1 December 2004
Contemporary writer Mary Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) was born in Savannah, Georgia, right in the Bible belt of the south. Born a Catholic though, she was somewhat separated from the majority of southern Christians. Her religious beliefs would always be the source of what made O'Connor and her writing unique. She had a unique way of looking at things, which shows in her literature. She often combined the symbolic and the literal in a style infused with ironic black comedy and intense, often vulgar or grotesque imaging. Stanley Hyman, biographer and critic, wrote of O'Connor in an essay of his that "the strength of Flannery O'Connor's writing are those qualities in it that have been most disliked and attacked: the apocalyptic violence, the grotesque vision, the vulgarity" (44). Influenced directly by her religious beliefs, O'Connor often chose to expose the spiritually grotesque through images of the physically grotesque.
O’Connor was adamant about her faith influencing her writing. O'Connor wrote, "For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. . .I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and that what I see in the world I see in relation to that" (“Mary Flannery O'Connor”). She often tried to explain how death and violence were a big part of her Christian beliefs. O'Connor told an interviewer, "I'm a born Catholic and death has always been brother to my imagination. I can't imagine a story that doesn't properly end in it or in its foreshadowings" (Hyman 45).
O’Connor believed it is a person’s duty to always be committed to the spiritual message. Her fiction was her main outlet for this. In one letter to a friend she said, "It's our business to try to change the external faults of the Church—the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty—wherever we find them and however we can" (O'Connor 1085). One example of this belief, as well as a small example of a character’s physical grotesqueness, can be found in "The Enduring Chill.” One character, a priest, is blind in one eye and deaf in one ear symbolizing the church faults (Hyman 27).
O’Connor chose to represent spiritual grotesqueness in physical ways because she believed it could not, in a sense, be separated from the physical world. She once wrote, "It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for" (O'Connor 1085). O’Connor’s writing was influenced by the belief that she was writing more for the doubting than the believers: "My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for" (O'Connor 943). So her message could reach this audience, O’Connor exaggerated what is grotesque in order that it be seen as such. O'Connor writes in "The Fiction Writer and His Country,"
The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortion 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 [. . .] to the hard of hearing you shout,
and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures. (Buttorworth 3)
Often her characters have been called "God-intoxicated," falling between extremes of either believing or not believing, and those who believe passively or with self-pride represented as the most destructive (Hyman 34). For Satanism itself is acknowledging Jesus; there is no safe in-between. Hyman best explains this view when he states that
Flannery O'Connor's meanings are not only Christian, they are Christian mainly in the
mystic and ascetic tradition of St. John of the Cross ("Hence the soul cannot be
possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings")
rather than in the humanitarian tradition expressed in I John 4:20 ("If a man say, I love
God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar"). (37)
This view is represented in a number of different ways in O'Connor's fiction whether it is regarding racism, social prejudice, or cruelty toward one's own family.
This “fatal” mixture of piety and pride can be seen in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by the main character’s cruelty to his mother. In this story, Julian thinks he is superior to his mother because of her racism. In the end, at the seen of his mother’s death, he realizes that he is more unjust than her. In his sorrow at her sudden death (the cause of which he had actually wished for) he realizes he was far more cruel to her than she ever was to those she was racist against. The grotesque in this story manifests itself in the sick images Julian sees of the world and through the violence and irony of her death. O’Connor was against racism; even her friend Father Merton regarded any sign of racism in a Roman Catholic as a means for immediate excommunication (Hyman 42). Despite this, O’Connor believed that self-intoxicated smugness and intellectual pride was an even greater sin, as did her church. This passage from a letter to a friend shows how her Church held the belief that judging others is only God’s right:
I read recently somewhere about a priest up for canonization. It was reported in the
findings about him that he had said of a man on the scaffold who had been
blasphemous up to the last that this man would surely go to hell; on the basis of this
remark he was denied canonization. (O'Connor 954)
This theme of pride is a common one, running through much of O’Connor’s fiction.
Sometimes O’Connor symbolized a character’s pride in bodily form. In “Revelation”, the pious, proud, and racist Mrs. Turpin is the one who needs to be taken down a notch. Her pride manifests itself in her huge size and “warthog” countenance. Another prideful character is Mrs. Shortley in “The Displaced Person” who also shares Mrs. Turpin’s grotesque characteristics. All O’Connor’s prideful characters believe themselves wise and educated, and in their redemption, they realize that holding this belief is against God. I agree with Hyman's statement that the remaining Christian theme of these stories “is best put by St. Paul in I Corinthians 1:25, "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men," and 3:19 "For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (39).
In “Good County People,” pride is again represented in a character’s physical body. The main character, Joy Hopewell, has a Ph.D. and is an atheist to boot. She also has a wooden leg which symbolizes her self assurance and pride in her intellect, her rejection of God and all that is “fake.” It is her spiritual independence (again—self pride) that is her true deformity and is symbolized by her wooden leg (Buttorworth 14). When a lying Bible salesman steals her wooden leg, her belief in nothing goes with it. Through her own suffering and vulnerability she is redeemed and her situation likened to that of Christ’s (Buttorworth 14).
