15 May 2021

Flannery O'Connor's faith-based fiction

The title of Flannery O'Connor's 1960 novel comes from Matthew 11:12 "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."  I don't understand the theology behind that sentence, but there is a lot of violence in this brief novel, including the attempted drowning of a Downs syndrome child by his father -
He had taken him out on his shoulders and when he was chest deep in the water, had lifted him off, swung the delighted child high in the air and then plunged him swiftly below the surface on his back and held him there, not looking down at what he was doing but up, at an imperturbable witnessing sky, not quite blue, not quite white.  
A fierce surging pressure had begun upward beneath his hands and grimly he had exerted more and more force downward.  In a second, he felt he was trying to hold a giant under.  Astonished, he let himself look.  The face under the water was wrathfully  contorted, twisted by some primeval rage to save itself.  Automatically he released his pressure.  Then when he realized what he had done, he pushed down again angrily with all his force until the struggle ceased under his hands... Then as he looked at it, he had a moment of complete terror in which he envisioned his life without the child.  He began to shout frantically.  He plowed his way out of the water with the limp body... The [next day's newspaper] caption said, OVERJOYED FATHER SEES SON REVIVED.
- and the shooting of a cousin, the successful drowning of that same child by a 14-year old boy, and the subsequent rape of that boy by a stranger.

The driving force of the novel is a religious fanatic who feels called to prophesy:
With no one to  hear but the boy, he would flail his arms and roar, "Ignore the Lord Jesus as long as you can!  Spit out the bread of life and sicken on honey.  Whom work beckons, to work!  Whom blood to blood!  Whom lust to lust!  Make haste, make haste.  Fly faster and faster.  Spin yourselves in a frenzy, the time is short!  The Lord is preparing a prophet.  The Lord is preparing a prophet with fire in his hand and eye and the prophet is moving toward the city with his warning.  The prophet is coming with the Lord's message.  'Go warn the children of God,' saith the Lord, 'of the terrible speed of justice.'  Who will be left?  Who will be left when the Lord's mercy strikes?"
An eleven or twelve-year old girl prophesizes at a public gathering:
"Listen you people," she said and flung her arms wide, "God told the world He was going to send it a king and the world waited.  The world thought, a golden fleece will do for His bed.  Silver and gold and peacock tails, a thousand suns in a peacock's tail will do for His sash.  His mother will ride on a four-horned white beast and use the sunset for a cape.  She'll trail it behind her over the ground and let the world pull it to pieces, a new one every evening." 
To Rayber she was like one of those birds blinded to make it sing more sweetly.  Her voice had the tone of a glass bell.  His pity encompassed all exploited children - himself when he was a child, Tarwater exploited by the old man, this child exploited by parents, Bishop exploited by the very fact he was alive.
This was not an easy book to read in terms of content, but Flannery O'Connor, like William Faulkner, has a wonderful ear for the language and speaking style of rural Southerners. 

Everything That Rises Must Converge (title from Teilhard de Chardin) is a collection of short stories, completed in 1954 and dedicated to the Fitzgerald family with whom she had lived ("Nine stories about original sin, with my compliments").   Her delineation of characters is compared to another Christian writer - T. S. Eliot - both of whom are able to reveal "the skull beneath the skin."

Looking at the skull beneath the skin, I found the characters in these nine stories to be almost uniformly disagreeable (bigoted, greedy, violent, abusive, or - like the "girl from Wellesley" - apparently psychotic).  For today's reader the most difficult aspect is the racist language.
"Sometimes at night when she couldn't go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn't have been herself.  If Jesus had said to her before he made her "There's only two places available for you.  You can either be a nigger or white-trash," what would she have said?... She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then - but that don't mean a trashy one"  And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black."...

"Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.  On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them - not above, just away from - were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.  Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered white-face cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven."
Flannery O'Connor is frankly harsher in her treatment of "white trash," but the casual categorization of African-Americans as lazy, ignorant, and childishly naive is grating for the modern "woke" reader.  Certainly her language is consistent with (though perhaps not representative of) the culture of 1950s, southern America.  But whether the spiritual enlightenment to be gained from the reading is worth the voyage will depend on each reader.  

