(Mary) Flannery O'Connor 1925–1964
American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.
O'Connor was by birth and by faith a Roman Catholic who lived much of her life in the heart of the Southern Protestant Fundamentalist Bible Belt. Most of her fiction is set in the small towns and backwoods areas of that region. It is not, however, "southern" in its concerns. Rather, her work is gounded in the theology of orthodox Christianity, and its major concerns are spiritual and religious.
O'Connor was disturbed by what she saw as the contemporary Christian's loss of spiritual consciousness. She attributed this loss mainly to increased materialism and to an unqualified acceptance of modern rationalist thought. In theology, rationalism's doctrines state that human reason, without the assistance of divine revelation, is capable of discerning religious truths. In practice, rationalists believe that reason alone can determine correct behavior. In O'Connor's orthodox Christian view, modern rationalism diluted dogma and negated the need for faith and redemption. Material concerns, she felt, took precedence over spiritual ones.
In her fiction, O'Connor uses scenes and characters from her native environment to comment on the issue of modern spirituality. In the intense and often violent religiosity of Protestant Fundamentalists, she sees spiritual life, however bizarre and extreme its manifestations, struggling to exist in a nonspiritual world. Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Francis Marion Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away are involved in such a struggle. However much they try to believe otherwise, the devil and God are real to them. They are examples of what have come to be known as O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" protagonists: souls torn between their vision of God and the devil and the temptation to deny the reality of that vision. Because of their spiritual struggle they are isolated, and in their frustration and isolation they commit violent acts. They are grotesque in personality and behavior. Nonetheless, O'Connor's sympathies lie more with these characters than with the smug and confident Christians of their society. In her view, spiritual consciousness is, regardless of its distortions, battling for life in a world that has become spiritually numb.
Most critics believe that O'Connor's vision is unique and compelling even to readers who may not share her religious beliefs. Ironically, some of the severest criticism that has been written about her fiction has come from Catholic critics. Interpretations vary in detail, but critics consistently acclaim her as a brilliant spokesperson for a complicated theology, and many consider her untimely death a great loss to American literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)
It may well be asked … why so much of our literature is apparently lacking in a sense of spiritual purpose and in the joy of life, and if stories lacking such are actually credible. The only conscience I have to examine in this matter is my own, and when I look at stories I have written I find that they are, for the...
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most part, about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little—or at best a distorted—sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life.
Yet how is this? For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction. (pp. 161-62)
[Writers] who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichaean spirit of the times and suffer the much discussed disjunction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways 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. (pp. 162-63)
Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," in The Living Novel: A Symposium, edited by Granville Hicks (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; © 1957 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.), Macmillan, 1957, pp. 157-64.∗
There is the Paul Bowles—Flannery O'Connor cult of the Gratuitous Grotesque…. Flannery O'Connor tells us that she writes out of a "deep Christian concern." The story of hers which, in Allen Tate's view, best exemplifies this concern is the tale of an embittered, virginal Southern bluestocking with a wooden leg who accompanies a young Bible salesman into a barn to seduce him ["Good Country People"]. Her "victim" produces, out of a dummy Bible, whiskey, contraceptives and dirty playing cards. In the end he runs off with her wooden leg in his suitcase. All of these overingenious horrifics are presumably meant to speak to us of the Essential Nature of Our Time, but when the very real and cruel grotesquerie of our world is converted into clever gimmicks for Partisan Review, we may be forgiven for reacting with the self-same disgust as the little old lady from Dubuque. (p. 588)
William Esty, "In America, Intellectual Bomb Shelters," in Commonweal (copyright © 1958 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 23, March 7, 1958, pp. 586-88.∗
Miss O'Connor's work … has a characteristic which does not occur in the work of any of her contemporaries. Its presence in everything she writes, coupled with her extraordinary talent, makes her, I suspect, one of the most important writers of our age. (p. 3)
Miss O'Connor writes lean, stripped, at times almost too flatfooted a prose, and her characters … move always in the harsh glare of every day. But they, too, are warped and misshapen by life—in short, freaks. The difference between her work and that of her gifted contemporaries lies in the nature and the causes of their freakishness. (p. 5)
The affair between Haze Motes and Sabbath Lily Hawks [in Wise Blood] proceeds to a logical and … terrifying conclusion…. She will go to almost any lengths to get her man and to even greater length to fulfil another womanly function, maternity. Haze yields to her blandishments partly as a way of proving his faith in the Church of Christ Without Christ. They set up housekeeping in a rented room. Haze's friend—or enemy—Enoch Emery, obeying a compulsive impulse, or, as he would put it, his "wise blood," steals a mummy from a city museum. He hears Haze preaching his gospel: "The Church Without Christ don't have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new jesus"—and he rushes home, wraps the mummy up and deposits it at Haze's door. Haze is lying on the bed, a bandage over his eyes. Sabbath receives the bundle, unwraps it and after a few moments, during which her face has "an empty look, as if she didn't know what she thought about him or didn't think anything," cradles him in her arms and begins to croon to him. The unholy family is now complete.
Miss O'Connor does not stop there but piles horror on horror. (pp. 5-6)
Miss O'Connor's talent, occurring in such a milieu, is as startling, as disconcerting as a blast from a furnace which one had thought stone-cold but which is still red-hot.
Haze Motes, Miss O'Connor's hero, is illiterate and of lowly origins, but he is spiritually kin to more highly placed Americans. His whole life is given over to a speculation on the nature of Christ, the union of the divine with the human…. Haze, a man of action and, it seems to me, a tragic hero, dies in a ditch, self-blinded as the penalty of his disbelief. (pp. 6-7)
In Miss O'Connor's vision of modern man—a vision not limited to Southern rural humanity—all her characters are "displaced persons," not merely the people in the story of that name. They are "off center," out of place, because they are victims of a rejection of the Scheme of Redemption. They are lost in that abyss which opens for man when he sets up as God. This theological framework is never explicit in Miss O'Connor's fiction. It is so much a part of her direct gaze at human conduct that she seems herself to be scarcely aware of it. I believe that this accounts to a great extent for her power. It is a Blakean vision, not through symbol as such but through the actuality of human behavior; and it has [William] Blake's explosive honesty…. (pp. 9-10)
Caroline Gordon, "Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1958), Vol. II, No. 2, 1958, pp. 3-10.
Flannery O'Connor's phenomenal power of giving life to her characters is due to a complete mastery of her art which renders with rapid precision their psychological makeup. What Mr. [William] Esty mistakes for the gratuitous grotesque [see excerpt above] is, much of the time, none other than this realism in picturing living, breathing, sweating humanity…. Flannery O'Connor, a Catholic by conviction as well as by birth, writes from a deep Christian concern for the spiritual. Her stories, the characters that live in them, the excellencies of her style, are not ends in themselves but rigorously subordinated means of showing us reality, the quality of goodness and the subtle malice of sin, either of which have power to determine our destiny.
One of the first things which strike us in these stories [in A Good Man Is Hard to Find] is the peculiar rigor with which the author limits her canvas to things of her own direct and intimate knowledge—people with whom she has grown up, against the countryside of her own native Georgia…. Yet, within these self-imposed limits, she has created characters of extraordinary depth, originality, and color; with all the strength of mind, prejudices, fears—fears of shame, of poverty, of the foreigner—which go to make a Southerner.
Miss O'Connor is admittedly influenced by the writers of the Catholic revival of France and England, notably Bloy, [François] Mauriac, and Greene. Like them she is deeply concerned with the palpable reality of sin, of the blight it can bring to human existence, and of its mysterious communication from one generation to another. Her stories often show that God-fearing, humble parents, no matter how ignorant and shiftless, will generally produce psychologically and morally sound children; whereas the children of the proud and contemptuous, whatever natural gifts they may otherwise have, are likely to turn out warped in some way. (pp. 286-87)
[A] penetrating study of children is "A Circle in the Fire."… In the swelling psychological conflict which … moves steadily toward disaster there is such perfection of balance and restraint in the narrative that the reader finds it hard to take sides either with the self-righteous woman as she strives to maintain her dignity and the semblance of benevolence in the face of [the boys's] encroachment, or with the delinquent boys whose insolence soon grows to lawlessness. Implicitly the root causes of social strife are laid bare as the envy and violence of the have-nots contend with the pharisaical pride and avarice of the haves. We find here a fully developed tragedy of character and circumstance, written with an astonishing command of details, in barely seventeen pages.
"The River" is the best example of Flannery O'Connor's remarkable talent for creating children characters, and of molding them, as it were, from the inside out, exploring with tenderness, but without a trace of sentimentality, the mysterious processes of their thought and motivation. (p. 287)
The extraordinary quality of Miss O'Connor's humor and the ease with which she puts it into a compressed yet lucid prose come from a thorough knowledge of the people of whom she writes, of the bits of wisdom, truths and half-truths—and downright prejudices—which make up their mental equipment. "The Artificial Nigger" will one day be considered a classic of American humor….
Miss O'Connor's genius for catching the psychological attitude of her characters in brief, penetrating descriptions and bits of dialogue is seen in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," a sort of tragedy in miniature. (p. 288)
The quality of the tragic element of this story is even higher than that of "A Circle in the Fire." The picture of helpless innocence being ground to death among the conflicting forces of pride, hatred, and prejudice, is one of the most important spiritual elements in Flannery O'Connor's writing. We see it first in the title story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," but it receives its most complete development in "The Displaced Person."
In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" the blood-curdling realism describing the treatment of the helpless family by The Misfit, an escaped convict, following directly upon the light and humorous atmosphere of the first part of the story, might prove a bit too much for the unsuspecting reader. Also, since this story is placed first in the collection, and titles it, it has given rise to much of the adverse criticism of the whole volume. Of course, this fierce contrast of black against white—or very light gray—has its purposes, and there is no denying the mastery of description in the simple strokes which draw the sinister visitant. In two or three pages we see the horror of a soul blasted by the sin of despair, a soul which, we feel, had at one time had a glimpse of the light and of a way of peace, but had rejected it….
Although the structure of "The Displaced Person" is somewhat looser and, in a few places, its punch weaker, it is undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the volume. Here are stated explicitly many of the ideas only hinted at in the other stories. (p. 289)
[In] the figure of the awkward, inarticulate foreigner, Mr. Guizak, mistrusted and despised by everyone, is seen the suffering Body of Christ. The scene of his murder is perhaps the most powerfully moving of the whole book.
There are few modern writers whose wit is more unexpected and brilliant, or whose satire is more scathing than Flannery O'Connor's—a sample of her when she really wants to be mean is her satire on the South and its nostalgia for the days of glory long-past-but-not-forgotten, in "A Late Encounter With the Enemy"—yet her greatest strength lies in another quality which is at a premium among satirists: compassion for those whom she satirizes. The current of irony runs deep throughout her stories, but rarely does it run as deep as her compassion. It is in "Good Country People" that is found the richest blend of these two qualities. (p. 290)
Because of her genuine horror of sentimentality, at just the point where many writers would soften, Flannery O'Connor's wit appears to become more wry and her satire more scathing, the result being a quality of humor remarkably akin to that of Chaucer in which the author tells with apparent ease and gusto side-splitting stories, which, nonetheless, contain implicitly matter for some very sobering thought.
In "Good Country People," particularly, we must look beyond the bluff and the sparkling wit to the heart of the matter, to the girl's loss of faith in God's providence resulting from her bitter affliction, to the loneliness, to the wasted talent, to the lack of understanding or sympathy in those who surround her, which have driven her so far into the wasteland of self that she can only be brought back to reality by the scourge of self-knowledge and humiliation. It was against this story in particular that Mr. Esty leveled the charge of "gratuitous grotesque." I think, to the contrary, that it contains a delicately balanced, Christian humanism…. (pp. 290-91)
In her first novel, Wise Blood …, Flannery O'Connor showed an extraordinary writing ability; in A Good Man Is Hard to Find she proved herself a storyteller of genius. In not a few respects one might offer her to aspirant young writers as a model to be imitated: in her dedication to her art, in the clear understanding she shows of the limitations of fiction and of the fiction writer, in her many varieties of humor, in her aversion to the apologetic approach. But more than all these there is a certain quality which gives the reader of her stories the immediate impression of being confronted with something real and living, something of one piece with his own experience.
Who would not recognize the dusty clay hills of Georgia covered with granite pines, the speckled old women, the towheaded children with silver-rimmed spectacles before pale, vacant eyes, their strange wisdom and unpredictable energy, the middle-aged widows with their invincible prejudices. Flannery O'Connor has great talent indeed, but it is, above all, her fidelity to truth which gives her stories their quality of realism; it is a fearless trust in reality itself as something eminently worth knowing, and, when known, more satisfying than all its substitutes. (p. 291)
Robert McCown, S.J., "Flannery O'Connor and the Reality of Sin," in Catholic World (copyright 1959 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York), Vol. 188, No. 1126, January, 1959, pp. 285-91.
Flannery O'Connor's [The Violent Bear It Away] has a number of immediately striking resemblances, in its religious theme, its Southern setting, its frequently violent or macabre action, and its spiritually tortured characters, both to her short stories, especially those collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), and to her first and only other novel, Wise Blood (1952). (p. 11)
Disregarding both the more and less obvious matters for the time being, there are several parallels between [The Violent Bear It Away] and some of Miss O'Connor's other works. Haze Motes in Wise Blood, like Tarwater here, was obsessed first with denying and then with accepting Christ. Harry Bevel in "The River" was drowned in "the water of life," as is Bishop. The relation between the boy and his great-uncle, especially in the flashback recounting a visit by the two to the city, reminds one of "The Artificial Nigger." The fires Tarwater lights are like the one in "Circle in the Fire," in both provocation and significance. Rayber as a rationalist is like Asbury in "The Enduring Chill." Miss O'Connor still uses half-whimsical symbolic names: "Bishop" and "Tarwater," the latter with its implications of dirt and of a panacea, fit neatly into a novel about baptism. Humor is less obtrusive here than in some of her other works (especially Wise Blood and Haze's unforgettable and triumphant "What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts") but this novel has its moments, too; and as usual with Miss O'Connor, comic incongruities rather add to than detract from her seriousness: the great-uncle's monomania for kidnapping and baptizing his infant male relatives is particularly funny. And lastly, some of Miss O'Connor's favorite symbols, sometimes laid on a little thick in other works, reappear here too, and as before they tend to carry two or more opposing meanings simultaneously. Thus, water brings life and death; fire destroys and purifies; eyes reveal and impose purpose; and a physical infirmity (Rayber is deaf) mirrors a spiritual one.
By and large, then, Miss O'Connor's writings are strikingly alike in topic, theme, and technique. Consequently, her admirers as well as her detractors must realize that she has restricted herself to a particular locale, a particular society, and a particular kind of theme; and it is unlikely that she will surprise her readers in any of these respects for some time. It follows that it is just as unlikely that her popularity will grow, that her increasing mastery of both the craft and the art of fiction will be much noticed, that her greater and greater spiritual vision will be taken for anything but a preoccupation with the same subjects, and, in short, that she will be considered anything but a Southern woman novelist. (pp. 12-13)
But such observations do not give the novel itself the attention and the praise it deserves. For, first of all, The Violent Bear It Away is an excellently constructed novel. Although Wise Blood had a beginning, a middle, and an end, the connections of its parts with one another were often obscure. But the three parts of this novel are both distinct from and dependent on one another, and the individual chapters (except the sometimes awkward flashback of Chapter II, a price paid for the immediacy of Chapter I) are not merely episodes in themselves, such as a short-story writer might be expected to produce, but cumulative and effective insofar as they are parts of the whole novel.
All writers of imaginative literature are between two horns: either underlining their meaning through repetition and recurring symbolism or trusting that their slightest hint will be—or ought to be—picked up by the hawk-eyed reader. But Miss O'Connor, as a writer on a religious subject with a religious theme …, escapes the dilemma neatly: references to Habbakuk, Jonas, and Elias and Elisha; profanity that, in context, takes on an air of blasphemy (Rayber never says "God damn" or "Jesus Christ" but the reader feels its significance); and the very subject matter of the book not only are dramatically appropriate to her story but also underline her meaning and serve as leitmotifs to unify it.
But another, and for some readers perhaps a better, kind of unity and emphasis is provided by the structure of the novel itself. At the end of the first chapter, Tarwater, after burning the cabin, has hitched a ride with a traveling salesman:
"Look," Tarwater said suddenly, sitting forward, his face close to the windshield, "we're headed in the wrong direction. We're going back where we came from. There's the fire again. There's the fire we left!"
Ahead of them in the sky there was a faint glow, steady, and not made by lightning. "That's the same fire we came from!" the boy said in a high voice.
"Boy, you must be nuts," the salesman said. "That's the glow from the city lights. I reckon this is your first trip anywhere."
