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O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery 1925–1964
O'Connor was an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. A Roman Catholic from the Bible Belt, she liberally laced her fiction with material from each of these religious backgrounds to create a unique, highly personal vision. Her vision is a chilling one, reflected in a world characterized by sudden, bizarre violence and peopled with grotesques whom she sees as mirrors for men fallen from grace. O'Connor is considered one of the important figures of the Southern Renascence. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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Vision functions as the dynamic principle in Flannery O'Connor's fiction. From her first novel Wise Blood, through The Violent Bear It Away, and in both collections of short stories, O'Connor portrays characters who are morally blind. Her people project their true selves through the physical qualities of their eyes—through color, shape, and intensity. And their perception of the world is controlled by their limited powers of sight. The reader enters this world through the eyes of the characters, experiencing an environment fraught with extraordinary signs in the form of natural imagery. Among the recurring images a triad dominates: the treeline, the sun, and the color purple. Essentially, the tree-line suggests a delineation between the known and the unknown; the sun reflects light or enlightenment; and the color purple indicates bruising and pain. But on the metaphysical level, this triad represents an existential awareness and a spiritual process. (p. 31)
The focus on the eyes of the characters not only provides greater insight for the reader, but it also increases the reader's awareness of the conflict between individual perception and truth…. By assuming the objective point of view, O'Connor the narrator focuses closely on the telling details, especially the eyes of the characters and other elements that will inform the reader….
Vision controls not only the way a person views himself and others, but also the way he perceives nature. One of the recurring images O'Connor employs from the natural environment is the "tree-line," a demarcation of what is immediate to a character's experience and that which lies beyond. Sudden consciousness of the tree-line on the part of a character foreshadows an impending crisis. (p. 32)
Sun images work along with the tree-line images to convey impending light or enlightenment. In an O'Connor story the intensity of the sun is most acute at the point where the hero is suddenly enlightened, having experienced a moment of truth—a process like James Joyce's epiphany…. The strength of the sun is not only a reflection of the illumination occurring in the psyche of the character; it also high-lights the source of power—truth and Divine intervention. (p. 33)
The red-golds of the sun contrast with the purple tones of the imagery surrounding the moment of enlightenment. Purple suggests bruising, pain, and self-abnegation—it is always part of the process of change depicted in an O'Connor story…. The classical idea of suffering as a prelude to knowledge as well as the irony operative in classical tragedy permeates O'Connor's fiction. If illumination is to occur, the individual's defenses must be shattered in a kind of shock therapy. The outcome is a collision with truth—a metaphysical experience.
The totality of the natural imagery that reflects this metaphysical experience represents ultimately a spiritual process basic to O'Connor's orientation. The juxtaposition of earth and sky, the role of the sun, the use of the color purple portray the process of Redemption. Representing infinity and the omnipresent Divinity, the sky hovers over the earth separated by the horizon or tree-line. The barrier is penetrated by the rays of...
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the sun—the influence of God called grace. The sun causes a purpling effect or a form of self-abnegation on the part of the individual that prepares him for change. The color purple is traditionally used in Christian liturgy to symbolize penetential seasons. The fact that the occasion for the moment of illumination arrives unexpectedly, often ironically, indicates the unique power of Divine intervention…. All of O'Connor's works are concerned with Christian values, even though some of her short stories do not touch upon religion directly. She manages to evoke a sense of the redemptive process throughout her works, however, by reinforcing the moment of truth with symbolic imagery. (pp. 33-4)
The momentum of Flannery O'Connor's fiction is basically hopeful in assessing man's limitations amid the constant possibility of redemption. Although man is thwarted by his lack of vision, the light remains a hovering presence—ready to pursue, if necessary, the recalcitrant. The process of enlightenment, so basic to O'Connor's works, is reinforced by natural imagery…. The fusion of character, situation, and imagery culminates in a unique experience, a metaphysical awakening, a spiritual illumination. (p. 36)
Patricia D. Maida, "Light and Enlightenment in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1976 by Newberry College), Winter, 1976, pp. 31-6.
