The fiction of Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) is saturated with scripture. Virtually every short story and novel is permeated with biblical allusions. Some of her characters have scriptural names: Enoch, Sarah Ruth, Obadiah Elihue, even Onnie Jay Holy—pig Latin for Holy John! It would be tedious to cite these many scriptural echoes and references. Suffice it to say that they are never arbitrary or decorative, as if O’Connor sought to elevate the religious significance of her work by trading on scriptural motifs. On the contrary, the biblical connections are always intrinsic; they are embodied in the plot and character, the setting and style, of her stories. Scriptural truth lies within the dramatic action of the narrative accounts, not in religious abstractions that might be filtered from them. Instead, a permanent burden of mystery remains.
Such perduring mystery has made for huge variety in O’Connor interpretation concerning the religious (and therefore the biblical) character of her fiction. This diversity of readings has not been stultified by her claim that her vision is not generally Christian but specifically Roman Catholic, indeed dogmatic. “My stories are watered and fed by dogma,” she declared. Feminist critics have argued that, by making such authorial pronouncements, O’Connor sought to control the reception of her work from beyond the grave. They maintain that O’Connor adopted a male narrative persona of objective distance so as not to be tagged as a woman writer given to subjective emotional empathy for her characters. Sarah Gordon (2000) takes this stance, arguing that O’Connor thus trimmed her work to suit not only the male-dominated literary world of the New Critics but also the patriarchalism of her own Catholic faith.
Critics such as John Hawkes (1962) have found a subtext of radical subversion at work in O’Connor, so that her real (though unacknowledged) sympathies lie with her nihilistic characters. As Blake said of Milton, so does Hawkes say of her, in effect: she was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Frederick Asals (1982) and Jon Lance Bacon (1993) represent a third group of critics who read O’Connor in largely humanistic terms, arguing that her stories should be read as explorations of the human drama, and thus that her biblical references are not her governing tropes so much as the products of her Southern religious milieu and her 1950s social setting.
A few critics have interpreted O’Connor as a racist writer, not only because her characters (though never her narrators) freely use the forbidden “n” word, but also because she did not employ her art in support of the civil rights movement that was the clamorous moral issue of her time and place. The African American writer Alice Walker has silenced much of this criticism by declaring, in effect, that “Flannery O’Connor is not about race but about grace” (1983, p. 77). Such critical concentration on God’s incomparable Gift to humankind as it is fictionally embodied in Flannery O’Connor’s work is the approach taken by the great preponderance of her interpreters, and so they outnumber all others in the bibliography at the end of this article.
To arrive at that point, three matters demand attention:
- (1) O’Connor’s high estimate of scripture and thus her indebtedness to biblical narrative,
- (2) her fiction as shaped by deep gratitude for her Bible-drenched region;
- (3) her shocking vision of reality, both divine and demonic, as so scandalous precisely because it is so scriptural.
High Estimate of Scripture.
Flannery O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic who immersed herself in scripture. Though of course she honored the doctrines and precepts it announces, the psalms it sings and the petitions it prays, she was principally drawn to its storied character. Its controlling narrative, the overarching trajectory of its plot, is for her the world’s definitive Story, a five-act drama:
- (a) the creation of the universe;
- (b) the calamity that it fell into;
- (c) the formation of Israel as God’s elect people for healing the ruined world;
- (d) the Incarnation as the center of the entire cosmic drama of redemption, together with the establishment of the church as God’s prophetic and sacramental community; and
- (e) the consummation of all things in Christ’s final return in both rending judgment and paradisal glory.
Far from being any sort of fundamentalist, O’Connor hailed the fourfold method of scriptural interpretation propounded in the Middle Ages. To discern the literal/historical, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical levels of significance in biblical texts is to construe the significance of the entire universe, from the largest to the smallest of all things. Thus does old Mason Tarwater give his great-nephew Francis Marion Tarwater an education that is far superior, in his estimate, than the most advanced secular learning. He taught the boy “Figures, Reading, Writing and History beginning with Adam expelled from the Garden and going on down through the presidents to Herbert Hoover and on in speculation toward the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment” (O’Connor, 1988, p. 331). “The companions of his spirit [were] Abel and Enoch and Noah and Job, Abraham and Moses, King David and Solomon, and all the prophets, from Elijah who escaped death, to John whose severed head struck terror from a dish” (pp. 339–340).
