of violence is not inevitably that violence must cease. In the midst of the trauma of violence, the subject may make a choice as if the roles of victim and perpetrator were the only positions available.

Lifton writes that this process of displacement proceeds through the production of ‘designated victims’—a process which draws its material from the historically specific scene in which it occurs:

False witness tends to be a political and ideological process. And really false witness is at the heart of most victimisation. Groups victimise others, they create what I now call ‘designated victims’, the Jews in Europe, the Blacks in this country [the US]. They are people off whom we live not only economically, as is often the case, but psychologically. That is, we reassert our own vitality and symbolic immortality from denying them their right to live and by identifying them with the death-taint, by designating them as victims. … That's what false witness is. It's deriving one's solution to one's death anxiety from extreme trauma, in this case in an extreme situation [the My Lai massacre], by exploiting a group of people and rendering them victims, designated victims for that psychological work.

(‘Interview with Robert Jay Lifton’, p. 166)

In O'Connor's narratives history is shown to proceed through this mechanism of false witness: a mechanism to which the foreign body of the displaced person, in the narrative of that title, falls victim. The image of the Holocaust becomes the site on which these displacements and repressions are reproduced.

O'Connor depicts a society in thrall to a myth of a golden age to which it yearns to return. The advance of history is perceived, in the words of the ossified General in ‘A Late Encounter With the Enemy’ (1953) as ‘deadly as the River Styx’ (CS, p. 134). Post Civil War history is resentfully perceived as a process of accumulating debt, the South being engaged in a futile pursuit of recuperation; in ‘The Displaced Person’, the Judge's desire for a ‘return’ to a society without money—as Astor, an African American labourer, wryly remarks, “‘Judge say he long for the day when he be too poor to pay a nigger to work’” (CS, p. 215)—implicitly advocates a return to slavery. Like Judge Clane's scheme to pursue compensation for the loss of confederate money in Carson McCullers' Clock Without Hands (1961), this preposterous grievance betrays an incapacity to interpret the emancipation of the slaves as anything other than an outrage against property rights. As Leonard Olschner writes: ‘History and seeming timelessness are the antagonistic forces … it is history which breaks into the assumed unshakable, static social order of the American South in the years following World War II.’19 The past persists in attitudes of uncanny suspension. Conversely, modern mass culture conveys its icons into the depths of the rural South in a radically remote fashion. The faded sweatshirts sported by a number of characters function as distant and decomposing snapshots of a distant American mythology: the ‘faded cowboy on a horse’ (CS, p. 276) worn satirically by Joy in ‘Good Country People’ (1955), the ‘silver stallion’ (CS, p. 126) rearing from a murderer's chest in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ (1953), and the ‘faded destroyer’ (CS, p. 179) sinking into a boy's hollow ribs in ‘A Circle in the Fire’ (1954).

Suspended in time but possessed by history, the uncanny stasis of O'Connor's South is ghost-ridden by the past. The devastation of history has a protracted and belated quality. Indeed, with its motifs of dislocation and depopulation, O'Connor's fiction gathers within itself the residues of successive historical crises. The ubiquity of single women managing farms in the absence of men in her writing is broadly suggestive of the disruption of war but, in O'Connor's narratives, it evokes most potently the American Civil War. It records the emergence, out of the idealized fragility of the ‘white southern lady’, a generation of indomitable women.20 Returning war veterans also punctuate O'Connor's narratives. In ‘The Displaced Person’, Mr Shortley is a First World War veteran who habitually characterizes himself as returned from the dead: “‘If everyone was as dead as I am,’” he declares, “‘nobody would have no trouble’” (CS, p. 206). In ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune’ (1949), Ruby's brother's experience of war fails to make him a ‘somebody from somewhere’ (CS, p. 95) but, on the contrary, deprives him of all origin; he returns to find his home town has simply disappeared, presumably due to depopulation. In O'Connor's novel Wise Blood (1952), Hazel Motes experiences the same uncanny projection of war's destruction. His four years in the army are a vacuum in the novel, but perhaps a critically defining absence. His experience is characterized entirely by loss. Forgotten by the army in foreign places, he is remembered only long enough for the removal of a fragment of shrapnel whose form nevertheless lingers in his body. This phantom is like a double which haunts and avenges; it compounds the sense of loss—of being bereft and dispossessed—which pervades O'Connor's fiction.21 The impact of Motes' war experience is constituted by a profound ambiguity suggestive of an overwhelming experience which exceeds representation: ‘He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him’ (Wise Blood, p. 68).

The wilful quality of incomprehension which characterizes the historical experience of the South in O'Connor's narratives bears the imprint of denial. In the aptly titled ‘A Late Encounter With The Enemy’, the General's conviction is expressive of this denial: ‘He didn't have any use for history because he never expected to meet it again’ (CS, pp. 135-6). However, the effort to maintain the repression of the past is persistently met with uncanny returns, heralded by the irrational.

The ethical ambivalence of Mrs Shortley's recollection of a liberated concentration camp captures this dimension of disavowal. Her description temporarily maintains the frozen quality of shock—‘a head … a foot, a knee’ (CS, p. 196)—but it holds a latent revulsion. Her refusal of understanding indicates a slide into a generalized phobic disgust rather than the adoption of a position of moral outrage. The dense claustrophobia of the image and its excess of death is overwhelming and threatens to engulf the spectator in a tide of horror. As Julia Kristeva has written, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, the corpse threatens to throw its witness into a vertiginous crisis of identity:

In that compelling, raw, insolent thing in the morgue's full sunlight, in that thing that no longer matches and therefore no longer signifies anything, I behold the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject.22

The uncanny reproduction of images—whether mechanical or unconscious—is spuriously traced, by the logic revealed in this narrative, to the swarming disintegration and pollution of the corpse. As Elisabeth Bronfen has written on the relationship between death and representation: ‘As the unheimlich liminality of the corpse translates into its own double in the form of representation, this repetition will either perform a safe fixture or preserve threatening oscillation.’23 The cinematic medium becomes a casualty to the contagion of trauma. The apparently austere and disembodied quality of the image is belied by its susceptibility to contagion as it becomes a vehicle of infection. Caruth has written of the ‘danger … of the trauma's “contagion”, of the traumatisation of the ones who listen’ (‘Introduction’, American Imago, p. 10). The danger is here even more troubling: it is a contagion borne not out of empathy but out of aversion and denial.

