Of all the Christian authors, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is perhaps the most misunderstood, and it’s not hard to see why. She uses southern slang to write about unorthodox characters with weird goals. She’s well known for her use of almost comic-level violence to create often ridiculous scenes. In her stories, granddaughters engage in fisticuffs with grandfathers, people are run over by rusty cars, and husbands are brutally beaten by their wives with brooms. Thus, when reading O’Connor, it can be helpful to know a few key themes to look for in her works and understand her darker style as she comments on the morality and ethics of her day.
O’Connor’s Style: “Christan Realism”
O’Connor’s view of the American south is strange, twisted, and violent, with moments of dark comedy and descriptions that are side-splittingly funny. This may not sound like Christian literature, but it is! The academic world has dubbed her a southern gothic writer, but she called herself a “Christan Realist.” This style emphasizes the realistic world, seeing it as it is, but recognizing the “real world” as incomplete. Showing the world as it is, demonstrates the need for a Savior. Her characters are simultaneously in the world and of the world as they search for salvation in all the wrong places. That is the element of the grotesque in her tales: claiming a random museum mummy as the “New Christ,” fulfilling one’s ‘true’ desires by stealing a gorilla costume, and defining freedom by a glass of milk. Most readers are confused by these weird moments and rightfully so! O’Connor was writing at a time when nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless, was becoming popular, and she launched a counterattack with her writings. Through her works, she strived to show the emptiness of nihilism and the need for God’s grace.
The real world she observed from her home in Georgia set the stage for her parables. In the midst of these haunting tales, O’Connor includes an ‘epiphany’ of grace in the most unexpected of places, including in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, when a bull rams his horn into a woman’s stomach, the end of a barrel of a gun, and in a hayloft when a stranger steals a wooden leg. Whether this gift of grace is accepted or not is dependent on the story you read. More often than not, her stories end right at the offering of grace, leaving the reader to decide what happens next.
O’Connor’s Perspective: Catholic Faith
The key to understanding these strange tales is through recognizing that the author’s perspective on the world was shaped by her Catholic faith. O’Connor held the Incarnational/Sacramental worldview, which is the belief that God uses certain materials as channels of grace, such as the holy Baptismal water or anointing oil used in Extreme Unction. Along with the belief that God created the world as something good, Catholics believe that God uses his creation as a means of communicating grace and meaning. O’Connor was an avid reader of St. Thomas Aquinas; she read fifteen minutes of the Summa Theologiae every night before bed. Studying this helped her to understand what she believed in order to articulate these mysteries in her own writing, like the concept of grace and how God weaves it into our lives. Such beautiful theology is shown by the action of grace in her stories.
While O’Connor wrote many short stories, she only wrote two novels in her lifetime: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. They are quite episodic in nature, as her creativity was better suited for the short story. Her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), follows Hazel Motes, a troubled young man who has lost his faith and wants to start The Church of Truth without Christ. It’s a strange but classic American novel, commenting on freedom, independence, and how the secular American view isn’t compatible with a Christian understanding of those concepts. On the other hand, a great O’Connor short story to read is The Enduring Chill. This is the tale of a failed writer who comes back to his hometown to recover from an ailment. If you’re more into audiobooks, Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert performed a stellar reading of this story, which can be found on Youtube. Another strong option would be Good Country People, which is the story of a bible-selling salesman who visits the house of a young budding nihilist and asks her to go on a strange date.
Go Read Her!
Whatever story you end up deciding to read, you can’t go wrong! O’Connor’s style is niche, but it is also deeply meaningful and stellar writing. With sharp, witty descriptions, strange scenes, and a traditional faith underlining each sentence; reading O’Connor can be a head-scratching experience that gets better with each reread. Her short stories are like a shot of southern whiskey; strong, distilled, face-contorting tales that reveal a deeper truth about humanity and our need for a Savior. These aren’t your warm C.S Lewis or Tolkien fantasy stories; these are another beast. This is why I would recommend picking up a Flannery O’Connor story if you’re looking for a unique Christian author.
Feature image courtesy of Angelus.