Flannery O’Connor’s Missed Opportunity

PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly dedicated a healthy portion of its latest episode to Flannery O’Connor, interviewing biographer Brad Gooch, religious scholar Ralph Wood, and others about her Catholicism and how it manifested itself in her work. Or, to be more precise, whether it did. To its credit, the show invited Religion News Service’s David E. Anderson to question how much worth O’Connor’s work has five decades since it was first published. “It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince,” Anderson writes.

True enough, I wasn’t shocked by Wise Blood when I read it this year, but O’Connor would have written a different, more lurid novel if she simply intended to shock; and if Hazel Motes isn’t convincing as a realistic character, he succeeds as an outlet for O’Connor’s concerns about faith, outsiderness, and our expectations of preachers. Grotesques, practically by definition, aren’t meant to convince in any realistic sense. But Anderson is on sturdier ground when it comes to O’Connor going AWOL during the civil rights movement, and he closes his piece on a harshly (but not undeservedly) critical note:

“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.

One thought on “Flannery O’Connor’s Missed Opportunity

  1. “Grace may somehow be operating in the final gestures between the grandmother and The Misfit when she reaches out to touch him but he recoils as if bitten by a snake—a biblical symbol that is the antithesis of grace.”

    That is not actually the moment of grace in the story, at least not just the physical gesture itself, as O’Connor herself wrote in “On Her Own Work,” anthologized in “Mystery and Manners.” (I just taught this story and essay to my students, so it’s very fresh in my mind.)

    Here’s what O’Connor wrote about that moment: “There is a point in this story where such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. 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. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.”

    What she says, right before reaching out to him, is “Why you’re one of my own babies. You’re one of my own children.”

    THAT is where the grace comes in. (Amusingly — or depressingly — it is also the line that has caused some of my more literal-minded undergrads to question the plausibility of the tale — the Grandmother gave a baby up for adoption and the kid grows up to be the guy who kills her? COME ON!)

    By recognizing the Misfit as “one of her own,” one of the family of man IN SPITE of his sins, the Grandmother achieves grace. Via three bullet holes in the heart, the symbolism of which should not be lost on Catholics. Even we of the fallen-away variety.

    As for her failure to address integration, one wonders why Anderson fails to bring up “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” And while I certainly am not an apologist for some of the racially charged language that O’Connor indulged in for her private correspondence (where the claims of staying true to her characters’ parlance hold no water), I think it’s a stretch to say it’s “nowhere evident in her work.”

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