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Hannah E. RyanSeptember 30, 2021
Flannery O'Connor sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville, Ga., in a photo from September 1959. (CNS photo/Floyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via AP)

In an installment of Bishop Robert Barron’s film series “Catholicism: The Pivotal Players,” Flannery O’Connor, on a pilgrimage to Rome, stands behind a cluster of clerics. A shadow covers her face as she stares into the distance, past the priests and even Pope Pius XII himself. Her pursed lips, plastic-rimmed glasses and appraising expression contrast with the expressions of the other women in the photo, who smile gently. The photo reflects something of O’Connor’s presence in public consciousness—and in the minds of many Catholics. She peeks from behind the shadows, easy to miss among ecclesial elites. Yet her writing is perennially relevant, especially in difficult moments.

O’Connor’s lovingly detailed renderings of the mid-20th-century American South, brutally funny characterizations and Southern accent—a musicality that renders her stories incantations—have endeared her to readers for decades. Most recently, she has surfaced once again into greater popular awareness in both revered and critical light. Two documentaries published in 2019 tell of her life and fiction: An episode of the aforementioned series by Bishop Barron narrates her role in creating stories that illuminate sin, grace and the need for salvation; and “Flannery” chronicles her remarkable and all-too-short lifetime, released virtually again in July.

What can Flannery O’Connor—warts and all—and her writing tell us about our current moment?

Celebration of O’Connor’s intense Catholicism and literary prowess, however, has also been tempered by further and definitive revelations of a racism that endured throughout her life, detailed in Paul Elie’s article in The New Yorker in June, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The administration of Loyola University Maryland recently renamed Flannery O’Connor Hall on campus for this very reason—it now honors Thea Bowman.

What can Flannery O’Connor—warts and all—and her writing tell us about our current moment, when the United States grapples with the continuing effects of racism and life has been upended throughout the world by a virus we cannot see?

O’Connor’s faith and the popular presumptions about how it affects her fiction often obfuscate the radical subversion of social order latent in many of her stories, especially her critiques of the racist, capitalist and anti-Catholic Cold War South. In her stories, the immanence of grace—which the characters often reject—convicts both the characters and the social systems that allow them to exist comfortably amid often grotesque vice.

The relationship between dominant and marginalized characters throughout O’Connor’s body of work offers a theology of displacement—that is, a means of experiencing God in the midst of upheaval, geographic and otherwise. She melds social critique and her self-described “realism of distance,” which includes things visible and invisible, best seen in her representations of people demonized or at the margins of the mid-20th century: alleged Communists, African-Americans, poor whites and refugees. In her stories, we find a radical critique of the middle class respectability ascendant in the United States at the time, not in spite of her theological outlook, but because of it. O’Connor’s marginalized characters prophesy about the universal displacement of alienation from God—a displacement that cannot be averted by economic or social standing.

We find in Flannery O'Connor's writings a radical critique of the middle class respectability ascendant in the United States at the time.

Wise Blood and countercultural Christianity

O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood—published when she was 26—features Hazel Motes, a military veteran who moves to the Southern city of Taulkinham to preach a “Church without Christ.” The story’s characters seek to belong through material consumption. Enoch Emery, Motes’s unwanted sidekick, prides himself in working for the city of Taulkinham while feeling rejected by most other people. Mrs. Flood, Motes’s landlady, acts as a gatekeeper of respectability. She asks Motes if his Church without Christ is “Protestant or something foreign,” and later wonders if Motes is “some kind of agent of the pope” because he blinds himself, wraps his torso in barbed wire and walks around the city with rocks in his shoes. Still, Mrs. Flood, despite her economic standing, “had had a hard life without pain and without pleasure,” one where her relatives contact her only for money.

Despite her misgivings about his alleged connections with Catholicism and the foreign, Mrs. Flood is fascinated by Hazel Motes. She sees him “going backwards to Bethlehem” like the Magi on Christmas cards, a vision that amuses her. This comparison makes Motes the ultimate outsider. Not only does his self-mortification alienate him from the dominant culture of Taulkinham, but his kinship with the biblical Magi associates him with outsiders in the Bible. The biblical Magi were not Jewish but had spiritual insight into the revolutionary importance of the star over Bethlehem and eagerly left their country to follow it. Mrs. Flood’s fascination with Motes—and her comparison of his journey with that of the Magi—offers the possibility that she may someday have that insight, too. She experiences emptiness and isolation despite her stable economic standing, and Motes’s radical and visible counterculturalism makes him an icon for an alternative, however misguided.

‘The Displaced Person’ and strangers in a strange land

O’Connor’s later stories, including “The Displaced Person” (1955) and “Revelation” (1965), connect foreignness and social marginalization with theological realities more explicitly than Wise Blood. In “The Displaced Person,” the Guizacs, a family of Polish refugees, are brought to work on a farm in the post-World War II South by a Catholic priest. Mrs. McIntyre, the owner of the farm, and Mrs. Shortley, the wife of one of the hired workers, express apprehension about this “displaced person” (Mr. Guizac).

