(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.)