The Omnivore November 2013

The Passion of Flannery O’Connor

A prayer journal kept by the writer in her early 20s sheds new light on her biblical ironies.

Not much of everyday life finds its way into the journal. A Mr. Rothburg gets a mention, evidently because she was mean to him in class—“I got a good punishment for my lack of charity to Mr Rothburg last year. He came back at me today like a tornado”—but O’Connor seems to be more or less the only writer in the universe, which is perhaps how she felt. She reads Kafka (“Mr Kafka”) and Bernanos, and alludes warily to Freud, Proust, and Lawrence. But it takes a fire-breather like Léon Bloy to really crack the crust. “Bloy has come my way … He is an iceberg hurled at me to break up my Titanic and I hope my Titanic will be smashed.” Bloy was a radical French Catholic and a street prophet, furiously mustached, a denizen of fin de siècle literary Paris who turned upon the world a face of almost interstellar indignation. A penny given “grudgingly” to a poor man, declared Bloy, “pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe.” Here, exactly, is the catastrophic moral context that O’Connor was seeking to enter with her fiction. “To maintain any thread in the novel,” she muses in one of the journal’s rare moments of literary theory, “there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of world is conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted.”

The boys in the classroom were right to be scared of her irony. O’Connor’s was not the shifty, reactive, and merely local variety that passes for irony today: sitcom irony, skinny-jeans irony. It was vertical and biblical: the irony by which the mighty are lowered, the humble exalted, and the savior dies on a cross. And she would shortly be required to submit to it herself, in full. Within three years of leaving Iowa, where she had prayed for desire of the Lord to claim her like a disease, she was diagnosed with lupus. Stricken, she returned to her mother’s farm in Milledgeville, her base of production for the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and the short-story collections A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, the latter published posthumously. Health and sex and adventure had been taken from her, and in their place was a vision, her world, blast-lit and still reeling under the first shock of creation. “The air was so quiet,” she wrote in “The River,” “he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.” It was a gift. And we are left with a question: Without this terrible narrowing-down, would she have achieved the greatness she prayed for? This illness, this thing that confined her, that hauled her, crutches clanking, into a premature spinsterhood, and finally killed her at the age of 39, can we call it by the name of grace? Dare we?

O'Connor's Ironic Inversions

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Was O’Connor the pioneer of the now-popular serial-killer-as-moral-philosopher trope? The Misfit— antihero of this, her most famous story—is a handy theologian: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead … and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance.”

“A Circle in the Fire”

Try to be nice and see what happens. When three indigent boys arrive at Mrs. Cope’s farm, her most anguished request is that they don’t burn down her woods. And so, with “wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace,” they burn down her woods.

“The Enduring Chill”

Asbury Fox—sweaty and sick, his writerly Barton Fink aspirations in ruins—comes home. Dying, or so he thinks, he still finds the strength to be horrible to his poor mother. Mercy intrudes in the form of an unimaginative and half-deaf hulk of a Jesuit priest, who upbraids him at bedside.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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