At Sweetbriar College in Virginia in 1963, Flannery O’Connor noted that the novelist “is bound by his particular past and by those institutions and traditions that this past has left to his society. The Judaeo-Christian [sic] tradition has formed us in the west; we are bound to it by ties which may often be invisible, but which are there nevertheless” (“Novelist and Believer” 155). O’Connor found herself, perhaps more than most, bound by these traditions. Born and raised in the small southern town of Milledgeville, Georgia, she allowed – and even depended on – her life experiences, especially her identity as a practicing Catholic, to influence her writing and storytelling. A Catholic by birth and upbringing, O’Connor practiced and professed a much more than perfunctory adherence to her faith; instead, she developed a profoundly personal understanding of God’s grace and his domain. O’Connor’s relationship with God shaped her narratives, and her notion of the workings of God’s grace pervaded her stories. Her Catholicism strongly affected and molded the style and structure of her work: her appreciation of the connection between our earthly reality and the Divine realm produced a writing style rich with visceral and concrete descriptions; her perception of God’s grace and its incursions into humans’ lives provided a framework for her stories; finally, her religious identity empowered her to value her work not just as a way to earn a living, but as art.
O’Connor believed in a spiritual world that surpassed our human understanding, one inhabited by an inscrutable God and his grace, but she presumed that we must all attempt to approach God through the events and surroundings of our terrestrial lives; in order to transcend the material world, we must first engage with it. Sometimes, O’Connor thought, this is difficult for fiction writers to grasp. When addressing a group of writing students, she emphasized the importance of grounding their writing in realistic and vivid images culled from the details of our daily lives. “The world of the fiction writer is full of matter,” she said. Yet new writers “are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack” rather than what she stressed as the most important: “all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth” (“The Nature and Aim of Fiction” 67-68). Even when referring to fiction writers in general she emphasized the importance of incorporating concrete and knowable details in order to provide a credible basis for the communication of any message; for Catholic writers wanting to impart a transcendent message, believable quotidian details were all the more important. The real novelist, “the one with an instinct for what he is about,” she said, even though he might be struggling with how to balance his faith and the message he wishes to impart, “knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is” (“Novelist and Believer” 163). In order to present a deeper message, O’Connor asserted, to convey a meaning beyond the superficial, the writer had first to conquer and master the apparent aspects of reality, ensuring the reader’s belief in them before feeding them more abstract concepts. For each human, reality – as we understand our concrete world – becomes a universal language as we all experience it. O’Connor referred to those tangible experiences as “what-is,” stating that “What-is is all [the novelist] has to do with; the concrete is his medium… he will realize… that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them” (“The Church and the Fiction Writer” 146). Only by adhering to substantial and realistic worldly details can the writer hope to transport readers to a world beyond. O’Connor’s own writing provides a shining model of the discipline she preached.
O’Connor’s fiction is charged with precise and often gripping descriptions amassed from ordinary life. The author clearly understood the necessity for this: realistic detail grounded her reader in a shared perception of reality so that her overall message would resonate, however shockingly. In her story “Revelation,” for example, O’Connor introduces a middle-aged woman by the name of Mrs. Turpin and situates her in a doctor’s waiting room, surrounded by other people from the same small town. Examining the other inhabitants of the lobby, Mrs. Turpin focuses on her companions’ shoes. O’Connor writes, “Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet… The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them – exactly what you would have expected her to have on” (“Revelation” 490-491). O’Connor’s casual but precise description of the minor characters in the waiting room provides information not only about them but also a more revealing message about her protagonist. Mrs. Turpin judges both others’ choices of footwear and, even more importantly, the individual wearing the shoes; as she has expectations about the shoes certain people might wear, she also has preconceived notions about the people themselves – for example, that the woman wearing bedroom slippers deserves the label ‘white trash.’ O’Connor continues this thread of solid descriptions when someone from among the group in the doctor’s waiting room physically attacks Mrs. Turpin. The nurse pulls the assailant away from her, and Mrs. Turpin feels “entirely hollow except for her heart which swung from side to side as if it were agitated in a great empty drum of flesh” (“Revelation” 500). O’Connor then elaborates on the injuries Mrs. Turpin has suffered from the attack: “Two little moon-shaped lines like pink fish bones were indented over her windpipe” (“Revelation” 501). These artfully crafted descriptions, forcing the reader to feel Mrs. Turpin’s hollow chest and see the fingernail marks dotting her neck, form the backbone of O’Connor’s work and comport with her philosophy of enmeshing the reader in the author’s shared perception of material reality before exploring the domain beyond – a task O’Connor does not shy away from.
