Mystery and Dichotomy

Christianity According to Flannery O’Connor

by Donna Sanders

Cover art: “Park Bench Orange” by Elisabeth McLaughlin

An Unpopular Pursuit

In a 1955 letter to one of her closest and most beloved correspondents, the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor streamlined into a handful of words the religious philosophy that she spent decades developing and extrapolating. “The truth,” she writes, “does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason,” such that we are always straining to unite the two in some remotely palatable synthesis (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 100). We should not be surprised by the skeptical, atheistic valence of this claim, for it is in essence Augustinian. The themes of repulsion, division, and emotional crisis that feature throughout O’Connor’s texts engage with a rich, centuries-old history of Christian philosophy. Like some of her foremost theologian-heroes, she made an object of awakening dull modern man to the many impenetrable mysteries and hair-raising dichotomies of true faith. As we will see below, the author known for her contributions to gothic romance rather celebrated than shied hypocritically away from ‘holy’ contradiction. 

Of course, contradiction has always and forever existed at the heart of Christian theology. For millennia it has functioned as the ragged spur to belief, to communal debate, and, in less happy circumstances, to psychic and philosophical crises. Perhaps more than any other major religion, Christianity sits aloft a complex scaffolding of paradoxes; hardly any bit of dogma is so inviolable that it cannot be disputed or alternately interpreted. Nor is it simply a matter of rival factions — like Arians and the followers of Athanasius at Nicaea — engaging in a pas d’armes over correct worship. The ontological frameworks that we encounter in scripture and in the writings of the earliest church fathers are frankly rife with double-endedness. They demonstrate an understanding of the mortal form as riven in two, dominated by warring reason and passion. 

Still, it is infinitely simpler to parse out human existence than to turn bold and helplessly myopic eyes on the divine creator. However stormy or self-contradictory, life in the flesh is at least familiar to us — we can reasonably claim knowledge of Adam’s torments and trace the mark of Cain on our own foreheads. God, on the other hand, is another story. He is the undiscovered country, simultaneously our punisher and our helpmate, the fiery judge of the Old Testament and the merciful lamb who ransomed mankind on the cross. An inability to reconcile these two divine ‘identities’ has plagued not a few of history’s most trenchant scholars, compelling them to take refuge in such limp traditions as theodicy and the amor fati. Indeed, the desire to iron out pesky wrinkles in Christianity’s underlying fabric has energized religious authors by the legion. They are few in number who occupy the contrarian camp and seek, perversely, we might say, to preserve human understanding in a state of chaos. These authors and rhetoricians are communicants to a mysterious, defiant brand of Christian faith that values rich unreason over trite logic; they are also Flannery O’Connor’s closest ideological relatives. 

O’Connor and the Contradiction of Faith

If any mortal man or woman of the past 100 years has ever communed with mystery, surely it was Flannery O’Connor, the fiercely erudite and highly celebrated author of mid-century American fiction. Aside from possessing tremendous belletristic skills, O’Connor was also a long-striving and long-suffering Catholic whose life was positively riddled with absurd dualities. Over the course of her foreshortened career, the author penned 31 deeply pious short stories that were deemed devilish and printed with tawdry paperback covers; she observed the High Church rite among floods of Southern Protestants in an age when religious affiliation of any kind was increasingly on the downturn. Her literary acclaim led to a great many speaking gigs, though she did not like to talk about herself and denied having any special knowledge of the author’s craft. She often expressed deep sympathy for the plights and trials of others but showed no such compassion for the gross, ironic characters that feature in her stories. She believed prodigiously in the love and mercy of an all-powerful God, even as a decalcifying hip obliged her to walk on crutches, and incurable, systemic lupus cut her young life woefully short. 

We must be careful not to assume overly much about O’Connor’s potential psychological state. Though a variety of medical issues, including systemic lupus and rheumatism, significantly impacted her life, she often expressed confidence in her treatment programs and, on several notable occasions, confided to friends her belief in the poetic justice of an author who is forced, by reasons of immobility, to spend hour after hour at the typewriter. Generally, O’Connor did not make a habit of publicly railing against her solemn and unfortunate lot; but, nevertheless, there is a particular affinity for burning, provocative injustice that features throughout her prose. To read the fiction — and particularly the short fiction — of Flannery O’Connor is to experience an emotional cascade of anger, confusion, indignation, and at last, powerful ambivalence. Her stories routinely depict grotesque heroes, criminals with missing or maimed limbs, perverts and religious hypocrites, playing liberally with paradox in order to destabilize the reader’s sense of justice. They present dualisms of every kind and quality, most of which operate in biblical gray areas. O’Connor might have been a learned and devoted Catholic, but she took no pains to disguise the more fraught points of her faith.

