For anyone who took modern literature or a creative writing class, you most likely read Flannery O’Connor’s, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. It’s an American Classic, written by one of the world’s greatest storytellers. O’Connor’s dark and often grotesque characters distinguish themselves as soulless and morbid, whose actions are often cruel, violent and immoral. Yet her character’s, regardless of what path they take, are touched by salvation and Divine Providence.
O’Connor’s stories take place in the South and the reader is taken to a time and in a place in American history when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak. Flannery O’Connor’s stories were, and continue to be criticized for using derogatory language towards African Americans. Whether O’Connor was a racist herself is still being debated among literary circles and scholars alike. While race is a focal point in some of her stories, Flannery O’Connor did not take an apparent stand on the Civil Rights movement that was underfoot. She wrote the South as it was, and her character’s emulated racial remarks in their dialogue as her contemporary common-folk did.
Many people reading O’Connor for the first time don’t realize that all of her works are rooted in Catholicism. She comes from a school of Catholic writers at the time which includes, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. At first glance, most of her works make no mention of her Catholic beliefs. In fact, one might question her value system, because, quite frankly, her characters are highly unchristian-like. However, all of her stories are embedded with symbols of Divine Providence and the roots of Catholic thought.
A History of Early Catholicism in Four Paragraphs
In order for us to understand the inner-workings of O’Connor’s stories, we must understand the inner workings of the Catholic Faith:
In 313 AD, Constantine the Great legalized Christianity, moving the center of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. This would eventually give rise of the Byzantine Empire. With Constantine living in his newly appointed city of Constantinople, he gifted Rome to the pope to help oversee his domain. This was a final blow to the Roman Empire, creating a domino effect that would eventually collapse the Empire. In time, ancient Christianity split into two separate entities: Eastern Orthodox Catholicism of the Byzantines and Roman Catholicism. This split was caused by two centers of Christian thought separated by two locations on the map.
Bear with me for a second, as this move in history lays the foundation of Western culture and the beginning of Catholic philosophy, in which O’Connor’s stories were based. While very similar, Eastern Orthodox Catholicism focused the scriptures on the Holy Trinity: The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit; while Roman Catholics founded their biblical philosophy on the Incarnation of Christ himself, the idea that God had become human to suffer and die for our sins.
Members of the Early Eastern Orthodox were Greek oriented, and in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, they created a philosophy around the Holy Trinity. They questioned the faith: If Jesus was both God and man, did he know he was God? In the flesh, was Jesus was capable of sinning? As man, was Jesus all knowing, or limited in his knowledge?
The focus of the Incarnation of Christ in Roman Catholic belief made God human. According to the Roman Catholic faith, Jesus was all knowing and through his crucifixion, Jesus saved humanity. Since God had become present in the flesh, God could intervene in human affairs through Divine Providence, the very foundation of Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
The Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor
Of all forms of fiction, the short story is the most difficult to both read and write. The short story in itself is highly condensed. Take O’Connor’s story, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, where O’Connor’s protagonist, a nomad of a man, Mr. Shiftlet, a carpenter whose first notable gesture is raising his arms up toward the sun, “his figure formed a crooked cross,” strolls up to a house and is greeted by Lucynelle, an old washed up woman with no teeth, and her mute, innocent daughter, also named Lucynelle.
Upon talking, Mr. Shiftlet notices a broken-down, black, rusted-out car sitting in the yard. The old woman tells him it hasn’t run in fifteen years. Mr. Shiftlet and the old woman talk all afternoon, as the sun sets upon the three of them, a symbol of things to come. In time, Mr. Schiftlet is welcome into the house, where he fixes up the place in return for lodging and food. He eventually repairs the broken-down, rusted out car.
The old woman convinces Mr. Shiftlet to marry the young Lucynelle, her only prized possession. Mr. Shiftlet agrees to this arrangement and they arrive at the courthouse to get married. The old lady to give him seventeen dollars, so he can take his innocent Lucynelle to a motel for their honeymoon.
The two married couple drive off into the afternoon. They continue, driving into the night, where they stop at a diner to get a bite to eat. The young Lucynelle, tired, falls asleep at the counter. The boy working the counter says, “she looks like an angle of Gawd.” In response, Mr. Shiftlet responds, “hitchhiker,” and gives the boy money for food when she wakes up. Mr. Shiftlet leaves, abandoning the mute Lucynelle in the middle of nowhere.
Divine Providence of O’Connor’s story takes root as Mr. Shiftlet drives off into the night, toward Mobile, Alabama. Along the way he see signs reading, “Drive Carefully. The Life You May Save May Be Your Own.” After driving along, he picks up a hitchhiker, a boy-another symbol who tells Mr. Schiftlet to, “go to the devil!” The boy jumps out of the car. The story ends as a turnip cloud passes him and it begins to rain.
The Life You May Save May Be Your Own is based off of Matthew 5:45 which states, “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Literary analysis of this satire is stunning. There is symbol after symbol: there’s the heart Mr. Schiftlet talks about in the beginning of the story in relation to the turnip cloud at the end of the piece, the descriptive color of Lucynelle, making her the symbol of the Virgin Mary, and of the colors of the newly painted car have to be carefully examined. All of this symbolism paints another story-a truth of the human condition and free will in relation to the divine order of the world.
Reading O’Connor in a Pseudo-modern Age
Reading O’Connor at the foot of the twenty-first century not only takes us into the history of the deep south, at a time when black men and women were fighting for equal protection under the law, but her stories force us to face the ugly truths and flaws of ourselves. This demonstration can’t be more apparent than in her story, Everything That Rises Must Converge.
This is a telling story of the social and racial changes the south was facing in the 1950′s, and integrates it into a self transformation, in which the protagonist, a young Julian faces from the sudden death of his mother, which symbolizes the freedom African Americans. His mother’s death emulates the realization of a new era in which has come over the South.
As a pseudo-modern society, we are at a turning point ourselves. Within the wake of global communications, we see the world as it is-as O’Connor saw the south. We see poverty, war, revolution, famine and disease filtered into our news headlines on a daily basis. For most of us we walk aimlessly, drinking a frothed-up coffee beverage, attached to our mobile devices and 3G networks, unknowingly aware that half of the underdeveloped world is looking toward us to save them. O’Connor’s stories all comes down to salvation and the possibility that Divine Providence might touch our lives in a way we least expect.