Flannery O’Connor Redux

by David E. Anderson

Readers coming upon the work of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) for the first time in this first decade of the 21st century can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing her as a “Catholic novelist.” Many of her original readers in the 1950s and early 1960s did not, on first reading, or even second and third readings, know of O’Connor’s personal Catholic commitment nor read her novels and stories of so-called “backwoods prophets”’ and grotesque Southern Protestant and Pentecostal fundamentalists as exemplifying a particular Catholic sensibility.

post_oconnor_peacocksStill, readers found O’Connor brutal, broadly brushed stories compelling, and she is well embedded in the canon of both Southern fiction and most “religion and literature’’ reading lists.

But how has she fared over the past half-century?

Revisiting O’Connor after five decades, it still remains difficult to find that Catholic sensibility she and many of her admiring critics insist permeates her work, and other shortcomings—in particular the almost complete absence of attention to race and the civil rights movement that was convulsing her beloved South as she wrote some of her most powerful works—become increasingly apparent with distance. It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince.

O’Connor made her mark as one of the most original and boldest story-tellers of the mid-century South, writing two novels, two major collections of short stories, and a number of other miscellaneous stories and occasional prose. She was also a prolific letter writer and wrote numerous books reviews, principally for Roman Catholic diocesan newspapers. While mining some of the same social milieu as Faulkner—the poverty-stricken, illiterate backwoods and the small town lower-middle-class gentility—O’Connor imbued her stories and novels with religious imagery and themes drawn primarily from a corner of Protestant and Pentecostal fundamentalism, as well as pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

She had a certain contempt for both her time and her audience, believing her present was not only secular but also mired in nihilism, and considering her principal audience to be unbelievers who needed the shock of her paradigmatic and emblematic violence in order to be brought to belief. “My audience is the people who think God is dead,’’ O’Connor wrote in one letter. In her influential essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,’’ she argued: “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 means 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.”

O’Connor defended her approach in a 1955 letter complaining about readers who found her powerful and jarring story “A Good Man is Hard to Find’’ brutal and sarcastic for its depiction of the killing of an entire family, including a sleeping baby, by escaped convicts: “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.’’

But what she calls “Christian realism” seems more like the judgment of a wrathful God. It is a notion of the human situation so distorted by sin that all understanding of the orthodox Christian conception of humanity created in and retaining the image of God is absent. It was hard then and is equally difficult now for some readers to see grace announced with the point of a gun and a mass murderer as a prophet of God in waiting, or to “be on the lookout,” as O’Connor once told students before reading “A Good Man,” “for such things as the action of grace in the grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.’’

In any version of Christian realism, dead bodies count; they are not soulless plot appendages. As Joanne Halleran McMullen, in her book “Writing against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O’Connor,’’ has noted, both the central characters in this story are nameless. Neither the grandmother nor the pathological murderer is given a name. The latter, McMullen notes, is called by what he is—The Misfit—not who he is. “He has no Christian name; it is his depravity that has become specifically ‘incarnate’ in O’Connor’s world.” Grace may somehow be operating in the final gestures between the grandmother and The Misfit when she reaches out to touch him but he recoils as if bitten by a snake—a biblical symbol that is the antithesis of grace. But this seems more apparent in O’Connor’s intention than the story’s realization. In her lecture on the story, O’Connor describes The Misfit as a “prophet gone wrong” who, because of the grandmother’s touch, would become “the prophet he was meant to be.’’ But, again, the story as written provides the reader with no clue for understanding The Misfit as a prophet either gone wrong or yet-to-be. Throughout her fiction, O’Connor’s characters seem only faintly realized as human, as people with individualized souls and personalities meriting the author’s or the reader’s sympathy, compassion, or even revulsion.

O’Connor wrote before Vatican II threw open the windows of reform in Catholicism, and it would be understandable if Catholics, or other readers familiar with some of the new, more pastoral accents created by the Second Vatican Council, had difficulty recognizing O’Connor’s Catholicism. But even in the pre-conciliar church, some critics within the faith were quick to denounce O’Connor’s work. Essayist Robert O. Bowen, reviewing “The Violent Bear It Away” in 1961, was fierce: “Neither its content nor its significance is Catholic,’’ he wrote. “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.’’ Yet O’Connor read widely in contemporaneous Catholic thought, and much of her book reviewing, albeit mostly brief notices, concerned Catholic theology and doctrine.

To the contemporary reader, O’Connor’s fiction does, indeed, seem to eschew the notion of free will for her characters; they seem to be playing out preordained roles in a cosmic drama of divine anger and judgment. And while there are sacramental elements in her work—at least one story centers on baptism—they appear mostly as ornament, like the comparison of the sun to an elevated host during the Eucharist in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In part that may be because O’Connor was concerned that her message and meaning not be transparent. While her Catholicism can be veiled, it can also leave her readers confused. In her nonfiction, O’Connor stressed the role of mystery in Catholic doctrine. “The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula,’’ she wrote in “The Church and the Fiction Writer.’’ Too often, however, the Mystery became mystification for the reader.