The alien character of Guizac's language, Polish, is perceived as complicit in this uncanny proliferation of anxiety. Moreover, it is posited as an agent of its immanent violence. Guizac's name is wilfully mispronounced as ‘Gobblehook’, evoking archaic fears of devouring and tearing. Refusing to harbour foreign sounds within her mouth, Mrs Shortley attaches a superstitious dread to the possession of a second language: ‘knowing two languages was like having eyes in the back of your head’ (CS, p. 233). Moreover, its doubling productions are here equated with the manufacture of death. ‘Not without reason’, writes Bronfen, ‘does the word corpus refer both to the body of a dead human or animal and to a collection of writings’ (Over Her Dead Body, p. 257). The corpse and the dead letter are collapsed into one figure of contagion in ‘The Displaced Person’. Guizac's foreign words are revenants; an uncannily animated script which, in Mrs Shortley's imagination, is mobilized and advancing:

She began to imagine a war of words, to see the Polish words and the English words coming at each other, stalking forward, not sentences, just words, gabble gabble gabble, flung out high and shrill and stalking forward and then grappling with each other. She saw the Polish words, dirty and all-knowing and unreformed, flinging mud on the clean English words until everything was equally dirty. She saw them all piled high up in a room, all the dead dirty words, theirs and hers too, piled up like the naked bodies in the newsreel.

(CS, p. 209)

This image captures an insidious shift of culpability so that the victim, Guizac, becomes the perpetrator, and the bystander, Mrs Shortley, becomes the victim. Its origins can be traced to the numb ambivalence of Mrs Shortley's memory which allows the corpse to become the source as well as the destination of violence. ‘Piled’ and ‘tangled’ in a ‘heap’, they not only represent but also inflict an assault on the dignity of the human form. The ‘dead naked people’ provoke an ambivalent revulsion: the recoil from the euphemistic ‘part’ suggests a phobic recoil incapable of making ethical distinctions. The logic which attaches a generalized dread to the victim rather then to the perpetrator similarly casts the Guizacs as envoys of horror, whose passage across the Atlantic harbours contagion. The pathos of Guizac's escape out of the nightmare of European history into life in the new world is transformed into an uncanny survival of death in life. Mrs McIntyre reads Guizac's face as a microcosm of the crimes committed in the ‘devil's experiment station’ (CS, p. 205). His face, like Frankenstein's monster, seems assembled from the dead fragments of violated graves: ‘his whole face looked as if it might have been patched together out of several others’ (CS, p. 222). The implication of pollution and contagion conspires to a ‘plague motif’ which, according to René Girard, ‘illuminates but a single aspect: the collective character of the disaster, its universally contagious nature’.24 Indeed, in ‘The Displaced Person’, the Guizacs are associated with pestilence: the girl's name, Sledgewig, is metonymically collapsed into an association with the bollweevil, which devastated Southern farm lands. Moreover, Mrs Shortley has the ‘sudden intuition’ that ‘like rats with typhoid fleas’ they may have ‘carried all those murderous ways over the water with them’ (CS, p. 196).

Leonard M. Olschner has written of the historical context within which this narrative is placed. The reception of European refugees in the US was often reluctant and even hostile. Olschner quotes the Texan Congressman, Ed Gossett, voicing objections in 1947:

‘While a few good people remain in these [Displaced Person] camps, they are by and large the refuse of Europe. The camps are filled with bums, criminals, black-marketeers, subversives, revolutionists, and crackpots of all colours and hues.’

(‘Annotations on history and society’, p. 65, my italics)

The ‘march of the Displaced Persons’, as it was described in a Life magazine of 1945,25 took the form of an invasion in the popular imagination. Indeed, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 incorporated such prejudices in the form of discrimination against Catholics and, moreover, Jews. The sight of a corpse may evoke responses which are, in many ways, universal reactions. However, the implicit assault on the very construction of the body evoked by the corpse also challenges the body's historically specific determinants. As Kristeva writes:

The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall) … upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance … as in true theatre, without make up or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. … There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.

(Powers of Horror, p. 3)

The theatre of masks in O'Connor's fiction is expressive of a preoccupation with differentiation which is predominantly racial.

O'Connor's characters engage in an obsessive ritual of invocation of categories: ‘sometimes Mrs Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people’ (CS, p. 491). In ‘Revelation’ (1964), Mrs Turpin inflicts on herself the purely academic, but somehow titillating, dilemma of a choice between the equally abhorred fates of being ‘white trash’ or black. The agony of this decision is prolonged with illicit relish and its conclusion is presumably meant to deliver a sense of her own lofty moral sensibility: she chooses to be a ‘neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black’ (CS, p. 491). However, the compulsive quality of this naming ritual betrays the fragility of these categories. It performs a function of reinforcement which paradoxically casts into doubt the stability of the whole structure. Mrs Cope's litany of blessings registers her gratitude at being white and wealthy: ‘They might have had to live in a development themselves or they might have been Negroes or they might have been in iron lungs or they might have been Europeans ridden in boxcars like cattle’ (‘A Circle in the Fire’, CS, p. 190).26 The Holocaust, simply denoted by the boxcars, becomes a symbol of this anxiety of differentiation. The clinically hierarchized society of Nazi Germany might be assumed to be the envy of the racist mentality, but the Holocaust reveals both the violence immanent in such segregation and its fundamentally arbitrary nature. A totalitarian society has the simultaneous aspect of both supreme order and supreme disorder in its implacable adherence to its own strict but irrational logic. The gratitude for social and racial privilege which O'Connor's characters express transparently exposes a sense of its fragility, even its illegitimacy, and fear of its loss. The leisurely deliberation in which Mrs Cope indulges in her waking hours haunts her in more exacting form in her sleep: ‘Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven’ (‘A Circle in the Fire’, CS, p. 492). The historical displacements of the white South—whose very identity is grounded in the often violent and institutional subjection of racial others—are both a symptom and a defence against this arbitrary quality.

