Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393
O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, received hostile reviews when it first appeared in 1952; most readers missed the dark humor and religious intent of the highly unconventional novel. By 1960, O’Connor had earned something of a reputation for her short stories. Critics were more forgiving in their remarks about The Violent Bear It Away. However, few reviews were outright favorable, and most readers expressed confusion at the author’s intent and took exception to the seeming anti-Catholic determinism in the novel, although most commended O’Connor’s finely crafted prose. Sumner J. Ferris, for example, writing in Critique, praised the excellent construction of the novel, but maintained that because of its theme and locale the author’s spiritual vision would not be taken seriously and, further, that O’Connor “will never be considered anything but a Southern woman novelist.”
After O’Connor won the posthumous National Book Award in 1972 for her Collected Stories, critical opinion of her second novel softened further. Although commentators now still acknowledge that it is a difficult book to comprehend, it is emphasized that a close and careful reading reaps considerable rewards—indeed, this is essential to fully appreciate the power and deep complexity of the work. Numerous scholarly works have since been written on the novel, touching on a vast array of subjects—including the depiction of family, the difficult heroism of the protagonist, the significance of hats in the work, the importance of silence, the novel’s multi-layered system of religious symbolism, and the spirituality and psychology of the main characters. Scholars have been aided in their discussions by O’Connor’s letters about her novel, which point out, for example, that the main concern she had when writing it was to explore “the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times,” as she says in The Habit of Being. Critics continue to explore O’Connor’s handling of this conflict, discussing issues such as her use of irony, humor, and religious symbolism grounded in the particular to emphasize her theme. The novel’s complexity and unusual treatment of difficult spiritual questions, initially seen as its shortcomings, are now regarded as the work’s strengths and evidence of O’Connor’s original and uncompromising vision as a Christian and as a writer.