After reading and teaching Flannery O’Connor’s stories for decades, along with having grown up myself in the South in a town not that dissimilar from O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, I developed a deep appreciation for both the creative and theological genius in O’Connor’s fiction, particularly her incisive use of irony and paradox in rural, unsophisticated settings. Her fine-tuned wit, intelligence, and what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “aboriginal strength” served her well in belying the prevalent stereotypical views toward women writers in the South during the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, what isn’t mentioned often enough by O’Connor’s readers and critics is her canny use of poetry, particularly the way she weaves pitch-perfect, colloquial language into both her characters’ speech and her pastoral descriptions. O’Connor’s poetic prose continues to stun me, especially in those moments her characters make what she called “anagogic gestures.” She called “belief” the “engine that makes perception possible. ” A significant additive to the fuel that fires her fictive engine consists of strategically placed poetry—sharp, memorable snippets of speech that comprise a high test “via negativa” that shocks her readers into a deep awareness of the paradoxical mysteries of her “Christ-haunted” stories.
I must also admit, however, that despite my enormous admiration for O’Connor’s stories, my appreciation for her as a writer and person comes with a caveat. She was a racist. For all her belief in “belief” as the “engine that makes perception possible,” and her genius for “anagogic gestures,” O’Connor seriously damaged her reputation as a literary American icon by expressing white supremacist views in her correspondence with her friend Maryat Lee. “You know,” she wrote, “I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway.” And then this unabashed, sudden confession: “I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.” By “the new kind” she mentioned James Baldwin by name as an example, commenting in another letter to Maryat Lee, “Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too.” She signed this letter with the name of one of her most racist characters, “Mrs. Turpin.” These odious comments to her friend poison my respect for O’Connor as a person, prompting me to dismiss her Christian “belief” as seriously if not fatally flawed, despite her inspired portrayals of radical Christian irony. Most curiously, the act of writing fiction in which O’Connor developed sinful “Christian” characters seemed to transport her from her own moral turpitude to a higher poetic plain of spiritual consciousness, as her oneiric conclusion to her story “Revelation” betrays. There at the lead of Mrs. Turpin’s vision of a holy procession of souls “tumbling toward Heaven” are “whole companies of white trash” and “bands of black niggers… shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” This “vision” illustrates Jesus’ koan: the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.” But O’Connor leaves this apophatic calculus as a colorful visual byte in ambiguous limbo, unresolved as to any actual change in Mrs. Turpin’s unrepentant character or “heavenly” comprehension, which she knew would only compromise the wicked appeal of Mrs. Turpin.
Like few other “religious” writers, O’Connor forces her readers to contemplate whether fictive genius, especially when it pertains to “belief” and salvation, provides enough reason to reconcile those moral antipodes that exist in a counter-intuitive tension between her prejudice and her fiction. O’Connor herself could hardly have conceived of a more ironic conceit than a fictional character as morally reprehensible as herself with regard to her racism, but who, under the cover of brilliant fictive subterfuge divined such thrilling infernal characters as the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and the Bible salesman in “Good Country People.” As a budding poet and former seminarian in search of ficitve illustrations of the turgid theology I read for three years in seminary (with the exception of Soren Kierkegaard’s and Fredrick Nietzsche’s forays into occasional fiction), I gravitated toward O’Connor’s stories for their iconoclastic daring and virtuoso vernacular, especially with regard to their depictions of the devil in rural dress. O’Connor’s muse’s “sympathy for the devil” is no more evident than in her masterpiece “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” where she, in the persona of “the grandmother,” whose family has just been murdered by the Misfit’s henchmen, turns to the Misfit just prior to her own murder and says, “You’re one of my own babies.” Which indeed he was as both a catalyst for the evil O’Connor wished to depict in her story, but also, like the Bible ‘salesman” in “Good Country People” a terrifying example of a shameless reprobate. Although a Catholic, she wrote like a Calvinist.
In the exegetical essay I’ve written below on O’Connor’s “poetic engine,” I strive to focus primarily on O’Connor’s enigmatic muse who is as much of a poet as she is a fiction writer. In so doing, I became aware of just how unwitting even the most talented writer can become to the moral coherence of her own beliefs while simultaneously creating characters, “for the sake of her stories,” who entertain by militating so beguilingly against happy endings.
THE POETIC “ENGINE” IN FLANNERY O’CONNOR’S FICITON
Flannery O’Connor charged her prose with poetry that electrified her fiction. Both her narratives and her characters’ speech betray the kind of verbal quality that W.H. Auden claimed defined poetry itself, namely, language that achieves “memorable speech.” In a short essay O’Connor wrote titled “The Reasonable Use Of The Unreasonable” to help her students understand her work, she defined the vatic force in her stories as “belief,” describing it metaphorically as “the engine that makes perception operate.” By infusing her fiction with poetic phrases and passages at strategic moments, O’Connor charges her fiction with “memorable” invectives, startling revelations, mystical visions, and oracular conclusions that shock her readers with stunning truths. Such dynamic poetic one-liners as the following typify the dialectical exchange of O’Connor’s muse who moves so boldly between belief and unbelief: “Go back to hell, you old wart hog.” (from “Revelation”), “Oh Lord, break forth and wipe the slime from this earth!” (from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”), “Ain’t no pleasure but meanness.” (from “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”),” “I been believing in nothing since the day I was born.” (from “Good Country People”), and “Christ will come like that” (from “The Displaced Person”). The “memorable speech”—the poetry—in these lines provides the extra cylinder to O’Connor’s fictive “engine,” instilling it with a power that “makes perception operate” at a highly moral and spiritual level. She also referred to the salvific paradox that underlies the mystical praxis of many of her stories as “a reasonable use of the unreasonable.”