Take, for instance, the deeply unnerving story called “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Effectively a reworking of O’Connor’s second novel, it explores the violent philosophical clash between Sheppard — an atheist social worker — and a fire-and-brimstone child of the streets. The child, Rufus Johnson, with his horribly disfigured foot, impudence, dishonesty, and almost vulgar display of popular, countrified piety exposes the sheer difficulty inherent in some of Christianity’s most fervent commands. It is very easy to love a poor, damaged child when that child is sweet and obliging by disposition; it is easy to accept the teachings of Christ when they are presented in the polite, civilized light of day. But O’Connor doesn’t have truck with these ‘optimal’ scenarios — instead, she presents the darker, less-traveled side of faith. She shows us a plainly malicious child who cruelly disrespects his benefactor, commits multiple crimes, denies the power of reason, and, in a gut-wrenching finale, convinces another little boy to hang himself. 

From the first moment Rufus enters his guardian’s house, where he expects to live and wreak havoc for the foreseeable future, it is clear that the child will take every possible opportunity to defiantly upset the mundane family rules. Immediately, he begins to bully Sheppard’s son, Norton by calling him “waiter” and ridiculing his “stupid face” (O’Connor, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” 453-454). With great audacity, he traipses into every single room, as if he were master and proprietor of the place. Worst by far is the mess he makes of the bedroom that once belonged to Sheppard’s late wife, in which dresses and toiletries were preserved like offerings at a shrine. Horrified, Norton watches as this cold interloper picks through combs and hairbrushes, mocks the dead mother’s dresses and dances about fiendishly in her underclothes. The sheer irreverence that makes this episode so painful recurs throughout the remainder of the story, as Rufus creates enmity between the father and son, separating them by every possible means including death. His vehement sermons on hellfire and certain damnation coalesce into a distant, interminable ramble, like the eerie score of a horror film that slowly chips away at its listeners’ sanity. 

Without a doubt, Rufus Johnson is hard, almost impossible to love — and deliberately so. O’Connor writes him into her story in order to expose the more dichotomous situations imposed upon us by genuine Christian faith — she asks us to question how exactly we can follow the absolute word of God when it entails so much personal distress and logical inconsistency. The fact that Rufus, in between acts of villainy, preaches shrill and radical Christian rhetoric only adds fuel to the spiritual fire; it would be simpler, comparatively speaking, to account for this youth’s immoral excesses if he had never known religion a day in his life. By making Rufus a tried-and-true Christian, O’Connor forces us into an increasingly difficult pass — she asks us to consider the impossible paradox of a person who knows God’s word and is yet capable of base, ungodly behavior.

The fraught and dualistic nature of truly thoroughgoing faith is exposed in similar ways throughout O’Connor’s other stories, many of which follow a standard trajectory and feature recurring character ‘types.’ There are other devilish children like Rufus: in “A Circle in the Fire,” three homeless boys repay the landowner who treats them compassionately by setting fire to her beloved homestead; little Mary Fortune in “A View of the Woods” tyrannizes her doting grandfather and refuses, perversely, to take his side in a vicious family war; June Star and John Wesley of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” spend the entire story irritating and embarrassing the reader’s sensibilities, such that their murder by the Misfit in the final scene inspires readers with a mild case of bad conscience — of course, it is much easier to love a murdered innocent than a living and breathing ne’er-do-well.

