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FLANNERY O'CONNOR/ How the Iconic Southern Author Revealed the Divine Within the Profane

Critics and contemporaries wrote off Flannery O'Connor, yet her writing survives among the jewels of Western literature. Why? Her unadorned portrayal of reality reveals meaning and the Divine presence in the midst of modern and post-modern malaise.

The life and work of Flannery O'Connor will be featured at the annual Rimini Meeting 22-28 Aug 2010The life and work of Flannery O'Connor will be featured at the annual Rimini Meeting 22-28 Aug 2010

More than one modern critic—as well as many of her contemporaries—has written off Flannery O’Connor as a raconteur of freaks, a chronicler of circus sideshows and Southern kitsch. That, however, cannot explain that fact that, unlike so many of her contemporaries, that group of modernists who wrote fiction in America and even more, in the American South during the post-War period, her work is still vitally in print, read among students and literati alike as exemplary of the short story form.

When one thinks of O’Connor, her name is classed among the names of great 20th century American fiction: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty. Robert Fitzgerald, the noted translator (O’Connor’s personal friend), in his introduction to her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, quoted Thomas Merton, who placed her on the level of Sophocles because of her ability to write about man in the face of his destiny—although, unlike Sophocles, her works were not tragic but comic—a form Fitzgerald claims became the quintessential Christian form beginning with Dante.

For what reasons did Merton and Fitzgerald categorize her this way?

For the simple fact that, in pursuing the art of fiction—and mostly short fiction (she once described writing a novel, as opposed to a story, as a harrowing process in which one loses one’s teeth and one’s hair falls out), her concern was the anagogical—that is, she sought to not only render “the highest possible justice to the visible universe” (Joseph Conrad’s words) by writing fiction that made one feel and touched the texture of reality as she felt and apprehended it, but to also allow that reality, in the truthfulness with which she conveyed it, to witness how there is a God and He is alive and well, and as active in modern life as He was in Ancient Israel.

Her stories, therefore, are not concerned with the dramatization of modern and post-modern malaise, but rather with how, in that very malaise, God has not abandoned man and left him behind to fester in the detritus of modern history but instead offers him the grace of His friendship.

Let’s consider a few examples of this. First, in one of her most famous stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we discover the infamous Grandmother, a manipulative old woman who manages to get her son, on a car trip with her, his wife and their two children, to take a detour that ends up in a homicidal encounter with the Misfit, a criminal. At the end of the story, as the Misfit is about to make her pay for recognizing him, she reaches out to touch him and realizes that this man whom she has probably all along been categorizing as despicable, could be her son—something that forces him to see that no matter what he’s done, Jesus is still holding out mercy towards him. And it is in this moment of highest dramatic intensity where we recognize that it is not the Grandmother’s own goodness or rectitude in life that makes her see Christ as she’s dying, but her surrendering herself to this charity and mercy towards her own killer—something that happens as a grace given to her when she is faced with the barrel of his gun.

Where some are bent upon reading this story as a morbid exercise in dark humor, O’Connor insisted that for many of us, life is like that: we do not recognize, nor do we accept, the graces Christ offers us, unless we are faced with dire consequences—and in fact, it is precisely His grace in a circumstance that can take something horrific and lighten it toward the comical, toward the ironic.