The best discussion I have read regarding O'Connor's depiction of violence, religiosity, and racist language is in the introductory essay of A Good Man Is Hard To Find, by Lauren Groff, from which I'll take the liberty of quoting at some length: 
A Good Man Is Hard to Find is the most American book I know. By this I mean that it speaks of the hypocrisies of the American soul in microcosm; it is an eruption of the particular half-buried traumas of the Jim Crow South as seen by a brave, blazingly angry, and mordantly funny observer...

Although O’Connor was herself a southerner, A Good Man Is Hard to Find could not be nearly as good as it is if the writer weren’t also an outsider, made all her life to stand in the chilly shadows because she was a highly educated (and highly critical) woman at a time when the gender roles of a soft and amiable southern femininity were rigidly enforced; and, more importantly, because of her devout Catholicism in the largely Fundamentalist Protestant South...

At the deepest, most molten core of all of O’Connor’s work is her Catholicism, or, as she says, "the stinking mad shadow of Jesus." Every story she wrote hinges upon her characters’ stain of original sin, and what grace they are sometimes allowed is hard won, fleeting, and almost always too late to make much of a difference in the end. Her violence, which is the most shocking and immediately apparent attribute of her work, is the violence of Catholicism, a religion in which in the central symbol—fondled on a rosary, hung over the bed, worn on a necklace at the throat—is a crucifix, an aestheticized rendering of the bloody, suffering, broken body of Jesus after he was nailed to a cross and left in the sun to die. She saw her Catholicism in harsh opposition to the wishy-washy moral relativism of the mostly agnostic or atheistic writers of her time...

If a book is to live for decades, as A Good Man Is Hard to Find has done, it must be flexible; it must bend and shift under the various pressures of the changing world, which the author at the time of writing couldn’t possibly foresee. Since the book was published, we in the culture at large have become aware of the tremendous violence that a single word can contain, and a modern audience has to address the fact that O’Connor frequently uses the N-word, one of the most hurtful and hideous epithets in the English language, meant to degrade and dehumanize black people. It’s worse to see that the writer uses it with seeming relish, even titling a story The Artificial Nigger. Some people may try to defend O’Connor by saying that the word didn’t fully hold the freight when she was alive as it holds now—that the word was commonly used in the South at the time and the use of it was in service of verisimilitude—but these are explanations that go only so far, because surely O’Connor, with her subtle understanding of cruelty and pain, knew how hideous the appellation was, how much violence it carries...

No one can decide on behalf of any individual reader whether O’Connor’s use of the word is justified or not, and whether it can be explained away by historical context; I’m personally on the fence, and the fence feels pretty wobbly. In the end, though, I do believe that it’s not all that useful to avoid reading an influential and important author because of her problematic writing, nor is it helpful to run away from a thorough and respectful discussion of racism, both structural and tacit, because of queasiness or guilt or a lack of tools to understand foundational racism and its reverberations.
After reading these three books, I found the racist language less difficult to deal with than the invariably unpleasant and frankly despicable main characters of the stories (as was the case, cited above, after my reading of Everything That Rises Must Converge).  The bad guys in the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find casually murders five people, including two children.  The delinquent Bevel "emptied a few of the ashtrays on the floor, rubbing the ashes carefully into the rug," before drowning himself.  A tramp takes a mentally retarded girl away from her caring mother for a car ride, then abandons her at a roadside diner far from home to fend for herself.  A gang of white trash delinquents deliberately start a forest fire during a drought.  And in my view the most despicable of them, an itinerant Bible salesman, seduces an inexperienced young woman away from her family to a remote rural barn, lures her up into the hayloft, takes some liquor and condoms out of a fake Bible in his briefcase, and then... [spoiler alert] takes off her wooden leg and runs away with it.   For fox ache.

I can't in good faith add this post to the hundred entries in the category of Recommended Books; I'll file it under Literature and under Sociology. 

See also: Who Was Flannery O'Connor and Why Is She Being Canceled, in The National Catholic Register or On Flannery O'Connor Chronic Illness... and Chronic Racism or The New Yorker's How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?

Also relevant is the post I wrote about her ten years ago: A Memorable First Line, which has some useful references.

Perhaps best of all, watch the PBS American Masters biography of Flannery O'Connor.


