Flannery O'Connor has been called many things religious: a sacramental writer, a fundamentalist, a Yahwist, a mean Christian, and my favorite, a "Roman Catholic not like a Baptist or Methodist but like an Atheist." John Hawkes even quipped she was "happily on the side of the devil." Miss O'Connor, who otherwise eschewed labels, called herself a Christian Realist and, after a critic pegged her as a "hillbilly nihilist," she responded, "I prefer hillbilly Thomist."
In Miss O'Connor we find a devout Catholic who characterizes evangelical Protestants, an orthodox who divulges no explicit theology, a writer of Christian concerns who lampoons modern Christendom, a comic writer of the gravest themes, and a female author whose style is gender-neutral--nay, manly. As a person she was genteel and unpretentious; yet she left a boneyard of leveled souls in her fiction that rivaled Kafka and Poe. She was linked to a Southern Gothic tradition that regionalized her cosmic vision.
In her writings of "religious confusion" Flannery O'Connor depicts her protagonists (Hulga, the Misfit, et al.) as hillbilly versions of secular philosophers and scholars (Sartre, Hegel, et al.), by putting them into the hands of an audience who may already champion them. Don't these anti-heroes embody the same antinomian spirit that allows them to be fiercely heroic in the literary world? More, O'Connor justifies lampooning said philosophers when she espouses fundamental Catholicism and Thomism, two systems of belief as intellectual and sophisticated as that which she seems most to oppose (atheistic Existentialism)? In short, how can O'Connor be that which seems contradictory, a "Hillbilly Thomist," and at that same time eschew in her work a variation of herself, a "Hillbilly Existentialist"? As a Thomist whose eggs are eggs, Miss O'Connor cripples her characters down to their souls at the expense of the outside world.
In "Good Country People," witness the traveling bible salesman stealing Hulga's artificial leg:
She took care of it as someone else would his soul...
Miss O'Connor's art reveals a world where "object and gesture simply are," or as William Carlos Williams would say where "there are no ideas about things, there are only the things themselves." She defines man from within and diminishes him to fundamental existence: a soul struggling against enemies of faith.
In "A Good Man is Hard to Find" O'Connor uses the Misfit's nihilistic sensibilities to cast off the grandmother's mindset of denying her transcendence. The grandmother's idealist arguments "you’re a good boy" and "you wouldn’t shoot a lady" are empty attempts to verify a truth for the situation that she wants to be affirmed in him, but that which she knows to be false. She has had a history of validating herself though the eyes of others, and Miss O'Connor uses the Misfit's grotesqueness as a means of showing her inauthenticity. Existentialism as analysis is not contrary to revelation; rather it leads to it as a means to quash sentimentality and reestablish faith in the transcendent.