Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662
While criticism of O'Connor's work ranges from discussions of her ability to write short stories and novels to the question of her place among regional writers, the religious nature of her work reigns as the most important issue. Four theories have evolved over time.
First, O'Connor's earliest critics held that O'Connor's work had no connection to religion. Isaac Rosenfeld, one of O'Connor's primary critics, vehemently denied seeing any religious meaning in Wise Blood. This reflected the general consensus of other reviewers at the time. He said in a 1952 issue of New Republic that Hazel Motes "is nothing more than the poor, sick, ugly, raving lunatic that he happens to be." Some critics still hold this theory.
Other early critics spoke of O'Connor's writing with nearly as much hostility, yet they could not deny that her writing had to be taken seriously, if not admired. Influential magazines such as Time and the Kenyon Review published reviews of her work, giving it more attention than most beginning writers could even imagine. In 1955, there were twenty-seven articles published about her work; in 1960, the number doubled.
Skeptics still existed, however, and still do today. Critics adhering to the second school of thought related to O'Connor's work accept her religious intent, but they question whether her own religious vision was sufficiently positive to relay her intended message. They wonder if her views were too negative, represented by characters who are too grotesque to give her religious message credence. It is claimed by some that O'Connor's writing connects very little to real life or real problems. A few have felt that, though there may be some religious overtones in the book, the characters are more like creatures than people. Lewis Lawson writes in Flannery O'Connor that Haze is like a cartoon character, "unreal" and "a vehicle whose attitudes and actions would personify a spiritual view which [O'Connor] wished to reveal." Critics like Lawson place O'Connor's work in the School of Southern Gothic.
A third school of thought maintains that while religious themes do underlie O'Connor's writing, they appear to have a somewhat satanic influence. Andre Bleikasten, for example, writes in The Heresy of Flannery O'Connor, "Even though O'Connor defended her use of the grotesque as a necessary strategy of her art, one is left with the impression that in her work it eventually became the means of a savage revilement of the whole of creation.… One may wonder whether her Catholicism was not, to some extent, an alibi for misanthropy. And one may also wonder whether so much black derision is compatible with Christian faith, and ask what distinguished the extreme bleakness of her vision from plain nihilism."
The reviews published in 1960 reflect the trend towards positive criticism of O'Connor's work that began in 1958 with an article written by Caroline Gordon, O'Connor's friend and mentor. Gordon's views represent the final school of thought on O'Connor's writing. Adherents to this theory claim that O'Connor stands far above other writers in her ability to get to the heart of theological reasoning and to create characters that react realistically to their varying religious instincts. Gordon attacks several of O'Connor's most vocal critics in an issue of Critique that is devoted entirely to the work of O'Connor and J. F. Powers, a fellow Catholic. Gordon condemns O'Connor's contemporaries for their inability to create characters or plots that were true to religious doctrine. Gordon believed that O'Connor not only wrote with sincere religious intent, but proficiently portrayed that intent in her characters and plots.
Today, critics applaud O'Connor for her artistry. They recognize Wise Blood as a standard against which other writers should measure their work. They praise O'Connor's expert portrayal of the South, her concise and yet lively style, and her distinct ability to use grotesque characterization to emphasize the irony of life. Finally, critics honor her unwavering Christian faith, which underlies all of her writing. They understand that her unfailing belief offers hope for her characters as well as her readers.