"You're turned around," the child said; "it's the same fire."…
In the last chapter, Tarwater, after hearing his call to prophecy, walks away from Powderhead:
The moon, riding low above the field beside him, appeared and disappeared, diamond-bright, between patches of darkness. Intermittently the boy's jagged shadow slanted across the road ahead of him as if it cleared a rough path towards his goal. His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awakened him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping….
And if only these two passages were offered in evidence, Miss O'Connor's prose style could be called brilliant. The uniformly staccato rhythms of Wise Blood have been developed into smoother and more flexible ones. Consider just the pauses and the emphases of "a faint glow, steady, and not made by lightning" or the subtle but certainly intentional effect produced by the omission of the comma in the last sentence of the second long passage, where the lack of the anticipated rhetorical pause signals also how Tarwater's destiny is now beyond his control. Or the dialogue, all the more horrible for being matter-of-fact and blatantly colloquial. Or the way in which description is merged with narration and both are charged with symbolic meaning. Or the compassionate moving-in of the first passage, from "Tarwater" to "the boy" to "the child"; matched and contrasted beautifully in the second by a moving-away, from "the boy's" to "the children of God"—of whom, we realize, Tarwater is not one any more. Or the unobtrusive way—any teacher of writing knows it can't be taught—that the author's description alternates and merges insensibly with Tarwater's observations in the second passage. But to talk of Miss O'Connor's style in general would be gratuitous. It is never idiosyncratic; and, like that of all artists, it bears and rewards the closest attention.
The theme of The Violent Bear It Away is announced by means of an epigraph on the title pages: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."… This passage is taken by various Catholic exegetes … to have two different meanings: either that, with Christ's ministry begun, the faithful may at last attain the kingdom of heaven or … that the Pharisees, despite John's prophecy and Christ's ministry, still remain unbelievers and try to deny the faithful their reward. Much of the power of this novel comes from Miss O'Connor's rendering in her characters of the two attitudes represented by these two interpretations, that of the believer and that of the unbeliever, the violent and the passive, the saved and the damned.
This novel has already been praised for its "psychological realism." The comment was misdirected; for insofar as these characters are significant and interesting, it is not because of their personalities but because of their souls. Rayber, for example, seems at first to be the merest pasteboard figure: his school's expert on psychological testing, who sheltered his uncle—Tarwater's great-uncle—for four months only to observe him and, in an article in a "schoolteachers' magazine," describe him as a "nearly extinct type," that is, the religious fanatic. Rayber was shot in the ear with buckshot many years before when he tried to retrieve Tarwater from the old man; and the hearing aid he now wears, and can turn on and off at will, is an obvious, if amusing, device to characterize him as a modern rationalist who has ears to hear and hears not. "Do you think in the box," Tarwater asks him about the hearing aid, "or do you think in your head?"
But Rayber has not simply had a symbolic role thrust on him by the author. His condition, the condition of the Pharisee, is the result of an act of will; for he had, at Tarwater's age (the age of apprenticeship and of confirmation), willingly chosen the way of rationalism and thereafter avoided the extremes of religion, which, he tells Tarwater, "are for violent people." (pp. 14-15)
Tarwater's rejection of God is more violent and less pharisaical than Rayber's. But Tarwater has an important task to perform. "Himself baptized by his great-uncle into the death of Christ," he must in turn bring spiritual life through baptism to his cousin Bishop: "Precious in the sight of the Lord even an idiot," his great-uncle has told him. But he goes to the city not to do this but to see whether what he had been taught about the history of the world was true; that is, for knowledge rather than grace. But grace pursues him. Rayber can not only teach him nothing but even keeps impressing, although unintentionally, his mission on him; and Bishop, whom he wants to ignore or hate, is drawn to Tarwater almost as though he knew why he had come.
Yet the long middle section of the novel, which treats the period between Tarwater's coming to the city and Bishop's death, does not often investigate the workings of Tarwater's mind; for it would be a mistake to suppose, as Rayber does, that the boy is simply responding to his great-uncle's psychological indoctrination. Rather, for all the old man's fanaticism, it is clear that for Miss O'Connor the baptism of Bishop is the most important action Tarwater could perform; and that he is being forced to do it by a concatenation of circumstances beyond his control and different from the merely psychological—which, to the Christian, is another way of saying by Providence. Twice in the novel Bishop tries to jump into a fountain; the second time he is illuminated by a sudden bright shaft of sunlight as by a nimbus. And even when Tarwater has decided, as a final act of rejection, to drown his cousin (for, he thinks, "In dealing with the dead [that is, his great-uncle] you have to act. There's no mere word sufficient to say NO"), Bishop himself stands up in the boat, climbs onto Tarwater's back like the Christ child onto St. Christopher's and falls into the water with him. That is, Bishop, having been refused salvation through baptism by his own father, forces Tarwater to give it to him, although it is the moment of Tarwater's most violent rejection of God and although it is at the cost of his own physical death.
Both Rayber and Tarwater, then, are described in different ways by the title. Rayber's passivity has done violence to Bishop's soul; Tarwater's violence, though it involved Bishop's death, has at least thrust him into the kingdom of heaven. And although a certain pathos undoubtedly attaches to Rayber, Tarwater's action must be, in the world Miss O'Connor depicts, for the greater glory of God.
This is not to say, however, that Tarwater himself is saved; for he may be an instrument of God's providence without being of His company. (One reason, it seems, why Rayber could not drown Bishop was that he could not baptize him at the same time.) Early in the novel, after the old man has died, a "stranger," whom Tarwater soon comes to think of as just his "friend," begins to talk to the boy in his mind, to sow doubts in his mind about the religious teaching he has received, and to urge him not to give the corpse Christian burial (and thus, in orthodox theology, the hope of resurrection at the Last Judgment). Tarwater, of course, follows the stranger's suggestions, recoiling from his uncle's vision of the final reward of the just, "The Lord Jesus Himself, the bread of life":
The boy would have a hideous vision of himself, sitting forever with his great-uncle on a green bank, full and sick, staring at a broken fish and a multiplied loaf….
This image is not picked up immediately, but it becomes crucial to the interpretation of Tarwater's end. In the city the boy becomes dissatisfied with the unfamiliar food his uncle gives him; and, when they reach the resort together, he finds himself increasingly unable to eat. In the last section of the novel, after Tarwater has assisted in his cousin's drowning, and he himself has come to identify his physical hunger with a spiritual hunger, he is unable to eat the half of a chicken sandwich a truckdriver has given him and is refused a bottle of pop by a store-owner who has heard of his intended desecration of his great-uncle's corpse. It is hardly extreme to equate the sandwich and the pop with the sacramental bread and wine, which in turn become the body and blood of Christ and nourish the faithful; and so Tarwater's proud rejection of God has excommunicated him from the society of the faithful. The brutal assault he suffers is therefore an image of what he has done to himself, an awful reflection of the perverted love of man without God; for he has refused the bread of life:
The call that Tarwater hears and obeys at the end of the novel, after he discovers that his great-uncle had after all been buried, is thus a specious one, a capitulation to circumstances rather than to God; for although he has fulfilled God's will, he has rejected God's ways. It is with the passion of fanaticism and despair, not of religion, that, hellfire behind him and darkness before him, he begins to walk back to the city.
Miss O'Connor's world is a violent one, but the violence is ultimately spiritual, inflicted by the characters on themselves. Her theology is, furthermore, Catholic…. God neither saves nor damns any of the characters who have free will; although He provides that the helpless Bishop he baptized and thus saved, He does no more than give Rayber and Tarwater the opportunity to work out their own salvation or damnation. And it is this characteristic that makes The Violent Bear It Away not only a subtle and profound and disturbing study of spiritual states but a great religious novel. Miss O'Connor has shown that a Christian tragedy can be written; for in her novel fate and doom do not conspire against man. Either struggling against grace or opening his arms to accept it, his choice is his own. (pp. 16-19)
Sumner J. Ferris, "The Outside and the Inside: Flannery O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear It Away'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1960), Vol. III, No. 2, 1960, pp. 11-19.
The promotion of The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor's second novel, plus the recent promotion of her career indicate that she is being groomed as A Current Great Writer…. Where she has succeeded and how raise several questions in both literature and public relations.
At an increasing rate since World War II judgment has dwindled in literary criticism, academic and non-academic, and prestige in letters has come proportionately to rest on personality. As with Hollywood figures, we now learn about the writer, and by inference his writing, through his public image. (p. 147)
Must we acknowledge that she is writing literature simply because her stories are negative—along with Nabokov's and Bellow's and [Jack] Kerouac's? Should we—as indeed we have with Truman Capote and James Jones—accept the avowal of her serious intention as adequate justification for her work? Must we accept her work as "Catholic" because she is "Catholic"? Shall we do as others do: tally her Guggenheims and Ford grants and reach an actuarial measure of her success? Lastly, is it not time that we questioned the work and some of these clichés? Must not the critic insist that a work pretending toward literature demonstrate some pertinence to life? Must he not somehow get at the organizing principle in the work?
The factor most commonly assigned Flannery O'Connor is religious profundity. Caroline Gordon has described her vision as "Blakean" and sees in it "Blake's explosive honesty" [see excerpt above]. The tag requires a decision as to what sort of Gothic we have in O'Connor's grotesqueries. If the figures are delineated by the pure, organic vitality of Blake's "bounding line," well and good. If the narratives are Gothic in the convention of [Horace Walpole's] The Castle of Otranto, we have a different matter and can hardly liken it to Blake.
In Miss O'Connor's earlier work the Blakean vision was lacking. The minor images of her first novel, Wise Blood, far from expressing minor analogies to support the major analogy of the book's dramatic form—as the mediaeval Gothic does—were quirkish and often bungled…. [In Wise Blood], as well as in many of Miss O'Connor's stories, we find a language that draws attention to itself rather than to its subject.
The prose of the first novel was that of a professional but not an artist, of Truman Capote but certainly not William Blake. From time to time a passage did break through to serve a more literary purpose, as in the terrible conclusion of Wise Blood, in which Hazel Motes is beaten to death in a ditch, the universal end, as it were, in this world. In that passage the starkness of language matches a proper callosity of tone. The passage, however, does not represent the entire work.
The Violent Bear It Away, on the other hand, contains little irresponsible imagery. Odd as it may appear that a writer should establish in a novel and a book of short stories a distinct style and then establish in a second novel a different style, that appears to be the case here. Perhaps it is not so odd at that since Miss O'Connor's scope is so narrow that this novel may be said to be no more than a redaction of her earlier work. (pp. 147-48)
Often the prose in [The Violent Bear It Away] demonstrates a boldness, a disdain for what is occasionally an affected clinical accuracy in a Naturalistic novelist. For example, when Tarwater drowns the idiot, nothing suggests that the death be taken as a matter of criminal law. The narrative does not concern itself with law, and thus Miss O'Connor intrudes the gimmickry of Dragnet no more than [Edgar Allen] Poe does in "The Fall of the House of Usher."
The narrative is simple. A fourteen-year-old boy, Tarwater, lives in an isolated Southern clearing with his very old prophet great-uncle. The old man has raised Tarwater to be a prophet, leaving him two commands: that Tarwater bury the old man properly beneath a cross, and that Tarwater begin his own prophetic career by baptizing the idiot son of his one other blood kinsman, a would-be-atheistic schoolteacher named Rayber. The story opens with the old man's death and Tarwater's refusal to bury the corpse. The bulk of the book deals with Tarwater's attempt not to baptize the idiot and Rayber's attempt to cure Tarwater of his religious delusion. The essential difference between these two is in Tarwater's faith that he has the ability to act. This ability, he believes, makes him capable not only of willing but of creating significance in life through intentional action.
The thought which the book carries through Tarwater and his uncle is hardly profound in the main…. The idea that the old man, Tarwater's great-uncle, prophesizes because "wanting a call, he called himself" is elaborated through the schoolteacher. The dramatic movement of scenes is often powerful in its grotesqueness, but the thought seldom rises above the level offered here.
The particular kind of natural law that governs the world of this novel is stark, dark, and distinctly deterministic…. In spite of himself, Tarwater does baptize the idiot and so is driven to his prophetic task. He does not choose. He is also forced to acknowledge that in meaningful actions his will does not function to serve his ends, being negated either by a failure of intellect—acting on the wrong object—or an inability to control his actions at the critical moment of applying the intention he wished. Probably the most telling single event is that in which he drowns the idiot only to hear the words of baptism "coming out of himself" without his volition. Clearly his will is not his own. His consciousness serves only to provide awareness of suffering. Nor is the suffering a Russian Orthodox, Dostoevsky-like purgation which will lead eventually to a higher state.
The narrative offers a world of near total desolation and anguish. Instead of a rejection, we see the acceptance of a physical world …, but we are also asked to accept an "Other World" equally terrible. The prophet is not saved to redemption; he is saved to damnation. The terms, of course, negate each other. Tarwater, we are told, "knew, with a certainty sunk in despair, that he was … called to be a prophet." And as a prophet he sees "himself trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his award, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf. The Lord out of dust had created him, had made him blood and nerve and mind, had made him to bleed and weep and think, and set him in a world of loss and fire …"
The foregoing citation is not set in any Jamesean irony to indicate a tragicomic misreading of Tarwater's fate on his part. In the world of The Violent Bear It Away this vision is a true one. A question of taste intrudes here in that the misreading of the loaves and fishes detracts from what must be intended as high seriousness. However, the alternative to the vision is more significant. Rayber, the evangelical atheist, offers as an alternative a "world where there's no saviour but yourself … The great dignity of man," [Rayber] said, "is his ability to say: I am born once and no more. What I can and do for myself and my fellowman in this life is all of my portion and I'm content with it. It's enough to be a man." Barren or not, such rationalism is dignified, and if it allows no Other World, man is free to enjoy this one.
However, the novel makes clear through various prophecies by Tarwater and other prophets that Rayber's rational alternative is no more than a silly delusion. In the world of this novel the characters move in an absolutely relentless deterministic pattern. Although at moments peculiar dramatic devices intrude to raise vague issues, nothing seems to relieve the underlying determinism of the narrative. (pp. 149-50)
After even a casual perusal of The Violent Bear It Away, the only reason one might refer to Flannery O'Connor as a "Catholic" author is a personal one. Since this novel has been widely spoken of as "Catholic," it seems imperative that one point out that like so much current negative writing, this book is not Catholic at all in any doctrinal sense. Neither its content nor its significance is Catholic. Beyond not being Catholic, the novel is distinctly anti-Catholic in being a thorough, point-by-point dramatic argument against Free Will, Redemption, and Divine Justice, among other aspects of Catholic thought.
Though the novel assumes a dramatic structure by pursuing the development of Tarwater's fate, a good deal of the stage paraphernalia is Southern Gothic. That is, to some degree the book makes sense, but the total negativism of its statement added to its Gothic stage mechanisms qualifies it as perhaps High or Academic Gothic as distinguished from the Gothic as found in The Castle of Otranto or James Purdy's The Color of Darkness. Telepathy is fairly common in the novel, and we have a Hell-fire, prophetic, crippled, little girl preacher with a voice "like a glass bell." There is a homosexual debauchment, a corpse sitting at a breakfast table; a sex delinquent's child is born in an auto wreck…. Much of the violence, such as the drowning of the idiot, tends toward the Gothic in being staged without regard for the mundane details of police procedure or other trivia so that the reader is overcome by terror. If this were the only such detail, since it is structurally unified, we might say that its handling showed a Classical starkness akin to that of [Franz] Kafka or Poe. But though we may justify the drowning so, we cannot defend every scene of violence with an organic unity argument.
The most thoroughgoing Southern Gothic detail falls late in the book. Tarwater is drugged and assaulted by a "pale, lean, old-looking young man with deep hollows under his cheekbones." The rape is vague, as is common in the Southern Gothic, and about all that it does contribute is more anguish as if to suggest that one should suffer every violation even to being raped by a homosexual. The assault is not enriched any by the fact that it is stuck into the text rather anticlimactically and is perpetrated by a total stranger who picks up Tarwater as the latter is hitch-hiking. A question of taste rises here, as often in the novel. Apparently the homosexual is a divine agent sent to impose a sign on Tarwater. At almost any turn in the narrative a slight probing will produce similar questions and implied intentions. Yet if the book as a whole is intended as religious, one wonders how deeply this intention goes.
Beyond the religious question, a book as negative as this raises a question about its insight into current American culture. Such books appear to be praised for two reasons: first, because they feed some partisan need in certain would-be critics who wish to see any positive faith attacked; second, they are merely a new form of the Gothic novel, which is to say that they sell well on the popular market. They are thriller books for intellectuals…. Thus we see the link between the Southern Gothic with its homosexuality and the Northern aberrational tale such as Nabokov's Lolita; both are negative, both thrilling, and both are said to be compassionate and profound, no doubt because of their passion-charged trappings and confusion.
