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.)
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...
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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...
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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...
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