By ELIZABETH LIVINGSTON, Special to the Bulletin | Published April 18, 2023
The Southern Catholic author Flannery O’Connor wrote a plethora of stories exploring the consciousness of the American South. Her stories stirred people up, angered and bewildered them. They had such an impact that even my grandfather, who was no reader himself, remembered people “jumpin’ up and down over some book she wrote.”
For me, it is fascinating to read her stories and think about how much she was influenced by the town of Milledgeville, where my mother’s family is from. But even without that connection, her stories have resonated with me as well as convicted me, as they have done for so many other people.
When readers start perusing her stories they can often come away confused as to their meanings or ultimate purpose. Some come to the erroneous conclusion that she wrote them simply to be grotesque and shocking.
Her stories are steeped in the ultimate story of Christian redemption. Her deeply flawed characters are put on display to show mankind’s need for redemption to pull them out of their fallen state. Through the darkness and brokenness of her stories, a reader can find light as they question how such evil can be combatted. O’Connor’s way of showing man’s need for redemption might not be the conventional way, but her words have so much power.
Christianity has never been about what is soft and palatable. Even from the very beginning, Jesus repulsed people with some of the things he said. There is nothing tame and sanitized in the statement that one needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood to obtain eternal life. Sometimes a rude awakening is what is needed to draw people toward the inevitable fact that we are all flawed and fallen creatures, and that someone above and beyond us is needed to guide us.
This is what O’Connor set out to pull back the curtain of social conventions and expose pride and hypocrisy for what they are: rancid diseases of the intellect. A mission such as that is never pretty. Oftentimes, it leaves people angry as they confront their feelings of self-worth that have snuck in underneath the guise of good intentions. No person on earth has lived a life completely free from the temptations of pride, and an honest exposure of this deadliest of sins leaves no one unscathed.
This is the strength of O’Connor’s stories—the honest exposure of human nature. She points out humankind’s state and the consequences it entails. She shows the reader that herein lies our need for God, and that every person on this earth can be redeemed. If a person digs through the dark and the grotesque within her stories, they will find tucked underneath it all the singular thread of redemption.
A few short stories of hers that I consider my personal favorites are “The Turkey,” “The Peeler” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” All three are standard O’Connor fare and leave you mulling over the themes and characters she presents and what their ultimate meaning might be.
There are no heroes in them, no noble characters swooping into the scene to make everything right. But that’s intentional because O’Connor knew that no one could save them except for the one who came for all people. No human action can replace the need for the divine, as O’Connor shows quite plainly in her writing.