It is impossible to avoid pointing out that The New Critical concern for method has so removed intent or principle from "critical" concern that books of almost no significance as literature are now analyzed calmly and thoroughly as serious literary efforts…. Apparently Flannery O'Connor is [but a sample]. Whether or not she is pulling her own leg is not the place of a reviewer to say, but it is certain that she has tried to pull the legs of many others and with frequent success. (pp. 150-51)
The basic element lacking in the kind of novel that The Violent Bear It Away represents is redemption. Always we find in these horrors that there is no hope because the people in the books are already damned and in torment. There can be neither compassion nor virtue in such a world because either depends by definition on redemption. Beyond the sentimentality of such books, though, and beyond their questionable taste, as novels they are subversive of literature itself; for, by its nature, literature is a statement of faith and of hope. When despair becomes its statement, the art has ended. Perhaps even more than that has ended, for where hope cannot exist in art, it has already failed in life. Ultimately, if we weight The Violent Bear It Away seriously, we are forced to conclude that its truth is that there is no hope in this world or in the next. I offer, then, as a considered statement, that Flannery O'Connor in this novel is an enemy of literature and of life, for the book is a pointless bit of comic book sentimentality. (p. 152)
Robert O. Bowen, "Hope vs. Despair in the New Gothic Novel," in Renascence (© copyright, 1961, Marquette University Press), Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1961, pp. 147-52.
In the light of a disturbing abdication of responsibility among major critics with respect to the continuing importance of reading our modern writers, the recent critical neglect of Flannery O'Connor should not be surprising….
Since the appearance of her first novel, Wise Blood, over ten years ago, Miss O'Connor has not exactly overwhelmed either critics or readers with her gifts. There has not been merely neglect, however, but hostility as well…. Even her professed friends have often damned her with the faint praise of continuing the great modern tradition of "Southern Gothic." One barrier to her acceptance has surely been that, rather like the farmers in her region who are paid not to overproduce, her production has been severely limited in quantity. She has written only two novels and a baker's dozen of short stories. Her small "quota" is a function, I think, not only of her exquisite sense of perfection, but of the narrow range of theme and subject-matter she has allowed herself to explore. Yet within this self-imposed boundary, and setting aside the question of whether one need embrace her values, Flannery O'Connor is one of the best writers of fiction we have. If she were never to write another line, her position as a distinguished minor American writer would be as secure as that of Sarah Orne Jewett or Elinor Wylie. (p. 195)
One key … to Miss O'Connor's flamboyant technique is that she seeks deliberately to shock and startle an audience which is basically a Christian audience. The surface hardness and apparent cynicism of her stories can be very deceptive indeed, and lead the naively cynical reader to assume that in these "Gothic" visions of terror seen in the blaze of a Georgia noon Miss O'Connor is merely reproducing, perhaps even with approval, the blasted moral sensibility of her times. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is worth nothing in this connection that in the technique of the completely removed author, and especially in her cold hard phrases, Miss O'Connor very much resembles Stephen Crane and Hemingway, rather than any Southern writer I know. Yet she would have little sympathy for the real cynicism of the former, or the romantic, essentially autobiographical projections of the latter. A final problem that the reader of her work faces is related both to the matter of her donnée and to the question of her aesthetic and moral distance from the characters she creates. Although a fervent Catholic, Miss O'Connor does not go out of her way to flatter her Catholic characters, either the doddering old priest in "The Displaced Person," for example, or the "big nun" in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" who lovingly mashes the side of a girl's face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt. There are few Catholics in her fiction; she writes of the red clay roads, the old farms, the loves and prejudices, and the (to her) backward Protestantism of the South, and there are not many Catholics there. But the image of Grace as conceived by a beautifully disciplined Catholic mind hovers always just behind the scenes. (pp. 196-97)
["A Temple of the Holy Ghost"] seems a slight tale, yet it is very rich indeed in its perception, and it has been thus far either ignored or … misunderstood. "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is a study of the flowering of a religious sensibility in an environment alien to and contemptuous of such a sensibility; of its flowering within a child whose shattering honesty enables her to pierce the ludicrous shams surrounding her. This basic theme—the terrible disparity between the divine potentialities of human beings and their depraved acts, conditioned by their secular environment—can be turned to tragic purposes in such heightened shockers as the novel Wise Blood or the recent long story "The Lame Shall Enter First"; but the theme yields also to comic treatment, as in the story before us, or to a combination of modes, as in her best work, The Violent Bear It Away. Indeed, more and more Miss O'Connor has chosen to concentrate upon the evil secular character of her hero's environment, as the polarity which impedes his receptiveness to the Word of God; there is an angriness about The Violent Bear It Away and "The Lame Shall Enter First" which we do not find in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," whose heroine is not tempted by the positivist devil. Unlike the children in "The River" and "The Lame Shall Enter First," she does not have to resist her parents or flee her home in order to be saved; and unlike young Tarwater in The Violent, she does not disavow the movement of grace within her soul. The unnamed child of this story is a proto-saint, who, like several of Miss O'Connor's genuinely heroic figures, is not intellectually aware of the operations of grace within her. In "A Temple," the materials are treated gently, as it were, with comic descriptive touches, deliberately broad satire, some burlesque, and a continual tone of merriment and hilarity which stems from both the child's quaint imagination and the depth of her ironic penetration of reality.
Although Miss O'Connor's tale is brief, its scenes are carefully focused upon the development of the sense of grace within the child, and its contrasts with her deplorable environment. (p. 197)
The imagination that creates the story is capable of using symbols originally and sometimes shockingly. "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" is a symbolic story tracing the progress of the martyr-saint through a world of brutality and outrage and denial of salvation to "the red clay road," the road of this world, which inevitably leads to God. The visible signs of salvation are real, undeniable: the sense of moral honesty and humility in the child; the humble acceptance of God's judgment by the freak within an obscene and exploitative framework; the elevation of the Host. These are linked in Miss O'Connor's story by their being manifestations of the Word; all three characters—childs, freak, priest—are in their own ways temples of the Holy Ghost. There is a glorious sense of cosmic optimism in her comic fable, as she makes the essentially Catholic assertion that in the imagination of a child, the mind of a freak, the sanctified actions of a priest, Grace is still operative in a universe basically hostile to it. (pp. 199, 211)
Maurice Bassan, "Flannery O'Connor's Way: Shock, with Moral Intent," in Renascence (© copyright, 1963, Marquette University Press), Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer, 1963, pp. 195-99, 211.
The shock of Flannery O'Connor's death came not in its unexpectedness but in the startling realization that her work is done….
There must be recognition that the two novels, less than twenty short stories, and fewer essays are the work complete of the fiction writer, in my opinion, most significant in our time. But is her work done, indeed? (p. 555)
She began with the Woe, Woe to you who are filled, for you shall hunger, as theme, given embodiment in her novel Wise Blood, in 1952. It was satire; it was bitter parody on the atheistic Existentialism then pervading the literary and philosophical scene. But it was more. Haze Motes, with his self-mutilated sightless eyes and other penitential mortifications, and his landlady and fascinated pursuer, at the dénouement, foretold a hunger now apparent. (p. 556)
[In] addition to being a brilliant satirist, she was a true humorist and possessed an unusual gift for the grotesque. But she resorted to something far more remarkable to reflect her Christian vision to a secular world. She invented a new form of humor. At least I have encountered it nowhere else in literature. This invention consists in her introducing her story with familiar surfaces in an action that seems secular, and in a secular tone of satire or humor. Before you know it, the naturalistic situation has become metaphysical and the action appropriate to it comes with a surprise, an unaccountability that is humorous, however shocking. The means is violent, but the end is Christian. And obviously, it works.
It occurs to me here that she accomplished what she set out to do to an astonishing degree. She got attention. She got reaction. And I believe that she got across her Christian vision to a significant public. This last is evident in the sympathetic critical emphasis her work now receives in the Catholic and in much of the Protestant press. As a measure of hostile attention and reaction, I would cite her front-rank appearance in "the structure of the American Literary Establishment," as this putative entente was presented in Esquire magazine, in July, 1963. Her prominence in this company is the more notable, since the prevailing vision of the Establishment is secular and atheistic.
Miss O'Connor said in her revealing essay ["The Fiction Writer and His Country"] that the writer's country "is inside as well as outside him" and that "to know oneself, is above all, to know what one lacks." Is this not a clue?
I have said that her theme changed but little, yet I think there was a progress. Without trying to step it off we may note that, in her short masterpiece, "The Displaced Person," its successive protagonists, Mrs. Shortley and Mrs. McIntyre, come to a tragic realization of the secular delusion; and, in her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, little Bishop, as he is being drowned, is baptized. In her last story yet published, "Revelation," the world is no less secular, nor is the Christian revelation any less devastating to one corrupted by the world. Yet her heroine, Mrs. Turpin, finds the need and the humility … to measure herself "against Truth."
Do we not have here the blessed corollary of the Woe with which we began?
It is much too early to attempt any ultimate assessment of Flannery O'Connor's work. There is as yet but limited understanding of this original, powerful, and prophetic writer. But the prophet is not expected to wait on the fulfilment of his prophecy. In her own words, "The creative action of the Christian's life is to prepare his death in Christ." And this, I feel sure, she did. (pp. 557-58)
Brainard Cheney, "Flannery O'Connor's Campaign for Her Country," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1964 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXII, No. 4, October-December, 1964, pp. 555-58.
We now have all the work by which Flannery O'Connor will be remembered in the world. Of her last stories, collected in Everything That Rises Must Converge, it is certainly the just praise, and maybe the highest after all, that they are up to her first ones. She wrote best in the short story and has left a handful of them at least that are likely to last as long as literacy. When she died at thirty-nine last year, it was with her work done, I think, and work of an imaginative order and brilliance rare in the world at most times, perhaps always in American writing…. [A Good Man Is Hard to Find and] Everything That Rises Must Converge,… contain some of the surest and most original comic writing ever done by an American.
Her novels are another matter. They suffer, I think, from an excessive violence of conception. They are the children of a rape or, better, of a five-months birth, on their way to being something perhaps very fine, but not there yet. Wise Blood … seems more the work of somebody who has a Master's degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa in pocket—as she had—than a book that has seen its way to saying something. Though the early train scenes have some wildly comic writing, the book as a whole seems as much a product of the determination to write a full-length novel as of anything more august. (pp. 93-4)
Flannery O'Connor's other novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has passages of great and strange beauty—the scenes toward the end, for example, leading up to young Tarwater's walk back to the city—but it makes a mistake that the stories never make: the vehicle plainly does not fit the tenor. The whole novel is based on the idea that young Tarwater has inherited a compulsion to baptize from his mad preacher uncle. At the level of metaphor, the idea is entirely sound: large numbers of people do wish to convert us to their beliefs, i.e., to baptize us. But concretely and physically, where metaphor should have its base, it ceases entirely to work, for nobody inherits, I think, and very few acquire, the compulsion to push other persons under water. And it is on a physical drowning, a literal baptizing, that all of The Violent Bear It Away centers. I honor the Flannery O'Connor novels. They are mistakes of a promise that nobody else could have managed, and they have passages of great brilliance. But her strength was at the epiphany …, the leading of the reader up to a dazzling revelation in a moment of time or away from that moment on the waves of its resonance. "Good Country People" is an example of the one and "Revelation" of the other. For the longer stretches of time and the wider range required of the novel, she did not have the gift. (p. 94)
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was apparently one of a few books [O'Connor] pressed on friends. And her debt to Faulkner is plain, mainly I should say in her refusal to deal with life in abstractions and in her power with regional detail—clay roads, stands of pine, barns, and so forth—and the gritty concreteness of language that are the badge in narrative and in style of that refusal. Her "major" at the Woman's College of Georgia had been the social sciences, and yet in her books to speak the bright language of those studies is infallibly the sign of the fool and generally of the knave as well. In this way, Flannery O'Connor was, I suppose, a Southern writer. The South gave her her terrain and the people she wrote about first and last. And William Faulkner gave her a start at a way of treating them. But her way of seeing them was her own and would have been the same, I think, if she had lived in North Dakota or Nova Zembla. Her writing is so different from that of the other Faulknerians—so different from that of Capote, for example, or the even more girlish [Tennesseè] Williams—that one is taken even less far than usual by labels like "Southern" or "Faulknerian" when talking about her books.
She owed almost as much, I should say, to Ring Lardner and Nathanael West as to Faulkner. To Ring Lardner, the satirist's trick of catching cliché as it falls and freezes the banality of a life or mind…. [It] tells us something of her independence that she should have started with somebody as much out of fashion as Ring Lardner—Flannery O'Connor went on to make merry with the pretensions of social workers and intellectuals and anxious mothers and wives of Dixie hog-farmers. With an ear as fine as Lardner's own for dialect and for the way of a man with a cliché, Flannery O'Connor had what is even rarer, a conscious and austere control of the art of the story. She avoids the wandering and the sprawl that are the inherent dangers of Lardner's method—however racily the ball-player talks, he often becomes tedious in his brainlessness and illiteracy—by always telling her stories in her own person and thus staying on top of her matter.
Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts was another of the books … that Flannery O'Connor used to press on her friends. And her debt here, though not plain, is again extensive. To extreme and painful situations she brought, as West did, a great deal of mocking ironic poise. If she has no girls without noses, she has them with artificial legs and with acne-blued faces. She has one-armed men and men covered with tattoos, and she is fond of thrusting this grotesque part of humanity into confrontations with characters more comfortably housed in the flesh. Her purpose in all this, and West's, is not, I think, that of the Fat Boy in [Charles Dickens's David Copperfield]: "I wants to make your flesh creep." Rather, these violent confrontations and the violent action that grows out of them show her willingness to take a chance on the assertion that behind the grotesquerie and violence a God presides. West, using the same surreal methods, questioned that assertion. Miss O'Connor's success in making hers stick in a literary way varies a good deal, from stories like "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," which strikes me as rather pat and wan, up through such later brilliant successes as "The Enduring Chill" and "Revelation."… Nathanael West has greater range and greater knowledge of the world, but he does not, I think, cut [as deep as she does in "Revelation"]. Flannery O'Connor had from him the daring to face big questions and part of the technical dash to get them stated in fiction, but her way of resolving them was her own.
She was—that rare thing among Catholic writers in this century—a Catholic born. The Catholicism never gets stated in her stories, but it is always assumed, and it always glimmers in the distance as a kind of unwritten and implied Paradiso for the dark comic goings-on in the stories themselves. As an American Catholic, Flannery O'Connor was, of course, a Jansenist…. I think that Jansenism, more than anything else, explains both her very considerable power at the short story and her limitations. The pride of intellect, the corruption of the heart, the horror of sex—all these appear again and again in her books, and against them, the desperate assertion of faith. Out of these themes grows the paradigm story, for Flannery O'Connor, like most authors, had a paradigm story which she wrote again and again, in her case a kind of morality play in which Pride of Intellect (usually Irreligion) has a shattering encounter with the Corrupt Human Heart (the Criminal, the Insane, sometimes the Sexually Demonic) and either sees the light or dies, sometimes both. "The Lame Shall Enter First," which is perhaps a better paradigm than story anyway, will illustrate. We meet a social worker named Sheppard—shepherd, I suppose, though the author once wrote to a professor of English who had asked about the symbol-value of one of her characters' names, "As for Mrs. May, I must have named her that because I knew some English teacher would write and ask me why." Sheppard, who disbelieves in God and the devil, has undertaken to rehabilitate the thieving club-footed Rufus Johnson by taking the boy into his own household, buying a new shoe for the bad foot, and providing access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Johnson, who at fourteen boasts of his possession by Satan, is the corrupt human heart that Flannery O'Connor saw as beyond the reach of any therapy but the grace of God. He steals, peeps into windows, lies, smashes up houses, dances in Sheppard's dead wife's girdle, and—just at the point where Sheppard admits the failure of therapy—drives his would-be benefactor's son to suicide and goes off insisting to the police that Sheppard had made sexual advances to him.
That is the paradigm, and though not all the stories are written to it, not even all the best ones, a good many are and the point, I think, is that God gets asserted out of the abyss of the human heart. "The Lame Shall Enter First" is itself a reworking of The Violent Bear It Away, where the paradigm may also be seen. Variations of it appear in "Revelation" and "The Enduring Chill," where Irreligion appears as mere Conventional Religiousness—low-on-the-hog Protestantism in the one and high-tea Catholicism in the other. The Corrupt Heart can become a pathological killer—the Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," or a shifty Bible salesman in "Good Country People" or a whore in "The Comforts of Home." In a somewhat lower key, the redneck grandfather in "The Artificial Nigger" is appalled to discover himself capable of telling a lie denying kinship with his own grandson.
