Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor

Shocking, grotesque, violent, and dark! Readers often use these adjectives after reading Flannery O’Connor’s stories. In her day, the horrified reactions from country folks in the small town of Milledgeville where she lived were fairly predictable. Even her own mother flinched from the gruesomeness of her fiction—and an aunt took to bed for a week after reading O’Connor’s first novel.

I wrote a biography of O’Connor called “The Abbess of Andalusia,” which explored the intriguing twists and turns in her Catholic journey. After reading my book, many people told me they were eager to understand how in the world her stories could be seen as Catholic. They were puzzled by her own admission, “I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic.”

O’Connor died at age 39 on August 3, 1964, from the effects of lupus, a disease that began stalking her in her twenties. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death, I hope my remarks might help folks eager to explore her fiction for the first time.

First and foremost, don’t get disheartened if you find yourself recoiling from the tales. You’re not alone! After all, the plots feature drunkards, prostitutes, cold-blooded killers—and shocking moments such as self-mutilation, drowning, and suicide. People are shot, gored by bulls, and run over by tractors. A man blinds himself and a little boy hangs himself. Often, upsetting and violent events happen at the very end of the story, which means there is no neat and sunny resolution. People definitely do not live happily ever after.

Still, I would say her characters are unforgettable: a Bible salesman who runs off with a woman’s wooden leg; a stranger who marries a retarded girl and abandons her at a truck stop; an entire family massacred at the roadside by an escaped convict. And yet, despite the gruesome events, the stories are peppered with moments of hilarity that capture the rural tones and down-home ways of the Deep South.

O’Connor didn’t write, however, simply to shock and provoke people or give them an occasional chuckle. Taken at face value, the stories are dark indeed, but a closer look reveals the characters are grappling with pride, greed, lust, and a host of other sins. As she put it, she was writing about the real world, and she wanted to show the action of grace in “territory largely inhabited by the Devil.” Many of her characters have made their own quiet pacts with the Devil. Some are later wrenched out of their arrogance, greed or lust by an awakening, a moment of light, an infusion of grace.

But this moment of grace doesn’t come with a glorious rainbow and a chorus of glowing angels. Indeed, in O’Connor’s tales grace may be offered in a thoroughly shocking way, as in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” There, the grandmother’s conversion of heart—her moment of grace—occurs moments before she suffers a gruesome death at the hands of an escaped convict. Unfortunately, this unique approach to grace has bewildered many readers who may not understand that God’s intervention in our lives is not always pretty.

God may offer us grace, a chance to change, but not everyone takes that opportunity. Some characters in O’Connor’s stories cling stubbornly to the diabolical path they have chosen, while others are open to important messages that change them forever. But the messengers may be shocking indeed! For example, in “Revelation,” a farmer’s wife gets a crucial insight when an angry college girl hurls a textbook at her and calls her a “warthog from hell.”

When an old lady wrote to O’Connor, complaining that the stories didn’t lift up her heart, O’Connor wrote back in her inimitable fashion and suggested the lady’s heart was in the wrong place. The old lady, it seems, wanted bright little trite sayings, rather than a glimpse into O’Connor’s fictional universe, which could be dark and frightening but certainly in keeping with the real world in which terrible things happen every day.

O’Connor refused to dish out platitudes. She didn’t want to be “touched by an angel.” She steadfastly refused to turn a blind eye to reality. She knew many readers longed to be lulled into a false sense of security, and she wrote her stories to shake them out of complacency. She did this with abrupt and violent events, grotesque characters, and diabolical plot twists.

In her day the virus called nihilism had begun permeating the world. Today the illness has worsened. As she put it, an author had to shout for the hard of hearing to get the message, and she was not hesitant to shout. The echoes from her wonderful stories are still reverberating down the lines and making shock waves today.

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