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Reading Flannery O’Connor for the first time

She gleefully maimed and killed off her characters in a million disturbing ways—and she was a devout, daily mass Catholic who read St. Thomas Aquinas in her spare time and made a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Reading Flannery O’Connor requires a stout heart and a strong stomach.

In her short life before she died of terminal lupus, she wrote two novels and roughly two dozen short stories that continue to shock and unsettle us. With a wicked pen, she gleefully maims and kills off her characters in a million disturbing ways: they get drowned, hanged, run over by cars (twice in a row), wrapped in barbed wire and beaten to death. Her characters are prostitutes, pedophiles, arsonists, murderers, nihilists, and (worst of all for O’Connor), salesmen. But if you read her biography, she’s practically the patron saint of Catholic fiction: a devout, daily mass Catholic who read St. Thomas Aquinas in her spare time, and made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes.

As readers, we wonder, “Is there something I’m missing?” How should we read O’Connor’s writing, and where is her faith in the pages of such brutal fiction?

Readers of O’Connor will notice that most of her stories follow one basic Biblical narrative: St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Again and again, she depicts an event of searing violence in which divine grace shocks a hard-hearted, wicked, or selfish person into a moment of recognition. In this terrible moment O’Connor offers her characters a choice, a flash of self-knowledge, and an encounter with God that utterly burns away their illusions.

O’Connor does this best in one of my favorite tales, titled “Good Country People,” where she tells the story of Hulga, a nihilist with a Ph.D. in philosophy and a wooden leg. Convinced of the meaninglessness of life, and that morality means nothing, the atheist Hulga lives consumed by pride and anger, until she meets a traveling Bible salesman who seduces her and steals her wooden leg, leaving her stranded and legless in the loft of a barn. On his way down the ladder, the salesman sneers, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” Horrified to find a man who actually lives out the philosophy she claims to believe, Hulga now faces a pivotal choice as the story ends. And indeed the choice is ours as well: do we accept this painful revelation of the truth, or do we return to a life of emptiness and sin? O’Connor’s tales do not always reveal what her characters decide: sometimes she leaves it to us to choose.

What O’Connor does in “Good Country People” is to reveal to Hulga (and to us) the true face of evil. O’Connor knew as she wrote her fiction that in an age of relativism we have lost a proper sense of right and wrong. Dulled by our own sins and by the de-Christianization of Western culture, we have lost the will and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. As she once wrote in an essay:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as 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.

In a Western culture that accepts sin as personal preference and dismisses moral truth-claims as ideology or bigotry, modern man needs an arresting, visceral depiction of evil that can shock everyone into agreeing, “This is wrong.” For O’Connor, the logical extreme of godlessness is a pervert with a fetish for artificial body parts. As the Misfit, a serial killer in her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” says: “it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness….”

But we can see a deeper truth behind O’Connor’s terrific fictional violence: she wants to show us the way that Divine Providence can bring good even out of terrible evil. To many of us, the problem of evil remains perhaps the most compelling argument against the existence of a loving and all-powerful God; but O’Connor answers this by showing how God incorporates the violent sins of men into His plan. In O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, Hazel Motes, an atheist preacher of the “Church without Christ” runs over a rival prophet named Solace Layfield with his car. Although Layfield was only pretending to be a prophet to make money on street corners, he is forced to confront the ultimate things when he gets murdered by Motes. In his last moments, dying in a pool of his own blood, he confesses his sins and calls out the name of Jesus. Just minutes after working as a false prophet for three dollars a night, Layfield receives one of O’Connor’s famous wake-up calls and finally responds to grace. Little wonder, then, that she named him “Solace.”

In O’Connor’s fiction, God allows acts of violence to bring about spiritual healing in wounded and sinful characters because she believes that violent encounters strip away the nonessential, and make us confront the Truth of things. “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially,” O’Connor told an audience once:

…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable to his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they take with them.

There’s nothing like being about to die to help you reassess your priorities.

Finally, the events in O’Connor’s fiction should remind us that God brought about the redemption of all human beings precisely through permitting an act of unspeakable violence: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If God can bring cosmic victory out of the apparently senseless, spiteful torture and execution of His innocent Son, then He can, as St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, make “all things work together unto good.”

The truth is that the strange art of Flannery O’Connor will continue to puzzle and provoke us. As she once wrote, “We Catholics are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn’t have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery.” In her brief but fierce career as an American Catholic writer, O’Connor left us a vivid, challenging collection of works, her stark characters and plots standing out in sharp relief from the pages of her books. It’s a body of work not easy to encounter, but it’s one that is impossible to forget. So buckle up: if you read O’Connor’s stories of grace, the life you save may be your own.

(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted on May 20, 2016, and has been reposted on the anniversary of her death, on this date in 1964.)

Related on CWR:
“Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Incarnational Art” (June 06, 2015) by Carl E. Olson
“Flannery O’Connor and Catholic realism” (July 22, 2015) by George Weigel

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About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 27 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.

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