In perhaps her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” O’Connor creates a character, the Grandmother, who O’Connor explains in “In Her Own Work” “experiences that special kind of triumph which instinctively we do not allow to someone altogether bad.” She then goes on to comment on the startlingly ironic transformation of the Grandmother’s character from a racist nag to a spiritual hero: “I often ask myself what makes a story work and what makes it hold up as a story.” She answers her own question by concluding:
that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would be an action or gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation of it.
The Grandmother’s “gesture,” in conjunction with her sudden recognition of the Misfit as “one of [her] babies” just before the Misfit shoots her three times in the chest, resonates with absurd affection. The grandmother’s sudden recognition of The Misfit as one of her “babies” converts her from a two-dimensional termagant into a three dimensional agnostic who doubts God’s miraculous powers. “Maybe God didn’t raise the dead,” she concedes to the Misfit, less out of an attempt to mollify him than to express her doubt; as if to say belief—that “engine” that drives her fiction—compromises belief. This realization makes her anagogic “gesture” all the more remarkable for its selflessness, for there is nothing in it for her. She one-ups the Misfit’s nihilism with her own doubt that is profoundly truthful. In an attempt to explain this paradox, O’Connor wrote the following explanation of the Grandmother’s abrupt sense of “kinship” with the Misfit in “On Her Own Work”:
Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship, which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. At this point she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
O’Connor comments in one of her letters that Ralph Wood quotes in his book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ Haunted South, “Grace is never received warmly. Always a recoil…”
In just one electric, poetic line, accompanied by a compassionate gesture, O’Connor reverses both the odious, shallow character of the grandmother to a shockingly saintly figure. O’Connor never wrote a more Catholic story in which the transactional concept of absolution played more of a dramatic role as the result of an anagogic gesture.
O’Connor’s observation near the end of her essay “On Her Own Work” disturbs and enlightens simultaneously in its claim that violence is “strangely capable of returning [her] characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Her poetic wit spices The Misfit’s speech with zingers that continue to echo long after the Grandmother has died: “There never was a body that gave the undertaker a tip.” “It’s no real pleasure in life.” “They never shown me my papers.” “No pleasure but meanness.” “She would have been a good woman if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.” These retorts shift O’Connor’s fictive transmission into its highest poetic gear. The paradoxical manner, however, in which O’Connor does this confounds many of her readers at first, in the same way poetry often confounds and repels readers with irony, abstraction, and figurative language. Which is why it’s easy to speculate that O’Connor felt compelled to write “On Her Own Work” in an attempt to explain the mechanics of her operative “engine.” Her explanation of the philosophy behind The Misfit’s nihilism and turpitude, along with her tacit approbation of the grandmother’s final Christian “gesture,” creates a sublimely ironic theology that translates terror into epiphany. Both the grandmother and the Misfit are anti-heroes, inspiring little if any sympathy throughout most of the story, although The Misfit’s nihilistic philosophizing mesmerizes with disturbingly alluring logic. O’Connor dares to walk a high theological wire throughout “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” aware that at some point she has to turn either the Grandmother” or “The Misfit” into a credible three dimensional character in order to make her point about “belief.” The suddenly weird, out-of-character epiphany the Grandmother experiences when “her head clears” in her outlandish identification with the “The Misfit” as “one of her babies,” along with her attempted “gesture” “to touch” him, betrays the operative power of her ficitve “engine.” O’Connor keeps both her religious and poetic balance on the high wire of her belief in the Grandmother’s “gesture” that serves as the mystical climax of the story. The manner in which the Grandmother dies, collapsing into a “cross-like” position with her knees folded beneath her, serves as a capstone image of her final Christ-like gesture to the atheistic Misfit.
Although a devout Catholic in practice, O’Connor’s religious sensibility resonates in her poetic epiphanies in more of a philosophical than conventionally religious way. Several of her characters such as the Grandmother, The Misfit, Hazel and Tarwater in Wise Blood, Hulga and the Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” Parker in “Parker’s Back” exemplify a postlapsarian Zeitgeist. O’Connor relied on lurid realism in developing her philosophically complex characters in the mid 20th century agrarian South. As Ralph Wood points out, O’Connor was enamored with the Godless views of both Nietzsche and Heidegger “who were not involved in a shouting match with the Almighty,” but more intent on “protesting the massive vacancy of the soul that largely unrecognized, characterizes modern religious life in the West.” O’Connor was also fascinated by John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination that maintained human ignorance in the salvific mysteries of God. Wood, however, goes on to point out the unresolvable problem nihilism and predestination posed for O’Connor, namely, the fact that they both eliminate the essential ingredient necessary for belief in the first place, namely, free will. Although more than a few of her characters’ prospects for salvation seem unlikely, O’Connor’s development of her Bible-like characters in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Good Country People,” along with many of her other stories, goes to the heart of her stories in which riveting, vivid accounts of both grace-filled “gestures” and horrific wickedness witness to the spiritual mechanics of Christian salvation, as well as to O’Connor’s belief in the Devil. Always careful to avoid wooden, fundamentalist scenarios, O’Connor conceives of fictive conceits that defy facile interpretations. She explains, again in “On Her Own Work”:
I don’t want to equate the Misfit with the devil. I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.
