Mystery, Evil, and Distortion
"It makes a great difference to the look of a novel whether its author
believes that the world came late into being and continues to come by a creative act of
God, or whether he believes that the world and ourselves are the product of a cosmic
accident. It makes a great difference to his novel whether he believes that we are
created in God's image, or whether he believes we create God in our own. It makes a
great difference whether he believes that our wills are free, or bound like those of the
"I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere
else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an
instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has
been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that
destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal."
"Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.
And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum
amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side
of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fiction is humorless is
because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the
actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values."
-- "Novelist and Believer"
"In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has
made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the
ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. [. . .] If the novelist is in tune
with this [modern] spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic
make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor [. . .] Such a writer
may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he
may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision. On the other hand, if the writer
believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as
beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on
the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of
mystery itself. [. . .] He will be interested in possibility rather than probability.
He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and
who act on a trust beyond themselves -- whether they know very clearly what it is they act
upon or not."
-- "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction"
"The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your
freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it in that way.
There is not much possibility of understanding between the two."
"To insure our sense of mystery, we need a sense of evil
which sees the devil as a real spirit who must be made to name himself, and not simply to
name himself as vague evil, but to name himself with his specific personality for every
occasion. Literature, like virtue, does not thrive in an atmosphere where the devil
is not recognized as existing both in himself and as a dramatic necessity for the
-- "On Her Own Work"
Click here for Grotesque
- What are O'Connor's stories seeking to make us aware of? Are
their worlds different from what we typically expect?
- What is mysterious, even baffling, about the stories?
- What is distorted & broken? What is not? How can you
tell the difference?
- What do the stories symbolize?
- Is grace possible in any of the stories? Why or why not?
- Do you find any of the stories humorous? Why or why not?
"My current project is writing a talk I am to give to
the Macon Parish Catholic Women's Council on the dizzying subject--'What Is a Wholesome
Novel?' I intend to tell them that the reason they find nothing but obscenity in
modern fiction is because that is all they know how to recognize"
-- Letter to John Lynch, 2 Sept 56
"A Good Man is Hard
"It's interesting to me that your students naturally
work their way to the idea that the Grandmother in 'A Good Man' is not pure evil and may
be a medium for Grace. [. . .] These old ladies exactly reflect the banalities of the
society and the effect is of the comical rather than the seriously evil. [. . .] Grace to
the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human,
and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter,
requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul. The
Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as
her child, as she has been touched by the Grace that comes through him in his particular
suffering. His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness, but after he has
done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his
judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of
--Letter to John Hawkes, 14 Apr 60
- What is O'Connor suggesting by presenting the grandmother and
children as such narrow people?
- What is the grandmother's view of "blood"? Why does
she recognize The Misfit as "one of my own children"?
- What is The Misfit's view of his past and of Jesus?
"The Life You Save
May Be Your Own"
"Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I'm a
hillibilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression over the television
that I'm a hillbilly Thomist. [. . .] When I come back I'll probably have to spend three
months day and night in the chicken pen to counteract these evil influences."
--Letter to Robie Macauley, 18 May 55 on "the Life You Save" being made
into a television drama.
- Characterize Mr. Shiftlet, the old woman, and Lucynell.
- How does the theme of deception play itself out in the story?
- What is the significance of the title?
- Why does O'Connor end with Mr. Shiftlet's interactions with the boy?
Do Shiftlet's comments contain any truth in them?
"A Temple of the Holy Ghost"
"Purity strikes me as the most mysterious of the virtues
and the more I think about it the less I know about it. 'A Temple of the Holy Ghost'
all revolves around what is purity. [. . .] I never have anything balanced in my mind when
I set out; if I did I'd resign this profession from boredom and operate a hatchery."
-- Letter to "A," 25 Nov 55
- Contrast Susan and Joanne's attitude towards life and their bodies
with that of the child's.
- What is the impact on the child knowing that she is "a Temple of
the Holy Ghost"?
- How does the girl understand martyrdom and sainthood?
- What is the significance of the hermaphrodite's claim that "God
made me thisaway"?
- Why does the story end with the child reflecting on both the
hermaphrodite and the host?