Flannery O’Connor’s stories are biblical in style no less than substance. The pistol-shot directness of her prose is often likened to the narrative candor of the Old Testament. Her straightforward declarative sentences are akin to the Hebrew elevation of parataxis over hypotaxis. The first three verses of Genesis use the word “and” no fewer than eleven times. So do O’Connor’s own sentences set verbs and independent clauses one after another so as to dwell side by side (para), with only rare recourse to subordinate stipulations and qualifiers that fall beneath (hypo) the declarative line. Whereas hypotaxis subordinates one clause to another, so as to indicate the most important parts of the sentence or paragraph, parataxis gives virtually equal weight to every sentence or every verb within a sentence. The result is that “and” becomes one of the key words in many O’Connor sentences.
By means of such spare and uncompromising parataxis, O’Connor forces her readers to reach conclusions on their own, even at the risk of total miscomprehension. Yet, for her, this is the essence of biblical faithfulness—to show rather than to tell, not to lead her readers by the nose, not to explain things, not to convey a “message.” There is no such separation of matter and form, as if her stories could be reduced to a neat formula, and thus set apart from their imaginative embodiment. The images and the action of O’Connor’s fiction linger in the reader’s imagination because of what they suggest rather than what they state.
So it is with scripture. Because it has God as its author—not in any literal sense, of course, but because it is the church’s canonical text—O’Connor honored its unique power to read its own readers. As such, the Bible must be grappled and wrestled with, rather than memorized for pious comfort or used as ammunition against others. Neither is it to be analyzed as if it were a text like any other, and thus revered merely for its cultural impact, whether ancient or modern. A right encounter with biblical stories, as with O’Connor’s fiction, serves to define and shape those who read it, even when they put their own mistaken constructions on it. We have engaged scripture aright, O’Connor says, only when, “like Jacob, we are marked” (1970, p. 180).
Flannery O’Connor admired the folk Protestants of her own region, the American South, because they were thus “read” and “marked.” She was drawn to backwoods prophets and shouting street preachers because they spoke the language of the Bible, however much they may have distorted its meaning. The impoverished and often despised believers of her region possessed no social standing or economic power; indeed polite society had passed them by. And so they took up serpents and drank deadly things (Mark 16:18) as evidence of God’s power and presence in their midst. She makes them the focus of her fiction not in ridicule but sympathy.
They enabled her as a Catholic to write non-Catholic fiction. Except in their rejection of the church and its sacraments as the Body of Christ, she admired the truculent biblicism of these coarse Southern believers who had felt “the hand of God and its descent.” “We have trembled with Abraham,” O’Connor declared of her region and its believers, “as he held the knife over Isaac” (1970, pp. 202, 203). Such radical folk Christianity prompted one of O’Connor’s most celebrated declarations: “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted” (p. 44).
She did not intend to say that all Southern Bible-quoters are admirable: being haunted by Christ is far from being centered on him. Manley Pointer, the cunning Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” cites scripture to disguise his nihilist designs on the protagonist, Hulga Hopewell. Sarah Ruth Parker in “Parker’s Back” mangles John 4:24 and Exodus 33:30 to justify her gnostic scorn for everything earthly and incarnate, including the gathered church no less than marital lovemaking. She regards all images of her discarnate God as idols. Finally, she is blinded even to her Lord’s own visage when her husband has the Byzantine Pantocrator tattooed on his back—“It ain’t anybody I know.” In “The Displaced Person,” Mrs. Shortley fears that a refugee family from Poland will displace her and her shirking husband as the prime tenants on a Georgia farm. She thus “prophesies” against this foreign menace because they don’t “fit in,” because they are “left over.” Her home-brewed “prophecy” leads finally to Mr. Guizac’s death. Though meant to save, the Bible can be made to kill, slaying those who remain scandalously “other.”
The sympathetic characters in O’Connor’s work, by contrast, are redemptively shaped by scripture. It gives them a unique way of envisioning the world. Vision, for O’Connor, was not a synonym for sight; it did not mean that ultimate truth is “simply coextensive with the visible.” Hence her desire to render “justice to the visible universe,” as she said, “because it [suggests] an invisible one” (O’Connor, 1970, p. 80). This high artistic calling required her to find, in a single image or metaphor, a connection between two loci: “one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed … firmly, just as real … as the one that everybody sees” (p. 42). This subtle and difficult joining of the immediate with the ultimate, the visible with the invisible, was her true métier: “In the [Christian] novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances” (p. 44).