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[In "The Enduring Chill"] four explicit references to Joyce are only the most obvious of an elaborate series of correspondences between Asbury Porter Fox and the Stephen Dedalus of both Portrait and Ulysses: correspondences involving not only major events and images but even details of diction and syntax and providing the basis for a sharply satiric portrait of the self-conscious artist-hero. O'Connor frequently uses satire as an instrument of moral judgment, but "The Enduring Chill" is unique among her stories because its satiric object is a specific literary character. Taking Stephen's distinguishing characteristics and exaggerating them to create a caricature of the modern hero who vows to serve nothing except art, O'Connor presents her view of the would-be artist as a personal failure. By revealing her attitude about Joyce's artistic techniques and about the young Stephen as a cultural hero, "The Enduring Chill" becomes an important index of O'Connor's own central esthetic tenets…. (p. 245)
Like Stephen Dedalus, who for the sake of his vocation adopted a non serviam stance against country, family, and church, Asbury perceives his home, his family, and his religious tradition as constricting limitations which he must defy in the name of art. (p. 246)
One of the Achaean backslappers, Mr. Dedalus was most at home in a bar with his drinking companions; and Asbury is convinced that his "old man," who has been dead for twenty years, would also have been one of the "courthouse gang," no more intelligent or sensitive than anyone else in the rural wasteland. Like Stephen, however, Asbury rebels most vigorously against his mother. Compared with the pious, sentimental, and possessive Mrs. Dedalus, who appears as a suffering, victimized woman, Mrs. Fox is industriously independent, proud, mannered, and indulgent toward her children, especially the younger, Asbury. But even though the two women are very different, Asbury's rebellion against his mother is an exaggerated reflection of Stephen's non serviam toward his. (p. 249)
In one of her critical essays, O'Connor remarks that "There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift"…; Asbury clearly lacks both call and gift. (p. 251)
Ultimately, O'Connor identifies Asbury's failure (and, by implication, Stephen's) not with his failed art but with his flawed character, the result of his peculiar mind-set and one of the most important objects of O'Connor's satire. Asbury's temperament and attitude are exaggerated reflections of Stephen's distinguishing personal characteristic, his coolly aloof and seemingly disinterested disposition…. (pp. 251-52)
In Portrait Joyce painted not a moral picture, but a portrait of the artist as defined by his own awareness and social situation…. In Ulysses, however, Joyce intimates that Stephen's art is no consolation for his personal failure…. As Bloom emerges, Stephen recedes as the focus of attention, fading out, as it were, before his moral and spiritual superior. (p. 253)
Omitting the epiphany of vocation in order to emphasize the revelations of self-knowledge, [O'Connor] settles the question of her hero as an artist before the story even begins, thus creating not a portrait of the artist as a young man but a portrait of a young man using art for his own purposes. Whereas Joyce maintains a dual, if uneven, focus between Stephen's vocation and personality, O'Connor focuses almost entirely on the childish self-centeredness of her protagonist.
The nature of Asbury's disposition, which is no secret to anyone except himself, is revealed in his "irritable," "ugly," and "fretful" voice. Whereas he sees himself as an artist defiant against a stupid, insensitive world, O'Connor satirizes him as merely an indulged child who was insufficiently disciplined when growing up. (p. 254)
Cherishing a protective image of himself as a type of Joycean hero, Asbury has used the modern role of the sensitive artist at odds with his materialistic and unknowing surroundings to justify his own egocentricity. But O'Connor's character of petty defiance is not who he thinks he is: he is not part of the intellectual and artistic vanguard of society; and he is not Stephen Dedalus. His adoration of exile is more a manifestation of his willful character than an artistic transcendence over a crass and squalid world; his non serviam defiance is mere petulance. Having erected a pseudointellectual wall as protection from true self-knowledge and exposure to maturity, he has both prolonged and glorified his self-centeredness by worshipping it as dedication to art. In O'Connor's terms, what Asbury must recognize is that he is not the artist at odds with a philistine society, but that in his egocentric childishness he is simply at odds with everyone and everything … and most of all with himself and with God. Before Asbury gains true self-knowledge, however, he has to be kicked by a cow; ridiculed by his sister; scorned by the blacks; prodded and examined by a country doctor; in his dreams licked in the face by a spotted cow as if his head were a block of salt; accused and judged by a one-eyed, partially deaf priest; and attacked by both the fevers of nature and the purifying chill of the Holy Ghost.
Unlike Stephen, Asbury returns from exile not to his mother's death, or even to his own as he expects, but rather to the death of his hallowed, false self-image. Only at the end of the story, after Asbury learns the true source of his fever, does he with "shocked" eyes take back the key to the drawer containing the letter to his mother. At this point his wall of egocentricity has been breached, his old self-image is crumbling, and he sees himself as he truly is—thereby, in O'Connor's vision, opening himself to the mysterious power of the Holy Ghost. Like the younger Stephen, Asbury experiences an epiphany which is "the call of life" …; but whereas Stephen's epiphany is vocational, Asbury's is the vehicle of potential personal transformation. O'Connor presents this revelation in figures of violence and natural catastrophe—"earthquakes," "gunshot," "whirlwind," and a "purifying terror"—emphasizing the natural resistance of Asbury's old self, which can be destroyed only by a vastly superior force. In her world such a power is necessary to overcome the natural man's barrier of self-protection. (pp. 255-56)
The conclusion of "The Enduring Chill" is flawed by O'Connor's heavy-handedness. By blatantly entering the story herself and identifying her epiphany with the Holy Ghost, perhaps she wished to confess that all epiphanal experiences are God-centered rather than man-centered events. (p. 257)
The objects of O'Connor's satire in "The Enduring Chill" are many. She portrays Asbury in his childish "foolishness" as a ludicrous and comic figure. But in deflating Asbury's self-image, she also satirizes the youthful type that rebels against his tradition and alienates himself from his family in the name of absolute dedication to art. She is, then, addressing those artists and intellectuals who see Stephen Dedalus not just as the young artist but as the model of the hero most precious. They, like Asbury, fail to perceive Joyce's ironic treatment of the youthful errors of the sometimes maudlinly romantic adolescent and instead identify with the young defier, seeing in his alienation from family, country, and religion a personal model of behavior for artistic and intellectual freedom, a model which should be gospel for all knowing persons. O'Connor is, then, satirizing the popular reading of Stephen Dedalus as a cultural hero, an image which she—like many others—derives from a limited understanding of Joyce's attitude toward the character of Stephen, especially in Ulysses.
