When one thinks of the American literature of the 20th century, the name of Flannery O’Connor is one among the first to come to his or her mind. Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) is now recognized as one of the greatest American writers of the period. Though the author’s hereditary disease prevented her from creating a great number of works and her literary output counts only two novels, and thirty-two short stories, all of them found their places in the readers’ hearts due to the skillfulness of the character’s depiction and the deepness of the themes revealed.
In one of her letters to “A,” O’Connor explains how she sees herself and her work: “I am only a storyteller.” (Gianonne 16). Time has proved her self-description of being a literary artist but proved that the use of the adverb “only” is not applicable to the case (Gianonne 16). Being a woman of many talents (Flannery O’Connor was an accomplished letter writer, literary critic, religious thinker, and public intellectual), she was too quick in discounting her professional significance.
By birth, a native of Georgia and a Romanic catholic, O’Connor depicts the mysteries of the divine grace in the “Christ-haunted” Protestant South in her works (Allen 114). O’Connor was not just any sort of catholic but a daily Mass-goer when her health permitted. She defended catholic teaching from the Real Presence to the ban on birth control to friends and correspondents (Allen 114). Her Catholic belief about the influence that God’s grace has on the lives of ordinary people runs through all of them. O’Connor’s works reveal her philosophy that underscores her devout Roman Catholic faith.
Though in her letter to a good friend Cecil Dawkins on December 23, 1959, O’Connor writes: “I am not theologian, but all this [church doctrine is vital to me” reading her works empowers one to call her a theologian (Gianonne 16). Theology is what she does in various forms of writing. Treatment of God, his attributes, and relations with the universe become a leading theme of her works. In a letter to “A” on April 4, 1958, she explains: “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.” (Gianonne 16). We will examine the validity of this statement by examples of the three stories of the author. Namely, A Good Man is Hard to Find (first published in 1955), Revelation (1965), and Good Country People (1976).
Before investigating the concept of grace as revealed in each of the three works, we find it necessary to outline in general the views on the grace that the author had. Giannone’s understanding of the problem is very helpful here. According to him, O’Connor believes that all “human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Still, she recognizes “the necessity of fighting the nihilism,” which is “the current to write against” (Gianonne 18). Further, Gianonne continues:
Severity is the hallmark of O’Connor’s understanding of grace and the inner changes it causes. As only a diamond can cut a diamond, so only a devastating blow can get through human hard-heartedness. For “the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures,” O’Connor states. For some, it takes bullets to get through, as with the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” who “would have been a good woman,” her killer explains, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Since humankind cannot take yes for an answer to God’s love, we are obliged, if we seek to respond at all, to say no to no (Gianonne 18).
In her short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, O’Connor creates the character of the Misfit, the murderer who escaped from the Federal Penitentiary and killed the entire family. This character is important for the exploration of the Christian concept of grace that says that a divine pardon from God is available simply for the asking. The character is introduced to create the violent surface action. But as in all author’s stories, the latter serves to suggest the depths and complexities of the story’s meaning. Thus, the relation of evil to the action of grace is considered by the author (Desmond 130).
The Grandmother – a selfish old woman – is the only character who is given grace in the story. This happens when she touches The Misfit and recognizes him as her son. Still, one should take into consideration the fact that there are several possible interpretations of the Grandmother’s final act.
Stephen Bandy’s position in work One of my Babies’: the Misfit and the Grandmother (1996) is that the act was an attempt to save herself from death and proof that her selfishness was never overcome throughout the story. Kathleen Ochshorn, in A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in “A Good Man is Hard to Find (1990), claims that the Grandmother’s touch is the tool the author resorts to save the story from bloodshed and violence.
But John Desmond’s position appeals to us more, as it seems more justified. He believes that the Grandmother’s final act was a sign of grace and charity. According to him, this episode is created by the author to admit the transformation of the Grandmother’s views. If at the beginning of the story she is depicted as a person who is more concerned about her image as a Christian instead of her true Christian character, at the end of it, she realizes that she has not led the best possible life and touches her killer.
This act of hers can evoke sympathy with some readers. Others may find it a mere play by the Grandmother for the sake of her life. But by creating characters like her and The Misfit, the author explained her main argument that grace is equal for everyone, and even those who seem loathsome deserve it.
Another story of O’Connor where the theme of religion is one of the leading ones in Revelation. Mrs. Turpin, a person who is rather restricted in her views, finds her rumors of social superiority before God dispelled when she is attacked by a stranger’s daughter Mary Grace. Mrs. Turpin asks her, “What you got to say to me? […] waiting, as for a revelation” (O’Connor 200). When Mrs. Turpin hears, “Go back to hell where you belong, you old wart hog,” her pride is struck a lethal blow (O’Connor 202).
According to Norman McMillan, “Revelation is a marvelous study of the discovery of grace as a result of participation in violence.” (McMillan 16) Further, he admits that “by noting that as Mrs. Turpin humbles herself, she realizes that her judgments of blacks and poor whites are based on her false ideas of Jesus, which support her prideful nature” (McMillan 19).
As for the Good Country People, this story deals with characters who have no faith in God. The character of Joy (or, Hulga as she later renames herself) is one of the most perplexing demonic characters of O’Connor (Eggenschwiler 52). She always tries to support her anti-God views through seeking the knowledge of nothingness.
Though Hulga denies that God exists, she is always in a kind of some spiritual search. She becomes a victim of Manly’s lie, who ensures her that he is a simple religious country bumpkin way beneath her. As the nihilism displayed by this man finds common moral principles as useless, Hulga’s atheism seems to be more reasonable. When Hulga is fooled by the salesman, her faith in knowledge and disbelief in God protects her from the one who has even fewer principles than she has.
Summarizing everything discussed above, we should say that O’Connor’s works, though consider the religious themes through different perspectives, all reflect the author’s views. Being simple but persuasive, Flannery O’Connor’s works make every reader think over one’s religious views and find ways to change oneself for the better. We do believe that in this influence that O’Connor’s works have on the reader, their crucial significance is rooted.
Allen, Charlotte. “Grace and the Grotesque.” The Wilson Quarterly Winter 2005: 114.
Bandy, Stephen. “One of my Babies’: The Misfit and the Grandmother.” Studies in Short Fiction (1996): 107-117.
Desmond, John. “Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit and the Mystery of Evil.” Renascence (2004): 129-138.
Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.
Giannone, Richard. “Introduction.” Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings. Ed. Robert Ellsberg. Orbis Books, 2003.
McMillan, Norman. “Dostoevskian Vision in Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation.'” The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin 16 (1987): 16-22.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
Ochshorn, Kathleen. “A Cloak of Grace: Contradictions in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Studies in American Fiction (1990): 113-117.