Violent Shakings Of Grace

Flannery O’Connor wrote stories and raised peacocks, and there are similarities between her endeavors. ‘The cock opens his tail by shaking himself violently,” she wrote in a magazine article about her avocation:

Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns.…

Many people, I have found, are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for”—a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none [reprinted in Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, p. 10; all succeeding non-fiction quotations are from this volume].

She tells of a telephone repairman’s response to the sight:

The bird turned slightly to the right and the little planets above him hung in bronze, then he turned slightly to the left and they were hung in green.…

“Well, what did you think of that?” I asked.

“Never saw such long ugly legs,” the man said. “I bet that rascal could outrun a bus” [pp. 11, 12].

There are, to be sure, as many violent shakings and ugly legs in Miss O’Connor’s stories as among her peacocks, and many readers have wondered what the stories are “good for.” The author once told of a letter she’d received from a student:

[She] said she would be “graciously appreciative” if I would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. I knew that was the most unsatisfactory answer I could have given because, of course, she didn’t want to enjoy them, she just wanted to figure them out [p. 107].

The fact is, the stories are not easy to figure out. They are not even easy to enjoy. What is easy to see in the two novels and thirty-one short stories that this devout Roman Catholic wrote before her death ten years ago next month is their intensity. Who can readily forget Tarwater’s flight from his dead grandfather’s burning farm, his stay in the city with his secular uncle, his simultaneous drowning and baptizing of his young cousin, his return to the farm and discovery that a Negro neighbor had mercifully buried the grandfather.

Flannery O’Connor was, in the first place, a storyteller, and a good one; she had the gift of being able “to create life with words,” to use her own phrase. And the life she was able to create was that of the rural, Protestant South. She knew the South: she was born and buried in Georgia and lived there all her thirty-nine years except for four spent studying at the University of Iowa and writing in New York City and Connecticut. She was convinced that what made the South the Bible Belt, the haunting centrality of the Bible, helped shape her art. “The Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things,” she once said (p. 202), and “making the absolute concrete” is the essence of storytelling.

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Fiction, she said more than once, is not a statement or a sermon or a report or anything other than dramatic action presented through specific details that the reader can apprehend through his senses. That is not to say her work lacks imagination or simply reproduces nature. Hers is what she called “an incarnational art”; it reveals spirit through matter, it embodies truth. Indeed, truth—“the truthfulness of the essential”—is the basis of her art.

And her fiction unquestionably is art. That is, to use her own definition, she wrote “something that is valuable itself and that works in itself.” Her stories are not utilitarian, even to serve such a noble good as the presentation of Christian truth, although they embody that truth. Yet they are no less Christian for refusing to be evangelistic or sermonic: as she said, “what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (p. 171).

It would be less than precise to claim that her fiction says something about Christian truth. To say it is Christian truth comes closer to the mark. If a reader wants a nice moral, he will not find it among O’Connor’s stories, for she never tacked one on, even with the most artful subtleness. Instead the reader finds murder, cruel accidents, deformities, disasters. Her characters are fanatic, eccentric, poor, uneducated; there is nothing ordinary about Francis Marion Tarwater, for example, or the actions that surround him.

“Grotesque” is the word most reviewers use. O’Connor might not have chosen that adjective, but she did confess to a certain “wild” look to her work and to frequent distortions of surface reality. What appears perfectly normal to the unbeliever may look all wrong when seen through the eyes of faith. “To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man,” she pointed out (p. 44). So when the Christian sees freakish distortions he must try to make them visible to others also. That may require shock and violence: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (p. 34).

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Surely it is no coincidence that O’Connor describes many of her characters in terms of their ability to see. In “Good Country People” Joy had “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will.” Something about the “small white crooked face” of Star in “The Comforts of Home” “suggested blindness but it was the blindness of those who don’t know they cannot see.”

Flannery O’Connor’s own vision ranged from the visible to the invisible, and her vocation was to see past surface realities to absolute truths. She was a “realist of distances,” a prophet “seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus seeing far things close up” (p. 44). There is more to her fiction than meets the eye. In “Revelation,” a hog—a “near thing”—takes on meaning that extends beyond the literal object and its mundane purpose. The “far things” symbolized by the hog—the need for cleansing redemption—become as close and as real as the actual object. “If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious.… 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” (p. 41).

The deepest mystery for her is the mystery of grace, and it provides the true subject matter of her stories. “You should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul,” she remarked in preparation for a reading of her story about a family murdered on their way to Florida, “and not for the dead bodies” (p. 113). In that story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother’s moment of grace comes in her recognition of her human bond with the man about to kill her. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge” a young man accompanying his mother to her reducing class is confronted with grace when the mother, having had her pride shattered, dies and he sees his own self-sufficiency crumbling.

“Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them,” she told that audience (p. 112). Disseminated lupus, a blood-vessel disease, killed O’Connor before the days of riots in cities, war via satellite, and presidential commissions investigating violence on children’s television; from our vantage point a decade or so after she wrote, to link violence to grace seems absurd. Yet “violence is a force which can be used for good or evil,” she pointed out, “and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven” (p. 113). Indeed, quoting Matthew 11:12, she entitled her second novel The Violent Bear It Away. Like the peacock’s beauty, which requires violent shaking to produce, the kingdom of heaven comes for many only after they are badly shaken. Tarwater was one of those, and once shaken up, he set out to do likewise. “The man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him” (p. 114). Violence shows where he is lacking; grace can fill the gap.

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The “modern reader has the mistaken notion,” she chided on another occasion,

that a concem with grace is a concem with exalted human behavior, that it is a pretentious concem. It is however, simply a concem with the human reaction to that which, instant by instant, gives life to the soul. It is a concem with a realization that breeds charity and with the charity that breeds action [p. 204].

Perhaps one of her greatest personal disappointments was that so few people, especially so few of her fellow Catholics, really knew how to read:

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with mystery [p. 79].

Instead of relishing stories that stretched their vision from near things to far, readers often berated her for writing stories that failed to lift them up, that seemed hopeless and negative.

“Today’s reader,” she said at a symposium in 1963, “if he believes in grace at all, sees it as something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as Instant Uplift” (p. 165). Involved as he is with solving Problems, studying statistics, finding sociological and psychological reasons for actions, modern man all but eliminates mystery from his existence.

If she deplored requests for “Instant Uplift,” she recognized the need behind them:

There is something in us, as story-tellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion and rightly so, but … his sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration [p. 48].

The Christian writer has an advantage, she believed, because he knows evil when he sees it and also the cost of overcoming it. Still, “he does not decide what would be good for the Christian body and proceed to deliver it” (p. 183); his belief determines not what he sees but how he sees it. Her own view of reality was formed by her Roman Catholic faith and practice:

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The Catholic novel can’t be categorized by subject matter, but only by what it assumes about human and divine reality.… It will see [man] as incomplete in himself, as prone to evil, but as redeemable when his own efforts are assisted by grace.… Its center of meaning will be Christ; its center of destruction will be the devil. No matter how this view of life may be fleshed out, these assumptions form its skeleton [p. 196].

But when the writer puts that flesh on the bones he must be faithful to what he sees, and what the Christian sees will most of the time not be hopeful or positive or joyful. What is positive in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the presence of grace; what is hopeful, the prospect of a character’s accepting it. Joy comes when he does.

“ ‘Amen Amen!’ an old Negro woman once cried” when an O’Connor peacock displayed his grandeur. It is a fitting response to her stories.


Janet Rohler Greisch is a free-lance writer who lives in Arnes, Iowa.

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