The macabre and suspenseful “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” exemplifies some of O’Connor’s most persistent thematic and rhetorical tactics. Over the course of sixteen neat pages, the author dazes readers with off-kilter dialogue, wrenches their hearts with sorrow, and, somehow, convinces them to sympathize with villainy at the expense of innocence. The articulate, spiritually-questing Misfit inevitably wins our interest and understanding, while the small children that he does away with merely remind us of all the unpleasant, irritating bits of childhood. Little June and John are by no means the main focus of the story, but they exist always in the background, desperate for attention as they insult their grandmother, use vulgar language and revel in the prospect of a car accident. Christian theology teaches us that ‘these little ones’ are the holiest and most worthy creatures in existence, the true inheritors of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18); but O’Connor, unlike Dickens or Dostoevsky or Hugo, makes it rather difficult to attach wings and halos to the outspoken rascals who tramp about in her stories. There is nothing angelic about a boy who blithely calls Tennessee “a hillbilly dumping ground,” or, for that matter, a girl who screams and kicks at her overwhelmed mother when she does not get exactly what she wants (O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” 119). When O’Connor creates such exasperating children, she forces us to disregard the overly comforting and simplistic belief that all innocents are good, all criminals are bad, and all the world operates according to storybook Bible tenets. She is, essentially, forcing us to reconsider elements of Christian dogma in less ideal, less picturesque contexts. 

But O’Connor does not limit her exploration of religious paradox to cases of childhood rebellion — she is also interested in the lukewarm, or imperfectly faithful figure. Here is a pill even more difficult to swallow! Whereas most people cannot genuinely identify with the Rufus Johnson personality, a great majority of us have likely experienced the need to engage in casual religious belief, if only to a certain neatly demarcated point. So O’Connor invents a character like Mrs. May, in “Greenleaf,” a completely decent, churchgoing, charity-giving homeowner whose respectable faith begins to waver when thrust into more exceptional situations. Indeed, Mrs. May — who tries so desperately to maintain polite composure in the face of her lay-about sons and vacuous, infuriating farmhands — is every ‘workaday’ Christian who hasn’t, say, spent years battling temptation in the desert or writhing in a hairshirt. She is the perfect example of the duality imposed upon us by profound faith. Aware that God loves and plans to redeem us for our beliefs, we expect that he will not confront us with such painful and mystifying obstacles. That is — we expect that our mild, bourgeoise belief will be enough to protect us from the challenges of the saints and martyrs. 

In almost every one of her stories, O’Connor succeeds in exposing a more uncomfortable, inharmonious truth: the God who tells us we must ‘only believe’ is liable to challenge our confidence and our principles at any moment. True Christian belief, therefore, demands more than fairweather acceptance of one or two cheerful, magical events, like the Resurrection on Easter or the birth in the nativity at Christmas. Ultimately, what made O’Connor such a thoroughgoing believer was her willingness to stand by God’s cosmic system even when it irks, discomforts, or causes moral outrage. Her stories attempt (by admittedly outré means) to instill a similarly strong and all-encompassing devotion in the reader. The character of Mrs. May is thus explicitly designed to emanate division — she is a generally moral person who ends succumbing to rage and envy; her quiet, clean faith is superseded by the extreme, sackcloth-and-ashes faith of an uneducated neighbor woman; she dies, in the story’s final pages, from a bloody, unexpected wound that she nevertheless accepts with a willing conscience.

Preserving Mystery in the Modern World

The motifs of violence and undeserved reprisal that dominate O’Connor’s fiction necessarily bring to mind a perpetual rift in the lute of Christian theology: the problem of evil. From the longanimity of Job and the gruesome suffering of the early martyrs to world wars, population genocides, and the countless tragedies endured by countless innocents every day, infinite scenarios have arisen in human history that would appear to give the lie to Christian witness of an all-merciful God. The antinomic existence of needless suffering in a divinely-ordered world has plagued priests and laymen across centuries, often resulting in fragile counter-arguments and unsatisfying theodicies of the Panglossian kind. Even Augustine’s cornerstone explanation of evil as a product of human free will cannot entirely shield the believer from strident doubts and misconceptions. O’Connor was, of course, an exceedingly learned Christian who devoted much time to studying and synthesizing the esoteric works of the church metaphysicians, mystics, and contemporary co-religionists. Significantly, she did not leverage this broad-ranging knowledge into a personal argument for the non-existence of spiritual paradox; she did not, like so many other authors, compose novels and stories that attempt to gloss happily over the bitter realities of grief, tragedy and temporally unrewarded faith. On the contrary, her fiction ostentatiously presents a world in which irksome inconsistency represents the foremost aspect of human life.

