It is a measure of her greatness, perhaps, that although she would be only sixty-four years old if she were still among us, Flannery O’Connor—who passed away a quarter-century ago in her native Georgia, at the age of thirty-nine—seems already to belong to the ages. Typically, an author’s literary reputation declines precipitously once he is no longer around to keep it going, but O’Connor’s reputation has grown steadily in the years since her death; her two extremely impressive (if ultimately unsuccessful) novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), have continued to earn the respect and interest of intelligent readers, and—far more important—a number of her three dozen or so short stories, the majority of which appeared originally in either A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) or Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), have deservedly attained the status of classics in the genre. Indeed, though her position as a novelist is highly arguable, it seems eminently fair to say that the career of Flannery O’Connor, like the careers of Hawthorne, Poe, Stephen Crane, and Henry James before her, constitutes a major chapter in the history of the American short story. How appropriate, then, that the publishers of the splendid Library of America series, whose list of collected works already includes all or part of the oeuvres of the aforementioned nineteenth-century masters, have seen fit to add the name of Flannery O’Connor to that distinguished roster—a selection which makes her, whether by design or happenstance, the first author born in the twentieth century to appear in the Library of America series.
Yet O’Connor is a twentieth-century writer with a difference. In an age when serious authors were all but expected to experiment with form and style, to disavow or rewrite the conventional Judeo-Christian moral code, or at least to exhibit a few unmistakable signs of alienation and nihilism, O’Connor did none of the above. She was a literary rebel, but not in any of the approved ways. She rebelled, rather, by attaching herself fervently to a distinct set of traditional—and, in the corridors of American literary power, decidedly bewildering—ideas about the human condition. Those ideas, as she explains in a handful of cogent essays which have been reprinted in the Library of America volume, derive largely from her devout Roman Catholicism. “[W]hen I look at stories I have written,” she observes in “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” “I find that they are, for the most part, about people who are poor, who are afflicted in both mind and body, who have little—or at best a distorted—sense of spiritual purpose, and whose actions do not apparently give the reader a great assurance of the joy of life.” These characters, she adds, are often described as “grotesque,” and the stories themselves are criticized by some for their violence.
“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.”
Why does O’Connor write about such unfortunate, spiritually deprived people? Largely, she explains, because she wants to write about spiritual redemption. “[F]or me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and . . . what I see in the world I see in relation to that.” Since the South is “Christ-haunted,” poor Southerners make the best subjects, because “[w]hen the poor hold sacred history in common, they have concrete ties to the universal and holy which allow the meaning of their every action to be heightened and seen under the aspect of eternity.” As for the supposed grotesqueness of her vision, she argues that “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.” For “[t]he 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.” Her fiction is violent, in other words, because when your audience does not hold the same beliefs that you do, “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.”
So it is that both of O’Connor’s novels are about wildly unbalanced young fellows who, in the course of resisting their true spiritual vocation—that of prophet—go so far as to commit murder. Wise Blood presents us with twenty-two-year-old Hazel Motes, whose grandfather was a small-town Tennessee circuit preacher and who at the age of twelve knew that he, too, was going to be one. Yet Haze, resisting the truth of Christ’s sacrifice (“I don’t need Jesus. . . . What do I need with Jesus?”), goes to the city of Taulkinham to preach “a new church—the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” When his idea is stolen by a cynical local operator, Haze furiously kills the operator’s hired prophet and then blinds himself. Similarly, The Violent Bear It Away sets before us the case of fourteen-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater, whose uncle, a fanatical backwoods prophet, raised him to be a prophet as well. After the old man’s death, the boy finds his way to the house of his other uncle, a young widower and urban schoolteacher named Rayber who was similarly raised but who (despite the constant pull of his childhood beliefs) has struggled to believe only in reason. Rayber, who seeks to break Tarwater of his faith, knows that the boy has been enjoined by the old prophet to baptize Rayber’s small retarded son, and assumes this is why the boy has come; yet Tarwater, like him, is engaged in a struggle against the old man’s teachings, a struggle which concludes with Tarwater drowning the retarded boy and (at the last minute) also baptizing him, and which leads finally to his acceptance of his prophetic vocation.