O'Connor felt that a narrative was flawed if the author failed to reveal a clear moral judgment…. [She] did not realize that Joyce's attitude toward Stephen and the nature of his exile for art shifted considerably in Ulysses; nor did she recognize the similarity of her criticism of Stephen with Joyce's own criticism of his young hero…. [Both] religiously informed writers ultimately see egocentric exile from the world as loveless and sterile; both ridicule extreme hyperborean defensiveness, making it the source of personal failure. At any rate,… O'Connor provides the clear judgment and comment which she thought Joyce failed to offer. If anything, in her zeal to correct what she considered a Joycean flaw she errs in the opposite direction and overwrites. One of the few times that O'Connor lost control of her fine tension between seeing and believing was surely the result of misreading.
Satire is the sword thrust O'Connor uses to puncture her reader's defensive worldly values, in this case the general adoration and emulation of a hero who, at least in her eyes, makes art a rival to God. Resembling the younger Stephen's hawk-god, the fierce bird in O'Connor's world is not art but the Holy Ghost, which stands in stark contrast to the huffy bird that is Asbury's emblem. O'Connor does not, of course, reject art; but the old priest, in his response to Asbury's affirmation that "the artist prays by creating," is surely her mouthpiece. For O'Connor art is indeed "Not enough": she clearly confesses that God, not art, is the mysterious source of creativity and the foundation of fulfilled personal existence. In her theocentric world, even to the young artist, the last word is God's. (pp. 257-59)
David Aiken, "Flannery O'Connor's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Failure," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1976 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 32, No. 3, Autumn, 1976, pp. 245-59.
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[No] reader can fail to discern the permanence and seriousness of [O'Connor's] religious concerns. Fall and redemption, nature and grace, sin and innocence—every one of her stories and novels revolves around these traditional Christian themes. It is hardly surprising that O'Connor should have acknowledged close affinities with Hawthorne. Her fiction is of a coarser fabric than his, less delicately shaded in its artistry and far less muted in its effects, but it belongs without any doubt to the same tradition of American romance: characters and plots matter less than "the power of darkness" one senses behind them; symbol, allegory, and parable are never far away, and with O'Connor as with Hawthorne, the accumulated mass of allusions and connotations derives in a very large measure from the rich mythology of Christian culture. The temptation is therefore great to decipher works like theirs through the cultural and hermeneutic codes which the Christian tradition provides, and in O'Connor's case it is all the more irresistible since we have the author's blessing. (pp. 53-4)
O'Connor's public pronouncements on her art—on which most of her commentators have pounced so eagerly—are by no means the best guide to her fiction. As an interpreter, she was just as fallible as anybody else, and in point of fact there is much of what she has said or written about her work that is highly questionable. The relationship between what an author thinks, or thinks he thinks, and what he writes, is certainly worth consideration. For the critic, however, what matters most is not the extent to which O'Connor's tales and novels reflect or express her Christian faith, but rather the problematical relation between her professed ideological stance and the textual evidence of her fiction.
Ideologically O'Connor was an eccentric. Her commitments were definitely off-center: antisecular, antiliberal, antiindividualistic, and she had as little patience with the cozy assumptions of conventional humanism as with the bland pieties and anemic virtues of its fashionable Christian variants. What counted for O'Connor was not so much man as his soul, and perhaps not so much his soul as the uncanny forces that prey on it. Hers is a world haunted by the sacred—a sacred with two faces now distinct and opposed, now enigmatically confused: the divine and the demonic. Hence, we find in most of her characters the double postulation noted by Baudelaire: one toward God, the other toward Satan.
In accordance with this dual vision, the human scene becomes in her fables the battleground where these two antagonistic powers confront each other and fight for possession of each man's soul. To judge from O'Connor's hellish chronicle, however, the chances hardly seem to be equal. To all appearances, Evil wins the day. Or rather: Satan triumphs. For in her world Evil is not just an ethical concept; it is an active force, and it has a name, personal, individual. In the middle of the twentieth century O'Connor, like Bernanos, was rash enough to believe not only in God but also in the Devil. And, like the French novelist, she had the nerve to incorporate him into her fiction. In The Violent Bear It Away we first hear his voice—the voice of the friendly "stranger" who accompanies young Tarwater during his tribulations; then we see him in the guise of a homesexual sporting a black suit, a lavender shirt, and a broad-rimmed panama hat. (pp. 54-5)
But the Devil does not have to strut about the stage to persuade us of his existence and power. Reflected in the implacable mirror O'Connor holds up to it, the whole world becomes transfixed in a fiendish grimace: mankind has apparently nothing to offer but the grotesque spectacle of its cruel antics. At first glance, it almost looks as if all souls had already been harvested by the Demon. For, despite O'Connor's firm belief in the existence of immortal souls, her world strikes us most often as utterly soulless. There is indeed little to suggest the "depths" and "secrets" of inner life which are the usual fare of religious fiction. The ordinary condition of most of her heroes is one of extreme emotional exhaustion and spiritual numbness, and from that catatonic torpor they only emerge to succumb to the destructive forces of violence or insanity. Moreover, in their deathlike apathy as well as in their sudden convulsions, O'Connor's characters are ruthlessly stripped of any pretense to dignity. People, in her fiction, suffer and die, but pettily, just as they are pettily evil. Wrenching from the Devil the dark, handsome mask afforded him by romantic satanism, O'Connor exposes his essential banality and restores him to his favorite hunting ground: the everyday world. The color of evil, in her work, is gray rather than black—a grim grayness set off by lurid splashes of red. Its face is difficult to distinguish from that of mediocrity, and its most characteristic expression is meanness. The banality of evil is what brings it within range of mockery: insofar as it thrives on human folly and wretchedness, it becomes laughable.