O’Connor had a distinctive understanding of God’s interaction with human beings and the interference of God’s grace in human life; she referred to God’s role in this relationship as ‘mystery,’ emphasizing our inability to ever completely understand God’s operations. “Mystery does not mean for her a kind of a fuzzy, foggy, gooey something or other,” said Ralph Wood, author of Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, in a 2009 interview with PBS. “It’s a very specific term for her… the word mystery means that which is inexhaustible in our knowledge of God, that the deeper we go in understanding who the self-declared, self-revealed God is, the more there is yet to understand, so that the greater our knowledge of God also the greater our ignorance of God, so that we know only a thumbnail of what and who God is” (Wood). O’Connor believed that there are moments of our lives during which we come into closer contact with this mystery than others, moments in which we are granted God’s grace and experience his love. O’Connor adopted the belief of the Catholic theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that “there was an ever-elusive Omega point, whereby all things converged in God,” a point and a moment where we encounter “a force that [remains] mysterious” to us, but leaves us “with something approaching insight” (McRobie). She touted the concept of this relationship between God and humanity, embracing “an imaginative vision of religion as the mystery of God’s saving action intersecting with all that is earthly” (Niederauer). Incorporating this conviction not just into her personal life, O’Connor employed it to fuel her stories, utilizing it as a framework for constructing her work.
Obsessed with the notion of God’s grace and how we experience it, O’Connor frequently built her narratives around characters’ encounters with it; these moments of grace embedded in her stories often follow an act of intense violence – a strategy O’Connor applied to stress these moments of awareness and comprehension. O’Connor’s illustrations of these moments, in some cases, proved so evocative that her contemporaries – and more specifically her critics – have described her stories as “utterly compelling but senselessly grotesque” (McRobie). This grotesqueness, however, serves a particular purpose, as it enables O’Connor’s readers “to make connections [they] might overlook in a more straightforward narrative,” painting “the ordinary in a new light” (Staudt). These grotesque moments may appear overwhelmingly ugly, and yet O’Connor utilizes them to shed light on something inarguably beautiful: God’s grace.
In her own defense of the violence depicted in her work, O’Connor remarked that grace often manifests itself as an action or gesture “which somehow [makes] contact with mystery,” indicating where the heart of the story lies (“On Her Own Work” 111). This gesture occurs within the moment that O’Connor believed could be found in every great story, the moment where “the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment” (“On Her Own Work” 118). This is the moment that O’Connor endeavored to slip into each of her own pieces. To do this, and help to reveal this moment to her audience, the author deployed scenes of intense violence. Brutality “was bound up for the writer with the idea that violence was a way of preparing characters for their moment of ‘grace’,” that these moments of vulnerability allowed her characters to become more receptive to the grace they needed (McRobie). She believed that “violence [was] never an end in itself” but rather “the extreme situation that best [revealed] what we are essentially,” as “the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him” (“On Her Own Work” 113-114). The revelation of essentiality in these moments of violence, for O’Connor, returned her characters to the concrete reality she had created for her readers. This “upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality… is the grace of God and the sign of his love” (Parker), an awareness of which her characters can now tap in their moment of shock and vulnerability. Undoubtedly, O’Connor’s fiction packs its punch because the culmination of each of her stories centers around one of these revelations.