Though I have dwelt at some length on the horror of sex as an element in American Jansenism and in Flannery O'Connor's books, I do not wish to overstate this, because it seems to me that her record in the whole matter is better than that of almost any Catholic writer of the century. "Good Country People" is a story a man would give his right arm to have written…. Sex here is both terrible and wildly funny. Yet "Good Country People" alone among the Flannery O'Connor stories explodes out of the kind of encounter between a man and a woman that [Anton] Chekhov thought of as the most basic of human and fictional situations…. Outside of "Good Country People," even in it for that matter, sex generally has something of the demonic about it for Flannery O'Connor—the homosexual attack on young Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away, for example, or the club-footed boy leering in at windows in "The Lame Shall Enter First." (pp. 95-8)
More than anything else,… horror of sex has robbed Catholic writing of the range, the sanity, and the shrewd and generous humanity that it had when Geoffrey Chaucer rang for the last time the great Catholic bell and rang it in plague-time too.
Some years ago, and before he went on to higher things, Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote an acute book of literary criticism, Maria Cross, in which he dealt with recurring "imaginative patterns" in eight Catholic writers—[François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh], and others, all of them worlds removed from Flannery O'Connor. Her writing in general owes almost nothing to theirs, though Manley Pointer has something perhaps of Waugh's Basil Seal about him. So it is the more remarkable to find behind Miss O'Connor's writing the exact pattern that O'Brien has found behind that of her European fellow Catholics and near contemporaries: a pattern of intense and incommunicable pain arising from sex and transformed by religion into art…. The pain and the acceptance of pain are behind [O'Connor's] art, which is where they surely belong, not in it. This it is that enables Waugh to take the long view, to write with immense comic assurance of the most painful kinds of human experience—death itself, for example, or cannibalism for that matter. In the same way, Flannery O'Connor fits into a comic view of the world such things as manic killers, deformed bodies, intense hatreds, and violent deaths. With all of this, her comic art, like Waugh's, is able to live as merry as cup and can. The one thing that both of them find too terrible in the world to contemplate is ordinary sexual experience, love as anything other than a crucifixion—though it must be granted that both writers are admirably open when put against a Mauriac or a Graham Greene. (pp. 98-9)
Catholic writing has often had in this century great austerity and control, as it has again in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. It can never make peace with the world, but I think at last it is going to have to make its peace with Henry Miller. The cost of not doing so is the loss of range and humanity and the retreat to an ever more waspish perfection in ever smaller literary forms. That is the direction in which Flannery O'Connor's writing sometimes fails. "The Comforts of Home," for example, does "Good Country People" over in reverse gear, which is more ingenious than efficient. And Everything That Rises Must Converge, which has excellent and varied stories, has none as raucously funny as "The Artificial Nigger" or "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" in her earlier collection. She would not go wider than her ground, and nobody could have gone deeper there.
She had done her work, I think, when she died and done it very well. It is all native stone of her own quarry. She found the human heart a pretty dark place, as most writers have done who have cared to look very long. But she was not a hater, and she never trafficked in despair. She did much of her writing with death more or less in the next room but went on until she had sent into the world the tough and brilliant comic stories of which all readers now become, in an old formula, the heirs and assigns forever. "Nothing is here for tears … nothing but well and fair." (p. 99)
Warren Coffey, "Flannery O'Connor," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 40, No. 5, November, 1965, pp. 93-9.
A perusal of Miss O'Connor's fiction will reveal that Christ-haunted figures furnish the author her principal subject matter. Through the conflicts, often violent ones, of these protagonists who oscillate between belief and unbelief, between self-will and submission, the author presents her view of reality. This grotesque drama that she presents takes place in a discernible theological framework in which there is an implicit acceptance of the concept of a created universe, "with all that implies of human limitations and human obligations to an all-powerful Creator."… Such a view heightens man's every action, for his every action is seen "under the aspect of eternity."… Thus, Miss O'Connor's fiction is primarily concerned with man's life-and-death spiritual struggle. The protagonist, rebelling against belief, forces a crisis that reveals to him his haughty and willful misconception of reality, at which time he experiences what Miss O'Connor has called his "moment of grace." Without exception this moment comes at great price….
In the O'Connor world whether one commits himself to evil deeds or good deeds makes little difference ultimately, for without Christ one's actions only lead to evil. (p. 236)
I suspect the comic technique employed in most of [O'Connor's] stories to be, for the most part, a necessary vehicle for carrying her unpopular theme. Humor is always an accessible mask for saying what one actually believes, for somehow humor proves an accepted convention for voicing what would otherwise be resented.
Though willing to exploit his unwilling antics, Miss O'Connor never loses sight of man as a created being whose soul is precious to his Creator. Despite his ignorance, his rebelliousness, and his tendency toward evil, man still realizes his fullest potential by participating in a supernatural relation with his Creator. This depends upon his recognition of the existence of evil, of his own tendency toward evil, and his ability to triumph over evil through grace, a supernatural gift from God which comes only with man's full realization of his lost condition and his dependence on Christ. With this realization, which constitutes his moment of grace, man's salvation is begun; he can then begin to fulfill the purpose of his existence, which is to reflect the goodness of his Creator and to share the happiness of heaven with Him. This is Miss O'Connor's view of ultimate reality. (pp. 237-38)
Miss O'Connor sought to give new life to what she believed to be significant religious truths that were once a living reality but which the modern mind has tended to either distort or reject. Her stories, which are in a sense grotesque parables, dramatize the existence of evil. Satan's greatest triumph, her works seem to suggest, lies in the fact that he-has convinced the world that he does not exist. But for Miss O'Connor he does exist. The backwoods fanatics who either believe he exists or at least are preoccupied with the possibility of his existence may seem ludicrously grotesque to most readers. Yet Miss O'Connor gives serious treatment to these grotesques because their concerns are her concerns. In their defense, she has publicly stated that "their fanaticism is a reproach, not simply an eccentricity. Those who, like Amos or Jeremiah, embrace a neglected truth will be seen to be the most grotesque of all."… The conflict between grace and evil in the lives of her characters reflects for the author the most significant drama in the realm of human experience. (p. 239)
Bob Dowell, "The Moment of Grace in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor," in College English (copyright © 1965 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 235-39.
The fiction of the late Flannery O'Connor … poses a unique problem. Unlike some contemporary Christian writers, she makes no concessions to the non-Christian world: on the whole, she refuses to make her ideology palatable to non-Christian readers by suggesting any philosophical frame of reference other than that of Christian orthodoxy. And today this is an extremely big risk to take: such a theme and such methods inevitably deny the Christian writer many readers. Significantly, many of those same readers find Dante and [John] Milton as rewarding as ever. But one suspects that they may be reading Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy simply as "poetry" and discounting what they believe to be the theological residuum as "history"—interesting but no longer relevant in these enlightened times.
This approach, however, is almost impossible with Miss O'Connor. For one thing, she is only recently dead: in a sense, she has not yet passed into history. The settings of her novels and stories are thoroughly contemporary; and, more significantly, her overriding strategy is always to shock, embarrass, even outrage rationalist readers—and perhaps most especially those like the sort mentioned above who think Dante and Milton are great poets as long as one does not have to take their theology seriously. Such readers, significantly, are very quick to defend the King James Bible against the encroachments of modern translations—not on any theological grounds but rather as a literary masterpiece in danger of competition from cheap imitations. T. S. Eliot has pointed out that such a defense assumes of course that the theological content is dead: it is just the literature they are interested in.
But Miss O'Connor really seems to believe all that stuff, and she cannot be written off for a long time as "history." The theology is simply there—as such—and must be reckoned with. In her case the theology is perhaps even more obtrusive than it is in a writer like Eliot, many of whose poems seem "patient of" a Christian interpretation but not exclusively so. Furthermore, she often seems to regard her function as prophetic or evangelistic and makes no bones about it: she has, in a sense, come to call the wicked to repentance—and none more so than the modern intellectuals who have no use for Christianity, the Church, or its traditional doctrines. And this may be what does limit her audience: she makes a crucial problem of belief. And the fact that she is writing in what has been called the post-Christian world (as Dante or even Milton were not) may force her to adopt a kind of shock tactics.
But by no means is this to say that Miss O'Connor was writing programmatic or propagandistic fiction: if she had been, she would not have written nearly so well. She was not writing just tracts for the times; though, in the broadest sense, her fiction is that too. It is to say, however, that her vision of man in this world was uncompromisingly Christian: she saw all of life in Christian terms; she thought the Gospels were really true; and she accepted the historic teachings of the Church. And this intellectual and philosophical position informed everything she wrote. She was not trying to "sell" Christianity; she was—as indeed any writer is—trying to "sell" her particular perception of life in this world as valid.
Though born and bred a Roman Catholic, Miss O'Connor rarely wrote about her fellow communicants, largely, one suspects, for geographical and historical reasons. As an almost lifelong resident of rural Georgia, she inevitably knew more—and perhaps more about—Protestants, particularly those in the fundamentalist and pentecostal sects. But there was nothing narrow or sectarian in her theology: she was Catholic in the oldest and widest sense of the term. Indeed, one suspects that Miss O'Connor's hot-gospelers and the Church of Rome have much more in common than not, though of course many of her fictional characters do look on the Pope as the Whore of Babylon.
Certainly, it does not seem true, as has been once or twice suggested, that she was a sophisticated Roman making sport with the eccentricities and grotesqueries of her good Southern Baptist brethren. Such a charge is wide of the mark. If anything, Miss O'Connor seems to take a grim, ironic pleasure in siding with the Southern fundamentalists against the modern, willful intellectuals or the genteel, self-sufficient schemers who are her greatest villains. The Southern Baptists or the Holy Rollers may be violent or grotesque or at times even ridiculous; but, she implies, they are a whole lot nearer the truth than the more "enlightened" but godless intellectuals or even the respectable do-gooders and church-goers who look on the Church as some sort of glorified social service institution while preferring to ignore its pricklier doctrines.
In the light of these observations, then, Miss O'Connor's major theme should come as no surprise to us. It is that the Christian religion is a very shocking, indeed a scandalous business … and that its Savior is an offense and a stumbling block, even a "bleeding stinking mad" grotesque to many. He "upsets the balance around here"; He "puts the bottom rail on top"; He makes the first last and the last first. In short, He revolutionizes the whole Creation and turns the whole world upside down, to the scandal of those who believe that two plus two always equals four (and, with craft, possibly five) or those who believe that they do not need any outside help (a savior) because they are doing all right by themselves. And this Christ comes not lamb-like and meek, as a rule, but comes in terrifying glory, riding the whirlwind: He is more like Eliot's "Christ the tiger" than gentle Jesus meek and mild. There is nothing sweet or sentimental about Him, and He terrifies before He can bless.
This theme, along with several related sub-themes, constitutes the principal burden of Miss O'Connor's work; and, even when it is not obvious, it is usually lurking in the background (like her Christ), ready to spring out to confront her rationalists and do-gooders (and the reader) with its grisly imperative: "Choose you this day whom ye will serve." And it is impossible, implies Miss O'Connor, to blink the issue: there is no place for Laodiceans in her world. For this reason her fiction, though carefully ordered, even sedate and regular in its narrative progressions, has often the urgent intensity, the ordered ferocity of a dramatic but sober evangelistic sermon. And one feels that, in her continuing insistence on the immediacy and importance of the four last things, she recaptures (as indeed the fundamentalist sects try to do) something of the atmosphere of the Primitive Church.
Indeed, the world of Miss O'Connor's fiction seems to wait hourly for Judgment Day—or some new revelation or perhaps a transfiguration, in any case, some sign that the Almighty is still "in charge here." Exactly what the event will be is not so important as that her world is subject to the continuous supervision of the Management, who makes itself known sometimes quietly and sedately but, more often here, in a "purifying terror." (pp. 183-85)
Though [O'Connor] seems to have wanted to write more novels, her real forte was the short story—and for reasons which are perhaps not difficult to ascertain. The violent but fiercely controlled intensity with which she wrote is extremely difficult to sustain for the length of a novel, and the ironic reversals on which so many of her plots turn seem to demand the shorter form. Her prose style is lean and spare, her narrative method swift and sinewy—perfectly adapted to her highly compressed story form. Full-scale portraiture and character development have little place in such fiction, and indeed what seems to be the principal flaw in her novels is that they are just too spare: too much of the canvas remains empty after the bold outline has been violently brushed on.
Wise Blood, her first novel, is perhaps the least successful of Miss O'Connor's more ambitious works. And the reason may be that her shattering perceptions about fallen man have not sufficiently coalesced into a strong thematic design. Her familiar themes, her trade-mark characters are here aplenty; and the whole fabric of the novel pulsates with frenzied energy. But it might be that Miss O'Connor was trying too hard to say too much too soon. (pp. 185-86)
Though Wise Blood is uneven and sometimes not sufficiently "rendered" or even coherent, Miss O'Connor's major themes are already emerging. Man cannot justify himself; he cannot find salvation in any of the modern saviors, whether sex or technology or consumer goods; and Christ, when accepted, is sometimes a terrible Savior indeed—scandalous to the "enlightened" but stern and all-demanding to the converted. Attempts to escape Him or deny Him make man at once warped and ridiculous. Yet it is often those whom the upright and wholesome regard as grotesque and morbid who become chosen vessels indeed. And this is the scandal of the Gospels: the real grotesques are the self-justified; the apparent grotesques may be the blessed.
It should never be forgotten, of course, that always in Miss O'Connor's fiction behind the grotesque lies the ultimate concept of straightness or "oughtness," without which the grotesque is meaningless: we cannot know that anything is crooked unless we know that something else is straight. It is certainly this fundamental assumption that distinguishes Miss O'Connor's grotesquerie from that of many members of the Southern Gothic School.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Miss O'Connor's second volume and first collection of stories, contains much of her most characteristic work. Indeed, it may be her best single volume and the one by which she is longest remembered. The ten stories here are prefixed with an epigraph from St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "The dragon is by the side 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." Exactly who or what the dragon is here may be a little hard to determine. Is it the Devil, who has many protean forms, some horrible, some seductive? Or is it perhaps even Christ the tiger, Who, in a sense, does devour us when we fail His sphinx-riddle: "What think ye of Jesus?"
In any case, the ten stories here do, in one way or another, put this question to the reader in a variety of ways. (Miss O'Connor herself once described them as "stories about original sin.") And some of them are very shocking indeed. Perhaps the most typical is the title story. It concerns a family of husband, wife, three children, and the husband's mother, all of whom meet violent death at the hands of a pathological killer who calls himself "the Misfit" and his henchmen. The husband and wife and the two older children (the third is an infant) are obnoxious, and the grandmother is little better. She fancies that gentility and refinement can save her soul, until the Misfit, who is something like the Anti-Christ Hazel Motes, puts the question to her in the imperative Gospel mode:
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead … and he shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. 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…."
When the grandmother begs him to pray to Jesus for help, the Misfit replies, "I don't want no hep. I'm doing all right by myself." He has met the issue head-on, though; unlike many people and unlike many of Miss O'Connor's villains, he refuses to pretend the issue—and the choice—do not exist. And therefore, ironically, he wins from us a grudging admiration that the murdered family does not command. (pp. 187-88)
He remains a rather grand Satan—and perhaps nobler than Milton's—to the very end.
Another shocker among these stories is "Good Country People."… Again, it is the sort of Anti-Christ figure of the Bible salesman who wins something of our admiration: he may be a devil but he is not a fool, as Hulga is. (p. 189)
Miss O'Connor takes a dim view of modern man's "advancement": again and again she demonstrates a profound distrust in "progress" and "enlightenment," which are won at the expense of the sacramental, whole view of life. And one feels that Tarwater, the teenage prophet of The Violent Bear It Away, may be speaking for her when he scorns flying as another form of justification by technology: "I wouldn't give you nothing for no airplane. A buzzard can fly."
The role of women in Miss O'Connor's fiction is particularly interesting. There is certainly little enough conventional romantic interest attributed to them there, and sex as such is a negligible theme. Significantly, there is not even much warm domestic life in Miss O'Connor's works. Such ties as do exist—and not always for the best either—are more often found here between grandparents and grandchildren rather than between parents and children. And on more than one occasion it is Christ Himself Who causes family dissensions—true to the Gospel promise. Often Miss O'Connor's women constitute some of her most villainous characters, almost as though she believed in some sort of spiritual double standard. Such women are usually widows or divorcées who are apparently as independent of God as they are of sex and marital involvement: it is almost as though they regard men as an imperfection or a scandal (like Christ?) that the universe would be better off without. Usually these women live alone or with one or two children on a Georgia farm which they are determined to make pay off. The cows are going to produce the required amount of milk, and the Negro hands are not going to get by with slacking. In short, these women seem to think that by taking sufficient thought for the morrow they can beat the racket. But such independence of spirit, though commendable in many ways, becomes evil when it verges close to the Satanic pride of the Misfit's "I'm doing all right by myself." (pp. 189-90)
[In one of her finest stories, "The Displaced Person" in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Miss O'Connor is grinding no ax], either Roman or ecumenical. She is dramatizing the predicament of the willfully blind who see the whole truth only in judgment. (Vision, it should be noted, is a recurring motif in her work, with physical sight often used symbolically to suggest inner, spiritual knowledge.) When Mrs. Shortley dies, apparently of a stroke and with her eyes twisted askew in death, her family "didn't know that she had had a great experience or ever been displaced in the world from all that belonged to her." And her eyes then "seemed to contemplate for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country."