There are several reasons why these novels are less effective than O’Connor’s stories. In many ways, O’Connor’s talents were more suited to short-form than to long-form fiction; both her novels feel episodic and repetitive, deficient in the shape, tautness, and resonance of her stories. But there can be little doubt that many readers’ lingering discomfort with the novels relates directly to the fact that their protagonists are prophets—or, more precisely, prophets-in-the-making—and that it is in the matter of prophecy, perhaps, that O’Connor’s convictions are most drastically at odds with those of the average modern secular reader. To such a reader, Haze and Tarwater are about as far from sympathetic characters as one could get: they’re mad, they’re monotonous, they’re murderous. To O’Connor, however, these characters’ passion—murderous though it may be—is, in the deepest sense, not mad but holy; these young men are not out of touch with reality but have gazed upon (or at least glimpsed) a profounder reality than the rest of us know, a reality with which we, not they, are out of touch. If the sight of it has driven them to insane acts, it is not because they are themselves insane but because of the impediments to the attainment of grace that have been thrown in their paths by modern civilization.
What, one may ask, would draw a Catholic novelist to treat so Protestant a theme as Bible-thumping Southern fundamentalism? O’Connor answers this question in an essay entitled “The Catholic Novelist in the South.” Such a novelist, she explains,
is forced to follow the spirit into strange places and to recognize it in many forms not totally congenial to him. His interests and sympathies may very well go, as I find my own do, directly to those aspects of Southern life where the religious feeling is most intense and where its outward forms are farthest from the Catholic and most revealing of a need that only the Church can fill. The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.
Many of us, I think, would have trouble agreeing that “a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all.” There are distortions, after all, and there are distortions; and a Christ turned into a murderer or a rapist, say, is no Christ. What O’Connor is effectively saying, in this unusual apologia, is that Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater may be murderers, but at least they have passion. If the rest of us don’t find ourselves tempted, as they are, to commit acts of violence, it’s not because we’re better than they but probably because, on the profoundest level, we’re dead to the world. For this reader, anyway, such an argument falls a good distance short of convincing; surely, if the world and characters of Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away are meant to correspond in any manner whatsoever to the real world and to actual human beings, the conclusion cannot be avoided that both Haze and Tarwater are insane, and that Tarwater’s acceptance of the role of prophet is hardly a consummation devoutly to be wished. One may, to be sure, line up behind such critics as Dorothy Tuck McFarland, who considers O’Connor’s second novel “an objective correlative, as it were, of man’s experience before the Infinite.” Yet in the final analysis, both novels demand that one throw psychological complexity overboard—and despite the abundance of beautifully written passages and dramatically powerful episodes, neither novel manages to persuade the typical modern reader to do so. To such a reader, these novels must remain, in the end, case studies not in religious passion but in abnormal psychology—indeed, in psychology that is much too abnormal to seem particularly relevant to one’s own experience of life.
No such difficulty, to say the least, attends the reading of O’Connor’s short stories. Few of these stories, for one thing, directly concern preachers and prophets; none involves itself overmuch with the relation between madness and godhead. They are in fact more catholic than Catholic, accessible in every way to all readers of good will; more than that, they are magnificently affecting stories, capable of exerting an astonishingly powerful effect upon the reader’s sensibilities (about which more later). Yet, like many great writers, O’Connor possesses a voice and a vision to which even a highly sensitive and intelligent reader may not immediately respond, and which may actually, for many reasons, put him off at first blush. Certainly a contemporary reader who comes to O’Connor with the standard notion of post-World War Two American fiction—a notion, that is, which has been formed by a steady diet of Mailer, Updike, Roth, Kerouac, and the like—may face a certain amount of difficulty in becoming accustomed to her distinctive way of seeing the world.
For though they may (for the most part) maintain a respectable distance from the fanatical prophets of the world, O’Connor’s stories are possessed of an intense religious feeling, a feeling that has continued to spawn, as it did during O’Connor’s lifetime, a considerable degree of controversy, and to disturb some readers more than it should. There is no question but that, to many a contemporary reader, the mere presence in O’Connor’s stories of words like grace and redemption and of images of Christ, Satan, and the Holy Ghost makes her seem as remote a figure as Hawthorne himself; without question, her grim preoccupation with mystery and evil, coupled with her thoroughly traditional approach to style and form and character, recalls the author of The Scarlet Letter far more than it does any contemporary writer of note. It has always been one of the chief arguments of O’Connor’s detractors that her religious convictions were so extreme and unyielding, and that they so deeply infuse the bulk of her short fiction, that their very presence serves to weaken appreciably (for readers who do not share her theology) that fiction’s value as literature, and renders O’Connor a less than universal writer.