Yet with O'Connor laughter is never harmless, and her savage humor seldom provides comic release. It is not an elegant way of defusing horror. Far from dissolving evil in farce, it emphasizes its demonic character, and calls attention to its terrifying power of perversion and distortion. Woven into the fabric of everydayness, evil becomes trivial, but at the same time the world of common experience is defamiliarized and made disquieting through its contagion by evil. Under Satan's sun the earth spawns monsters. O'Connor's tales drag us into a teratological nightmare, a ludicrous Inferno partaking at once of a hospital ward, a lunatic asylum, a menagerie, and a medieval Cour des Miracles. Like a Brueghel painting or a Buñuel film, the stories of A Good Man Is Hard to Find invite us to a sinister procession of freaks and invalids…. (p. 55)
O'Connor's penchant for freaks, idiots, and cripples, her fascination with the morbid, macabre, and monstrous, are traits she shares with many southern writers. The same gothic vein can be found to varying degrees in Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, William Goyen, and Truman Capote, as well as in William Faulkner. Like them, she belongs to the manifold progeny of Poe. Yet the primal function assumed in her art by the grotesque cannot be explained away by fashion or tradition. Nor can one ascribe it merely to the gratuitous play of a perverse imagination. O'Connor used the grotesque very deliberately, and if it became one of her privileged modes, it was because she thought it fittest to express her vision of reality. As she herself stated, its meaning in her fiction is closely linked to her religious concerns; in her eyes, the grotesque can no more be dissociated from the supernatural than evil can be separated from the mysteries of faith. The grotesque has the power of revelation; it manifests the irruption of the demonic in man and brings to light the terrifying face of a world literally dis-figured by evil. The derangement of minds and deformity of bodies point to a deeper sickness, invisible but more irremediably tragic, the sickness of the soul. Gracelessness in all its forms indicates the absence of grace in the theological sense of the term.
This, at least, is how O'Connor vindicated her heavy reliance on grotesque effects and how she expected her readers to respond to them. Yet her vigorous denunciation of spiritual sickness is not devoid of ambiguity, and its ambiguity partly proceeds from the very rage with which she fustigates man's sins and follies…. Between her and her characters (with a few notable exceptions) lies all the distance of contempt, disgust, and derision, and it is the very harshness of the satire that arouses suspicion…. With methodic thoroughness and almost sadistic glee, O'Connor exploits all the resources of her talent to reduce the human to the nonhuman, and all her similes and metaphors have seemingly no other purpose than to degrade it to the inanimate, the bestial, or the mechanical. Like Gogol and Dickens, she possesses a weird gift for deadening people into things while quickening things into objects with a life of their own (Hazel's rat-colored Essex in Wise Blood, the giant steam shovel in "A View of the Woods").
Hence a world both frozen and frantic, both ludicrous and threatening. O'Connor's landscapes—her fierce, fiery suns, her blank or blood-drenched skies, her ominous woods—are landscapes of nightmare…. Yet, even though O'Connor defended her use of the grotesque as a necessary strategy of her art, one is left with the impression that in her work it eventually became the means of a savage revilement of the whole of creation.
Questions then arise on the orthodoxy of her Catholicism. For Barbey d'Aurevilly, Catholicism was, in his own phrase, an old wrought-iron balcony ideally suited for spitting upon the crowd. It would be unfair, certainly, to suggest that O'Connor used it for similar purposes. Yet one may wonder whether her Catholicism was not, to some extent, an alibi for misanthropy. And one may also wonder whether so much black derision is compatible with Christian faith, and ask what distinguishes the extreme bleakness of her vision from plain nihilism. (pp. 56-7)
If we are to believe the Christian moralists, one of the Devil's supreme wiles is to leave us with the shattering discovery of our nothingness and so to tempt us into the capital sin of despair. From what one knows of O'Connor's life, it seems safe to assume that this was the temptation she found most difficult to resist, and it might be argued that her writing was in many ways a rite of exorcism, a way of keeping despair at a distance by projecting it into fiction. Small wonder then that in her work the demon of literary creation, as John Hawkes so judiciously noted, is inseparable from the Demon himself. When, as in The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor makes the Devil speak, his sarcastic voice sounds startlingly like the author's. (p. 57)
Yet it is not enough to say that O'Connor was of the Devil's party. Many ironies and paradoxies interact in her work, and exegetes of Christian persuasion would probably contend that in its very abjection O'Connor's world testifies to the presense of the divine, the fall from grace being the proof a contrario of man's supernatural destination. O'Connor's heroes live mostly in extreme isolation, yet they are never truly alone. However entrenched in their smugness or embattled in their revolt, they find no safe shelter in their puny egos, and sooner or later, by degrees or—more often—abruptly, some invisible force breaks into their lives to hurl them far beyond themselves. They are called—called by whom? By what? How can anyone tell if the calling voice is God's or the Devil's?
A major theme in O'Connor's fiction, the enigma of vocation, is nowhere more fully explored than in her two novels. As most critics have pointed out, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away offer very similar narrative and thematic patterns. Their heroes, Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, are likewise obsessed by their vocation as preachers and prophets, and in both of them the obsession is significantly embodied in the figure of a despotic old man, the more formidable since he is dead: a fanatical grandfather, "with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger" … for Hazel; a great-uncle no less single-minded and intolerant for young Tarwater….