Almost the same dramatic device is used to indicate the vision of judgment (and damnation) that comes to Mrs. May in "Greenleaf," a story which has not the obvious Christian implications of "The Displaced Person." As the proud and willful Mrs. May lies dead, impaled on the horns of a bull, "she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable."
Mrs. May, like many of the O'Connor widow-divorcées, has really thought to justify herself by works. ("Before any kind of judgment seat, she would be able to say: I've worked, I have not wallowed.") And certainly as things in this world go, she seems far superior to the shiftless poor-white Greenleaf family who work on her farm, especially Mrs. Greenleaf, who indulges in a particularly repulsive kind of "prayer healing." ("'I'm afraid your wife has let religion warp her,' she said once tactfully to Mr. Greenleaf. 'Everything in moderation, you know.'") But, Miss O'Connor implies, religion is not for "moderates"; it does warp one—away from the ways of this world. The final irony remains that it is really the hard-working but prideful Mrs. May who is really warped. And it is such hubris which appears the cardinal sin in Miss O'Connor's works. (pp. 190-91)
Closely allied to pride of will in Miss O'Connor's work is pride of intellect, a relationship which reminds one of [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, as does also Miss O'Connor's obvious allegorical bent. Of no group is she more scornful than the modern intellectuals, particularly those who look on Christianity as merely the paraphernalia of outmoded superstition. This is particularly evident in the posthumous volume in a story like "The Enduring Chill." Here Asbury Fox, a Southern intellectual, has come home from New York to die (he thinks). And mainly to annoy his Methodist mother, who does have something of the McIntyre-May air about her, he asks to see a Jesuit priest…. Asbury expects of course to find in the Jesuit a charming, sophisticated man of the world with whom he can at last, even in Georgia, hold an intellectual conversation. Instead he gets old Father Finn, deaf in one ear and blind in one eye, who cares not a whit for the intellect as such but wants to know whether Asbury knows his catechism and says his prayers regularly. (pp. 192-93)
[One] by one, all Asbury's attempts at self-justification are revealed as stale, flat, and unprofitable. Ironically, he is not even going to die!…. [At] the end of the story, with all his illusions about life and himself stripped away, Asbury lies awaiting the coming of some new life to supplant the old, now exhausted. "The last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes," and he sees that for the rest of his life he will live in the face of a "purifying terror." Asbury vainly struggles; "but the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend." (p. 193)
There is no salvation in works, whatever form they may take, or in self, Miss O'Connor implies again and again: only in that Name which is above every name in earth and heaven—Christ the lamb, Christ the tiger, Christ the Lord.
This then is the substance of the scandalous gospel, the harrowing evangel Miss O'Connor proclaims, which is not peace but a sword. A few words may be in order here about the form in which her unsettling visions are embodied. It has already been suggested that her strength lies in the short story rather than in the novel: she does seem to lose some depth of density of texture in the longer form. Her prose style itself is often almost plain and graceless—certainly sober and direct, as are her themes. Occasionally, it seems downright ugly, as if to emphasize her healthy respect for all that is not light, bright, and secular. And occasionally this deliberate awkwardness and cacophony of style remind one of [John] Donne or [Gerard Manley] Hopkins—a stylistic comparison which may suggest a further thematic resemblance to these two poets of the warped and the skew. They, also, knew something of the terrible speed of mercy.
But despite her respect for the ugly, she is not insensitive to the beauty of nature or perhaps even the beauty of right actions…. In "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," in the first volume of stories, her sacramental view of the world is made explicit. Here all the horrors that warped body and soul are heir to seem to prevail, but they have not here the last word: "The sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees." And this is but one of many instances. Miss O'Connor's world is, like Hopkins', bent and brown, with its pasture and encircling lines of trees—what Robert Fitzgerald has called her signature—suggesting some fierce spiritual arena where her characters wrestle now with the Devil, now with God. But always over the fallen Creation there broods the Holy Ghost, with His warm breast and bright wings, blessing and sanctifying our smudged world and lightening our darkness, whether in rest and quietness or in the blinding revelation of the Damascus Road.
Miss O'Connor's themes and her presentation of them, though unique in contemporary American fiction, would seem inevitably to deny her the widest audience, even among the most genuinely sophisticated readers. Often, with the best will in the world, such readers will simply not be able to accept her uncompromising theological frame of reference: some tension in that quarter seems unavoidable. Nevertheless, whether or not they can accept her particular interpretation, many readers would agree that Miss O'Connor's diagnosis of the human condition is pretty accurate. For all its darkness and terror, her Georgia is no foreign country; and we are none of us strangers there. (pp. 195-96)
Robert Drake, "'The Bleeding Stinking Mad Shadow of Jesus' in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor," in Comparative Literature Studies (© 1966 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois), Vol. 3, No. 2, 1966, pp. 183-96.
All the characters in the very powerful stories of Flannery O'Connor are abnormal: that is to say they are normal human beings in whom the writer has discovered a relationship with the lasting myths and the violent passions of human life. It would be fashionable in America to call [Everything That Rises Must Converge] Gothic: it certainly has the curious inner strain of fable—replacing the social interest—which is a distinguishing quality of the American novel…. The Southern writers have sometimes tended to pure freakishness or have concentrated on the eccentricities of a decaying social life; but this rotting and tragic order has thrown up strong, if theatrical themes. Flannery O'Connor was born too late to be affected by the romantic and nostalgic legend of the tragic South; the grotesque, for its own sake, means nothing to her. In the story called 'Parker's Back', an absurd truck-driver has indulged a life-long mania for getting tattooed and in a desperate attempt to reawaken the interest of his wife, who had once been captivated by this walking art gallery, he has one final huge tattoo done on his naked back which up till then had been a blank wall. He pays for the most expensive tattoo there is: a Byzantine Christ. She throws him out because on this great deal he has wrecked a tractor. The point of this story is not that it is bizarre; it is that, perhaps because of the confused symbols that haunt the minds of the Bible Belt people, an inarticulate man wishes to convey to her that he has some claim to an inner life. He wishes to show that he is someone. The act is an agonised primitive appeal. It is also an act of defiance and hatred.
The passions are just beneath the humdrum surface in Flannery O'Connor's stories. She was an old Catholic, not a convert, in the South of the poor whites, of the Bible Belt, and this gave her a critical starting-point and skirmishing power, the formative element in American society being Protestant. But the symbolism of religion, rather than the acrimonies of sectarian dispute, fed her violent imagination—the violence is itself rather Protestant, as if she had got something out of the burning, Bible-fed imagery in the minds of her own characters. The symbols are always ominous: at sunset a wood may be idyllic, but also look blood-sodden. They usually precede an act of violence which will introduce the character at the end of the story 'into the world of guilt and sorrow'. This is her ground as a fabulist or moralist. We are left with an illusion shattered, with the chilly task of facing ourselves…. The essence of this artist is that she sees terror as a purification—unwanted, of course: it is never the sado-masochist's intended indulgence. The moment of purification may actually destroy; it will certainly show someone changed.
Symbolism has been fatal to many writers: it offers a quick return of unearned meaning…. [With very few exceptions,] whenever one detects a symbol, one is impressed by Flannery O'Connor's use of it: it is concrete and native to the text. (p. 469)
Many of the stories are variations on the theme of the widowed mother who has emasculated her son; or the widower who is tragically unaware of what he is doing to his child. In one instance, a widower destroys his grandchild. These stories are not arguments about the kind of family troubles which seem to be obsessional in American life: they are not case-histories or indignation meetings. They are selected for the violence which will purify but destroy. The characters are engaged in a struggle for power which they usually misunderstand. A mature and sensible young historian living with his mother is maddened by her naive and reckless do-gooding behaviour. She rescues an amoral girl who calls herself a 'nimpermaniac' and has her to stay. The girl instantly makes a set at the historian who shows her that he hates her. There is a revolver in the house. Who will be killed? A probation officer—a widower—in another rescue story, takes into his house a young boy crook who introduces his son to fatal Bible Belt fantasies about Heaven—again, who will be killed? This story, particularly, is an attack on practical ethics as a substitute for religion; in another, Art is shown to be inadequate as a substitute.
If these stories are anti-rationalist propaganda, one does not notice it until afterwards. Like all the Gothic writers, Flannery O'Connor has a deep sense of the Devil or rather of the multiplicity of devils, though not in any conventional religious sense. To the poor-white Gospellers, Satan has become literature. For her the devils are forces which appear in living shape: the stray bull which kills the old farming widow whose sons let her down; the criminal child who is proud of being an irredeemable destroyer because he has been called a child of Satan. He looks forward, eagerly—it is his right—to an eternity in the flames of hell, which he takes to be literal fire; the delinquent girl who has been taught by psychiatrists to regard her vice as an illness sees this as an emancipating distinction. The author is not playing the easy game of paradox which is the tiresome element in the novels of Catholic converts: for her, the role of the diabolical is to destroy pride in a misconceived virtue.
A short story ought to be faultless without being mechanical. The wrong word, a misplaced paragraph, an inadequate phrase or a convenient explanation, start fatal leaks in this kind of writing, which is formally very close to poetry. It must be totally sustained. There are no faults of craftsmanship in Flannery O'Connor's stories. She writes a plain style: she has a remarkable ear for the talk of the poor whites, for the clichés and received ideas of the educated; and she creates emotion and the essence of people by brilliant images. We see all the threatening sullen life of a poor farmer in this sentence: 'His plate was full but his fists sat motionless like two dark quartz stones on either side of it.'… Flannery O'Connor is at pains to make us know intimately the lives of these poor whites and struggling small-town people. They are there as they live, not in the interest of their rather ignorant normality, but in the interest of their exposure to forces in themselves that they do not yet understand. Satan, they will discover, is not just a word. He has legs—and those legs are their own. (pp. 469, 472)
V. S. Pritchett, "Satan Comes to Georgia," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 71, No. 1829, April 1, 1966, pp. 469, 472.
At her death in 1964, Flannery O'Connor left two novels and nineteen short stories and on these her literary reputation finally must rest. The novels, however, are not finished works of art. Both are structurally imperfect, but, of more importance, the very devices and perceptions that are the hallmarks of Flannery O'Connor's skill as a short story writer wear thin and brittle in the larger ambiance of a book-length work. The incisive dialogue loses some of its sharpness: detail and gesture become stylized: even violence, seen in the broader context, fails to shock. This is not to say that the novels are bad novels. But they are not as good as the short stories, and in any effort to delineate the achievement of Flannery O'Connor they must assume a supportive role.
Add to the novels a few short stories that are, by O'Connor standards, distinctly inferior. In my opinion, there are at least four of these and I shall be foolhardy enough to name them: "A Stroke of Good Fortune," "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," and "Judgement Day." If these stories, along with the novels, are relegated to a position of secondary importance in the O'Connor corpus, then the level of her accomplishment must be established principally by fifteen stories—a slight exhibit from a quantitative point of view.
But large reputations have been built on as little or less. Stephen Crane comes to mind, and properly so. His fame rests principally on one slim novel and one short story: and in spite of the obvious differences between them, his work has much in common with that of Flannery O'Connor. Like hers, his essential style was inflexible: he wrote everything the same way…. He was the master of the existential crisis, of the pure confrontation between man and his mortal destiny: his sense of cosmic irony was impeccably accurate, and his notion of what happened to men under the stress of absolute danger was, as he continued throughout his life to reconfirm for himself, absolutely right. What this seems to me to mean is that Crane's talent, vast as it was, was good for only one human posture, one metaphysical relationship. And when he abandoned this relationship, he failed.
The same was true of Flannery O'Connor. For instance, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" is a bad story, not because the material is faulty or because the writing, per se, is inferior to the prose in her other stories. The dialogue is not drab, the images are not unimaginative or non-functional. But the style and the material fail to jibe. Without much exaggeration, one might say that in this story O'Connor was working Crane's territory, writing of the old Civil War soldier who thought he was never going to die, but who finally did. Crane could have done the old man with extraordinary insight: he was always good with soldiers, because more acutely than most people, perhaps, soldiers are aware of the inevitable meeting between themselves and what Crane called "the great death." For O'Connor, death was of no enduring significance. This may be one of the reasons that her work is so bloody: to die is simply to take the next step forward within the Christian order, to move on toward purgatory or hell or heaven and Judgement Day. But to say merely that her theme is Christian is not to be specific enough.
In speaking of herself, Flannery O'Connor referred frequently to her Catholicism and to her Southernness and it was her view that her work flowed from the amalgamation of these two somewhat disparate traditions. In the Roman Church, she found the complete theology which alone gives meaning to the human condition, and which had so sadly deteriorated in Southern protestant hands. Yet, in the Bible-reading South she found the sense of narrative and of image that the Church, concerned with its abstractions, often fails to achieve. So she took the Southern feel for story and the Southern attachment to the individual and the Southern ability to deal, often creatively, with the grotesque; and she undergirded these with her absolute knowledge, drawn from the Church, of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, of the inviolable prospositions of the Faith. Her vision was of a race of people suffering their wilful separation from God, and her basic fictional situation, comparable to Crane's posture of man facing destruction, is that of the gnostic, believing in himself and asserting the myth of his own independence.
Her intellectuals are her most obvious examples. (pp. 304-05)
But there are variations on the fundamental posture: intellectual pride is not confined to those whose minds have been specially trained. The mother in "The Comforts of Home" sets out to redeem Sara Ham, the prostitute, with no qualifications for the job except a tender heart. Mrs. May in "Greenleaf" feels secure in knowing how her farm ought to be run, but her grown sons have abandoned her to her knowledge. Julien in "Everything That Rises" attempts to reform his mother from the center of his superior perceptions, but ends by recognizing his own guilt.
Even those who claim for themselves a place among the Christian faithful are subject nonetheless to a manifestation of the gnostic sin….
In "The Displaced Person," the gnostic theme receives its fullest and most complex development in terms of the conflict between the major influences that shaped Flannery O'Connor's work. Mrs. McIntyre, the Shortleys, the two Negro hands are all part of the stable society of South Georgia. They are certain of their identities; they know where they belong; they are aware of their relationship to each other. Or so they think. But their traditional culture is dissipated by the decay of faith. (p. 306)
On the McIntyre farm, the loss of God and the accompanying belief in the efficacy of human effort and human understanding have destroyed all sense of vocation, tainted personal relationships and dulled aesthetic perceptions…. Since no one is working for God, everyone is working for himself, trying to get or get away with as much as he can, and as a consequence, people can no longer trust each other. The old stability is upset. No one will perform his tasks properly, and the tenant families come and go, one after another. The peacocks, ancient symbols of Christ, and of value only for their beauty are being allowed to die off and neither Mrs. McIntyre nor Mrs. Shortley can understand why the priest admires them.
Into this decay come the Guizacs, the Polish family made homeless by the displacements of World War II. They are foreign, speaking another language, practicing another religion, one according to Mrs. Shortley, not as advanced as her own. "There was no telling what all they believed since none of the foolishness had been reformed out of it." But it is not only their foreignness that distresses Mrs. Shortley: she cannot come to terms with the agony they have suffered…. For Mrs. Shortley, the Guizacs are continual reminders of a terrible truth: man is sinful and therefore capable of the most shocking depravity. And no matter how intelligent he may become or what skills he may develop, he cannot redeem himself.
In ignorance of local mores, Mr. Guizac proposes to have his cousin marry one of the Negroes that she may be released from a displaced persons' camp. When Mrs. McIntyre learns this, she is convinced that Guizac must go, but before she can gather her strength to discharge him, he is run over by a tractor while she and Shortley and Sulk stand silently by. At the death of the immigrant, all roles are reversed: he is no longer the wanderer, the man displaced. Mrs. McIntyre watches as the priest administers last rites. When Father Flynn stands up straight, having put the Host in the dying man's mouth, Mrs. McIntyre "only stared at him for she was too shocked by her experience to be quite herself. Her mind was not taking hold of all that was happening. She felt she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger while the dead man was carried away in the ambulance."
Much is achieved in this final irony. Death, that bugaboo of modern man, is pushed back into its proper perspective. Mundane struggles are shown for what they are. And behind this extraordinary development of theme, this exposure of the plight of man who has cast himself upon the mercy of his own devices, there is a remarkable technical achievement. It is an ordinary method of fiction writers to allow the physical predicament to stand for the spiritual state: Flannery O'Connor often took this approach as in the case of Hulga's leg or Mr. Shiftlet's arm or Rayber's deafness. In "The Displaced Person," a dramatic climax is wrought in just the opposite way. The sharp reversal shows the mundane state to have been misleading. Things are not what they appear and much of the joy of really good fiction comes from our being led to discover this.