In ‘The Artificial Nigger’ (1955) the process of Nelson's education in racism begins on the train when he feels a ‘sudden keen pride’ (CS, p. 257) in his grandfather's racist wit. Nelson converts a humiliation inflicted by his own grandfather into a blame, directed at the guiltless black railroad passengers, that speaks of envy: ‘he hated him [the ‘Negro’] with a fierce raw fresh hate; and also, he understood now why his grandfather disliked them’ (CS, pp. 255-6). The ‘artificial nigger’, however, restores their solidarity: ‘some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat’ (CS, p. 269).27 The language of deliberance and martyrdom, so suggestive of anti-slavery discourse, is appropriated to construct the myth of the South as besieged and wronged. O'Connor depicts a white society whose seemingly unconscious ruse is to sustain the smart of defeat and the abject aspect of the vanquished as a facade beneath which the exercise of privilege and power endures. The recurring complaint of white landowners against the thankless burden of authority and the ingratitude of dependants is compulsively articulated as if in response to an unceasing but unspoken reproach. So pervasive is this logic that even, or perhaps especially, dissent is caught within its framework and reproduces its structures. White liberalism is satirized by O'Connor for its complicity with myths of martyrdom and deliverance and the motives of its champions are deeply suspect. For example, Julian and Asbury (in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ (1961) and ‘The Enduring Chill’ (1958)) are white men of privileged ancestry whose adoption of a liberal outlook is partially motivated by the integral offence it will cause to their despised mothers. The scene of the historic Civil Rights movement is merely a stage on which to play out white fantasies, and individuals are deployed as props for dramatic effect. Racial equality and desegregation are perceived by these ‘progressives’ as the absorption of blacks into white culture—a gesture of accommodation which anticipates some reparation or reward. The attempt to identify with the oppressed is an effort to enjoy simultaneously the perceived moral authority of the victim and the elation of the victor. The masochistic identification with suffering—‘go ahead and persecute us’ (‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’, CS, p. 414) which thrills Julian—necessarily displaces the historical experience of the other and demonstrates little authentic investment in political change. On the contrary, Julian gains ‘a certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation’ (CS, p. 412). Moreover, a cultural envy seems to be at work in the appropriation of narratives of suffering: Mary George acidly comments of Asbury, ‘the artist arrives at the gas chamber’ (‘The Enduring Chill’, CS, p. 363).

‘The Displaced Person’ was published in 1954 and so preceded the emergence at the end of the decade of a growing literature of witness and testimony to the Holocaust. It can be placed rather within the collective amnesia of Cold War hysteria. From this vantage point it explosively portrays the eruption of the implicitly racial displacements and denials at the heart of the historical experience of the American South. The appalling reproduction of violence in ‘The Displaced Person’ seems to belong to an irrational script of sacrifice as that outlined by René Girard. Girard writes that ‘any community that has fallen prey to violence or has been stricken by some overwhelming catastrophe hurls itself blindly into the search for a scapegoat’ (Violence and the Sacred, p. 79). However, the production of a scapegoat in O'Connor's text is articulated within a highly specific historical language. Frederick Asals reads O'Connor's text through Girard's Violence and the Sacred; he comments that the recurrence of corpses in O'Connor's texts seems to suggest the arrest of history:

The point is not merely the insistence in these parallels on the moribund, on American corpses that recall the vision of Europe, but also on the unchanging, on the rigor mortis that inhabits the living as well as the dead, the ferocious insistence that in all the ways that matter, time does not march on.28

Asals rather coldly remarks on the ‘failure’ of the act of sacrifice in O'Connor's text and attributes this to the decline of religion. However, I would suggest that O'Connor's text is not absorbed by the mechanisms, be they historical or ritual, that it depicts. If a failure is to be identified, it is a failure of historical understanding of which O'Connor's text is not a symptom but a critique.

In ‘The Displaced Person’, as soon as Guizac's industrious efforts begin to threaten the social and racial hierarchy, Mrs McIntyre's pity for him is swiftly withdrawn. Her sentiments embark on an ominous decline through resentment into violent retribution: ‘she had had a hard time herself. … People ought to have to struggle. … He had probably not had to struggle enough’ (CS, p. 219). In the circulation and appropriation of roles of suffering and perpetration in ‘The Displaced Person’, the distribution of culpability becomes crucially blurred.

From his first reception in the American South, Guizac demonstrates a reckless disregard for racial distinction: ‘he shook their hands, like he didn't know the difference, like he might have been as black as them’ (CS, p. 207). As a consequence, he is quickly designated the target of a racially marked narrative of sexual violation. National differences symbolically substitute for racial difference. Mr Shortley's First World War experience informs him that there were ‘all kinds then but that none of them were like us’ (CS, p. 227); he conflates the Polish Guizacs with the Germans from whom they have fled. His declaration that he will not stand idle and witness ‘a woman done in by a foreigner’ (CS, p. 230) sexualizes the conflict in terms familiar to the South. Indeed, it is Guizac's plan to marry his niece to the black labourer Sulk—in order to secure her release from a camp—which is the pivotal point in the channelling of violence against him. The revelation of this news to Mrs McIntyre induces a sense of immediate and intimate jeopardy: her heart beats ‘as if some interior violence had already been done to her’ (CS, p. 224).

The phantom rape of white women by black men is the metaphorical apex in the construction of the white South as wronged and violated. Olschner writes that sexual relations between black men and white women ‘represented the violation of a virtually unassailable taboo in Southern culture, the violation of idealised white womanhood’ (‘Annotations on history and society’, pp. 71-2). The significant violation is not so much of a woman's body as of the racial segregation of the South: the issue of sexual consent is irrelevant in terms of white racist national myth. This violation has the power to provoke collective racial violence in the form of lynching: in ‘The Displaced Person’ this collective violence finds its displaced target in Guizac. A pervasive fear of racial intermingling, through violence or through the assumed desire of blacks to ‘improve their colour’ (‘Revelation’, CS, p. 496) in mixed marriage, is registered throughout O'Connor's texts. In ‘The Displaced Person’, Sulk's tongue ‘describing little circles’ (CS, p. 219) and his ‘half grin’ (CS, p. 220), as he covets a photo of the niece, suggests a lascivious idiocy which simultaneously infantilizes and demonizes black male sexuality. The ‘bland and composed eyes’ (CS, p. 220) of the girl in her First Holy Communion dress, her blonde hair crowned by a ‘wreath’ (CS, p. 220), evokes the figures of a child bride and corpse: this frozen image, snatched out of death, gathers the horrors of child sexual abuse and necrophilia into the taboo of miscegenation. Mrs McIntyre's response is apoplectic and vicious: ‘You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of a monster are you!’ (CS, p. 222).