Perhaps O’Connor greatest lapse, and the element that makes her fiction more of a footnote in the history of American literature than work of enduring value, is her total exclusion of the civil rights movement and the religious elements—black Protestants especially, but also white mainline Protestants and Catholics—that fueled it and that were so much a part of the texture of everyday Southern life in the period in which she was writing. It seems a curious omission for a writer of O’Connor’s sensibility, who sought to be attuned to the action of “grace through nature’’ and who boasted of being a Southern writer, a regional writer, to ignore that drama of biblical proportions being played out in her own front yard. It was a drama with many of the same elements—violence, lynching, castration, rape—that she rooted her fiction in. The critic Ralph Wood is most probably correct when he says O’Connor was no racist, but he fails to explain away her ambiguous attitudes toward African Americans and her contemptuous dismissal of efforts, especially by Northern sympathizers and others, to heed the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to join in the struggle to dismantle segregation, in some instances by giving up their lives.

“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.

David E. Anderson, senior editor at Religion News Service, has also written for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on John Updike, Walt Whitman, and American religious poems.

  • Carolyn

    I read O’Connor for the power her work gathers through the mastery of
    I read O’Connor for the power of her prose, and she always leaves me breathless. But it’s difficult to read redeeming religious transcendence into her work. I agree with Anderson that O’Connor’s failure to deal with racial issues is a significant issue in her work, but I also think that growing up in Savannah and Milledgeville did nothing to prepare her to see it from outside her own race and class. And I don’t know how Professor Wood defines racism, but she meets my definition: prejudice plus the power to sustain it. Ultimately, I think she will be read as an exemplar of her time and class—and that alone makes her worth reading.

  • Angel Ruiz

    I completely disagree with the content of this article: I think it is a biased attempt to undermine the importance of Flannery O’Connor. Her position on racial issues was much nuanced than what you imply; and she is distinctly Catholic. I suggest you to study more on Catholicism before you discuss Flannery O’Connor. I am quite surprised you are senior editor at Religion News Service, because you don’t appear to know anything about Catholicism.

  • joe

    >But, again, the story ["A Good Man is Hard to Find"] as written provides the reader with no clue for understanding The Misfit as a prophet either gone wrong or yet-to-be.

    Apparently Mr. Anderson missed this quote by “the Misift”: “If you believe he [Jesus] raised the dead, it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow him.” (paraphrasing). That sounds rather prophetic to me.

  • fred hudson

    To speak of Ms. O’Connor as part of a “class” is interesting – which one? recent (less than a couple of generations) Irish immigrant; practicing Catholic; single woman with unannounced sexuality; rural (1500 acres without deep soil and no minerals does not a fortune make); literary geek?

    Re. race – M. Anderson is anachronistic in his placement of heroic acts of northern and local civil rights workers – ’63 and ’64 as ahe was on her death bed most of the time, were very early in that struggle. What does he think the message of “Everything That Rises Must Converge” the is, other than a look at the unversal problems between parents and children – I say it was a discussion of how the races were feeling their ways through those early days of what continues as a struggle.

    I love Flannery as much as when I first read a story of her’s (“Parker’s Back”, published posthumously in Esquire, April 1965) – her last i read first. I read it and i knew those two people. I knew as a 20-year-old the gulf and misunderstanding between ethnic northerner Catholic and sharecropper “Folk” Christian from the muddy south – love at first reading. My children read her too.

  • Linda Nicole Blair

    “Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.” Apparently, the writer, David Anderson, should re-visit O’Connor’s work, specifically “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” one of the strongest anti-racist stories ever written. While O’Connor may not have been a Civil Rights activist, her stories spoke loudly of her convictions….

  • Christopher Buczek

    “O’Connor wrote before Vatican II threw open the windows of reform in Catholicism, and it would be understandable if Catholics, or other readers familiar with some of the new, more pastoral accents created by the Second Vatican Council, had difficulty recognizing O’Connor’s Catholicism.”

    Any writer who believes he can draw a meaningful distinction between pre and post-Conciliar Catholicism–let alone sum up the latter!–in such a sorry phrase is either ignorant or lazy. Or both. It reads like a paint ad:

    “Vatican II Catholicism! Now with new, more pastoral accents!”

    In fact, had Anderson taken the trouble to read O’Connor’s collected letters and book reviews he could not escape the fact that her faith was shaped by a who’s who of mid-century modernist Christian thinkers—Romano Guardini, Jacques Maritain, Jean Guitton, Hans Küng, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and, of course, Teilhard de Chardin (whose theories conflating evolution with the spiritual development of mankind so impressed O’Connor that she named one of her most pointedly anti-racist stories “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as well as one of her short story collections after this phrase of his.)