This isn’t to say that O’Connor doesn’t give equal attention and distortion to the characters that believe in nothing but the power of evil. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find", the Misfit, a cold-blooded killer, expresses a belief in Jesus, exclaiming that He did nothing but throw “everything off balance” (O’Connor). According to the Misfit, the alternative of living the completely destructive life, completely rejecting God is "no real pleasure in life" (Hyman 35). His twisted views are not only seen in his killing of the family in the story, but also in his disturbing cordiality concerning the process. The whole situation peaks at the grotesque point when he kills the grandmother after being shown genuine kindness on her part. The grandmother herself was another one of those self-righteous characters. While the grandmother is redeemed in revelation and murder, in life, both she and the Misfit are unhappy in their isolation from God.
In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” O’Connor represents the spiritually grotesque in yet more ways. The Satanic character of Rufus has a club foot to symbolize his demonic character. He even says, in explanation of his actions and attitudes, that Satan has him in his power. Sheppard, a social worker in the story, dismisses the boy’s explanation completely as he believes himself to be above such primitive and unintellectual things such as religion. Sheppard believes only in his own goodness and not in God. Through Rufus’s clear vision of things the reader sees Sheppard as a fool. Both Sheppard and Rufus contribute to the suicide of Sheppard’s son Norton. Rufus does this knowingly. Sheppard doesn’t realize his folly until he’s sees Norton dead and hanging. He realizes that he “had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself” and that “he had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton” (O’Connor 632). Here again, O’Connor shows her contempt for proud intellectuals, asserting her belief that God’s wisdom is not meant to be understood by the human mind, yet it is the only way to live.
Her novel The Violent Bear It Away is very similar to “The Lame. . .” by way of character dynamics and symbolism. Like Sheppard, there is a blaspheming rationalist named Rayber. A possible foil to Rufus is Tarwater who is “his own prophet and disciple, god and believer” (Malin 119). Both men destroy Rayber’s son Bishop in their struggle over who would benefit form Bishop’s sacrifice to one man’s cause –each man’s cause being his self. As critic Irving Malin puts it: “Both ‘prophets’ converge on the child and kill him, thereby demonstrating their own power [. . .] The violent narcissists bear humanity away; in Bishop’s murder they confirm their own death” (119).
O’Connor’s use of the grotesque saturate her stories, applying to even the seemingly normal and innocent. Nancy Buttorworth, a biographer, writes that O’Connor argued that the
Christian writer must have the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse and
for the unacceptable” and that in order to dramatize these distortions as repugnant to a
hostile audience that accepts them as natural, they may need to use shock techniques
such as caricature. (14)
For example, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the wife is described as having a cabbage-like face and is compared to a rabbit with her kerchief sticking up like ears (O’Connor 137). O’Connor’s numerous comparisons of humans to the inhuman, making them appear either animalistic or inanimate, was one of her ways to illustrate man’s rejection of God. To take the words of critic Robert Drake, “And when she compares man to the non-human, she is suggesting that his efforts to assert his own will, to provide his own “savior’, make him into just that –not-human, sometimes even inhuman,” (39).
Whenever O’Connor portrays nature itself in a grotesque or disturbing manner, it is usually through the eyes of spiritually grotesque humans or from what humans have actually made of nature. The latter can be seen in Tarwater’s perception of a hill embedded with rotting and rusty cars in “The Violent. . .”. In “The Displaced Person”, the proud Mrs. Shortley finds her peacocks annoying, whereas the preacher stands in awe of their beauty. A passage from “A Good Man. . .”, describing the grandmother’s view of trees along the roadside, is a great representation of nature being perceived as grotesque: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” I believe this passage is also a great representation of her writing style in general.
With a relatively early death at 39, who knows how many more stories and horrors O'Connor had inside her? Many consider her later work her best. Some people contribute this to her knowledge that she did not have long to live, having disseminated lupus. The drama of facing her own extreme reality and limits no doubt pushed her into writing about humanity's extreme reality with more persistence. Her writing style developed into one that was more calculated and focused on the message and flow of each story. Her art still depended strongly on her grotesque imagery, though the way she chose to use her tool may have started to evolve. In any case, her unique taste and talent for exposing the vulgar and grotesque of our world has from the start elicited great response from the public, whether or not they themselves agree with her religious views. Her fiction has always been subject to enormous criticism and continues to be evaluated again and again. This shows that her interpretation --and representation-- of humanity and religion has enormous impact on her readers, regardless and because of her unique daunting vision.
Buttorworth, Nancy K. “Flannery O’Connor.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series. Ed. James Giles and Wanda Giles. Detroit: Gale, 1995. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Gale. WVC Library. 19 Nov. 2004. http://galenet.gale.com.
Drake, Robert. Flannery O’Connor. United States of America: William B. Eerdmans, 1966.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Flannery O’Connor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1966.
Malin, Irving. “Flannery O’Connor and the Grotesque.” The Added Dimension/ The Art and Mind of Flannery O’Connor. Ed. Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson. New York: Fordham University Press, 1966. 108-122.
“(Mary) Flannery O’Connor”. Contemporary Authors. 11 Feb. 2004. Contemporary Authors Online. Gale. WVC Library. 19 Nov. 2004. http://galenet.gale.com.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.
O’Connor, Flannery. Flannery O’Connor/ Collected Works. New York: The Library of America, 1988.