At the culmination of the narrative in ‘The Displaced Person’, Guizac's posture echoes the cruel bodily fragmentation of the Holocaust, as recollected by Mrs Shortley, and anticipates his own fate: ‘feet and legs and trunk sticking impudently out from the side of the tractor’ (CS, p. 234). Guizac's murder seems to be compelled by an uncanny logic. However, the wilful disavowal of autonomy which it betrays resembles the passive complicity of a witness to an atrocity:

[Mrs McIntyre] heard the brake on the large tractor slip and, looking up, she saw it move forward, calculating its own path. Later she remembered that she had seen the Negro jump silently out of the way as if a spring in the earth had released him and that she had seen Mr Shortley turn his head with incredible slowness and stare silently over his shoulder and that she started to shout to the Displaced Person but that she had not. She had felt her eyes and Mr Shortley's eyes and the Negro's eyes come together in one look that froze them in collusion for ever, and she had heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.

(CS, p. 234)

Thus history seems to compel its own repetition. The latent symptoms of historical crisis fail to emerge into ethical comprehension but instead act as the material of further violence. The slow motion of catastrophe in the final moments of ‘The Displaced Person’ conspires to suspend its actors in a final frame of traumatic incomprehension, ‘froze[n] in collusion for ever’ (CS, p. 234).


‘The violent, catastrophic aspect the encounter with the foreigner may assume’, writes Kristeva in Strangers to Ourselves, ‘is to be included in the generalising consequences that seem to stem out of Freud's observations on the activating of the uncanny’ (p. 190). The foreigner is strange and unassimilated and yet familiar; in O'Connor's narrative, his otherness is feared and extinguished. In making this revelation, O'Connor's texts render themselves unacceptable: they reproduce a violence against the other and, moreover, they implicate the reader in this violence. Yet to blame O'Connor for the perpetration of textual atrocities, by accusing her of perversity and distortion as many critics have done, is to become complicit in the production of scapegoats. The violence of O'Connor's texts has its origin in history. The power and significance of her narratives arises from their ability to challenge the reader's passive collusion in the displacements of history. The strangeness of her fiction preserves otherness and difference whether in identity or in history. If her narratives compel the reader to will the extinction of that troubling strangeness in her texts, they only reveal all the more profoundly the violence that an eclipse of difference can release.

Freud's driving curiosity about the elusive effect of the uncanny might be read as an obsession with the baleful and the irrational. By producing a text which names the uncanny, he has been assigned the role of author and originator of its alienating effects. However, Kristeva insists that his project is far from being a mission to render our world alien and inhospitable:

One cannot hope to understand Freud's contribution, in the specific field of psychiatry, outside of its humanistic and Romantic filiation. With the Freudian notion of the unconscious, the involution of the strange in the psyche loses its pathological effect and integrates within the assumed unity of human beings an otherness that is both biological and symbolic and becomes an integral part of the same. Henceforth, the foreigner is neither a race nor a nation. … Uncanny, foreignness is within us: we are our own foreigners.

(Strangers to Ourselves, p. 182)

‘Delicately, analytically,’ writes Kristeva, ‘Freud does not speak of foreigners: he teaches us to detect foreignness in ourselves’ (p. 191). So it is with O'Connor's difficult and disconcerting texts: the crisis they engender is not only within the text but also within the subject. O'Connor's texts do not themselves offer a route through which the reader can emerge from alienation; they demand of the reader a form of reading which will construct its own ethics. It is strange, and yet therefore fitting that O'Connor's anti-humanism approaches, as if in reverse, the lesson which Kristeva draws from Freud's uncanny: that is, the necessity for a concept of human dignity that ‘implies not only rights but desires and symbolic values’; one that ‘falls within the province of ethics and psychoanalysis’ (Strangers to Ourselves, p. 153).


  1. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James and Alix Strachey (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1974), pp. 56-7.

  2. Sigmund Freud, ‘The uncanny’, in Albert Dickson (ed.) Art and Literature (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 340.

  3. Maud Ellmann, ‘Introduction’, in Maud Ellmann (ed.) Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (London: Longman, 1994), p. 28.

  4. Cathy Caruth, ‘Unclaimed experience: trauma and the possibility of history’, in Claire Nouvet (ed.) Yale French Studies 79: Literature and the Ethical Question (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 181.

  5. Cathy Caruth, ‘Introduction’, American Imago: Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma (Part One), 48.1 (1991), p. 3.

  6. Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p. 196. Hereafter abbreviated in text as CS.

  7. This role is at odds with its traditional association with progress. As Susan Buck-Morss writes: ‘Railroads were the referent, and progress the sign, as spatial movement became so wedded to the concept of historical movement that these could no longer be distinguished’ (The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (London: MIT Press, 1989), p. 91).

  8. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977), p. 41.

  9. See Zygmunt Bauman: ‘The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust (and more than contingently related to the overwhelming desire not to look the memory in its face) is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not the antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for’ (Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), p. 7).

  10. Miriam Hansen, ‘Benjamin, cinema and experience: “The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology”’, New German Critique, 40 (1987), p. 189.

  11. Indeed, Mary Ann Doane has noted the affinity between the railway and the cinema. The earliest moving pictures took the motion of trains as their subject, instituting the ‘persistent fascination of the classical cinema with trains and railroad stations, its narrative fixation upon moments of arrival and departure’; Doane attributes this affinity to an analogy of experience: ‘The railway passenger, like the cinema spectator, is subjected to a succession of images mediated by a frame’ (Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1986), p. 188).

  12. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Anselm Hollo (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), 1977), p. 151.

  13. Freud, quoted in Caruth, American Imago, 48.1 (1991), p. 6.

  14. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 62-3.

  15. The flashback as a metaphor for historical understanding is also evoked by Walter Benjamin, who proposes the ‘shock effect of the film’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), p. 232). Benjamin suggests an analogy between Freudian theory and film's contribution to the field of perception: ‘The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’ (Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 230). The work of this ‘optical unconscious’, to use Rosalind Krauss' phrase, from The Optical Unconscious (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), could be detected in Benjamin's comments on the comprehension of the past in his ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’: ‘The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again. … To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ (Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 247).

  16. Claude Lanzmann, quoted in Caruth, ‘Introduction’, American Imago, 48.4 (1991), p. 421.

  17. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon Roudiez (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 30.

  18. Robert Jay Lifton, ‘Interview With Robert Jay Lifton’, with Cathy Caruth, American Imago, 48.1 (1991), p. 166.

  19. Leonard M. Olschner, ‘Annotations on history and society in Flannery O'Connor's “The Displaced Person”’, The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, 16 (1987), p. 62.

