Flannery O'Connor O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery (Vol. 13) - Essay

Kenneth Frieling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Flannery O'Connor's themes are so traditional as to make her fiction seem unique within the context of the 50s. During a period in which regionalism was becoming suspect, O'Connor rooted her hilariously—often painfully—textured concrete reality in the regionalism of the Georgia sector of the Bible Belt. In a time whose literature still avoided absolutes in its various existential stances, she presents an anti-existential vision of a world offered the mystery of grace, the possibility of redemption through violent revelation. While always aware of being a practicing Catholic in the Protestant South, O'Connor is most fully aware of her challenge as an artist in a much broader area: "the business of fiction is to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind."

A facile explanation of her reputation would be to ignore her fusion of Catholic mystery and Southern manners and point rather to the extraordinary verve of her brilliant style by which she presents grotesque characters experiencing horror coalesced with dark comedy. (pp. 111-12)

Much attraction lies in O'Connor's ability to depict her characters' shallowness in one adroit comment …, to expose their love of possessions as thoroughly alienated from what is natural …, and to present the characters' self-parodies through an outrageous image….

Yet one cannot stop at this point, for her portraits of the physically grotesque reflect the spiritually distorted. (p. 112)

Just as her readers must recognize the grotesque as something other than horrific sensationalism, O'Connor's characters must recognize through violent revelation the grotesque as ugly, as unnatural distortion, and thus achieve the possibility of grace. (p. 113)

This recognition of the grotesque is accomplished through a violent displacement unleashing epiphanies with...

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Robert Milder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What Miss O'Connor wrote] about might be comprehended by the word "mystery." "There are two qualities that make fiction," she was fond of saying: "One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of experience that surrounds you"; the sense of mystery is the writer's own. [Mystery] for Miss O'Connor, a Roman Catholic,… centered upon the three basic theological doctrines of the Church: the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. The South provided her with a language and a social fabric, a "texture of experience," but it was never more than the scene for a pageant universally enacted, the pageant of salvation through divine grace.

As an artist in the Jamesian tradition, profoundly convinced that a story "must carry its meaning inside it," Miss O'Connor was sensitive to the charge that Christian dogma inhibited a writer by imposing homiletic conclusions upon his work…. Belief, in her view, was an instrument for "penetrating reality," not for molding it, and the Catholic novel was nothing more or less than "one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by." "In the greatest fiction," she wrote, the artist's "moral sense" coincided with "his dramatic sense," with judgment so implicit in perception itself that the writer had no need to moralize. And here, she added, the Catholic writer enjoyed an inestimable advantage over the secular writer, who, skeptical of any absolute moral order, felt called upon to create one in his fiction. Secure in his faith "that the universe is meaningful," the Catholic writer was free to observe and reflect his world unburdened by the moral responsibilities of the unbeliever.

Had Miss O'Connor described her art as Christian rather than Catholic, the congruence between its theory and practice might have been almost complete. But she did not. The longest section in Mystery and Manners consists of four essays dealing with the Catholic writer and his audience, in each of which Miss O'Connor makes a strong case, implicitly or explicitly, for the Catholic nature of her fiction. She chooses "Catholic," she tells us, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable. It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart." And for Miss O'Connor a golden heart was not merely "a positive interference in the writing of fiction," but a symptom of everything that was wrong with modern religion—most notably, of the "tenderness" of the liberal reformer which she considered mawkish, "theoretical," and corrupt. By insisting upon "Catholic," Miss O'Connor sought to emphasize the literalness with which she took the traditional doctrines of the Church and to separate herself from "those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development." The paradox is that in repudiating what she regarded as the predominantly ethical mainstream of American Christianity, Flannery O'Connor was returning not to the Catholic tradition but to the evangelical Protestantism of the Reformation and the seventeenth century, a Protestantism whose lineal, if shrunken, descendants were the backwoods prophets of the modern South (pp. 802-04)

[When] a staunch Catholic writes of backwoods prophets, it would presumably be with a consciousness of the perils of private inspiration and, preferable as this may be to secularism or religious complacency, a strong sense that it is only a second best—the best lying within the tradition of the Church. This is the position Miss O'Connor develops in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," her most explicit treatment of the subject in Mystery and Manners. Elsewhere, however, Miss O'Connor has remarked of old Mason Tarwater, her prophet par excellence, that she is "right behind him 100 per cent," justifying this by distinguishing between the visible and the invisible church and making of her arch-Protestant what she calls "a natural Catholic": "When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he's going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church." The idea of an invisible church of devout believers, Catholic in spirit though not in form, is well within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy, provided such believers "are in good faith, and are simply and loyally seeking the truth without self-righteous obstinacy." Yet if old Tarwater is to be included among the census of Catholics, natural or otherwise, we are left with a Catholicism of an extremely latitudinarian sort, a Catholicism without Church or sacraments or priesthood, predicated solely upon the Bible and the individual's immediate confrontation with God—a Catholicism remarkably like Evangelical Protestantism.