“Good Country People” is that “another story” in which O’Connor’s two main characters, a Bible salesman and his intellectual but naive customer, Hulga, both embrace “nothing” over faith and belief. These two characters’ attempt to one-up each other by confessing their belief in “nothing,” betraying both Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s influence on O’Connor, as well as her own flirtation with nihilism. But rather than conclude her story with a salvific “gesture” in the way she does at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” O’Connor chooses a via negativa strategy by creating a philosophical competition between her two prideful characters, which the Bible salesman wins in dramatic fashion by stealing Hulga’s prosthetic leg in a hayloft while making out with her and then declaring, “I haven’t believed in God since the day I was born.” Hulga becomes no more than the Bible salesman’s straw woman at this point, while the Bible salesman reveals himself as the devilish atheist he is.
O’Connor found it much easier to believe in the Devil than she did in God, for as she explains in the voice of The Misfit, “Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I committed one because they had the papers on me.” O’Connor essentially confesses in her fictional ventriloquism how much harder it is to possess faith than it is to believe in the literal evidence of the Devil’s work. She quotes Baudelaire on this matter in “On Her Own Work”: “The Devil’s greatest wile is to convince us that he does not exist.”
O’Connor succeeds with Miltonic verve and vision in writing about Satan. As her faithful muse, Satan, in the person of the Bible salesman, provides the fuel for her high octane fictive “engine” on the one hand, while depriving her of any similar inspiration for beatific narratives on the other. She is in love with the Bible salesman’s wiles and genius, as the haughty parting line testifies to in “Good Country People”: “I haven’t believed in God since the day I was born.” At the center of her quest for belief lies Dostoyevsky’s famous adage: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” The Misfit, who is also an impressive philosopher, exemplifies this atheistic syllogism in his homicidal rampages, asserting that criminals are only held accountable for their actions if the Law has “the papers on them.” O’Connor delights in both the wit and anarchy of The Misfit, relying on him for supplying her with infernal “material.” There are, on the other hand, no comparable saintly characters in her fiction who inspire her with comparable theological bite.
O’Connor kept a prayer journal during her time as a student at The Iowa Writers Workshop from 1946 to 1947, which only came out as book in 2014 under the title A Prayer Journal. As a twenty one and twenty two year old MFA student, O’Connor formulated many of her foundational ideas for her quintessentially human stories. The following passages shed fascinating light on her innate genius for wrestling with themes of grace, faith, the Devil, atheism, belief, and theodicy that would later manifest so “operatively” as allegorical stories in her first collection of short fiction titled A Good Man Is Hard To Find:
Learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven. No doubt because hell is a more earthly-seeming thing. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and myself is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.
The intellectual & artistic delights that God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with it a thirst for the attendant suffering. Looking back I have suffered, not my share, but enough to call it that but there’s a terrible balance due. Dear God please send me Your Grace.
No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.
There is nothing left to say of me.
In 1949, O’Connor learned of her diagnosis of Lupus, the same disease that killed her father in 1941. It’s only reasonable to assume that O’Connor feared the same fate as her father’s awaited her also, which prompted her in turn to write about her own mortal concerns in her stories. It’s easy to assume, therefore, that O’Connor identified intimately with the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” in such a self-effacing way. Her accurate empathy with the Grandmother in her dire circumstance inspired both her “anagogical gesture” of touching the Misfit, as well as her last words, “You’re one of her babies.” She also took obvious delight in her via negativa strategy of depicting two nihilists in “Good Country People” as archetypal examples of young misfits in the making.
In both of the above stories, O’Connor employs what Soren Kierkegaard called “teleological suspensions of the ethical” in order to append her characters in life-or-death scenarios that lead, often brutally, in harrowing, picaresque agons to ultimate beatific outcomes. It is in her taut, colorful, poetic suspensions of morality, in which violence plays key roles in either condemning or redeeming her characters, that she revs her “engine” of “belief” to profound “perceptions” of ironic epiphanies that ring with poetic economy. O’Connor’s most paradigmatic title, “The Violent Bear It Away,” which is a quote from Matthew 11, 12, serves throughout her fiction as a modus operandi for the terror that O’Connor deems necessary in her fiction for doing justice to the salvific tropes of the Christian story. They are, in this fictive sense, her own hard-won acts of faith as much as they are works of literary genius.
Wood, Ralph. (2005). Flannery O’Connor and The Christ Haunted South, William B. Erman Publishing Company.