Where, one wants to ask, does this leave Dante? And yet such complaints do point up a valid concern. For even the most respectful newcomer to O’Connor’s stories may well find himself confused and troubled—and, in some instances, positively angered—by many of the ideas, assumptions, and images that he discovers (or thinks he does) in these stories. Even a longstanding admirer of O’Connor, for that matter, may, on returning to her short stories after a long separation, find himself in need of a period of re-adjustment to these aspects of O’Connor’s fiction—most of which are related, in some way, to O’Connor’s religious faith and to her sense of its proper place in her writing.
The stories take place, for instance, in a world of illness and retardation, of missing and mutilated limbs, of senile old men and suicidal children. It is a world where violence abounds: a vacationing family is slaughtered by an escaped criminal; a boy taken to a river baptism returns later and drowns himself; a farm worker is flattened by a tractor; a woman is gored to death by a bull; an old man, attacked by his small granddaughter, kills her by smashing her head against a rock; a young man mistakenly shoots his mother to death; a ten-year-old boy, eager to join his mother in heaven, hangs himself. There are few warm and selfless characters here, few loving and mutually rewarding relationships; in one story after another, a family is done in by the narcissism of one of its members, and time and again (as in many a nineteenth-century American work of fiction) city meets countryside with harrowing results.
Nowhere, moreover, does O’Connor offer a fair representation of a morally upstanding and emotionally healthy rationalist. Invariably, the self-declared rationalists in her stories and novels are selfish and unreflecting; often they are not really rationalists at all, but are running away from the faith in which they were raised. What’s more, O’Connor consistently implies a connection between atheism and amorality, failing to acknowledge that people can be virtuous simply for the sake of being virtuous, and not because their eternal souls are on the line. (At the same time, of course, she realizes that people who profess Christian faith can be amoral, too.) Her incisive, elegant letters—a generous compilation of which was published in 1979 as The Habit of Being, and a selection of which occupies several hundred pages of the Library of America volume—at times demonstrate her contempt for her friends’ value systems, even as she maintains her affection for the friends themselves; in her stories there often appears to be a similar contempt—or, one might say, condescension—in operation. “You have to be able to dominate the existence that you characterize,” she insists in a letter to one of her most frequent correspondents, a woman identified only as “A.” “That is why I write about people who are more or less primitive.”
Those characters who think themselves smart and sophisticated generally learn otherwise by the end of the story.
Indeed, nowhere in her fiction is there a character as astute, as ethical, or as serious as O’Connor herself. On the contrary, the stories are crawling with arrogant, unreflecting mothers and their captious, pseudo-intellectual grown children, with inattentive rationalist fathers and their pathetic sons, with lazy white-trash hired men and their cliche-spouting wives. Those characters who think themselves smart and sophisticated generally learn otherwise by the end of the story. One such character is Rayber, the desperately secular schoolteacher in The Violent Bear It Away, who erroneously thinks he knows “exactly what [goes] on inside” the boy Tarwater’s mind. Another is Hulga, an atheistic, virginal Ph.D. of thirty-two who, in “Good Country People,” leads a seemingly naive teenaged Bible salesman to a barn loft with the intention of seducing him. But Hulga turns out to be the naif: the salesman makes off with her artificial leg, remarking indignantly that “I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going.” (Clearly, not only the hired hands’ wives spout cliches in these stories.) As obtuse as Hulga—though no Ph.D., she—is Mrs. Shortley, the wife of a hired hand in “The Displaced Person,” whose sense of innate superiority to the black and Polish refugee farm workers around her prevents her from recognizing what the reader knows early on: that she and her husband are going to be sent packing by his employer. (“You reckon he can drive a tractor when he don’t know English?” she asks about the Pole who is destined to supplant her husband; such numbing ignorance is far from rare in the world of these stories.)