O’Connor found a splendid coalescence between her high modern aesthetic of showing rather than telling, on the one hand, and her biblical vision of reality, on the other. Far from making her a Christian triumphalist, her prophetic vision took her ever more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of God. She quoted St. Gregory of Nyssa on the matter: “every time the sacred text describes a fact, it reveals a mystery. … Faith is a ‘walking in darkness’ and not a theological solution to mystery” (O’Connor, 1970, p. 184). O’Connor thus refused to turn her fiction into a means of indoctrination or evangelism or apologetics. Fiction has no Instant Answers, O’Connor reminded all Christian propagandists. “It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery” (p. 184).
Shocking Vision of Reality.
Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is especially mysterious in its violence. As a Christian writer, and thus as one devoted to the gospel of peace, this seems to be not so much a paradox as a flat contradiction. Why does she offer seemingly brutal portrayals of her characters as they, in turn, perform unquestionably savage acts of violence? The answer is partially found in the link between violence and freakishness in O’Connor’s work. When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is rife with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Southerners “are still able to recognize one.” What she meant is that the folk Christians of the American South have measured themselves and the world by the biblical plumb line (cf. Amos 7:8) that exposes both bizarre and subtle deviations from the true Vertical.
O’Connor joined her backwoods believers in rejecting the secular premise that the gospel is but one option among many others—all of them at least its equal and perhaps its superior—and that indeed life can be well lived without transcendent faith of any kind at all. In her fiction, therefore, the real freaks are the thinkers and writers, the psychologists and social workers, who believe that human beings flourish whenever they become well-functioning citizens whose basic physical and social needs can be both quantified and satisfied. These smug secularists are the ones who are literally eccentric (off-center) in seeking violently to suppress their fundamental desire for God.
The shockingly violent and grotesque characters whom she treats sympathetically, by contrast, are not aberrations in the true sense: They have hold of the Real. In “Greenleaf,” for example, Mrs. Greenleaf saves news clippings about human misery, buries them in the ground, and then prostrates herself over them in the dirt, beseeching God’s mercy upon the wretched of the earth. Mrs. Greenleaf’s faith is fierce and uncouth, and yet it is authentic because it grapples with divine no less than human realities. Knowing well that most of her readers, whether Christian or secular, would regard such characters as fanatics and fools, O’Connor explained her reason for making them so outrageous: “You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the deaf you must shout. And to the almost blind you must draw large and startling figures” (O’Connor, 1970, p. 34).
The question of violence and force in O’Connor’s work becomes acute in the very title of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. As if to suggest that compulsion is a biblical reality no less than a literary trope, O’Connor takes her point of departure from the Douay-Rheims version of Matthew 11:12: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” Its climactic scene is a baptism-drowning committed by the recalcitrant hero. In this novel, as in almost all of her stories, her protagonists are in many ways reprehensible figures. Yet their outward violence is not the whole or even the center of their identity. Their assault on the gates of Paradise is characterized chiefly by their ferocity against themselves. “Have you ever been torn by the Lord’s eye?” asks Mason Tarwater, the kidnapper and attempted murderer, who is still a thoroughgoing prophet and man of God.
O’Connor’s fierce believers who refuse to live for anything less than uncompromising faith in the God of the Bible are often made to encounter the chief enemy of such belief: Satan. “To insure our sense of mystery,” she declared, “we need a sense of evil which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every occasion. … My subject in fiction,” she added, “is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil” (O’Connor, 1970, pp. 117–118). Lest modern sensibilities recoil from such claims, we need only to recall Jesus’s tart response to his opponents: “Ye are of your father the devil. … He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him … for he is a liar” (John 8:44–45).
As the chief Deceiver, he perfectly fits Baudelaire’s memorable aphorism (often cited by O’Connor) that Satan’s greatest wile is to convince us he does not exist. Like Dostoyevsky, O’Connor even has Satan deny his own existence, especially in The Violent Bear It Away, amid a series of hilarious scenes that gradually turn macabre and even murderous. Not until the devil is finally driven out, by means of a holy violence, can the Kingdom be borne away in final victory. Yet this triumph comes not by human effort alone. Her heroes are all undeserving beneficiaries of the Mercy that burns away evil so that it can heal with grace. Despite many attempts to domesticate it, therefore, Flannery O’Connor’s fiction endures because it is altogether as scandalous as the Bible itself.
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Ralph C. Wood