  20. Olschner writes of Mrs McIntyre in ‘The Displaced Person’ that she is: ‘reminiscent of plantation owners' wives during and after the Civil War, wives who, after their husbands died or after the slaves were emancipated, were forced to manage plantations and themselves do physical labour while their husbands were at war’ (‘Annotations on history and society’, p. 70).

  21. Elizabeth Grosz writes that the phantom limb is ‘an expression of nostalgia for the unity and wholeness of the body, its completion. It is a memorial to the missing limb, a psychical delegate that stands in its place’ (Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1994), p. 73).

  22. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 4.

  23. Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 257.

  24. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), p. 77.

  25. See Olschner, p. 64.

  26. The ‘boxcars’ in which ‘Europeans’ are deported are also suggestive of Soviet deportations, but no explicit reference is made.

  27. The ‘plaster figure of a Negro’ is described as follows: ‘It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead’ (CS, p. 268).

  28. Frederick Asals, ‘Differentiation, violence and “The Displaced Person”’, The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, 13 (1984), p. 10.

Hilton Als (essay date January 2001)

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SOURCE: Als, Hilton. “This Lonesome Place.” New Yorker (29 January 2001): 82-8.

[In the following essay, Als considers the defining characteristics of O'Connor's fiction.]

The two niggers, a man and a woman, cutting across the field are looking for a little moonshine when they spot the white boy, Francis Marion Tarwater—the teen-age antihero of Flannery O'Connor's startling second novel, The Violent Bear It Away—who is digging a grave for his great-uncle Mason. Mason, a self-titled prophet who spent his life denouncing the world for having forsaken its Saviour, believed that Tarwater might have the calling, too, but the boy is not feeling his religion right now, standing in the dirt, just this side of death. O'Connor writes:

The woman, tall and Indianlike, had on a green sun hat. She stooped under the fence without pausing and came on across the yard toward the grave; the man held the wire down and swung his leg over and followed at her elbow. They kept their eyes on the hole and stopped at the edge of it, looking down into the raw ground with shocked satisfied expressions. The man, Buford, had a crinkled face, darker than his hat. “Old man passed,” he said.

The woman lifted her head and let out a slow sustained wail, piercing and formal. She … crossed her arms and then lifted them in the air and wailed again.

“Tell her to shut up that,” Tarwater said. “I'm in charge here now and I don't want no nigger-mourning.”

“I seen his spirit for two nights,” she said. “Seen him two nights and he was unrested.”

“He ain't been dead but since this morning,” Tarwater said. …

“He'd been predicting his passing for many years,” Buford said. “She seen him in her dream several nights and he wasn't rested. …”

“Poor sweet sugar boy,” the woman said to Tarwater, “what you going to do here now by yourself in this lonesome place?”

Published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away appeared just as Martin Luther King, Jr., was cutting a large revolutionary swath through the Old South, and only six years after Brown v. Board of Education, when that little black girl in sunglasses had her face dotted with the spittle of her white countrymen in Little Rock. The South may indeed have seemed like a “lonesome place” to whites then. Integration was not going slow, as William Faulkner had said it should (to which Thurgood Marshall responded, “They don't mean go slow, they mean don't go”). And, in order to move into a modern South, whites would need to be less encumbered by the old ways: by manners, by the Christian charity and moral rectitude of colored life—the “nigger-mourning” that cut to the soul.

Race and faith and their attendant hierarchies and delusions are O'Connor's great themes. She has been hailed for her artistic and social independence, but readings of this American master often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness. Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence—Southern blackness. It's remarkable to consider that O'Connor started writing less than a hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, and just a decade after Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, two books whose imagined black worlds had more to do with their authors' patronizing sentimentality than with the complicated intertwining of black and white, rich and poor, mundane and sublime which characterized real Southern life—and O'Connor's portrait of it. Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O'Connor's own world. She was not romantic enough to take Faulkner's Dilsey view of blacks—as the fulcrum of integrity and compassion. She didn't use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply—and complexly—drew from life.

Flannery O'Connor's electric vision is still surprising enough, seventy-five years after her birth, to have inspired five new critical studies last year alone—the most compelling of which are Richard Giannone's Flannery O'Connor, Hermit Novelist and Lorine M. Getz's Flannery O'Connor, Literary Theologian. Yet there is no definitive biography, and one hesitates to read her fiction autobiographically, since the approach was not one that O'Connor had much patience for. “I know some folks that don't mind thier own bisnis,” she wrote when she was twelve. Eighteen years later, she elaborated, in a letter to a friend, explaining why she had no interest in representing herself in her writing:

To say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration. A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen. … Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you. Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.

From the beginning, O'Connor worked to alchemize her background into something beyond mere anecdote and eccentricity. Born in 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, she was baptized Mary Flannery O'Connor at the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The Church's sanctioning of mysticism would later have a profound influence on O'Connor's writing, but Catholicism was a faith that had little sway in the “Christ-haunted” South O'Connor grew up in—a place where Jesus was God. Savannah had been settled first by Episcopalians and Lutherans, then by Baptists and Methodists; Catholics were excluded from the state's charter until 1794, and were thereafter rarely regarded as anything but an itinerant non-Reformed sect, as alien a presence as the Jews. (“That must be Jew singing,” someone scoffs when two Catholic girls sing Psalms, in the 1954 O'Connor short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”)

O'Connor was the only child of Regina Cline and Edward O'Connor, a real-estate agent who aspired to be a writer. Both parents were descended from Irish Catholic immigrants, and Mary Flannery began her studies at the St. Vincent's Grammar School. Even as a child, she had a merciless view of things, and her plain speech won her unwelcome attention from the Sisters of Mercy who provided her instruction. She grew up loving birds, and she favored chickens with mismatched eyes or crooked combs. When she was five, she raised a “frizzled” chicken (its feathers grew backward), which she taught to walk backward. A New York-based newsreel company that specialized in natural phenomena heard about the bird and sent a crew to O'Connor's home to film it—“an experience that marked me for life,” she said later. The crew's visit provided her with the first approval of her obsession with the grotesque as it lives beside the normal: a frizzled chicken striding backward in the yard while Mother airs out a tablecloth and Father closes the shed door, axe in one hand, wiping the sweat from the back of his neck with the other.