The conventional dramatic reason for creating such characters is evident: the writer wishes the reader to regard them as insufferably smug, to look down upon them, and to look forward to their comeuppance. This device is not in itself objectionable. But to some readers—particularly those who are relative newcomers to the art of Flannery O’Connor—it may seem insufferably smug of her to manufacture all these insufferably smug people for them to look down upon. Yes, one can sympathize with such characters even as one is deploring their monstrous vanity. But one may long as well to share a character’s surprise once in a while, to share his hurt and not experience it from a distance. At times, a newcomer to O’Connor’s fiction may even have the impression that mixed in with her sympathy for her characters is a vindictive, almost sadistic feeling of it-serves-you right. In one story after another, O’Connor’s domination of her characters’ existence may well make her seem as if she has forgotten her own humanity and is attempting to play God—and what could be more insufferably smug than that?
There is, in short, little compassion here— an emotion about which O’Connor herself, as it happens, has something to say. “It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion,” she remarks in an essay entitled “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” “Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult for him to be anti-anything. Certainly when the grotesque is used in a legitimate way, the intellectual and moral judgments implicit in it will have the ascendancy over feeling.”
Such is the case in O’Connor’s fiction: here, feeling always takes a back seat to intellectual and moral judgment. It must be said, however, that a casual reader’s discomfort with the severity of the tone O’Connor typically assumes toward her characters has less to do with any real deficiencies in her fiction than with the nature of the modern temper and the norms of contemporary fiction. An attentive reader, indeed, does not take long to begin to adjust to O’Connor’s vision, and to see beyond her seeming lack of concern for her characters, and the apparent smugness with which she contemplates their fates, to the essential truth of the matter. That truth, to put it plainly, is that O’Connor violates the unwritten rule of twentieth-century relativism, which dictates that having a religion of some sort is perfectly fine, but that actually believing in its teachings and acting upon such belief is in bad taste, is backward and undemocratic, is (for that matter) to betray the secular gods of self-discovery and self-fulfillment to which many of O’Connor’s contemporaries—and our own—have solemnly dedicated their lives. One of the central concerns of O’Connor’s fiction is to underline the inanity of this modern craving for self-fulfillment. She does so quite humorously in Wise Blood, when Sabbath Lily Hawks, the randy daughter of the evangelist Asa Hawks, tells Haze of her letter—about sex, sin, and the kingdom of heaven—to a Dear Abby-type newspaper columnist, and quotes the columnist’s response: “Dear Sabbath, Light necking is acceptable, but I think your problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in Life. A religious experience can be a beautiful addition to living if you put it in the proper prespective [sic] and do not let it warp you. Read some books on Ethical Culture.” Likewise, O’Connor memorably pokes fun at the jargon of secular self-obsession in The Violent Bear It Away, when Rayber explains to Tarwater that the boy’s late (and unwed) mother was not a “whore,” as their recently deceased uncle maintained, but that “[s]he was just a good healthy girl, just beginning to find herself when she was struck down.”
Yet O’Connor’s point is manifestly not to hold these characters up to ridicule, but rather to offer each of them as an example of a flawed and troubled human soul on its way to an epiphany.
O’Connor’s barbs can sting. Yet her point is manifestly not to hold these characters up to ridicule, but rather to offer each of them as an example of a flawed and troubled human soul on its way to an epiphany. If they often appear to be teeming with ignoble thoughts and emotions, it is because some of the things that cross an average human mind in the course of a day can be chillingly ugly, and O’Connor considers it a crucial part of her obligation as a writer to drag every unworthy thought and emotion relentlessly out into the light of day and to call it by its proper name. (Part of the writer’s responsibility, she tells “A.,” is “the accurate naming of the things of God.”) She wants to get at the core of things, to confront her reader with the nastiest truths about human nature, and she is not afraid to do so in a blunt, disturbing, and brutally straightforward manner. There is a kind of compassion in these stories, but it is a hard compassion, the compassion not of a sentimental aunt but of a tough old priest whose belief is strong, whose priorities are in order, and who is able to stare unflinchingly into the impure hearts of men and love them in spite of their impurity.