Prophets or false prophets? The question is not easy to answer. Many of O'Connor's backwoods preachers are simply frauds, and for a sincere Christian there is perhaps nothing more scandalous than religious imposture…. Satirizing southern evangelism, however, was obviously not O'Connor's main concern. Her preachers and prophets are by no means all vulgar charlatans. Nor are we supposed to regard them as lunatics. The reader is of course free to dismiss characters such as Hazel Motes or the two Tarwaters as insane, and to interpret their extravagant stories as cases of religious mania, but it is clear that this is not how the author intended them to be read. As a Roman Catholic, O'Connor must have had her reservations about the fanatic intolerance and apocalyptic theology of primitive fundamentalism. Yet, as she herself admitted on several occasions, its integrity and fervor appealed to her, for she found them congenial to the burning intransigence of her own faith. Her fascination with the southern evangelist—whom she came to envision as a crypto-Catholic—is not unlike the attraction Bernanos and Graham Greene felt for the priest figure. (p. 58)
In O'Connor violence rules man's relation to the sacred, just as it rules his relation to other men. Nothing here that suggests "spirituality": the word is too smooth, too polished, too blandly civilized to apply to the compulsions and convulsions of these savage souls. For Motes and Tarwater as well as for the "Misfit" of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," God is above all an idée fixe, and the divine is primarily experienced as an intolerable invasion of privacy, a dispossession—or possession—of the self. What torments O'Connor's heroes, at least at first glance, is not their being deprived of God, but rather the fact that their obsession with Him cannot be escaped. Religious experience, as it is rendered dramatically in her fiction, comes pretty close to Freud's definition: a variant of obsessional neurosis.
God is the Intruder. Therefore the first move of O'Connor's "prophet freaks" … is to resist or to flee. (p. 59)
Rebellious children, O'Connor's heroes assert themselves only by willful transgression of the divine order, as if only the certainty of flouting God's will and of doing evil could give them an identity of their own. Their revolt springs essentially from a refusal to submit, to alienate their freedom and have their fate coerced into some preestablished pattern. In their stubborn striving for autonomy, they commit what Christian tradition has always considered to be the satanic sin par excellence: the sin of pride.
Yet pride is not the only obstacle to the fulfillment of their spiritual destinies. Soiled from birth by the sin of their origins, how could these fallen souls hoist themselves up to God's light? They do not know God; they experience only his burning absence. For the theologian and the philosopher God is a matter of speculation; for the mystic he may become the living object of inner experience. For O'Connor's Christomaniacs he becomes "the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."… Their God is above all a haunting specter, a power felt and feared in its uncanny emptiness, and this ominous power they can only apprehend anthropomorphically through the incongruous phantasmagoria of their guilt-ridden imaginations. There is apprehension, but no comprehension. Their notion of the godly is not exempted from the distortions of the corrupt world in which they live, and therefore the divine gets so often confused with the demonic. In its extreme form, this rampant perversion comes to manifest itself as radical inversion. Everything, then, is turned upside down, and the religious impulse is subverted into its very opposite: desire for God is transformed into God-hatred, prayer into blasphemy, and the quest for salvation turns into a mystique of perdition.
Nothing exemplifies this inversion better than the imitatio Christi in reverse which O'Connor presents us in Wise Blood. After turning himself into the prophet of the Church Without Christ (the negative of the Church of God, the very image of the "body of sin" referred to by St. Paul), Hazel Motes ironically becomes a Christ without a church, an anonymous, solitary pseudo-Christ or anti-Christ. His disciples are morons and mountebanks, his preaching meets only with indifference, and his calvary at the close of the novel ends in a seemingly pointless death. Worn out by self-inflicted pain and privation, he is clubbed to death by two fat policemen. Motes dies like a dog, and his atrocious end reminds one strongly of the last pages of The Trial, when two men appear and lead Joseph K. to the outskirts of the town to kill him. The life and death of O'Connor's hero appear likewise as an absurd Passion. (pp. 59-60)
Christian references and Christian parallels abound in O'Connor's fiction, and more often than not they strike us as ironic. In Wise Blood, especially, parodic overtones are so frequent that the whole novel might almost be read as sheer burlesque. A "new jesus" appears in the guise of a shrunken museum mummy; a slop-jar cabinet becomes the tabernacle to receive him, and Sabbath Lily Hawks, a perverse little slut, cradles the mummy in her arms as if she were the Madonna. O'Connor's penchant for travesty is likewise reflected in the eccentric ritualism of many of her characters: baptismal drownings (in "The River" and The Violent Bear It Away), rites of exorcism (Tarwater setting fire to his great-uncle's house), purification rites (Tarwater firing the bushes where the rape occurred), initiation rites (Enoch Emery's shedding of clothes in Wise Blood and Tarwater's in The Violent Bear It Away), sacrificial rites (Motes's self-blinding), etc. In their appalling extravagance, these ritual actions are likely to shock any reader, whether Christian or not. But here again, if we are prepared to accept the premises of the author, we shall avoid mistaking them for mere fits of madness, for to her, in a desacralized world like ours, these savage and sacrilegious rites paradoxically assert the presence of the sacred through the very excess of its distortion or denial. (pp. 60-1)
O'Connor's satiric stance, her penchant for parody, her reliance on the grotesque, and her massive use of violence—the features of her art we have examined so far all contribute to the subtle interplay of tensions and ambiguities through which it comes alive, and they resist alike reduction to a single interpretative pattern. The same irreducible ambiguity also attaches to another significant trait of her fictional world: the enormous amount of suffering and humiliation which is inflicted on most of her characters, and the inevitability of their defeat and/or death. Hazel Motes's destiny probably offers the most telling example of this process: after an active career in sin and crime, all his aggressiveness is eventually turned against himself, driving him to a positive frenzy of masochism and self-destruction. He blinds himself with quicklime, exposes himself to cold and illness, walks in shoes "lined with gravel and broken glass and pieces of small stone,"… wraps three strands of barbed wire round his chest, and when his baffled landlady protests at so much self-torture, Motes replies imperturbably: "I'm not clean," or again "I'm paying."… (p. 61)