"Good Country People"
"That my stories scream to you that I have never
consented to be in love with anybody is merely to prove that they are screaming an
historical inaccuracy. I have God help me consented to this frequently. Now
that Hulga is repugnant to you only makes her more believable. [. . .] A maimed soul is a
Letter to "A," 24 Aug 56
- Characterize the following: Mrs. Hopewell, Mrs. Freeman,
Joy-Hulga, Manley Pointer.
- How does Joy-Hulga's atheism/philosophy form her worldview? How
does it contrast with Manley's?
- What is the significance of her losing the leg to Manley?
"The problem was to have the Holy Ghost
descend by degrees throughout the story but unrecognized, but at the end recognized,
coming down, with ice instead of fire. I see no reason to limit the Holy Ghost to
fire. He's full of surprises."
-- Letter to Maryat Lee, 25 Aug 58
- Characterize Asbury. What is his view of his mother and sister?
What is his view of himself?
- Why does he destroy everything he has written except his long letter
to his mother?
- Compare Asbury's expectation (and dream) of the Jesuit with Father
- Characterize Asbury's relationship with Randall and Morgan.
- What is the meaning of the final scene? (c/c 377 with 381-82)
Everything That Rises Must
"What I hate most is its
[a story by Eudora Welty] in the New Yorker and all the stupid Yankee liberals
smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland. The topical
is poison. I got away with it in 'Everything That Rises' but only because I say a
plague on everybody's house as far as the race business goes.[. . .A reporter asked ] if I
thought the race crisis was going to bring about a renascence (that wasn't the
word she used but was what she meant) in Southern literature. I said I certainly did not,
that I thought that was to romanticize the race business to a ridiculous degree."
--Letter to "A," 1 Sept 63
- Compare and contrast Julian with Asbury from "Enduring
- What distinguishes Julian's view of the world from his mother's?
How does he respond to her racism?
- Does Julian understand African-Americans? Why or why not?
- How and why does Julian react the way he does to his mother's stroke?
- What is the significance of the last sentence?
"I am not going to leave it out [the
vision]. I am going to deepen it so that there'll be no mistaking Ruby is not just
an evil Glad Annie."
--Letter to "A," 25 Dec 63
- Characterize Mrs. Turpin.
- Explain her view of class structures and why they don't easily work
for her (491).
- Why does Mary Grace attack Turpin?
- What message does Turpin receive from God through Mary Grace?
- Describe the nature of her prayer to God in the hog pen (506-07).
- Why does she judge the old sow "as through the very heart of
- Describe her vision of heaven? What is its message?
"Sarah Ruth was the heretic--the notion
that you can worship in pure spirit"
--Letter to "A," 25 July 64
- Compare and contrast Parker with Sarah Ruth.
- Why is he so attracted to her?
- What is the effect of the tattoo of Christ Pantocrator
on Parker? (526=27)
[Click here for two other Pantocrator images: 1 2]
- How does Sarah respond to the tattoo? (529)
- Why does the story end the way it does?
Final Question: Is O'Connor's
worldview clearly present in her fiction? Why or why not?
The doctrine of sin and evil are most often present
in O'Connor's fiction. The grotesque is there to awaken us to the state of
fallenness in the world.
Grace is most often present in a negative manner--at
the point of awareness of our fallen state. The grotesque, often in a brutal manner,
breaks in on our spiritual blindness. In some stories, grace has a more forgiving, comic
place, e.g. "Revelation" and 'Enduring Chill."
While O'Connor affirms the Christian doctrine of the
victory of the sanctified life over sin, at times she almost indulges in a semi-Manichean
dualism. Evil seems too strong in some stories.
O'Connor should not be judged as a racist, but
neither does she focus on political and social solutions to the South's deepest injustice.
Instead, she tends to focus on the human dilemma of race relations and the personal
problems of racism in the South.
Her fiction does require a certain kind of reader,
one who has awareness and openness to her message.
O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners.
London: Faber and Faber, 1972.
-----. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery
O'Connor. Sally Fitzgerald. Ed. NY: Vintage, 1980.
Yates, Wilson. "An Introduction to the Grotesque: Theoretical and
Theological Considerations." The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological
Reflections. James Luther Adams and Wilson Yates. Ed. Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans, 1997.