Gratifyingly, the epiphanies into which O’Connor leads these characters are possessed of a dramatic force that does not depend in the slightest on one’s belief system, even though in some cases the epiphanies draw heavily upon Christian rhetoric and imagery. The epiphanies of some of O’Connor’s stories, to be sure, are relatively free of such overt religious touches. At the end of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” for instance, a snappish, supercilious young man watches his good-hearted mother suffer a stroke, and while running for help he begins to realize what he has done and what he is losing: “The tide of darkness,” O’Connor writes, “seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” End of story. In other epiphanies, however, the Christian elements are considerably more pronounced. “The Enduring Chill” presents us with another insufferable young man, a would-be intellectual named Asbury who has returned south to his mother’s dairy farm after a failed attempt to become a writer in New York; weak and febrile, he thinks he is dying, and since he “ha[s] never been a sniveler after the ineffable,” he seeks to create out of his own intelligence some “last significant culminating experience.” But the experience doesn’t come—and neither does death, for he proves to have nothing more dangerous than a bovine fever, which he caught by drinking unpasteurized milk as a childish act of defiance against his mother. At this news he feels numb. “The old life in him was exhausted,” O’Connor writes.
He awaited the coming of the new. It was then that he felt the beginning of a chill, a chill so peculiar, so light, that it was like a warm ripple across a deeper sea of cold. His breath came short. The fierce bird which through the years of his childhood and the days of his illness had been poised over his head, waiting mysteriously, appeared all at once to be in motion. Asbury blanched and the last film of illusion was torn as if by a whirlwind from his eyes. He saw that for the rest of his days, frail, racked, but enduring, he would live in the face of a purifying terror. A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacably, to descend.
One need not believe in the Holy Ghost—indeed, many who do so believe might be hard put to recognize the third member of the Trinity in this nightmarish image—in order to be moved by the exquisitely evoked spectacle of this young man forced, for the first time in his life, to confront the truth about himself and to live with it. This story, like O’Connor’s other stories, asks nothing of one in the way of allegiance to any specific denomination or doctrine: it requires only that one recognize the objective existence of good and evil, the importance of human beings’ responsibilities to one another, the significance of mystery, and the lamentability of our century’s preoccupation with scientific knowledge at the expense of all other forms of truth. To put it a bit differently, the author of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” does not expect us to believe, with her, that people are indeed temples of the Holy Ghost; she asks only that we believe that people are temples of some sort, that we recognize their hearts and minds as fields on which the forces of right and wrong do battle, and that we see that battle as an event of utmost significance.
What a remarkable writer Flannery O’Connor is! Not only do her stories survive comparison with the best works of her generation; to read her stories alongside those of almost any of her contemporaries is to see, in those other writers, a frivolous-ness and superficiality of which one was hardly aware beforehand. O’Connor makes one realize how extensively the characters in those other writers’ work—and one’s response to them—are shaped not by real life but by other fictions. She makes words like traditional and avant-garde seem less meaningful, for whereas her prose is invariably pellucid, controlled, and unadventurous, her stories provide one with a shock of recognition that makes most fiction—avant-garde or otherwise—seem pallid, lifeless, and derivative. Acts of murder, arson, mutilation, and such—the sort of events, that is, which leave one cold when communicated in the artless, hyperbolic prose of, say, a William Burroughs—are truly overwhelming when related in the civil, serene prose of O’Connor. One responds to O’Connor’s stories, indeed, as one does to an intensely charged encounter with an outlandish stranger—and yet what one finds oneself to be looking at is not a stranger but one’s own reflection. Hers is, in short, an avant-garde not of style but of vision; her stories examine human life with a degree of seriousness that few postwar American writers can even approach, and much of the anger and anxiety that a reader is liable to feel on first exposure to her writing derives precisely from a fear of that seriousness, an unwillingness to match the exhausting intensity with which she carries out her inquiry into the human condition. Her stories are, in the most urgent sense, works of moral compulsion: they compel one to look critically into one’s heart, to question one’s most long-settled assumptions about oneself. They are not easy to pass the time with—O’Connor rightly distinguishes between herself and the type of modern writer who seeks to “lift up” a reader’s heart “without cost to himself or to her”—and they are impossible to forget.
- Collected Works, by Flannery O’Connor; edited by Sally Fitzgerald; Library of America, 1281 pages, $30. Includes Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything That Rises Must Converge, Essays and Letters. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 5, on page 35
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