According to the prototypal Christian pattern, the hero's journey leads in both novels from sinful rebellion to the recognition of sin and to penance. O'Connor would have us believe that her protagonists are responsible for their fates, that they possess freedom of choice, and are at liberty to refuse or accept their vocation…. But her readers, even those who sympathize with her Christian assumptions and are willing to make allowances for the mysterious working of grace, will hesitate to take her at her word. For in the text of the novel there is indeed little to indicate that Motes or Tarwater could have made a different choice and that events might have followed another course. Her heroes are not allowed to shape their destinies; they only recognize fate when it pounces upon them…. O'Connor's heroes are … like sleepers: they traverse life in a driven dreamlike state, and with the sense of impotence and anxiety one experiences in nightmares. They go through the motions of revolt, but their violent gestures toward independence are all doomed to dissolve into unreality. They are nothing more than the starts and bounds of a hooked fish. Tarwater and Motes both act out scenarios written beforehand by someone else. (p. 62)
On the face of it, [the novels] develop in accordance with the three major phases of the rite de passage: separation, transition, and reincorporation, but they give no sense of moving forward in time and no evidence of psychological development. Instead of inner growth, there is a backward circling which takes O'Connor's heroes inexorably back to where they started. Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away both follow the same circular and regressive pattern, made conspicuous by the close similarities between opening and final scenes. In Wise Blood Mrs. Hitchcock's fascination with Hazel's eyes in the initial train scene anticipates Mrs. Flood's perplexed watching of his burnt-out eye sockets at the close of the novel. In much the same way the punishment he inflicts upon himself at ten—walking through the woods, his shoes filled with pebbles—prefigures the penitential rites preceding his near-suicidal death. In The Violent Bear It Away, on the other hand, the parallelism is emphasized by the use of the same setting: the novel starts with Tarwater's departure from Powderhead and closes with his return to it. "I guess you're going home,"… Mrs. Hitchcock says to Hazel Motes on the train; in symbolic terms, his journey is indeed a journey home, and Tarwater's is quite literally a homecoming. These repetitions, to be true, are repetitions with a difference, and one could say that the movement is spiral-like rather than circular: there are intimations that through his harrowing ordeals Motes has moved toward a state of saintliness, and his physical blindness may be taken for an index to the spiritual insight he has at last achieved. It is obvious too that in The Violent Bear It Away the fire symbolism of the closing scenes reverses the meaning it was given in the first chapter. And it might be argued finally that recurring situations, settings, and imagery are part of the author's elaborate technique of foreshadowing.
But this is perhaps precisely where the shoe pinches: O'Connor's foreshadowing is so dense as to become constrictive; the signs and signals of destiny clutter so thickly around the protagonists of her novels that no breathing space is left to them. The author plays God to her creatures, and foreshadowing becomes the fictional equivalent of predestination. Everything propels her heroes toward submission to their predetermined fates and, at the same time, pushes them back to their childhood allegiances. Not only does their rebellion fail, it also ends each time in unconditional surrender to the parental powers from which they had attempted to escape.
In Wise Blood the prophetic mission is anticipated in the haunting figure of the grandfather, but Hazel's backward journey is essentially a return to the mother. The return motif is already adumbrated in the remembered episode of his visit to Eastrod after his release from the army. The only familiar object Hazel then found in his parents' deserted house was his mother's walnut chifforobe, and before leaving he put warning notes in every drawer: "This shiffer-robe belongs to Hazel Motes. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down and killed."… In the claustrophobic dream touched off by this reminiscence, the chifforobe is metamorphosed into his mother's coffin, while the coffin itself is fused with the berth in the train where Hazel is sleeping. What is more, Hazel, in his dream, identifies with his dead mother…. This dream is significantly related to another one, in which Motes dreams that he is buried alive and exposed through an oval window to the curiosity of various onlookers, one of whom is a woman who would apparently like to "climb in and keep him company for a while."… Furthermore, these two coffin dreams relate back to the traumatic childhood scene of Motes's initiation into evil: the disturbing sight of a nude blonde in a black casket, exhibited in the carnival tent where the ten-year-old boy had secretly followed his father. At his return from the country fair, his mother (whose image he superimposed mentally on that of the woman in the casket) knows, after one look at him, that he has sinned, and it is her accusing look that induces his first penitential rite. In the visual symbolism of the novel, the urge to see and the fear of being seen are recurrent motifs, and in this scene as in several others they both point to sin and guilt. What also appears through the interrelated imagery of these oneiric and actual scenes is the close conjunction of sex and death. But the most remarkable feature is that the themes of sin and guilt, sex and death, all coalesce around the mother figure and its surrogates. Motes's mother, while being deviously linked to his sordid sexual experiences, is at the same time a haunting reminder of the demands of religion: when he goes into the army, the only things he takes with him are "a black Bible and a pair of silver-trimmed spectacles that had belonged to his mother."… (pp. 62-4)
In Wise Blood Motes is finally reabsorbed into his mother. In The Violent Bear It Away Tarwater is likewise reabsorbed into his great-uncle. Raising the orphan boy to be a prophet like himself, the tyrannical old man has molded him in his own image and conditioned him for a destiny similar to his. When he dies, young Tarwater does his utmost to assert his own separate self through repeated acts of defiance, but what the novel seems to demonstrate is that there can be no escape from the self-ordained prophet's posthumous grip. In the concluding scene the repentant boy submits to what he so fiercely rejected, and his act of submission reminds one of the etymological origin of "humility" (humus = soil): prostrate on old Tarwater's grave, smearing his forehead with earth from his burial place, he acknowledges at last the absolute power of the past over the present, of the dead over the living or, to put it in terms of kinship, of the father over the son. The story comes full circle: otherness is resolved into sameness, difference into repetition. Having forever renounced his desire for autonomous selfhood, young Tarwater is now willing to become a faithful replica of old Tarwater, and in all likelihood his ulterior fate will be nothing more than a reenactment of the dead prophet's.