Though Flannery O'Connor should not be identified with old Tarwater, whatever her sympathies for him, her particular brand of Catholicism would not have been averse to the old man. Like Protestantism, it elevated the Bible over those "legal and logical" aspects of Christianity which, according to Miss O'Connor, have been prominent in the Catholic tradition since the Counter-Reformation. More importantly, however, it reflected what one critic has called "a temperamental affinity with Jansenism," that tradition within the Catholic Church most akin to Calvinism in its ascetic spirit and its vision of Jesus "as a severe and inscrutable redeemer."… Miss O'Connor's vision of Christ [is of] "a stern and majestic Pantacrator, not … a smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart." (pp. 804-06)

[Two] of the "heresies" which aroused most opposition among the orthodox and caused the Jansenists to be labeled as Protestants in their own time are "heresies" which inform Miss O'Connor's vision and constitute the theological center of her work. The first is an insistence upon the absolute and irremediable corruption of the natural man, and consequently upon the necessity of divine grace for every good work; the second is an exaltation of private religious experience at the expense of the sacraments and the institutional Church…. [Both] are essential to the Protestantism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction…. (p. 806)

For the Protestant [specifically, the "Calvinist" or "Puritan"], the gulf between saint and sinner was absolute and unbridgeable; there was no middle way.

In this context Miss O'Connor's fiction belongs unmistakably to the Protestant tradition, for there is virtually nothing in her work to suggest an ethical alternative between her fanatical prophets and misfits at the one extreme and her motley assortment of worldlings, cynics, and "good country people" at the other. The rationalists Rayber (The Violent Bear it Away) and Sheppard ("The Lame Shall Enter First") represent the best hope for a middle way, if only because as social scientists they are closest to the modern liberal spirit. Yet it is precisely figures like Rayber, whom she regarded as "the typical modern man," that Miss O'Connor caricatures most savagely. If there is an unpardonable sin in Flannery O'Connor's fictional world, it is the pride of secular intelligence, the arrogant and self-deluded belief that man can be his own savior…. With their faith in the power of reason to understand and transform human life, Rayber and his analog, Sheppard, are embodiments of the melioristic spirit of sociology, and the failure and humiliation they both encounter are compelling evidence of the futility of secular works. (p. 807)

Theologically, what Miss O'Connor is insisting on through Sheppard and Rayber is the Protestant doctrine of the absolute corruption of all good works not founded upon divine grace. It is an uncompromising vision and, to the humanist, an appalling one. Because Rayber can offer him no middle way, young Tarwater is left to choose between the devil on the one hand and a half-crazed backwoods prophet on the other…. It is not merely that Tarwater's Christianity is uncongenial to the modern mind, it is unthinkable—a ludicrous anachronism in an age of behavioral psychologists and death-of-God theologians. Miss O'Connor herself was acutely aware of the problem, remarking, "When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hazel's blinding [in Wise Blood] is neither gratuitous nor contrived, for his act is a consistent resolution of the Oedipal theme in the novel and of the pattern of vision imagery which O'Connor uses to reveal this theme. Because Flannery O'Connor often mocks intellectuals and their feeble constructs, one does not expect to find a psychological situation as potentially hackneyed as the Oedipal complex in her fiction, but the Oedipal situation works throughout Wise Blood to complicate Hazel Motes's religious problems. It should be emphasized that Wise Blood is not a psychological case study, a fictional dramatization of Freudian orthodoxies. Flannery O'Connor's primary interest, as she said, was...

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Josephine Hendin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor offers] no striking literary theories, nor any statements inconsistent with what is already available in O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners. What [it reveals] is O'Connor's sensibility, shaped and hardened in the isolation of her life on her farm. (p. 34)

There has been no little sister in American letters to replace Flannery O'Connor…. [She] has emerged as one of the most gifted writers of recent decades. I am grateful to Sally Fitzgerald [editor] for bringing her back to speak to us again, as she spoke to her friends—as the Georgia hick, the witty writer, the Catholic, the southern lady—the woman of discipline whose many selves added up to genius. (p. 35)

Josephine Hendin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), March 10, 1979.

J. O. Tate

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor] is more than an epistolary autobiography of a great American writer. It is also a "good read," and then some. Like everything O'Connor wrote, no matter how serious, it is very funny. The book intertwines the developing stories of her career, her many friendships, the progress of her omnivorous education, and her ordeal by disseminated lupus erythematosus, which ended her life at the age of 39….

Flannery O'Connor was a master of paradox, as in her famous story "Good Country People."…

O'Connor's spreading wide of her narrow hands to unite the worlds of scholarly learning and ignorant truth is characteristic of her. So in...

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Michael True

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Habit of Being, selected letters superbly edited by O'Connor's friend and benefactor Sally Fitzgerald, the reader learns a great deal about the particular genius that enabled O'Connor to connect the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual in an original, powerful, and comic way….

O'Connor's characters are backwoods prophets, itinerant farmers, and gossipy, simple people who talk in platitudes. It is the burden of her stories to prove, however, that their folksiness is often wise beyond words. In a typical O'Connor story, the logical positivist or existentialist and the Christ-haunted misfit confront one another in a life-and-death struggle, where logic and...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Part of the fascination exerted by this thick volume of letters [The Habit of Being] has to do with their evocation of the period which they embrace; much more derives from their revelation of the personality and literary practice of a writer remarkable for the single-mindedness with which she developed and protected a talent that she regarded, quite literally, as God-given. The letters—the first sent from Yaddo to her future agent in 1948, the last a nearly illegible scrawl written six days before her death in 1964—cover her professional career as a writer almost as thoroughly as any biographer might wish. Regrettably, none of the letters written from the years (crucial to her development both as a writer...

(The entire section is 577 words.)