American genius often feeds on its own environs, and O'Connor was no exception. “I'm pleased to live in Baldwin County in the sovereign state of Georgia, and to see what I can from here,” she told one interviewer. She knew where her material was, and had known it since she was twelve. By then, she had discovered the tone of her voice, too, its lyrical flatness and its wildly leaping humor. (“If I … tried to write a story about the Japanese, the characters would all talk like Herman Talmadge,” she once said.) O'Connor was already slipping verse under her father's napkin at the table and rejecting books that didn't satisfy her interest in the heretical. “Awful. I wouldn't read this book,” she wrote in her copy of Alice in Wonderland. In a copy of Georgina Finds Herself, by Shirley Watkins: “This is the worst book I ever read next to Pinnochio.” About her early reading, O'Connor wrote to a friend, in 1955:

The only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of a child's encyclopedia. … The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S. The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called “The Humerous Tales of E. A. Poe.” These were mighty humerous—one about a young man who was too vain to wear his glasses and consequently married his grandmother by accident; another about a fine figure of a man who in his room removed wooden arms, wooden legs, hair piece, artificial teeth, voice box, etc.

From the beginning of her reading life, O'Connor preferred stories that were direct in their telling and mysterious only in their subtexts. She clearly despised the lack of clarity which she believed came with Northern liberalism, and which she lampoons with her intellectual characters, who always function in a kind of godless oligarchy. In many of her stories, intellectuals are depicted as grumpy poseurs, mean and homely failures who can't get on with life and are often driven into the ground by its brutality. O'Connor was like her chicken, walking backward, staring at others as she removed herself from them.

In 1938, after Edward O'Connor was appointed a zone real-estate appraiser for the Federal Housing Administration in Atlanta, Regina and Flannery moved into the Cline family house, in the nearby town of Milledgeville, where Edward could visit on the weekends. There was no parochial education for Flannery in Milledgeville, the home of the state insane asylum. (She eventually graduated from the experimental Peabody High School.) And, soon after the move, Edward's health began to deteriorate. He was suffering from lupus, a disease in which the body attacks its own tissues, destroying itself. Fifteen years after her father's death, in 1941, O'Connor wrote to her friend Elizabeth Hester, a clerk at a credit bureau in Atlanta, who was a frequent correspondent during the last nine years of O'Connor's life, and whose identity was only recently revealed:

My father wanted to write but had not the time or money or training or any of the opportunities I have had. … Anyway, whatever I do in the way of writing makes me extra happy in the thought that it is a fulfillment of what he wanted to do himself.

That fulfillment came relatively quickly. In 1945, shortly before completing her A.B. at the Georgia State College for Women, O'Connor was admitted to the State University of Iowa with a scholarship in journalism. O'Connor had clear, pale skin, a heart-shaped face, lively eyes, and a thick Georgia accent. In a letter to the editor Robert Giroux, Paul Engle, then the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, recalls meeting her that fall and being unable to understand her speech: “Embarrassed, I asked her to write down what she had just said on a pad. She wrote: ‘My name is Flannery O'Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers' Workshop?’” Engle continued:

Like Keats, who spoke Cockney but wrote the purest sounds in English, Flannery spoke a dialect beyond instant comprehension but on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive. … Sitting at the back of the room silent, Flannery was more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness.

O'Connor rarely, if ever, discussed her “bisnis”—her religion, her writing, her Southernness—with her peers in Iowa. One classmate claims not to have realized that O'Connor “really did believe in evil and damnation and redemption,” until she produced a story that showed insight into a character's fall. O'Connor's parochialism might have been a defense, the armor she used to shield herself from other people, but she also seemed to view it as someone else's problem; she knew who she was and where she was going. Iowa, at least, provided her with a new perspective on the cryptic idea of home.

At the end of her first semester at Iowa, O'Connor published her first story, “The Geranium,” in Accent. The story focusses on an enfeebled man named Old Dudley, who is living up North with his daughter and her family but wants to go back home to the South to die, near the “niggers” who are kinder to the old man than his own children. O'Connor reworked the story several times after its first publication, but already, at twenty-one, she had found many of her mature themes: the skewering of tradition, the erosion of one world that, disastrously, comically, is the weak foundation of the next, and the spectacle of blacks and whites regarding each other across a divide of mutual outsiderness.

O'Connor was not a polemicist, but her work is implicitly political, given the environment she drew from—the South during its second failed attempt at Reconstruction, otherwise known as Integration. As she wrote in an essay titled “The Regional Writer,” “Southern identity is not really connected with mocking birds and beaten biscuits and white columns any more than it is with hookworm and bare feet and muddy clay roads.” Indeed, she was at times violently critical of Tennessee Williams's and Carson McCullers's work, because she felt that they played on clichéd images of the region. “An identity is not to be found on the surface,” she wrote.

O'Connor's vision of the postindustrial South—with its Winn-Dixie stores, its automobiles piled up in the junkyard of the Lord—as a modern version of the fall was all her own. But what fall? What loss of innocence? That of the slaves who became indentured servants and then “niggers,” and who dot her pages like flies? No: in O'Connor's fictional universe, the whites in power are the only ones who can afford to be innocent of their surroundings. O'Connor's most profound gift was her ability to describe impartially the bourgeoisie she was born into, to depict with humor and without judgment her rapidly crumbling social order. In “Revelation,” a 1964 story, she describes Mrs. Turpin, a woman who occupies herself “with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself”:

If Jesus had said to her before he made her, “There's only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,” what would she have said? … She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, “All right, make me a nigger then—but that don't mean a trashy one.” And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

When Mrs. Turpin gets into a fight with a young white woman from Wellesley, while sitting in a doctor's waiting room, her sense of propriety is upset; meaninglessness yawns before her like a great black hole. O'Connor allows us to see what Mrs. Turpin's pride hides from her: how the blacks who work for her condescend to her, how they hide their intelligence so that she won't be tempted to interfere in their lives. One of them asks Mrs. Turpin about the bruise she incurred during the fight and, before she can explain, continues, “Ain't nothing bad happen to you! You just had you a little fall”—as if they all knew that Mrs. Turpin is protected in some special way by divine Providence. Mrs. Turpin describes the scene in the doctor's office:

“She said … something real ugly,” she muttered.

“She sho shouldn't said nothin ugly to you,” the old woman said. “You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know.”

“She pretty too,” the one with the hat on said.

“And stout,” the other one said. “I never knowed no sweeter white lady.”

“That's the truth befo' Jesus,” the old woman said. “Amen! You des as sweet and pretty as you can be.”