For neither protagonist of O'Connor's novels, then, is true separateness possible. Nor can they ever achieve true relatedness. Theirs is a demented mirror world of doubles, where the self is always experienced as other, and the other apprehended as a reflection of self. The schizophrenic dilemma they are both confronted with is either the madness of extreme isolation or the deadness of total engulfment. In both cases, the failure to define a viable identity leads ultimately to complete self-cancellation; in both cases, the inability to grow up provokes helpless surrender to an omnipotent and all-devouring parent figure. (pp. 64-5)
For almost all of O'Connor's characters there is a time for denial and a time for submission, a time for sin and a time for atonement. The passage from one to the other is what she has attempted to describe in her two novels, but as we have seen, she shows relatively little interest in the continuities and intricacies of inner growth. Her heroes do not change gradually; they progress—or regress—in fits and starts, through a series of switches and turnabouts rather than through a slow process of maturation. What engages most deeply O'Connor's imagination—and this, incidentally, may account for her feeling more at home in the short story than in the novel—is not so much time as the sudden encounter of time with the timeless: the decisive moments in a man's existence she would have called moments of grace…. Grace plays indeed a major part in her novels as in most of her stories, especially the later ones, and as a religious concept it forms the very core of her implicit theology. Left to his own devices, man, as he appears in her fiction, is totally incapable of ensuring his salvation. Whether it degrades itself in grotesque parody or exhausts itself in mad convulsions, his quest for the holy is doomed to derision and failure from the very start. Grace alone saves, and even that is perhaps going too far: reading O'Connor's tales, one rather feels that grace simply makes salvation possible. (p. 65)
The impact of grace, as evoked by O'Connor, is that of a painful dazzle; it does not flood the soul with joy; her characters experience it as an instantaneous deflagration, a rending and bursting of the whole fabric of their being. For the revelation it brings is first and foremost self-revelation, the terrified recognition of one's nothingness and guilt. As each character is brutally stripped of his delusions, he sees and knows himself at last for what he is: "Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes."… Not until the soul has reached that ultimate point of searing self-knowledge does salvation become a possibility. (p. 66)
In O'Connor, grace is not effusion but aggression. It is God's violence responding to Satan's violence, divine counterterror fighting the mutiny of evil. The operations of the divine and of the demonic are so disturbingly alike that the concept of God suggested by her work is in the last resort hardly more reassuring than her Devil. In fairness, one should no doubt allow for the distortions of satire, and be careful to distinguish the God of O'Connor's faith from the God-image of her characters. Her handling of point of view, however, implies no effacement on the part of the narrator, and her dramatic rendering of spiritual issues as well as the imagery she uses to evoke the actions of grace, provide enough clues to what God meant in her imaginative experience.
O'Connor's imagination is preeminently visual and visionary. Like Conrad's, her art attempts in its own way "to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe," and far from clouding her perception, her sense of mystery rather adds to its startling clarity and sharpness. It is worth noting too how much of the action of her stories and novels is reflected in the continuous interplay of peeping or peering, prying or spying eyes, and how much importance is accorded throughout to the sheer act of seeing—or not seeing. Wise Blood is a prime example: a great deal of its symbolism springs from the dialectic of vision and blindness, and a similar dialectic is also at work in The Violent Bear It Away and in many of her stories. For O'Connor seeing is a measure of being: while the sinner gropes in utter darkness, the prophet—in O'Connor's phrase, "a realist of distances"—is above all a seer. In God the faculty of vision is carried to an infinite power of penetration: God is the All-seeing, the absolute Eye, encompassing the whole universe in its eternal gaze.
The cosmic metaphor for the divine eye is the sun. Through one of those reversals of the imagination the sun, in O'Connor's fiction, is not simply the primal source of light that makes all things visible, it is itself capable of vision, it is an eye. In The Violent Bear It Away there are few scenes to which the sun is not a benevolent or, more often, malevolent witness. After the old man's death, while Tarwater is reluctantly digging his grave, the sun moves slowly across the sky "circled by a haze of yellow,"… then becomes "a furious white blister" … as he starts listening to the seductive voice of the "stranger." (pp. 66-7)
O'Connor's sun is both cosmic eye and heavenly fire. It thus condenses two of her most pregnant symbol patterns in a single image. For fire imagery is indeed as essential in her symbolic language as eye and sight imagery: incandescent suns, flaming skies, burning houses, woods, trees, and bushes—hers is an apocalyptic world forever ablaze. Fire is the visible manifestation of the principle of violence governing the universe, and the ordeal by fire is the rite de passage all of O'Connor's heroes are subjected to. A symbol of destruction and death, and a reminder of hell, it is also the favorite instrument of divine wrath and, as the old prophet taught young Tarwater, "even the mercy of the Lord burns."… Associated with purification and regeneration as well as evil, fire is the ambiguous sign of the elect and the damned, and its voracity is God's as much as Satan's.