Also present her is Flannery O'Connor's subtle exploitation of symbolism. The priest, seeing the peacock raise its tail, says, "Christ will come like that." And later, "The Transfiguration." But Mrs. McIntyre says only, "Another mouth to feed." As the story nears its conclusion, the conversation between Father Flynn and Mrs. McIntyre develops the sort of off-center ambiguity that Flannery O'Connor employed so frequently. He speaks of Christ: she speaks of Mr. Guizac. The priest would have her be charitable to Mr. Guizac for the sake of Her Savior; she lumps Christ and the D. P. together: they are both "extra": there is no place for them. In this sort of narrative development there is no one to one symbolic relationship. Neither the peacock nor Mr. Guizac is Christ. But in many ways, both allegorical and actual, they are closer to Christ than Mrs. McIntyre or the Shortleys.
It seems to me that the essential qualities of Flannery O'Connor's genius are as fully displayed in "The Displaced Person" as in anything else she ever wrote. That her achievement was considerable is obvious, but exactly how considerable, it is perhaps too early to say. This much, however, appears to be certain. In her amalgamation of the two traditions—the Christian and the agrarian—she developed the only truly original voice among all her Southern contemporaries. And she is the only Southern writer of any generation who has yet made the old images viable for our immediate time. (pp. 307-09)
Walter Sullivan, "The Achievement of Flannery O'Connor," in The Southern Humanities Review (copyright 1968 by Auburn University), Vol. II, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 303-09.
Flannery O'Connor's stories, though varied as to setting and characters, give even the casual reader a single impression. They all seem to say that she does not have a very great regard for her fellowmen….
Going deeper, the reader discovers that, disturbingly, more than contempt for the human race is involved. Running through the stories is one dominating theme: that of innocence versus evil, innocence victimized by evil.
A good illustration of this may be found in the story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Here, plainly underscored, we see the vivid allegory of unabashed Innocence destroyed by unabashed Evil. And here also the allegory is given depth and color by a companion revelation, an idea not often included in stories of the Light against the Darkness, namely, that often the Innocent and the Evil share a single set of values.
The impact of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" depends almost entirely upon the significance of the allegory and its attendant message, as well as upon the richness of irony which pervades the whole. The plot is childishly simple….
Here Innocence is plainly represented by the travelling family, no member of which may be called very intelligent. (p. 295)
As a representation of full-flowered Innocence [the grandmother] can hardly be surpassed in all American fiction. Sprightly, talkative, importunate, and excessively annoying, her intentions are always of the best….
When, finally, the whole group is cornered by the criminals, she tries to "reform" the character, The Misfit….
Her efforts at reformation are fruitless. For if she and her family represent Innocence, the murderers embody pure Evil. "'No pleasure but Meanness,'" The Misfit says with a snarl. Deliberately he orders the mother, father, and children led into the woods and shot in cold blood. Deliberately he shoots the desperate, pleading grandmother himself.
Note, however, that as Innocence is, Evil here is mindless. The Misfit knows he has been in jail for a crime, but he has no recollection of what crime he committed. Unmixed Evil, as the author presents it, is weak after a fashion, and far from intelligent…. (p. 296)
This curious encounter of vulnerable Innocence and triumphant Evil is not quite so simple as it first appears. In it the sensitive reader sees something fundamental to the whole social order called in question. Jesus, proclaims The Misfit, "'was the only One that ever raised the dead.'" And Jesus was wrong, for by so doing "'He thrown everything off balance. 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.'"
In other words, if one accepts the Christian teachings, one must give up everything else. If one repudiates it, one may revel in sin. The Misfit's remark is perhaps the supreme ironical point in a story that glows with almost sinister irony. (pp. 296-97)
The view of life presented by "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is unmistakable—and interesting. Briefly it is that reason does not guide events, that victimizers and victims alike are shuffled unwittingly into strange patterns as broken and casual as those of a kaleidoscope. Further, though Evil is stronger than Innocence, it is no less foolish, and no more artful. The Misfit and his fellow convicts kill in a leisurely fashion, as if the mere killing were an idle pastime, hardly worth planning. The grandmother, on the other hand, is in a childlike way cunning: she conceals the cat, because she knows her son would not want to take it along. She falsely tells the children the mansion she remembers has a secret panel, thus rendering them riotous in their demands to see the house.
And finally, we contemplate the picture of senseless Evil and artful Innocence, we see them joined in a bizarre and terrible way. The Misfit has remarked that if the Jesus story were not true, nothing else matters—the evil in any man may triumph without let or hindrance. Would not the grandmother (and Bailey, and the young mother in slacks) believe this, too? If they were capable of analyzing their situation, would they not see it to be a confrontation of the Christian with the nonbeliever? That is, they are constrained to be "good" because they believe Jesus's words, and The Misfit, a doubter, is free to be bad.
Foolish Innocence and senseless Evil, Flannery O'Connor is saying, are doomed to wander the earth, suffering, and inflicting pain. And, paradoxically, they are linked by a single set of values. As The Misfit observes, because He raised the dead, Jesus "'thrown everything off balance.'" (p. 297)
Abigail Ann Hamblen, "Flannery O'Connor's Study of Innocence and Evil" (copyright 1968 The Curators of the University of Missouri; reprinted by permission of the author), in University Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 295-97.
[Flannery O'Connor] brought a vision as accurate and piercing as any Old Testament prophet; and her work, like the prophets', was aimed at quickening the conscience and calling an estranged people to the tragic glory of God's chosen…. In the fiction of Flannery O'Connor one finds a … preoccupation with the woes and evils of a decaying civilization—a civilization in which the law and fervor and even fanaticism of the backwoods prophets test the metal of the prophets of the secular city, the mouth-wash liberals and Northern do-gooders, and warns them, in the words of Isaiah …: "Woe to you that are wise in your own eyes, and prudent in your own conceits … for they have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and have blasphemed the world of the Holy One of Israel" (5:24). A dominant theme in her fiction strongly resembles the lament of the Prophet: "The city of thy sanctuary is become a desert, Sion is made a desert, Jerusalem is desolate. The house of our holiness, and of our glory, where our fathers praised thee, is burnt with fire, and all our lovely things are turned into ruins" (64:10-11).
Unlike many of the writers of the past century who confronted essentially religious questions, sometimes even consciously exploiting traditional Christian symbolism (T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, for example), Flannery O'Connor spoke openly—never defensively—about her religious mission as a fiction writer. Like any great writer, she understood extraordinarily well her own limitations and assumed the responsibilities of her craft within these limits. She knew that she spoke to an audience that did not share her preoccupations, her feeling that "the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ … and that what I see in the world I see in its relation to that." So she had to find a way of conveying the fact of Redemption to an audience, readers of fiction in the 1950's, who dismissed any Christian principle or, worse, did not care enough even to deny Salvation. The not caring about Redemption was to her a distortion—a more serious distortion than the physical disabilities or the mental deficiencies of her characters, both heroes and villains. Asked once why her people were so grotesque, she answered that she would be willing to argue whether her characters were really more grotesque than the man in the gray flannel suit; whether a man was truly grotesque or not depended upon your angle of vision and the strength of your perception. In order to "make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as 'natural,'" she had to make her vision apparent "by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
Whether or not Flannery O'Connor conveyed this vision will depend upon the reader to some extent, I suppose; obviously, in some of her stories this vision is not conveyed as effectively as it is in others. The meaning, "the integrity of the completed form" (in Northrop Frye's phrase), is less clear; the vision is delivered in an injured state, without unity; occasionally the story is a mixed bag of humorous episodes, peculiar characters, and violent events. But even in these failures she manages to escape the doom, once described by Chad Walsh as the unlucky fate of the Christian writer who manages to be only "an esoteric, coterie figure, speaking only to those who share his pair of eyes."
She manages to escape this trap by the use of comic irony which, in her work, helps the reader see the world consistently and see it whole, aware—but never self-consciously aware—of the intelligent narrator who takes him through the Inferno, never passing up a chance to remind him that he is, after all, in hell. Some of the characters are evil …, some ripe for redemption (Obadiah Elihue Parker in "Parker's Back," Mrs. McIntyre in "The Displaced Person"); and others merely gross and shiftless, like Mrs. May's hired man in "Greenleaf."… But all the types inhabit the same universe, and often one is as likely as the other to be the recipient of God's grace. In this chaotic world, the just and the unjust await redemption, and like stupid Mr. Greenleaf, they may become the instrument of salvation, that "strange discovery" Mrs. May makes through Mr. Greenleaf just as she dies.
Now this irony would not be so powerful if, as in the work of other modern writers (Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and sometimes Faulkner), there was not such a strong basis for the standard of behavior applied here. In the best stories, in "Revelation" or Wise Blood, for example, the irony is never detached; it is not merely the play of a sensibility about surfaces. In a brief preface to the second edition of Wise Blood, Miss O'Connor called the book "a comic novel … and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death." The statement reminds one of the tradition within which she writes, and it explains also why, like many comic writers, from Aristophanes to Evelyn Waugh, she combines a radically conservative religious position with a great distrust of detached intellectualism and shuns such "easy" terms as compassion and tolerance. If she often, in her fiction, defends the indefensible, a woman prejudiced toward Negroes or a man who is a religious fanatic, it is because she insists upon recognizing the strengths of these people—their family loyalty and bumbling generosity—and particularly their capacity for grace and redemption. If her stories indicate an anguish, she once said (she satirized in her fiction and at times in conversation the popularized Time-magazine-style existential angst), it is that the South "is not alienated enough," that the region is being forced out "not only of our many sins but of our few virtues. This may be unholy anguish but it is anguish nevertheless." For her, the Southern narrative tradition and the Christhaunted environment were virtues not to be lost to "them cold interleckchuls" up North. (pp. 212-15)
I mention the region here because, in defining and understanding the nature of her heroes, the backwoods prophets, one must understand the importance of region in the formation of the religious temperament. She never pretends that the region (the backwoods) is all good, just as she never claims that the South is necessarily Christ-centered…. But, for the religious vision of both those who preach the Church With Christ … or those who preach the Church Without Christ …, the backwoods origin is a source of their strength. Jesus lives in the woodland country; and those who lose Him temporarily in the city (such as little Bevel in "The River," and the idiot child in The Violent Bear It Away) find "the Kingdom of Christ in the river" or in the primitive surroundings of a Southern revival. (pp. 215-16)
In the city, the Christian message degenerates into a social, life-adjustment message; the blood of the lamb becomes the milk of human kindness; the salt loses its savor. Miss O'Connor is never confident that, without an iron faith and a kind of fanatic zeal, the Christian message will survive in the midst of the corrupting, "civilized" urban intelligence that threatens to reason us out of our reason. She is careful, however, not to make her indictment against the modern city too generalized, and she seems often at pains not to confuse and to mistake secularization and dechristianization, while at the same time insisting upon the necessary distinction between the secular and the sacred. As with all prophets, however, she never doubts that there is a difference. Her suspicions are those of the traditionalist that "all who seek to interpret revelation by reason alone inevitably reduce it to a secular truth and eliminate mystery." (pp. 216-17)
Her stories explore again and again that area of man's experience which "remains sacred and never becomes secular," where God is present to men and faith is never "mastered by human intelligence." As a writer of fiction, however, Miss O'Connor could not enjoy the luxury of merely figurative language. Like the prophets, she might have tried to "convey by analogie a remote idea of the reality of which they speak." But unlike the prophets, she had to convey the idea in flesh and blood fact, as well. As readers we participate in her narrative, her ritual, through our response to rhythm and pattern. For the modern reader, the word must be made flesh first, before it can move beyond immediate reality to total significance and symbolic meaning. In the stories …, the Word becomes flesh particularly and paradoxically through the demonic characters. The reader experiences it viscerally, as she intended, shocked into the recognition that for these anti-Christs, the matters they are concerned with count.
The peculiar nature of her demonic "heroes," the backwoods anti-prophets, is best illustrated by characters in three stories, the Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," Rufus Johnson in "The Lame Shall Enter First," and Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman in "Good Country People."… In these prophetic tales, the "villain" is often treated very sympathetically; he becomes, in these thinly disguised romances (Good and Evil jousting for the highest stakes), a hero of a religious quest. (pp. 217-18)
The paradox of keeping Christ alive by making heroes of His most formidable antagonists lies in the center of Miss O'Connor's fiction, best illustrated by a remarkable story in the posthumously published volume called "The Lame Shall Enter First." The central character, a fourteen-year-old boy named Rufus Johnson, brings the message of Christ, salvation, and agonizing love to a man named Sheppard and his son, by taking the devil's part. Rufus recognizes that Sheppard, for all his condescending tolerance, is an atheist; having failed to continue the religious education of his son after the death of his wife, Sheppard prides himself on his intelligence and his no-nonsense, anti-Biblical humanism. He has destroyed any remnants of his son's religious faith, and he tries his pseudopsychology on Rufus, in an effort to "save" him from his ridiculous beliefs in the resurrection and the prophets. But Sheppard is completely unsuccessful with his scheme; in fact, Rufus wins Sheppard's son, Norton, to his side by telling the boy stories from the Bible. Eventually, Norton, in an effort to "rejoin" his mother in the sky, commits suicide.
Rufus is the son of a backwoods prophet, a descendant of a man with the terrible vision of the religious fanatic. When Norton asks Rufus once where his father has gone, Rufus tells him, "He's gone with a remnant of the hills … Him and some others. They're going to bury some Bibles in a cave and take two of different kinds of animals and all like that. Like Noah. Only this time it's going to be fire, not flood." The glory of Rufus is that he believes in it, too; that is the reason he chooses the devil's part, submitting to Satan's power, as he says, with a kind of joy…. For Rufus, Satan's friend, there is only one Jesus Christ. For him, as for Flannery O'Connor, one of the major sins is for anyone else to behave as if he were Christ, without the proper respect for His Book, and for His enemy, the devil.
The trouble with Sheppard is that, with all his education, his dogooder philosophy, he never knows evil when he sees it and, consequently, is easily victimized by a really evil person like Rufus Johnson. His stupidity is shared by many of the educated people in Flannery O'Connor's fiction: by Rayber, the nephew of a backwoods prophet in The Violent Bear It Away,… by Asbury, the maudlin undergraduate who comes home to die in "The Enduring Chill" … by Mary Grace, the fat, ugly Wellesley girl (her face "blue with acne") who sits and scowls over a book entitled Human Development, in "Revelation."
But the stupidity of all these characters is outdone by the central character in another of the early stories, "Good Country People." Hulga (née Joy) Hopewell is a woman with a Ph.D. in philosophy, an artificial leg, and no common sense. Hulga feels superior to her mother and her friends because of her formal education—she's read the existentialists and the logical positivists (or at least has picked up a few clichés about them) and decided, like any other "thinking modern," that the world is blind chaos. One day an itinerant Bible salesman named Pointer, describing himself as a simple country boy making a living by spreading the word of God, comes to her house and wins her mother's affection by exchanging clichés, much in the manner of the Grandmother and Sammy Butts in "A Good Man is Hard to Find." He indicates an interest in Hulga…. When the Bible salesman makes advances, she agrees to meet him in the barn loft. As it turns out, however, he is more interested in seeing how her artificial leg hooks on and off than in making love to her, especially since she's "too intelligent" to say she loves him with much feeling. (pp. 219-21)
The Bible salesman, like the Misfit and Rufus, are obviously heroes for Miss O'Connor. If the secularist pseudo-Christians (the social workers, psychologists, sociologists, existentialist philosophers) find no antagonists in the true believer among the faithful, they should find a real antagonist in the devil, in the Satanic characters who give witness to Christ by wilfully defying Him. In the stories described here, the weak in spirit, the vulgar in speech, the superficial and even insipid in moral and religious values, the demonic characters often stand out clearly as the ones to be preferred. Better the honesty and directness of the latter than the vapid, pseudoethic of the ubiquitous, condescending mouth-wash liberal, Miss O'Connor seems to say; in a chaotic world, plagued by casual violence and meaningless pursuits, she finds much to admire in those valiant foes who take the devil's part knowingly and enthusiastically, bent on the annihilation of a world without meaning….
In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "The Lame Shall Enter First," and "Good Country People," the myth of the triumph of the powers of darkness is recounted with great vividness; and at the end of each story the personification of evil, having banished the pretenders to reason and good sense, triumphs. Evil, one discovers, has through the creative power of language, been given a kind of magnificent, if destructive form. Whether the world harbors forces of light sufficiently strong to triumph over the powers of darkness is not entirely clear in the body of Flannery O'Connor's fiction. (p. 222)
What Flannery O'Connor does in her fiction is to confront the crisis of divinity in the modern world without hesitancy and at times without hope. As in the Biblical prophets, whenever she found God, He brought not peace, but a sword. Divinity lived for her, not as for the woman in [Wallace] Stevens' "Sunday Morning," "within herself," but in the fiery furnace of violent death or severe judgment.
