Is Flannery O’Connor a Catholic writer?

Written on April 28, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature

Far from being senseless, the violence in Flannery O'Connor's work is bound up in the author's religious beliefs

(As published in the Guardian Books Blog)

Flannery O'Connor: 'I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic'. Photograph: AP

The ever-quotable George Orwell wrote in the 1930s that the English novel was practically "a Protestant art form", and that Catholic novels were either bad, or written by "bad Catholics". Shortly afterwards, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene reshaped English literature with the evident Catholic inflections of works such as Brideshead Revisited and The Power and the Glory, reflecting that novel-writing had, to some extent, "gone over to Rome". But what of American Catholic writers? As American authors who dealt with overtly religious themes tended to come from the Southern states, Catholicism in American literature often took a back seat to evangelism and Baptist brimstone.

But a new biographyof Flannery O'Connorby Brad Gooch points to the central role of Catholicism in O'Connor's stories. She wrote two novels and 32 short stories, before her death at the age of 39 in 1964 from lupus, and although they broached themes such as the Holocaust (in her short story The Displaced Person), they overwhelmingly featured Southern characters, focusing on religious hypocrisy, racial tension and the decay of the South. Frequently described as utterly compelling but senselessly grotesque by her contemporaries, they were often read to be full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The fact O'Connor spent almost all of her short life around Milledgeville in Georgia – bar a few years at the famous Iowa Writer's Workshopand Yaddo http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaddo – combined with the unflinching rendering of flawed rural characters in her writing, has meant that O'Connor is often set alongside Faulkner and Carson McCullersas a primarily 'Southern' writer.

It's hardly bad literary company, but defining her work as a kind of "Southern sunlight Gothic" ignores an element that defined O'Connor as much as her regional identity, or the theme of illness which her poor health seemed to suffuse into her work, full as it is of sick, maimed and mysteriously broken individuals. In O'Connor's letters, collected in The Habit of Being, she states bluntly: "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic".

Far from being meaningless, the violence frequently present in O'Connor's work – a character dies seemingly senselessly in almost all of her short stories – was bound up for the writer with the idea that violence was a way of preparing characters for their moment of "grace", that close proximity to the point of death when the essence of a character is revealed.

O'Connor was influenced by Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who she began reading in the late 1950s. O'Connor took Chardin's belief that there was an ever-elusive Omega point, whereby all things converged in God, and would place a character in each of her stories in a moment where they 'converged' with a force that remained mysterious to them, but which left them with something approaching insight. Perhaps the fact that this moment often combined with extreme violence or death in her stories was a device to ensure her readers were paying close attention to this mystery.

None of which, of course, means that her astonishing depictions of distorted people need to be approached from a religious point of view. The wisdom of O'Connor's writing is that the sound and fury, the decay and desolation of her characters make an overflowingly full story, even when they signify nothing beyond themselves. But she also provides access points to make meaning out their mystery.


Proctor S. Burress October 14, 2016 - 12:56 am

Hysteria & Mystery

“Far from being senseless, the violence in Flannery O’Connor’s work is bound up in the author’s religious beliefs”

The other point of view is this:

It is possibly the symptom of our age that virtually no effort is made to explain this nearly hysterical attempt to find profound religious meaning in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction.

It is in this fiction… while maintaining an orthodox religious façade… that Ms O’Connor attempts to exorcise the illness-demons that undeservedly plague her from age 25 to her death at age 39.This is the mystery to most.

Her personality is split between being a good daughter of the Church, never far from confession and her priest, and fighting an illness so cruel as to devour her from within, a person leading a blameless life with only a few antagonistic moments in all these years with her strange and distant mother.

Her deep seated anger and rejection of her illness-as-punishment is almost resolved in projecting her pain on the very characters she created for her stories.Few horror authors in all of history have created and breathed such awful pain and sadness into their creatures. “Good Man…” is arguably an example.

Her private prayerful pleading reveal her humility and will-to-believe even though her writing genius is devoted to making her created children pay for all of her suffering.

This is not the material for spiritual devotions. This is not a path of religious illumination. It is a shame and profoundly sad that so many see Flannery as a sort of modern Tomas a Kempis and spiritual master when what they need is some basic training in human psychology and guidance from such masters or psychiatrists.

Cookies or treats at Michelmas these stories are not!

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