That eye, sun, and fire are all emblems of the sacred is confirmed by another symbolic figure which both unites and multiplies them in animal form: the peacock. In "The Displaced Person," instead of being associated with human pride and ostentatiousness, the peacock becomes a symbol of the Second Coming, evoking the unearthly splendor of Christ at the Last Judgment. His tail, in O'Connor's description, expands into a cosmic wonder: "… his tail hung in front of her, full of fierce planets with eyes that were each ringed in green and set against a sun that was gold in one second's light and salmon-colored in the next."… (p. 68)
Immensity, brilliance, splendor, a dizzying profusion of eyes and suns, such are the features O'Connor chooses to celebrate God's power and glory. And one can hardly refrain from the suspicion that power and glory are in her imagination if not in her belief the essential attributes of divinity. In cosmic terms, her God is sun and fire…. Small wonder then that the spiritual errancy of O'Connor's heroes turns into a paranoid nightmare: aware of being watched and scrutinized by the relentless eye of the almighty Judge, they are unable ever to see their remote and silent persecutor. Not until grace descends to seize and possess their tormented souls is the infinite distance separating them abolished. Now the celestial Watcher, now a God of prey; first hovering, motionless, above his victim, then swooping with terrible speed to devour it.
One might have expected so fervent a Catholic as O'Connor to focus her fiction on the figure of Christ. In a sense, to be true, she does: whether in prayer or profanity, his name is obsessively referred to, and the question of whether Jesus suffered and died for our sins is indeed of vital concern to many of her characters. Yet her work is not so much Christ-centered as Christ-haunted. Unlike T. S. Eliot's later poetry, it is by no means a reaffirmation of the Christian mystery of the Incarnation. O'Connor's divisive vision perpetuates the idealistic cleavage between spirit and body, eternity and time, God and man, and Christ is likewise split into two irreconcilable halves. His image in her work constantly oscillates between the extremes of radical humanity and radical divinity. Now he is the mythical paradigm of human suffering, as Christ crucified and recrucified, now he appears in the plenitude of his majesty as Christ the King, most startlingly represented in the image of the Byzantine Pantocrator tattooed on Parker's back. Or, to put it otherwise, he is alternately the impotent victimized Son and the omnipotent Father. These are images quite common in Christian literature and iconography. The point is that in O'Connor they never meet and merge in the dual unity of Christ, the God become man, the Word become flesh. The mediating function associated with Jesus by the Christian and particularly the Catholic tradition is hardly acknowledged, and what characterizes O'Connor's fictional world is precisely the absence of all mediation, of all intercession. On the one hand, there is the utter darkness of evil, on the other, the white radiance of divine transcendence. Between the two: man, battered and blinded, the victim of Satan or the prey of God, doomed to be defeated and dispossessed whatever the outcome of the dubious battle fought over his wretched soul. (pp. 68-9)
O'Connor envisioned the writer's relation to his work on the same pattern as God's relation to his creation, as if art were simply the fulfillment of preexisting intentions, the embodiment of a fixed vision prior to the writing process. In defining herself as a writer, she failed to acknowledge the insight so admirably dramatized in her fiction: that the self is not even master in its own house. For the writing self is certainly not exempted from the common lot: its imaginative constructs escape its mastery both in their deeper motivations and in their ultimate effects.
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. O'Connor is definitely on the darker fringe of Christianity, and to find antecedents one has to go back to the paradoxical theology of early church fathers like Tertullian, or to the negative theology of stern mystics like St. John of the Cross. Pitting the supernatural against the natural in fierce antagonism, her theology holds nothing but scorn for everything human, and it is significant that in her work satanic evildoers (the "Misfit," Rufus Johnson) are far less harshly dealt with than humanistic do-gooders (Rayber, Sheppard). What is more, of the two mysteries—or myths—which are central to Christianity, the Fall and the Redemption, only the first seems to have engaged her imagination as a creative writer. Gnawed by old Calvinistic ferments and at the same time corroded by a very modern sense of the absurd, O'Connor's version of Christianity is emphatically and exclusively her own. Her fallen world, it is true, is visited by grace, but is grace, as she evokes it in her last stories, anything other than the vertigo of the nada and the encounter with death? And who is this God whose very mercy is terror?
It may be argued of course that these are the paradoxes of faith, or that O'Connor's rhetoric of violence was the shock therapy which her benumbed audience needed. There is little doubt that there will be many further exercises in exegetical ingenuity to establish her orthodoxy. Yet her work is not content with illustrating Christian paradoxes. It stretches them to breaking point, leaving us with Christian truths gone mad, the still incandescent fragments of a shattered system of belief.
Flannery O'Connor was a Catholic. She was not a Catholic novelist. She was a writer, and as a writer she belongs to no other parish than literature. (pp. 69-70)
André Bleikasten, "The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor," in Les Américanistes: New French Criticism on Modern American Fiction, edited by Ira D. Johnson and Christiane Johnson (copyright © 1978 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1978, pp. 53-70.