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 biography of Flannery O'Connor by 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 Workshop and 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 McCullers as 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.