She finds God in the backwoods prophet, in the misfit, in sin, in deformity, in guilt, in perversion—as if it were necessary "to traffic with insanity," as Michael Harrington said of Thomas Mann, in order to make sense out of a mad world. God lives more surely, she seems to say, among those who boldly deny Him or cannot find Him; He seems most absent from those who pretend to call His name. In her stories, however joyful the sweet music of salvation, the prophet's news that God is not dead, after all, strikes man's untrained ears with the harshness of a sonic boom. He receives the prophecy of his redemption, "with the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable."
Maybe, to conclude on a somewhat more positive note, through a character like the young Francis Marion Tarwater, in The Violent Bear It Away, the work of the Redemption will be continued. At the end of the novel, the young inventor of the Law succeeds in fulfilling the mission imposed upon him by his uncle. He baptizes Rayber's idiot child (though drowning him in the process), and receives the prophet's command, heralded by a red-gold tree of fire: "He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY." The vessel of honor, like the power of darkness, brings a rather terrifying fate. Although the difference between the Misfit, the antiprophet, and young Tarwater, the true prophet, is obvious on one level, on another level, it is rather slight. Tarwater moves into "the dark city," "where the children of God lay sleeping," with much the same fierceness as the Misfit does, doing meanness: "His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him." Both are children of the backwoods with a mission in the modern city—one to destroy and another to warn. But as religious heroes, reminiscent in their awful strength of the paradoxical relationship between the great sinner and the great saint, they both move with "a terrible speed" and with a singlemindedness that the reader is forced to admire. (pp. 222-23)
Michael D. True, "Flannery O'Connor: Backwoods Prophet in the Secular City," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1969 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Vol. V, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 209-23.
To even the casual reader it would appear that Miss O'Connor really had only one story to tell and really only one main character. This principal character is, of course, Jesus Christ; and her one story is man's absolutely crucial encounter with Him—an encounter so crucial that it is literally a matter, quite often, of life-or-death, Heaven-or-Hell. There is, furthermore, very little about her Savior that seems comfortable and even less that is sweet, in the invidious sense of that word. He is certainly not the sentimental, effeminate Christ too often depicted in funeral-home or Forest Lawn iconography: He is hairy and sweaty, in many ways a quite literal holy terror, Who often terrifies before He can bless. And Miss O'Connor's arch-villains, who are significantly often villainesses, regard him as an offense and a scandal to their modern, rationalistic intellects or, if they are professing Christians, are considerably discomfited by this harrower not of Hell but of the very Zion in which they have become all too much at ease. This, with only slight modifications from time to time, is the story that constitutes the burden of her four published books, whether in her stories or in her novels. (p. 434)
Now what was Miss O'Connor's true country, where was she most at home, even unavoidably there? It was right back with that one story, played out, for the most part, against the red clay earth, the woods-encircled and often sinister green pastures of deepest, darkest Georgia. And her characters are the natives of the place, even when they make so bold to go as far away as Atlanta or even New York. Whether it was her own Baldwin County, her own Milledgeville that she kept writing about, whether she drew her "material" (how any writer hates that word!) from real, live folks is an altogether and literally impertinent question. But this was the one place she knew, the one place she could speak about with authority—and not as those scribes mentioned in the Gospels, a tribe who are perhaps the blood brothers of those determined men [Percy Bysshe] Shelley asserted could never will themselves into writing poetry.
And it was this authority, this absolute and fundamental heart and head knowledge of time and place that gave Miss O'Connor her Ancient Mariner's glittering eye. And it is this authority, at once both a gift and an obligation, which any writer, true to himself and to his craft, can never repudiate with any integrity. (pp. 436-37)
And it was Miss O'Connor's great strength that she was never false to this true country. She never betrayed what she took to be her calling, whether to report the news from Georgia or to heap up the local horrors, sexual, racial, or otherwise, and give us a sociological study of the facts of life as lived therein. As the late Professor Randall Stewart once observed of William Faulkner, she was not reporting on conditions but rather on the human condition…. (p. 437)
Now literally rural Georgia was Miss O'Connor's true country, man's encounter with Jesus Christ her true story. But there is more to the phrase than all this might seem to imply. More than once Miss O'Connor intimated, sometimes even stated directly, whether in fiction or in criticism, that she believed man's true country was not to be found in this world but only in his life—and death—in Christ. And we come back to our original intention—to explore more widely Miss O'Connor's "true country," its terrain, its flora and fauna.
And we sense at the outset some of her difficulties. What was she to do, concerned, even obsessed as she was with this theme (and I hope by now I've made clear, at least by implication, my conviction that Miss O'Connor had not a message but a theme) in a world that, when it wasn't just, like the Levite, passing by on the other side, simply was not there to hear? (And even the Ancient Mariner's power would be limited if the Wedding Guest failed to turn up!) How was she to write, what strategy was she to adopt, to speak, to prophesy (and in a sense she did conceive her function as somewhat vatic, which is not to say programmatic) to a world both blind and deaf to such concerns? It is significant here that she hardly ever referred to herself as a "Christian writer": I suspect that she would probably have found such a label as ludicrous and misleading as the terms "Democratic writer" and "Republican writer." She usually described herself as a writer with "Christian convictions" or "Christian concerns." And her solution to the problem of finding and holding an audience was direct and forthright, even violent: "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."
And this is precisely what she proceeded to do in story after story. To some extent, it explains her preoccupation with the grotesque, that element in her fiction most often misunderstood. Nothing could be further from the truth than the observation of more than one critic that her grotesquerie is gratuitous and therefore ultimately meaningless. Such may be the case with some of the less able members of the so-called Southern Gothic School…. (pp. 438-39)
Miss O'Connor's use of the grotesque can … be regarded as an instance of shock tactics resorted to when nothing else will do for those who have eyes to see and see not, ears to hear and hear not. More than this, however, Miss O'Connor's grotesquerie represents … an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual dis-grace. And as such the grotesque is absolutely functional in her overall dramatic design. It can be both horrible and at the same time absurd, as the term itself implies, just as man himself can be when he forgets his only source of energy, his only Author and Begetter, and tries to set up shop on his own…. Such a man is at once a perversion of what his Creator intended him to be, a distortion often reflected in that very temple of the Holy Ghost, his body; he is also a fairly ludicrous parody of what he was meant by that same Creator to be. And more than one writer, more than one theologian has suggested that the Devil is finally an ass. (pp. 439-40)
Miss O'Connor's Christian concerns did ultimately lose her some part of her potential audience: there is no denying this. She did, unlike Eliot or even the Metaphysical Poets, make an issue of Christian belief. But to make the issue, to dramatize man's, as she saw it, inevitable and inescapable choice between God and the Devil—or whatever other name he may for the moment bear, was her principal concern, her major theme, and finally her only real story. And I myself can see no way around the limitation it imposes on her readership….
I suggest now that her fidelity, her complete commitment to her vocation and her one story might well be taken as a paradigm and a model for emulation by the beginning or the aspiring writer today. (p. 441)
Make no mistake about what I'm suggesting: I'm not trying to turn Miss O'Connor into a major writer. I sincerely believe that, like [John] Donne or [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, whom she resembles in so many ways, both thematically and technically, she remains a major minor figure. She is a better short-story writer than a novelist. And she has not significantly changed the shape of American fiction as, for example, [Nathaniel] Hawthorne or [Herman] Melville or Hemingway or Faulkner has done. She has perhaps opened up new avenues for subsequent writers to explore: she has helped to revitalize older themes almost defunct in our literature and suggested the possibility of considering overtly once more—and with no concessions to the opposition—man as a God-created being living at once and for always ever in his great Taskmaster's eye and in a world that is, in every sense, the Lord's and all that therein lies. And this is no inconsiderable achievement.
What she has shown—and what we should never forget—is what a writer can achieve who seeks only to tell the truth about his true country, no matter how limited it may appear to be, whether geographically, ideologically, or otherwise. Her commitment to her true country was not therefore a weakness or ultimately a limitation; it was at once her strength and the source of her authority. And, verily, she has had her reward: she has made us believe that her Georgia is, in a sense, finally the emblem of the whole wide world.
In this sense she is "wide"; in another, of course, she is "narrow." There are many areas—I'm almost tempted to call them vast ones—in human experience that she leaves almost totally out of account. And concerned (there's the word again) as she was with a theme almost totally discounted by the contemporary world, she obviously decided that, for her, the best defense was an offense, in every sense of that word. And she had to pay the inevitable price for such a strategy. But when all this is conceded, her work abides because she told the truth, as she saw it, about human beings and the world they live in. Even those readers who cannot accept her theology must grant this much: her true country, her world is real and true for many of them, too, though they sometimes have difficulty with her explicitly Christian frame of reference. But in the narrow, constricted world of her one story she goes down just about as deep as one can go…. (pp. 441-42)
Robert Drake, "The Paradigm of Flannery O'Connor's True Country," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1969 by Newberry College), Vol. VI, No. 4, Summer, 1969, pp. 433-42.
The great strength of O'Connor's fiction seems to me to spring from the silent and remote rage that erupts from the quiet surface of her stories and that so unexpectedly explodes. It appears, for example, when the Misfit with great politeness has the family exterminated, or when he answers the grandmother's "niceness" with a gunshot and thereby suggests that neither Christian charity nor Southern politeness can contain all the darker human impulses. It appears again in the punishment of the vain, self-satisfied Mrs. Turpin who gets a book thrown at her. Perhaps it has a quieter voice in those sweetly nasty comments Mrs. Turpin's Negroes make as they talk among themselves to comfort her: "You the sweetest lady I know." "She pretty too." "And stout." And perhaps it is there in the impulses of all those resentful sons and daughters in the pages of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, who are frozen in an extended, rebellious adolescence where, in a perpetual dependency because of illness or fear, the price they ought to pay for being cared for is silence, acquiescence to an exasperatingly polite and very controlling mother.
Perhaps there is something of this rage even in O'Connor's love for peacocks. Did she admire the ease with which they gobbled up all the flowers in sight, destroying her mother's flower beds and turning the lawn white with droppings? Were those majestic birds that broke all the rules what Flannery O'Connor wanted to be? The curse on the bird is its yowl—the ugly voice that makes it most beautiful when silent. But to Flannery O'Connor, that voice sounded like "cheers for an invisible parade." Was that parade the procession of Misfits, prophets, and lonely and murderous children who unleash their violence so freely in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor?
Flannery O'Connor never yowled in public. She never gave voice to whatever her mute scowl expressed. But she would render it in pictures as powerful as the tableau of the grandmother and the Misfit, bound to each other through a ritual of politeness. The Misfit can find no words to speak his rage at his would-be mother. Fury explodes from his gun in three eloquent shots. And one of the revelations in "Revelation" is Mary Grace's peculiar wrath. As her mother criticizes her with Mrs. Turpin, Mary Grace accepts her mother's remarks politely, but grows enraged at Mrs. Turpin. She gets so angry she throws a book at her. She attacks her mother's "double" while leaving her own mother alone, much in the way the Misfit claims there was "no finer" woman than his mother, but goes on to murder a woman who suggests all the forces of tradition and family and who claims he is "one of her babies."
O'Connor's murderous children are always "ladies" and "gentlemen." They always say the right thing or nothing at all; they behave properly to their parents. But they are always furious at the parents who have made them so polite, or who try to destroy their pride in being misfits. Some have a secret, inner world where they never obey. And in quiet acts of violence, others give voice to their mute fury.
O'Connor wrote about what she knew best: what it means to be a living contradiction. For her it meant an eternal cheeriness and suffering; graciousness and fear of human contact; acquiescence and enduring fury. Whether through some great effort of the will, or through some more mysterious and unconscious force, she created from that strife a powerful art, an art that was both a release and a vindication for her life. If she set out to make morals, to praise the old values, she ended by engulfing all of them in an icy violence. If she began by mocking or damning her murderous heroes, she ended by exalting them. Flannery O'Connor became more and more the pure poet of the Misfit, the oppressed, the psychic cripple, the freak—of all of those who are martyred by silent fury and redeemed through violence. (p. 41)
Josephine Gattuso Hendin, "In Search of Flannery O'Connor," in Columbia Forum (copyright © 1970 by the Trustees of Columbia University), Vol. XIII, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 38-41.
Flannery O'Connor's preoccupation with the spiritual condition of modern man … led her to write fiction of a peculiar cast, but her religious concerns fortified rather than weakened the artistic integrity of her creations. (pp. 9-10)
Her fiction abounds in grotesque situations and many of her most memorable characters are driven, "possessed" individuals. Freaks, fanatics, and psychopaths stalk the unfriendly streets and desolate clay roads of her fictional world, which often appears designed to simulate as nearly as possible a chamber of horrors. Thus can one explain the confused and sometimes hostile reaction of those who, in the early and middle 1950s, saw in Flannery O'Connor a disciple of the nihilistic-deterministic writers spawned by the Depression and the Second World War and the spiritual and cultural stagnation which followed them.
Yet Flannery O'Connor's own estimate of her vocation could not be more seriously religious: "I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times." It is almost certainly this rare coincidence of apparently opposing forces and motifs in her life and work which has often made Flannery O'Connor a puzzling figure…. [It] is my conviction that out of this tension grew Flannery O'Connor's extraordinary creative power and unique vision. (p. 11)
The crime and violence and the apparent nihilism of some of Miss O'Connor's characters combine with a recurring "Hound of Heaven" motif to suggest an imagination in many respects similar to that of Dostoevsky. (p. 12)
In my assessment, [Miss O'Connor's artistic] vision is constructed of an extremely delicate blending of what seems to be totally incompatible ways of apprehending reality. On the one hand there is the espoused, orthodox Christian understanding of man. Alongside it one finds a traditional though qualified Southern view of human nature manifest in her satiric attacks upon the materialism, secularism, and liberal optimism of contemporary life. On the other hand there appears to be an attraction for the extreme, the perverse, the violent, and for the grotesque for its own sake and not merely as a fictional technique, which calls to mind Thomas Mann's comment (he was thinking of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) that "certain attainments of the soul and the intellect are impossible without disease, without insanity, without spiritual crime." Spiritual crime: here is a concept paradoxical enough to illuminate some of Flannery O'Connor's most puzzling stories. (p. 13)
[My] conclusions are that Flannery O'Connor's work may be conceived as an effort to recover the idea of the Holy in an age in which both the meaning and the reality of this concept have been obscured; that she perceived that loss of the Holy involved for contemporary man a concomitant loss of "depth" and a subsequent diminution of being; and that she further understood that in reclaiming depth and being …, contemporary man might very well become involved in a journey through the radically profane, embracing evil in order to rediscover good, pursuing the demonic in order finally to arrive at the Holy. The journey upon which she set many of her most unforgettable characters entails, in short, "spiritual crime"—crime whose ultimate motive is a desperate desire to affirm a basis for human existence which transcends the waywardness and willfulness of the individual human self.
But the quest for being or the Holy is only one side of Flannery O'Connor's creative enterprise. The other is her portrayal of the world of unbelief within which that quest occurs. When she spoke of "the disbelief in [the Holy] which we breathe in with the air of the times," "the times" clearly embraced for her a good deal more than mid-twentieth-century America. Yet, in a special sense, it was the ethos of the 1950s against which Miss O'Connor's stories were directed. I use "against" deliberately, for Miss O'Connor was a satirist of extraordinary vigor, and, in a decade when "positive thinking" was as much a part of the American way of life as cookouts and rock-and-roll, Flannery O'Connor produced a magnificent assortment of stories, many of which might well have been entitled "The Power of Negative Thinking."
Gifted with an imagination delicately attuned to the nuances of manners and folkways, Flannery O'Connor detected in the manners of the 1950s such smugness, optimism, and self-righteousness that only the harshest attack could hope to move them. She also perceived, at the root of this shallow complacency, what she felt to be a fatuous belief in the omnipotence of a highly rationalized, technological society whose manipulation of human beings is calculated to turn out, as an end product, persons like a character in Wise Blood who is said to be "so well-adjusted that she didn't have to think anymore." The attitudes which Flannery O'Connor satirizes are those of an age in which the intellectuals are positivists and the nonintellectuals are "positive thinkers." And, whether found in an inveterate rationalist such as the social worker Sheppard or in a self-righteous snob such as Ruby Turpin ("Revelation"), these attitudes signified to Flannery O'Connor a deathly incapacity for existence in depth which she considered the besetting affliction of the contemporary world.
Time and again in her stories, the spokesmen for a self-satisfied secularism run afoul of representatives of … the twisted, the guilt-ridden, the satan-possessed, and the God-haunted protagonists who might best be designated "criminal-compulsive." It is in the encounter of these representatives of opposing views of reality that Miss O'Connor characteristically dramatizes the "conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it" which is the gravitational center of her moral and artistic vision. And though it was the "criminal-compulsives" who earned her the reputation for gratuitous grotesquerie and violence, they play an indispensable role in this paradigmatic conflict: it is they who act as spiritual catalysts, administering the shock which awakens the positivists and the positive thinkers from their dream of a world made secure by superficial rationality or conventional goodness.