We might consider, among the superfluity of examples, an often overlooked story called “The River.” Here O’Connor shows us a little boy, Henry Ashfield, who is sent by his debauching, bohemian parents to spend a day in the country with a matronly babysitter and her Baptist family. Once again, we have the unbalancing clash of religious and secular values — a stock scenario in O’Connor’s fiction — but this time the narrative follows a more ostensibly positive trajectory. Henry, who begins by puckishly insisting that he shares the name of a famous preacher, is later baptized by that same preacher and thus introduced to the soothing prospect of a heavenly world without pain. O’Connor’s signature moment of revelation seems to come early here, as the little catechumen sets out the day after his baptism to rediscover the promised kingdom. Lulled into a false sense of security, we hardly anticipate the story’s swift and disturbing conclusion: keen on his quest, Henry wanders alone into a rushing river and is promptly drowned. 

The dismay we experience upon picturing the grim scene to ourselves is transformed all at once into outrage when we realize that this grand tragedy is intended, teleologically, to serve a higher purpose. Though he doesn’t know it, Henry is attended during his final moments by someone other than God — a man called Mr. Paradise, who was earlier introduced as a scoffing, irascible atheist, tries in vain to wrest the child from the pull of the current. Only in the story’s last lines is it revealed that the chilling metanoia so typical in O’Connor’s work does not belong to Henry at all, but belongs instead to a cynical old man whose presence is otherwise tangential to the main plot. What results is, of course, an allegory that can be interpreted by various means. The most attractive and simplest reading — which is, unsurprisingly, the least correct — suggests that angelic Henry can and must be sacrificed in order that a more embattled unbeliever might be paroxysmally shocked into faith. Indeed, a great deal of O’Connor’s fiction, when interpreted lazily, would appear to present a similar moral: episodes of great violence may be justified insofar as they can awaken apathetic, uncaring individuals to the extreme truths of God’s universe.

Read as such, the stories offer a hackneyed rationale for needless suffering (a felix culpa theodicy) while also handily converting our dualistic universe into a neat and clean monad. But, when tempted with this or another picturesque interpretation, we must recall that O’Connor never professed a desire to simplify the demands of Christianity for the comfort of her reading public. Far more often did she lament the inability of modern man to preserve his belief in spite of logical challenges and failures of reason. Indeed, the aversion to dualism evinced by contemporary religion, philosophy, and culture more generally encouraged her to write fiction that placed a premium on the otherworldly and unknowable. O’Connor’s God was first and foremost a God of mystery, whose attributes remained unseen by all but the Son and whose purpose baffles human reason. The double-ended nature of a faith that promises ransom for sinful mankind and yet permits evil to surround the most fervent of believers did not so much frighten as embolden O’Connor; the consternation that she occasionally expresses in her letters is never seen to descend into doubt or rejection. 

It is pertinent to consider that the characters in O’Connor’s fiction, particularly the self-proclaimed ‘intellectuals,’ tend to follow a well-trodden path from pretentious mistrust to shivering, trembling humility. Figures like Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” and Calhoun in “The Partridge Festival” often survive O’Connor’s literary charnel-house only to find themselves irreparably stripped of all the tepid reasons, justifications, and glosses that once motivated their egoism. They are left with naught but the knowledge that human reason, however vigorous, cannot possibly encapsulate all the paradoxes of life. Just as the innocent believer can be made to suffer an inconsistent fate, so the rational child of God and master over the natural world must eventually admit his unimportance and his fallibility. ‘Doubleness,’ we see, was a core tenet of O’Connor’s faith and worldview. It permitted her to uphold a vision of Godly mystery that was in no way encumbered by the limits of human understanding. In a cultural and literary climate that liked so very much to create comfortable unity, Flannery O’Connor created division, with only the best intentions.

Donna Sanders is a senior in Columbia College studying English and Intellectual History. An avid reader and writer of drama, fiction and poetry, she plans on pursuing a career in playwriting. She has just completed a 40-page senior thesis on religious motifs in the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor. 

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. 

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, p. 117-133.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Greenleaf,” in The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, p. 311-334.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Lame Shall Enter First,” in The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, p. 445-482.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The River,” in The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, p. 157-174.