Mrs. Turpin knew exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage. “She said,” she began again and finished this time with a fierce rush of breath, “that I was an old wart hog from hell.”

There was an astounded silence.

“Where she at?” the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice. “Lemme see her. I'll kill her!”

“I'll kill her with you!” the other one cried.

“She b'long in the sylum,” the old woman said emphatically. “You the sweetest white lady I know.”

“She pretty too,” the other two said. “Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!”

Jesus is, perhaps, not as satisfied as Mrs. Turpin. No reader can help but be amused and disturbed by this passage, which is representative of O'Connor's subtle observation of a world that was not her own, but which informed every inch of the one she inhabited. Blacks may have spent much of their lives on the margins, but she understood the ways in which they entered the circle. The theatrical modesty and duplicity exhibited by these blacks who are an audience for Mrs. Turpin's troubles—despite the fact that she will never be one for theirs—are all just a part of the Southern code of manners.

O'Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that God judges by actions, but virtually all her white women characters judge by appearances. O'Connor greatly admired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers' relationship to the Master. But there is no Faulknerian Snopes in O'Connor's fiction. What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are women who wouldn't know grace if it slapped them in the face—which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created?

For O'Connor, writing about integration was a way of exposing the dangers of clinging to the fiction of power. But, like Faulkner, O'Connor herself had difficulty assimilating the push toward integration which took the region so suddenly and violently in the fifties and sixties. She clung to the provincialism she satirized, and she was sometimes clumsy at conveying real life among blacks beyond her own circles—their class distinctions, their communication with one another apart from whites. The one false note in “The Displaced Person” (1955), for instance, comes when two black workers discussing the woman they work for fall into a kind of rural Amos’n’ Andy routine: “‘Big Belly act like she know everything.’ ‘Never mind … your place too low for anybody to dispute with you for it.’” A curtain falls over O'Connor's insight—and her ear for speech. Luckily, she rarely tried to cover this ground—probably a prudent decision, given the murky and not altogether constructive works of some of the white liberals who did.

O'Connor received her M.F.A. in June of 1947, and Engle arranged for a fellowship that allowed her to stay at Iowa for another year and begin work on her unsettling first novel, Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, O'Connor's Evangelical hero, wears a blue suit and a black hat and has white skin that crackles like pork rind in the hot Southern sun. He may look like a standard preacher, but he's not like any the good citizens of his adopted town, Taulkinham, have ever heard of. An itinerant prophet, he believes only in his own church, “The Church Without Christ … where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way.” Motes is a backward innocent, raised a Baptist, who, instead of accepting Christ into his life, decides to be him. By denying Jesus, he turns his back on those who came before him, and who no doubt learned much of their discourse from the black preachers whose rhetoric soaks the Southern soil. But Motes has a grudge against Jesus: he equates Him with sin, or more specifically with the sins that he himself has committed and cannot escape—not in the eyes of his relatives, rotten with fake piety, who believe that only the Lord can wash him clean and are no better than niggers who think that the Lord will make them white.

Of Wise Blood, the writer and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman said, “Whatever caused Miss O'Connor to choose Protestant fundamentalism as her metaphor for Catholic vision, it was a brilliant choice. … It freed her from the constraints of good taste.” O'Connor's humor lay in such paradoxes—in being an alienated Catholic in a world of Bible-thumpers, a single girl in a society of matrons. “It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable, but in this the Southern writer has the greatest possible advantage. He lives in the Bible Belt,” she wrote, and went on:

The Catholic novelist in the South is forced to follow the spirit into strange places and to recognize it in many forms not totally congenial to him. … I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture of personality development. His interest and sympathy may very well go—as I know my own does—directly to those aspects of Southern life where the religious feeling is most intense and where its outward forms are farthest from the Catholic. … The result of these underground religious affinities will be a strange and, to many, perverse fiction, one which … gives us no picture of Catholic life, or the religious experiences that are usual with us, but I believe that it will be Catholic fiction.

In 1948, she was accepted at Yaddo as a writer-in-residence. There she was championed by several other writers: Alfred Kazin, Robert Lowell, and Lowell's wife-to-be, Elizabeth Hardwick, who once described O'Connor as being “like some quiet puritanical convent girl from the harsh provinces of Canada.” Although Philip Rahv eventually published O'Connor's work in The Partisan Review, she first began to attract attention in The Sewanee Review and, through the Southern Agrarian John Crowe Ransom, in The Kenyon Review. With the exception of Kazin, virtually none of O'Connor's early supporters were Jewish, and O'Connor had little exposure to European immigrants, to intellectual debate as a form of socializing, or to agnosticism. The North was still a black-and-white world, though in a different way than she'd experienced it at home.

The following year, O'Connor secured a contract for Wise Blood, with Holt, Rinehart. The association was not a happy one. She wrote to Paul Engle, describing the experience:

I learned indirectly that nobody at Rinehart liked the 108 pages … that the ladies there particularly had thought it unpleasant (which pleased me). I told Selby [O'Connor's editor] that I was willing enough to listen to Rinehart criticism but that if it didn't suit me, I would disregard it. … To develope at all as a writer I have to develope in my own way. … I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart. I think they are interested in the conventional and I have had no indication that they are very bright. … If they don't feel I am worth giving more money to and leaving alone, then they should let me go. … Selby and I came to the conclusion that I was “prematurely arrogant.” I supplied him with the phrase.

It is incredible to read, in this age, a letter by a writer whose use of ego serves to protect, not inform, her work. O'Connor was soon released from her contract and, in 1950, signed with Robert Giroux, then at Harcourt, Brace, whom she had met through Robert Lowell. The year before, Lowell had also introduced her to the Catholic poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally. The young couple had children, and a home in Ridgefield, Connecticut; they needed a boarder to make ends meet, and O'Connor moved in that fall. O'Connor attended Mass daily with the Fitzgeralds. And, as her literary mastery deepened, she became better able to define her faith. She wrote to Elizabeth Hester:

I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic.

As W. H. Auden put it, “In 1912, it was a real vision to discover that God loves a Pernod and a good fuck, but in 1942 every maiden aunt knows this and its time to discover something else He loves.” Unlike the majority of Catholics the Fitzgeralds had known, O'Connor lived her faith. In a memoir about her, Robert Fitzgerald wrote admiringly of her inability to speak in abstractions: “She could make things fiercely plain. As in her comment, now legendary, on an interesting discussion of the Eucharist Symbol: ‘If it's a symbol, to hell with it.’”

