Religion and Irony in Flannery O’Connor’s Writing

Religion and irony are imbued in Flannery O’Connor’s writing because both were key elements in her life, which she from, as a well of inspiration during her short career. O’Connor spent a large part of her life in Georgia as a minority – an emphatic Catholic. Though she gained popularity during her lifetime, she passed away before she could be rewarded for her hard work.
O’Connor’s characters are made from the same mold. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” her main female characters are overbearing, know-it-all yet “respectable” ladies from a recently post-integrated South. Joyce Carol Oates says that O’Connor’s “…people are not quite as whole until violence makes them whole.”

Julian’s mother took her time preparing herself to leave the house, debating over a debacle of a hat; as they walked toward the bus stop, she commented, “Most of them in it are not our kind of people, but I can be gracious to anybody. I know I am.” Julian replies with a brash, “They don’t give a damn for your graciousness.” She goes on to talk about who she is, making references to her grandfather who owned a plantation with several hundred slaves.

When Julian’s mother tried to give a penny to a black boy, his mother hit Julian’s mother with her purse and declared, “He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” Shocked and stunned, she dies within minutes, leaving an indignant Julian to ponder his true feelings for her. It is when he realizes the seriousness of the situation, experiences the pain of losing her, that O’Connor tells us of “…his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Julian’s mother and Asbury’s mother may as well have been the same person. In “The Enduring Chill,” we find that Asbury’s mother was overprotective and much like Julian, he resented it. Though she has his best interests in mind, he snaps at her, “You don’t have to tell me what the temperature is! I’m old enough to know when I want to take my coat off!” Through the course of the story, we find out that his “enduring chill” is really the cause of his direct violation of his mother’s rules in the dairy – he drank unpasteurized milk.

The elder Lucynell Crater in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was so overbearing that she forced a man who was practically a stranger to marry her disabled daughter. She said that “any man come after her’ll have to stay around the place.” When she let Mr. Shiftlet take her daughter for a short honeymoon, he deserted her in a small diner a hundred miles from home.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is arguably one of O’Connor’s most darkly ironic stories, though she has been quoted as calling it her most “comic.” The Grandmother starts off by warning her son, Bailey (who feels about his mother the way Asbury and Julian feel about theirs) that they should not go to Florida and uses an article about a serial killer as her justification. Ignoring her request, the family – including the Grandmother – leave the next morning. Using foreshadowing, O’Connor tells us “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

Ironically, they do indeed encounter the serial killer who calls himself The Misfit and though the Grandmother pleaded and tried to reason with him, they were all murdered. In fact, The Misfit says of her, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This could possibly be viewed as a play on words in the title – a good man is hard to find, but so is a good woman.

Stephens postulates on the irony of the Grandmother’s character and the futility of being a “good woman.” In her essay, she states:

A good woman, perhaps we are given to believe, is one who understands the worthlessness and emptiness of being or not being a “lady,” of having or not having Coca-Cola stock, of “being broad” and seeing the world, of good manners and genteel attire. “Woe to them,” said Isaiah, “that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight.”

There is no doubt that O’Connor uses the element of irony in her stories, but Oates claims that:

There is no ultimate irony in her work, no ultimate despair or pessimism or tragedy, and certainly not a paradoxical sympathy for the devil. It is only when O’Connor is judged from a secular point of view, or from a “rational” point of view, that she seems unreasonable – a little mad – and must be chastely revised by the liberal imagination.

It isn’t that O’Connor uses an ultimate irony – she has religion for that – but that over-seasons her writing with the use of it. In the end, she makes the characters seem like they are stuck in a Grimm fairy tale. Malin states that “the villains are ‘flat’ narcissists who love themselves more than Jesus,” but he is wrong. O’Connor’s characters – and not just her villains – appear to be flat because of her overuse of irony. – it’s too grotesque to be a real lesson, to be real people, so the dangers seem lost to the readers.

Religion is a strong theme that ties O’Connor’s stories together. Much like the old adage that “the family that prays together, stays together” her stories are intrinsically woven with the common thread of religion. As Hoffman says, “Another truth about Miss O’Connor’s fiction is its preoccupance with the Christ figure.” A devout Catholic, she combined her sense of the macabre, her wit and her experiences and beliefs to position her as one of America’s most famous Southern Gothic authors.

But is it enough for there to be religious undertones to most stories? No. The stories literally drip with it and the characters become so entrenched that full acceptance of the savior may not even be enough to save them. Brinkmeyer explains it as such:

Dead is precisely the condition in which a number of O’Connor’s characters end up, most of them having been shocked out of their complacent everyday existence by some act of intense violence that propels them to a complete acceptance of Christ…

But after the “complete acceptance of Christ,” what is left for many of them is simply a meeting with the legend himself. It smacks of “too little too late” and leaves the reader wondering how it will all turn out post-mortem.

O’Connor was an avid reader of a Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who wrote about the intellectual evolution of mankind. He claimed that it was a process toward one point, which he called the Omega, where the intellect and the body would absorb into the “oneness of universal energy.” It is this convergence that lead O’Connor to write her story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and as Martin points out, “Christianity is the most potent manifestation of hominisation, of rising and convergence.”

The villains of her stories, for instance – Mr. Shiftlet – appear to be extraordinarily religious (or at least on a higher spiritual plane than the others) though they are committing mortal sins. Stephens draws a parallel between O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and T.S. Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire when she says that O’Connor took Eliot’s maxim “It is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing” and used it to “stretch our tolerances of this idea to its limits.”

Stephens goes on to discuss the correlation between O’Connor and her characters, pointing out that although she never wrote anything that biographically defined her, “Temple of the Holy Ghost” introduced us to “…a child that one can imagine [O’Connor] growing up to be.” This is an interesting twist because the girl in that story did not appear religious, despite her mother’s obvious knowledge of the obscure Biblical reference to a woman’s body being a “temple of the Holy Ghost.” This story places a very O’Connor-like child as the protagonist battling two cousins who were more interested in boys and using “like” as a sentence-filler than being pious – although they attended a religious boarding school.

According to Oates, “O’Connor is always writing about original sin and the ways we may be delivered from it.” The concept of “original sin” is a delicate one as it is never made clear in the Bible just what it is – yet it is has been used by misogynists to blame the problems of the world on women. Some say it was Adam’s choice to eat the apple, some say it was Eve’s temptation for Adam to eat the apple, and some say that original sin is the act of sex. It is true that O’Connor dwells heavily on the implications of spirituality and morality, but in her dystopias, she shows death to be the most common way to be delivered from sin.

Jackson sums up O’Connor’s religious obsession as the result of her geographic location. He says:

O’Connor’s stories are littered with Biblical references and themes; her protagonists are often bizarre Southern incarnations of Old Testament prophets. And in her essays and letters, her own sense of her Biblical influences merges in a very concrete way with her region. Thus it seems appropriate, in light of the history, traditions, and culture of her South, that O’Connor’s most comprehensive explanation for the influence of her native region upon her writing conceives the geography not in artistic, ideal, formal, or literary terms, but in unequivocally theological ones.

Like all writers, O’Connor took what experiences and beliefs she could and used them as a backdrop for her characters and stories. She used many elements of fiction and carried several themes across her works – irony and religion being two of the most noticeable. She used religion as a form of propaganda for her god and her idols, but she did so in a very extreme way. She didn’t often show a loving god, or one who could allow you to make right the things you have done wrong without the ultimate sacrifice – your life.

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