  1. Jesus ! The oxymoronic title caught my eye, but the horror within the words scarred me deeply.
    May I suggest a shade or two of lighter, happier reading ... perhaps A.A. Milne ?

  2. All I know is that I enjoy her writing... bleak as it is sometimes.
    I can read a thing without becoming the thing I read, or endorsing its sentiments... good or bad.
    Same as how rock & roll never made me a drug addict or a satanist.

  3. Regarding things such as racist language, it is always of value to remember that we cannot and must not judge anyone by any standards other than those of their own time. There are behaviors and words that, today, are considered improper and offensive that, at other times, were normal and accepted. Likewise if we judge ourselves by the standards of past societies, there are things that we do that they would judge us on, equally harshly.

    1. A point worth making, even if only so it can be debated.

      HP Lovecraft was, without question, a racist and that racism tainted a lot of his work.

      It was not just the language he used in his writings, but the way he wrote about dark-skinned (I struggled with the correct term to use, as "African-American" is a hopelessly stupid phrase I imagine was invented by a racist intent on driving home differences) people like they were beasts.

      By the standards of his times HP Lovecraft WAS particularly racist, but he was also a talented writer most of whose work isn't racist. He died in poverty, having experienced little joy in his life. But left behind a fiction which better people have worked on to make more inclusive.

      I've no problem with people taking issue with Lovecraft, but for every Lovecraft there are a hundred racist writers or artists or film-makers you'll never know about because they were of their time or never discovered.

      There isn't a person reading this blog today that won't be considered a monster in a hundred years time for reasons we'll never imagine.

      Night, night, monsters!

  4. I don't think Flannery O'Conner was a racist. Her being sick with lupus influenced what she wrote. My mother considered the n word cursing when I was a child. But I heard the term as a child. You had entire groups that were integrated so to speak in Georgia. I would be surprised to learn that Flannery had a lot of contact with black people. Her family enjoyed a bit of wealth which was by no means a guarantee. But most people at that time white and black were very very poor.

  5. The one legged victim in Good Country People is 32 years old, not a teenager, on her way to becoming an old maid. It's a great story, thoroughly despicable, and leaves you gobsmacked in a way that few stories do.

  6. Apologies for the cranky comment I wrote earlier today... I woke up on the wrong side of the day and didn't even make an attempt at rational thought.

  7. The argument over the purposes of art has been going on since the Ancient Greeks and doubtless, undocumented, before that. It is no good you, now, here, talking of "despicable" characters, when half of even a thoughtful audience will say that Ms. O'Connor was simply doing her job. The game is to tease out why they think that, and why the other half think her work is anywhere between distasteful and unacceptably transgressive. All of these attitudes are received, unexamined, their original rationales long forgotten and distorted. We would gain from dragging them back up into the light: a treatment that probably none of them, on either side, would survive.

  8. > that, at other times, were normal and accepted.

    however, they were still improper and offensive, even then.


  9. The crux of the issue is: whether or not O'Conner was more or less racist for her time, does her work, read now, contribute meaningfully to the dialectic around race happening today. I will leave that to more well-read readers of this blog with respect to Ms O'Conner. For my two cents and by way of example, I find it hard to watch rom-coms made in the early-mid 2000s because the gender dynamics feel appalling. I don't remember feeling that way about it contemporaneously. Outside of some historical or sociological study, what's the point of saying that those movies should be appreciated in the context in which they were made? We've moved past that as a society (for the most part). Better to spend our leisure time engrossed in less problematic works. There were plenty of abolitionists in America before it was even America. Saying that she wasn't particularly racist two centuries later is beside the point. Part of moving society forward is acknowledging past wrongs, making reparations, and uplifting narratives in a more egalitarian fashion.

  10. I find that O'Connor is an astute observer of the world around her and has a keen ear for the vernacular. I have read all of her work, including her published diaries. As an artist, I find certain war memorial sculptures as aesthetically pleasing as I do erotic photos by Robert Mappelthorp. even though I am not a racist nor homosexual. For that matter, a writer of fiction does not have to be identified as a serial killer or a man to write in the voice of one.

  11. I think she did a remarkable job, describing how ugly things would get.


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