    With this kind of superficial understanding of her faith, it’s perhaps not surprising that the broad stroke Anderson wields to tar O’Connor’s “Christian realism” exactly misses the mark: “…a notion of the human situation so distorted by sin that all understanding of the orthodox Christian conception of humanity created in and retaining the image of God is absent.” Really? I’d like to know what Anderson thinks is the point of a story like “Parker’s Back” if not that the Incarnation means, quite literally, that God wears our face. O’Connor stated that her audience was comprised of people who don’t believe in God, and her subject matter was the supernatural operation of divine grace in the lives of the marginalized and dispossessed. In other words, she was quite realistic about the need to frame the radical message of the gospels in radical ways to reach those who believe they have heard it all before and have rejected what they’ve heard. In this, she was perfectly at one with the “spirit of the Council” that would not even complete its last session until a year after her death in 1964.

    As for Anderson’s contention that O’Connor’s work is a “footnote in the history of American literature” because her depiction of race relations in the South was faithful to the idioms and oppressive social norms in operation at the time—rather than an anachronistic portrayal that would satisfy the consciences of 21st century liberals—well, it’s easily dismissed as a religious writer working outside of his depth. O’Connor’s black characters may exist on the margins of the lives of the mostly poor Southerners she wrote about but her chosen subject matter was, let’s remember, the marginalized and outcast. Her faithful depiction of blacks is a mirror in which white Southerners could plainly view both their common humanity and the prejudices that betrayed it. O’Connor’s black characters see and say the truth in situations in which sorely-needed truth completely eludes her white characters. This saving truth is then always discarded by whites precisely because it has been voiced by their “inferiors”. What more potent evocation of the error of discrimination could possibly reach a white readership in the first years of the civil rights movement than to be shown that the very people they consider to be beneath them are, in fact, above them in understanding?

  • michael

    How strange I find Mr Anderson’s approach to God’s will, which is embedded in the structure of his essay. God does not actively will evil–in this case the murder of a family- but, due to free will must [not because He cant stop it but because he offers us the capacity to love and knows it is the ultimate gift, not to be taken away so He can control the world]. And the comments of the Catholic Bohen, are more toward preaching than art.
    the existential moment where Grace intrudes [such as the mis- fits words at the end] are the climax where the ‘veil of the material world’ [Stein's words] is lifted for a second. We know much about the characters in their actions, and the names are used for definition of character [the MIS_FIT has none, as he is a mass-killer , his identity is eaten by his evil acts, Satan's goal is to erase creation, which means mans identity, since he can not destroy his immortality].
    Like James, she is not interested in describing furniture [or even what is self evident-the original sin of slavery]
    but is in bringing forth the crux where the now meets the eternal.

  • Dorie LaRue

    Why do you say she was not a racist? She told racist jokes. She embraced New Criticism. She threw her lot in with the Fugitives. She may have softened toward the end, with her vague abstractions, but when James Baldwin was coming through Milledgeville her friend offered to introduce them at her house and she declined because she did not want to upset her community, thus becoming for all the world like Mrs. Turpin. And to say time would take care of racism eventually is tantamount, to me, of being, almost, worse than a racist. Tell that to all the blacks that were lynched in the South. Evil happens more when good people do nothing. And if she had been a poor black in the South at that time, instead of a white woman whose uncle gave her and her mom a home, perhaps she would have a different understanding. All her stories seem to have one ending–the support of Catholic dogma. No love. I can’t imagine all those characters who became valid prophets in her stories preaching love or being of any use to anyone except spreading more dogma. Their sudden conversion is going to make them kind and loving? Christ said all the laws were based on loving your neighbor. Francis Tarwater is going to love anyone at the end of the novel. Or just exhort people to believe because God is going to fry them for an eternity. Any one, genius,or not, who believes the Catholic Church was a good force in the world is blind. I’d like to see what this good Catholic girl would have to say now about all the pedophiles and the new pope’s election.

  • Jon

    Phrases like “O’Connor describes The Misfit as a ‘prophet gone wrong’ who, because of the grandmother’s touch, would become ‘the prophet he was meant to be.’ But, again, the story as written provides the reader with no clue for understanding,” and “Too often, however, the Mystery became mystification for the reader” indicates that Mr Anderson either has never read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” or certainly wasn’t paying attention when he did read it. The Misfit’s whole monologue from “Jesus thown everything off balance” to “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him” provides rather obvious, plainly stated clues for understanding. And his assertion that O’Connor’s work would have been more influential today if it had included the racial tension of her time is unfounded and sheer speculation … not to mention superfluous to what she wanted to do with her art. Read “Mystery and Manners”. She was not oblivious to or unsympathetic to blacks’ struggle against oppression. To presume so is to make two basic mistakes: not to understand her purpose in her art and to measure her art by the wrong yardstick.