This most psychologically astute and least “psychological” of writers watched the action unfold in her stories and novels with a kind of amateur glee. As someone whose world view was in part ecclesiastical, O'Connor also knew that having faith involved hard, often dispassionate work: you did not embrace the leper at the side of the road because you “identified” with him; in fact, “because” wasn't even part of the equation. Seeing his skin drop off in flakes and handing over a fiver to sustain him were actions that called for description, not explanation. O'Connor understood comedy as the flashy side of tragedy. In her work, disaster puts on a red shirt and acts the fool for the Devil's amusement.

In 1950, while typing the first draft of Wise Blood, O'Connor began to experience a heaviness in her arms. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. But later that year she became seriously ill. She was suffering from lupus, the disease that had killed her father. Lupus put her in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life. It caused her face to swell and her hair to fall out; it required her to give herself injections of cortisone, and, eventually, to walk with aluminum crutches because “the misery,” as she termed it, affected her hips.

Except for a few speaking engagements and a visit to Europe with her mother, which included a pilgrimage to Lourdes (“I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient,” she wrote. “I will not be taking any bath. I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it”), O'Connor lived, from 1952 until her death, in 1964—at age thirty-nine—near Milledgeville, on Andalusia, a dairy farm that her mother had inherited. There she raised peacocks and ran a theology-and-literature reading group. She also wrote The Violent Bear It Away, and the stories that appeared in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. These stories glisten with intelligence and with startling anti-solipsism: she describes, never preaches.

O'Connor may have found comfort in her religion, which allowed her to enter into a dialogue with God about suffering. But she was surprisingly intolerant of the religious struggle of others, particularly that of women intellectuals. “The life of this remarkable woman … intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me,” O'Connor wrote of Simone Weil, a Jew who immersed herself in Catholicism. “Weil's life is the most comical life I have ever read about. … If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman—and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?” Was O'Connor instinctively recoiling from her own reflection in the mirror?

O'Connor, in return, was viewed as “homely” by most women of her time. Feminists have long looked up to her for her lack of compromise and her relative isolation, but they rarely factor in the emotional toll both took on her and her work—or the painful rewriting O'Connor has had to endure at the hands of memoirists such as Katherine Anne Porter, who emphasize how attractive she was, as if a woman must balance intelligence with prettiness to be legitimate. What was lacking in O'Connor's life—and in her art—was the spontaneous experience of intimate love, with its attendant joys and tedium and security. In O'Connor's fictional world, carnality, when it comes up at all, is brutal and hilariously symbolic. Mr. Shortley, in “The Displaced Person,” for instance, “makes love” to his wife by placing a lit cigarette inside his mouth like the tip of the Devil's tail:

When he had done his courting, he had not brought a guitar to strum or anything pretty for her to keep, but had sat on her porch steps, not saying a word, imitating a paralyzed man propped up to enjoy a cigarette. When the cigarette got the proper size, he would turn his eyes to her and open his mouth and draw in the butt and then sit there as if he had swallowed it, looking at her with the most loving look anybody could imagine. It nearly drove her wild and every time he did it, she wanted to pull his hat down over his eyes and hug him to death.

Sally Fitzgerald noted in a chronology that accompanies O'Connor's Collected Works (1988) that in the early fifties O'Connor had been in love with a visiting Danish textbook editor, but there is scant reference to him in the selected letters, The Habit of Being (1979), which was overseen by O'Connor's protective mother. Regina O'Connor's deep-seated respect for the social hierarchy created a gap between her and her daughter, and Flannery wrote amusingly in letters to friends about Regina's efforts to bridge it. In a 1953 letter to the Fitzgeralds:

My mamma and I have interesting literary discussions like the following which took place over some Modern Library books that I had just ordered:

She: “Mobby Dick. I've always heard about that.”

Me: “Mow-by Dick.

She: “Mow-by Dick. The Idiot. You would get something called Idiot. What's it about?”

Me: “An idiot.”

Much is left out or elided in the selected correspondence, the rights to which Regina controlled until her death, in 1995. But on the matter of faith the letters are often fierce and beautiful. The most conclusive statement appears in a letter written in the summer of 1955, to Hester:

If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it's the gas you breathe. If I hadn't had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. With such a current to write against, the result almost has to be negative. It does well just to be. Then another thing, what one has as a born Catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience things that I have all along accepted. I suppose the fullest writing comes from what has been accepted and experienced both and that I have just not got that far yet all the time. Conviction without experience makes for harshness.

And yet she would have little by way of experience for the next nine years. Visitors came through Milledgeville. Admirers wrote letters. But, as the years went on, O'Connor's view of what Marianne Moore called “the strange experience of beauty” became the subject of her jokes, not of serious examination. Like many people crippled by illness, O'Connor cleaved to the world as she knew it. In her early work, she had taken an intense interest in hustlers and freaks and “niggers.” “Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one,” she said once. But as her lupus progressed she spent less and less time discussing identity and its political implications, and, when she did, it often felt cavalier. “No I can't see James Baldwin in Georgia,” she wrote in 1959 to a friend who had tried to arrange the introduction. “It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it's only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” One feels a sense of loss on reading this, not only because of what such a union might have produced but also because of the limitations of O'Connor's time and place and the inevitable restrictions they placed on her art. Her regionalism was both a strength and a weakness; the emotional distance caused by her physical suffering was the axis on which both her comedy and her cruelty turned.

Had O'Connor and Baldwin met, they could have laughed together about their particular “Christ hauntings”: Baldwin was the son of a minister and had preached himself; his experience was not so different from that of the mad, naïve evangelists who populate O'Connor's fiction. And what a discussion they could have had about whiteness! In 1955, after a stay at an all-white Swiss village, Baldwin wrote, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again”—meaning that blacks, as artists and men, could no longer be confined to the self-contained enclaves that had produced them. O'Connor's later fiction was, in large part, an acknowledgment of this, and of the fear and fury it produced in her world. That conversation is lost to history. But O'Connor's work is not. One can hear her syntax and thoughts in the stories of Raymond Carver, in Robert Duvall's brilliant movie The Apostle, in the Samuel L. Jackson character's final monologue in Pulp Fiction. Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O'Connor's voice the uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.


O'Connor, Flannery (Short Story Criticism)


O'Connor, Flannery (Vol. 1)