Because of the prominence of the three character-types, I frequently refer to them and to the conflicts generated among them, as exemplifying the typical O'Connor story. It will be self-evident, however, to readers at all familiar with her work that no such classification can be inclusive and, furthermore, that characters who seem to lend themselves to identification by type often prove far more complex than they initially appeared. Also, while there is a good deal of repetition of situation in O'Connor's fiction—especially in the short stories, where the widowed or divorced mother and the disaffected son or daughter are common features of the landscape—there is no single "O'Connor story" other than the drama of the fall of man which furnishes the background for everything she wrote. (pp. 13-16)
In Wise Blood the self-satisfaction of positive thinking threatens the very bases of human life itself and finds its most eloquent spokesman in the landlady, Mrs. Flood, who is incapable of distinguishing between "being a saint" and "walling up cats." The fraudulent blind preacher, Asa Hawks, exemplifies some of the traits of the criminal-compulsive and plays a major role in bringing Hazel Motes to his moment of truth, while the latter character combines elements of the criminal-compulsive and the positivist (the philosophy which Haze at one point expounds can scarcely be mistaken as a parody of logical positivism). It is only in the second novel, however, that Miss O'Connor fully adapted the types to her longer fiction: Rayber … is a positivist par excellence, although the conflicting forces within his soul make inappropriate a simple, unqualified identification; and young Tarwater possesses a certain likeness to such criminal-compulsives as The Misfit and Rufus Johnson, though here also the designation would be misleading if not properly qualified.
The stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge exemplify a somewhat different configuration of characters. There are, to be sure, still positivists (most notably Sheppard of "The Lame Shall Enter First"), just as there are positive thinkers (e.g., Mrs. May of "Greenleaf" and Ruby Turpin of "Revelation"). The mentally disturbed college student of the latter tale and the promiscuous, feline Sarah Ham of "The Comforts of Home" are not unlike some of the neurotic, criminal types of the earlier stories. And Rufus Johnson ("The Lame Shall Enter First"), is, of course, the prototypical O'Connor spokesman for spiritual crime, haunted by the devil while at the same time convinced of the truth of the Gospel. Yet in some of the finest of these tales—"A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "Everything That Rises Must Converge"—the conflicting views which in earlier stories had usually been expressed by different characters, are now lodged in the same individual. Hence, though in each of these stories there is a conflict between individuals, and the epiphany or "moment of grace" comes about as a consequence of that conflict, the antagonists are no longer criminals who appear without warning to destroy the bubble of self-sufficiency and snugness in which the protagonists are encased. They are instead persons close to the protagonist—a mother, a wife, a granddaughter—who embody one aspect of the protagonist's personality or who reflect a character trait so deeply repressed as to be almost atrophied. In "A View of the Woods," for example, there is a conflict within the protagonist, so subtle and so threatening to his idealized self-image that he can acknowledge it only as annoying disobedience in his granddaughter. When he attempts to punish her, however, he discovers an "enemy within" which destroys him even as he (inadvertently) kills its embodiment in the child. The stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge are characterized by such complexity of human relations; and it is, I believe, Flannery O'Connor's growing perspicacity as a commentator upon human psychology, perhaps more than anything else, which her final collection bears witness to. (pp. 16-18)
[The] art of Flannery O'Connor is religious in two senses, and a criticism which attempts to interpret this art from an exclusively "non-religious" standpoint will inevitably distort it while failing to comprehend its deepest significance. In the most obvious sense of the word, Flannery O'Connor's art is religious because many of her characters consciously face the choice of Jesus or the devil, belief or nonbelief, faith or apostasy. And even in stories where this appears not to be the case, e.g., "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Greenleaf," symbol, allusion, and mythological motif coalesce to infuse them with a distinctly religious aura. In another and more basic sense Flannery O'Connor's art is religious, in that it endeavors to trace the figuration of that modern sensibility which permeates the literature of the West from Goethe and Carlyle through Dostoevsky and Baudelaire to Kafka and Camus and about which it is now a cliché to assert that it is a sensibility whose timbre ensues from the erosion of faith in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the "death of God" in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fundamentally, then, Flannery O'Connor is a religious writer not because the subject matter of her stories is "religious"—though explicitly or implicitly it almost always is—but because she has been occupied in all of her major fiction with the primary spiritual question of our era. (p. 21)
Preston M. Browning, Jr., in his Flannery O'Connor (copyright © 1974 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1974, 143 p.
[The] shocking or violent incidents in [Flannery O'Connor's] stories strike chords that reverberate loudly and lengthily regardless of a reader's own bias.
In most of O'Connor's major stories, these moments of violence or death occur on or near the last page: the Misfit shoots the Grandmother, Sheppard discovers Norton's body, Julian's mother dies on the pavement, Mr. Guizac is run over by a tractor, Hazel Motes is found in a ditch. But not all of O'Connor's violent endings require a death to render them shocking. In fact, some of her best shocks are created by an assault on the psyche. This is what happens to Asbury, who comes home to die, but doesn't; to Mrs. Cope, who can't, as she watches her woods burn; or to Joy-Hulga as Manley Pointer, the phony Bible salesman, runs off with both her artificial leg and her intellectual naivete. Such endings are never intended merely to create revulsion or shock as ends in themselves. Rather, they announce moments of recognition for a character and perhaps more importantly for the reader. (p. 335)
O'Connor's assumption in most of her writing seems to have been that her audience did not in fact hold the same Christian beliefs that she did, and she could not, therefore, relax her writing to a "more normal means of talking."
But in her last three stories, written during her final illness, there is a remarkable shift in her use of shock tactics to create an awareness in her audience. "Revelation," "Parker's Back," and "Judgement Day" were her last works to be published, the latter two posthumously in 1965. While none of these three stories is so radically different that O'Connor's pen is not easily recognizable, still each illustrates a definite transition away from the pattern of a plot ending in a physical or psychic assault on a character. While in these later stories such assaults do occur, they do so at a much earlier stage in the narrative. This makes a considerable difference in the effect they have on the movement of the story. Instead of ending with a character's confrontation of death or his moment of recognition and insight, such events are moved to an earlier stage in the story. Once the climax has been reached, the remainder of the story can then be concerned with the implications such an awareness holds for the character. A major part of the guesswork is thereby removed, as any major changes in the character can be explicitly portrayed and not just implied.
In terms of the reader, there is a similar effect: he, too, is no longer left with a final devastating image which stuns him momentarily before he closes the book and either contemplates its meaning or turns to something else. Instead, because the climactic incident is moved forward, after it occurs the reader cannot just wipe it from his mind, for when he turns the page he is confronted with the implications of what he has just encountered. (p. 336)
But this would also assume that the reader belonged to an audience which held the same beliefs and knowledge of scripture that O'Connor did, and that she was even perhaps preaching to those who were already saved. It is apparent from her own essays and talks about the problems facing the Christian writer that this could not have been her assurance, or even her faintest hope…. (p. 338)
To end Parker's episode at that point where his awareness begins to grow, O'Connor would have had to implant more indicators earlier in the story to make the conclusion that he is being prepared for inevitable. Such inevitability is difficult to convey when it must go further than the end of a story. When, for example, Sheppard realizes too late that he has betrayed his own son and substituted humanism for genuine love, we do not know that he has learned something which will enable him henceforth to lead a new life. The final shock of his son's death makes him "reel back like a man on the edge of a pit," and while we may assume that his future after such a vision will be one of growth out of himself, we are not shown the process by which this becomes a fact.
In the last three stories O'Connor seems especially concerned that we do see the results such visions have on the characters and know for a certainty that they are of a religious nature. Mrs. Turpin goes home to wrestle with the problem of God's justice in the world. Her theodicy is resolved in the pig parlour when she is humbled and sees all things transfigured, and we are explicitly told that, while her vision faded, "she remained where she was, immobile." Obadiah Elihue Parker escapes death and races off to have a picture of God tattooed on his back. Using a brilliant allegorical device, O'Connor lists the faces of God that Parker rejects: "The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician's Friend." He must reject these "up-to-date pictures" in favor of those which are "less reassuring," for the experience he has had has introduced him to an all-demanding God of power and might. When he finally selects the "haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ," his choice reflects the nature of the profound change he has undergone. He prefers not the friendly eyes of the modern pictures but the sterner eyes which make him feel transparent. They seem to urge him to "Go Back," yet his response is not on an intellectual level but on an intuitive or instinctive plane. His sense of urgency to have the tattoo completed complements his need to return to the sharp-tongued Sarah Ruth, yet even she seems to him soft and gentle in comparison with the Byzantine image of Christ.
That the eyes tell him to "Go Back" is of course tied to the pun in the title, for the story is not only about Parker's back, but is also a statement that Parker is back, or at least is on his way back, to his true nature as a child of God. Thus the story ends with he "who called himself Obadiah Elihue—leaning against the tree, crying like a baby." He has not yet attained a spiritually adult understanding of the events that have summoned him to a higher awareness, but that he has somehow encountered God is indisputable. His wife's cold accusation that the tattoo is idolatrous offers a contrast to Parker's childlike belief that God's likeness can be drawn. Yet he understands something that Sarah Ruth does not, that an encounter with God does not produce a series of dogmatic assertions but yields a new intensity in everyday life.
Thus the real kernel of the story lies not in Parker's miraculous near-miss of death but in the dramatic response it creates within him. As in the previous story, the unwinding of the implications the climax suggests explains much more about the protagonist's resolution of inner conflict than mere hypothesis would ever allow. O'Connor's insistence that we understand fully contains an urgency that is not entirely present in the earlier stories, which by comparison seem to present her vision through a glass darkly.
Her final story, "Judgement Day," is a reworking of the first story of her master's thesis, "The Geranium." It seems entirely appropriate that she should end where she began, thereby making her alpha and omega points one. Of the two stories, however, it is only the later version which fits the pattern here being described. A first consideration of this story may seem to contradict that pattern of moving the moment of violence forward so that its results may be effectively worked out, for "Judgement Day" does in fact end with the death of Tanner. But his death is not the most violent event in the story. The worst moment for Tanner must certainly be the confrontation with the young Negro actor, or "preacher," as Tanner insists on calling him. What the Negro does not understand is that Tanner genuinely desires to befriend him, to make him a substitute for the Negro, Coleman, who had both annoyed and befriended Tanner for thirty years. But this Negro actor is a Northern counterpart not to Coleman but to Dr. Foley, the Southern half-Negro who had bought up the land Tanner's shack was on. Both belong to the class of Negroes who had risen in the world to a level where they could be their own bosses instead of working under a white man. Thus when Tanner treats his neighbour as if he too were an exile from the South, the Negro responds with vehement anger. He slams Tanner against the wall, and the force of his shove makes Tanner's tongue swell up and render him unable to "talk or walk or think straight" for days. Whether this action precipitates or even hastens Tanner's death is never made clear. His death is instead connected more explicitly to his insatiable yearning to return "home" to Corinth, Georgia. For it is while Tanner begins his painstakingly slow journey that he suffers his fatal stroke.
In fact he gets no further than the landing at the top of the stairs, but as far as he is concerned he is already "on his way." When his legs give out from under him and he swoons forward, he is already nearly home. He initially mistakes the Negro bending over him for Coleman, but then in disappointment realizes who it really is. Yet he is already living his long-awaited dream of waking up to the Judgement Day, and his final words—"Hep me up, Preacher. I'm on my way home!"—are buoyant ones uttered without any trace of doubt that he is in fact finally going home. The story adds a brief epilogue to Tanner's death which informs us that his body is eventually shipped back to Corinth, his geographical home, even as we have seen his spirit looking towards his heavenly home.
Each of these three stories, then, ends with a character's going back, back to his true home as well as to a new vision of life. Mrs. Turpin turns from her vision of the heavenbound souls to "[make] her slow way on the darkening path to the house." As she returns home she carries with her the new eyes which have seen into "the very heart of mystery": the once repulsive pigs now "pant with a secret life," and the chorus of crickets becomes for her the "voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah."
Parker goes back to his home where Sarah Ruth waits with her broom to thrash him. But he is not allowed to physically reenter his house until he is able to enunciate his Christian name. To return home for him means to accept his true nature, and only when he calls himself by his name does he experience what he had been seeking all along: "'Obadiah,' he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts." It is not his tattooed body which has become that "arabesque of colors" but his restored soul which is born when Parker is back.
And, finally, while Tanner dies an exile from his home, he also believes that he is on his way back. He is an alien in New York City, where he sees people living not in proper homes but in "pigeon-hutches." "It was no place for a sane man," he thinks, and directs all his energies to getting away. He has a fundamental faith, and believes in the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. In O'Connor's frame of reference, then, his journey home does not represent the returning of a lost sheep home to the fold but rather the going home of a man in exile from his true country. (pp. 338-41)
Diane Tolomeo, "Home to Her True Country: The Final Trilogy of Flannery O'Connor," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1980 by Newberry College), Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 335-41.
Flannery O'Connor is often billed as a Southern writer, or as a Catholic writer. But, however helpful, these are confining terms. For she was an artist of the most exacting and universal perception….
Almost a dozen books and innumerable articles have been published since 1964 on her small but intense oeuvre…. But far the longest and most important posthumous publication is that of her letters, a collection of more than 600 pages spanning the years 1948–64. For wealth of anecdote and intellectual variety and emotional depth, The Habit of Being too will prove an incomparable American work.
Its keynote is joy. Confined to hospital in 1950, with what was then diagnosed as "acute rheumatoid arthritis", she wrote: "I have been reading [T. S. Eliot's] Murder in the Cathedral and the nurses thus conclude I am a mystery fan." But the nurses were right. She was a "mystery fan"; and she confronted life's mystery with an extraordinary aptitude for laughter….
There is nothing in the least coy about her. She intensely disliked the work of Carson McCullers. The key characters in her life, as in her fiction, are all ordinary, plain folk like those nurses or her mother who so devotedly helped her, or her mother's farmhands. Of one such farmhand, who was actually taking a correspondence course in Catholicism, she reported: "He is not going to be a Catholic or anything—he just likes to get things free in the mail." But she bred peachicks and surrounded herself with peacocks, since "you can't have a peacock anywhere" (as she wrote of "The Displaced Person") "without having a map of the universe".
No wonder commentators are obsessed with her symbolism, chasing and explicating those images through her texts. For she saw the world transfigured. Even her turkeys with the sorehead, for which the cure was liquid black shoe polish, ran about in blackface "like domesticated vultures". Her comedy is divine; yet no one could say of her, as one Jesuit visitor said of a Sister who wrote poetry: "Boy, I bet she's crucified." Flannery O'Connor was not "crucified" in that vulgar sense. For it was she, of course, who quoted the remark. It was precisely a feeling for the vulgar that was her natural talent….
The stories might be hard, but they were never brutal or sarcastic. They were hard because there was nothing harder or less sentimental than what she called "Christian realism"….
The most abiding childhood influence on her, she admits, was a volume "called The Humerous Tales of E. A. Poe". Was she some latterday Poe, then, converted to Catholicism? In her own experience, everything funny she had written was more terrible than it was funny, or only funny because it was terrible, or only terrible because it was funny. Simone Weil's life she considered the most comical life she had ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible. For that juncture of comedy and terror for her was naturally located in the Incarnation…. Catholic orthodoxy was essential to her. "I feel that if I were not a Catholic", she insists, "I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything. I am a born Catholic, went to Catholic schools in my early years, and have never left or wanted to leave the Church. I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse."
All this puts her on the extreme edge of the American tradition. No wonder, then, claims are made to view her symbol-laden, frustrated, forced entries into the Kingdom of Heaven as maverick Protestant texts. She herself had a saner perspective. In her opinion, the only thing that kept her from being a regional writer was being a Catholic and the only thing that kept her from being a Catholic writer, in the narrow sense, was being a Southerner. As one correspondent astutely pointed out, the best of her work sounds like the Old Testament would sound if written today, since her characters' relations are more directly with God than with other people….
[She] was impatient not only with academic but all high-flown intellectuals. Some time in the early 1950s she was taken by Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick to have dinner with Mary McCarthy (then Mrs Broadwater):
We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say…. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the "most portable" person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it". That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
It is in this light that one must read her definition of fiction as "the concrete expression of mystery—mystery that is lived". It was almost impossible for her to write about supernatural grace in fiction. She had to approach it negatively. In the words of Matthew, taken for the title of her second novel: "Since the time of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away." Or, as she wittily put it years later: "In the gospels it was the devils who first recognized Christ and the evangelists didn't censor this information." For her violence revealed those human qualities least dispensable to a man's personality, "those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him"; and since all her characters are on the verge of eternity, all are evading, or half glimpsing, or intruding on various states of grace, most urgently revealed in that final trio of stories ("Revelation", "Judgement Day" and "Parker's Back") written in the last year of her life.
Harold Beaver, "On the Verge of Eternity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4051, November 21, 1980, p. 1336.∗