“The Lame Shall Enter First,” a story authored by O’Connor, exemplifies this principle of the moment of insight and confrontation with God’s grace. A part-time counselor at a reformatory, a man named Sheppard meets a young inmate, Rufus Johnson, and takes a deep interest in the boy’s improvement, encouraging him to leave behind past misdeeds and move forward with an honest lifestyle. He gives Rufus a key to his house and ultimately invites him to stay with him and his son Norton, explaining to the boy that “’if [he] can help a person, all [he] [wants] is to do it,’” whether he receives anything in return or not (“The Lame Shall Enter First” 458). Throughout the story he invests all his energy in Johnson, a boy to whom he owes nothing, neglecting his own son in the process. At the end of the story, when Johnson repays Sheppard by returning to his old criminal ways and tainting the older man’s reputation, Sheppard realizes the selfishness at the root of his attempt to save Johnson: “His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself. He saw the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him from the eyes of Johnson” (“The Lame Shall Enter First” 481). As it dawns on Sheppard how poorly he has treated his son, he hastens to look for Norton, making promises to himself as he does so: “He would make everything up to [Norton]. He would never let him suffer again. He would be mother and father” (“The Lame Shall Enter First” 482). His revelation and espousal of love comes too late, however, as he finds his child in the attic “hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space” (“The Lame Shall Enter First” 482). In the face of his young son’s suicide, Sheppard cannot ignore or forget the facts he must confront, including the effects his actions have had, the consequences of his gluttony on himself and those around him. This moment of violence arriving suddenly at the end of the story underscores his crushing insight into his own selfish motives for helping Johnson, revealing God’s grace as the operative behind Sheppard’s enlightenment about his own sinfulness.
O’Connor’s unique creativity lies in her religious sensibility and prowess at interweaving realistic depictions of human behavior with insights into the way in which God reveals himself to people, producing a final product of true art. Setting herself apart from her contemporaries, O’Connor wrote fiction, not just because she was, as she said herself, good at it, nor for the simple purpose of making money or a name for herself (“The Nature and Aim of Fiction” 81). Instead, O’Connor wrote because she wanted to make something “good in and by itself,” since “what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” 171). Quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas, she said, “art does not require rectitude of the appetite… it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is a good in itself” (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” 171). O’Connor’s creative work glorified God because of its value in and of itself, and O’Connor’s understanding of God’s goodness allowed her to see her work in the same light – as art.
Flannery O’Connor’s devout Catholicism informed her life and infused her fiction. Her religious belief motivated her to craft prose grounded in earthly human experience, employing precise descriptions and tangible imagery. At the deeper level of meaning, she connected her characters’ worldly experiences with the grace they encountered from God. In assessing her own body of work, largely unencumbered by concerns for money or reputation, O’Connor could appreciate her craft as the art that it was. Because of her enduring faith, Flannery produced stories unlike those of any other American author, stories grounded in reality and yet simultaneously transcendent.
Gooch, Brad, Thomas Joseph White, and Ralph Wood. Interview by Rafael Pi Roman. “Flannery O’Connor,” PBS, 20 Nov. 2009. Accessed 27 April 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/20/november-20-2009-flannery-oconnor/5043/
McRobie, Heather. “Is Flannery O’Connor a Catholic Writer?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited, 22 April 2009. Accessed 27 April 2017. www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/apr/22/fiction
Niederauer, George N. “Flannery O’Connor’s Religious Vision.” America Magazine: The Jesuit Review, America Press Inc., 24 Dec. 2007. Accessed 27 April 2017. http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/639/article/flannery-oconnors-religious-vision
O’Connor, Flannery. “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 169-190.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Novelist and Believer.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 154-168.
O’Connor, Flannery. “On Her Own Work.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 107-118.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, 488-509.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 143-153.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, 445-482.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 63-86.
Parker, James. “The Passion of Flannery O’Connor.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, Nov. 2013. Accessed 27 April 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/the-passion-of-flannery-oconnor/309532/
Staudt, Jared. “A Defense of the Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Art.” Crisis Magazine, Sophia Institute Press, Aug. 2014. Accessed 2 May 2017. http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/need-grotesque-defense-flannery-oconnor
Author: Emily Greffenius, Georgetown University