Prior to their arrival to the farm, Mrs. Shortley recalls news footage of the Holocaust and mass graves, and she reasons that “[t]his was the kind of thing happening every day in Europe where they had not advanced as in this country.” She worries that the “Gobblehooks”—her name for the Guizacs—“like rats with Typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place.” A belief prevails that the displaced person may potentially import violence into the United States, and Mrs. Shortley reminds herself that “these people did not have an advanced religion”—that is, they were Catholic. For Mrs. Shortley, immigrants and refugees are prone to violence, their Catholicism antithetical to civilized society.

Noting the tension between the displaced person and her hired help, Mrs. McIntyre tries to rationalize laying him off in spite of his competence. The priest, listening, compliments her peacock and tries to talk about Jesus, who Mrs. McIntyre says “was just another D.P.” (displaced person). In other words, God himself is foreign to the world of Mrs. McIntyre’s farm. Before Mr. Guizac is crushed and killed by a tractor, Mrs. Shortley observes him working: “She could not see his face, only his feet and legs and trunk sticking imprudently out from the side of the tractor.” This fragmented, non-personal view of him evokes an image of the mass graves of World War II that so frightened Mrs. Shortley at the beginning of the story. But then she, Mrs. McIntyre and the farmhands Astor and Sulk stand by and allow the tractor to crush Mr. Guizac.

O’Connor’s faith and the popular presumptions about how it affects her fiction often obfuscate the radical subversion of social order latent in many of her stories.

The shock makes Mrs. McIntyre feel “like she was in some foreign country where the people bent over the body were natives, and she watched like a stranger.” This experience of alienation links Mrs. McIntyre to the foreignness of God. The death of Mr. Guizac renders her a foreigner on her own property; she is at once in another country and on her own farm. The indifference of many who contributed to atrocities in the Holocaust can possess even those in Mrs. Shortley’s so-called advanced society. Mrs. McIntyre is displaced not by geographic movement, but by the realization that her country is not what she thought it was.

As her health declines in the wake of the incident, “Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except for the old priest.” Only he would feed her remaining peacock, “sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.” Much like Mrs. Flood, Mrs. McIntyre is left lonely and disabused of ideas and values she once took for granted. The priest’s catechesis, a more explicit reference to Catholicism than Hazel Motes’s cinematic conversion, similarly offers Mrs. McIntyre an alternative outlook on her poor health and isolation.

‘Revelation’ and the inversion of hierarchy

Without naming foreigners directly, O’Connor’s 1965 story “Revelation” indicts a sense of superiority over others. It begins in a doctor’s waiting room, indicating that everyone in that room, white and Black, rich and poor, is in some way ill—but Mrs. Turpin insists that her husband Claude is ill while she is not. She and a “stylish lady” trade platitudes, while Mrs. Turpin categorizes and evaluates every person in the waiting room, judging herself superior to them all. The conversation moves to whether Blacks should return to Africa and how clean Mrs. Turpin’s pigs are because they live in a “pig parlor.”

As Mrs. Turpin converses with the women around her, she senses the intense observation of a young woman named Mary Grace, who attends college in the North and is reading a book appropriately named Human Development. After Mrs. Turpin exclaims, “Thank you Jesus for making everything just the way it is!” Mary Grace hurls the book at her and leaps at Mrs. Turpin, grabbing onto her neck before falling to the floor in a convulsion.

As both Mrs. Turpin and Mary Grace lie on the floor, Mrs. Turpin felled by the attack, Mary Grace tells her to “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Mary Grace identifies Mrs. Turpin—and by extension, “the way things are”—as from hell, not from Jesus. In this way, she identifies the self-proclaimed dominance of Mrs. Turpin and those like her as more unnatural than clean pigs. To Mary Grace, it is Mrs. Turpin who is out of place, not everyone else.

Mary Grace’s outburst deeply affects Mrs. Turpin, who understands that “[s]he had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied.” She spends the remainder of the day arguing with God—“How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from Hell too?”—until she sees a vision of a huge number of souls that were destined for heaven:

There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n— in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping, leaping like frogs, and bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claude, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.

In this vision, Mrs. Turpin learns that divine order is not “things the way they are,” but an inversion of the current social hierarchy.

The ‘old normal’ as dystopia

In all three of these stories, we are left with grace begun, but not grace completed. We do not know whether Mrs. Flood embarks on the journey of the Magi, whether Mrs. McIntyre regrets her treatment of Mr. Guizac—or if she joins the church—or whether Mrs. Turpin will ultimately transcend her established cultural categories. All three characters glimpse the limits of their worldviews. Their sense of belonging in the world is shaken, but O’Connor’s masterly storytelling ends the narrative there and the reading of the story itself displaces us. As readers, we may recognize the shortcomings of these characters and perhaps, by extension, of ourselves, especially in this time of great vulnerability.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in the United States ironically displaced us from our normal lives; and as we learn to live with the virus, we have a choice about what our new lives will look like. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, along with the ensuing protests in 2020, have made terms like systemic racism mainstream and more widely understood than ever before. As we reopened, the demands for higher wages and better treatment by workers in the service industry may also suggest grace begun.

Without denying the catastrophic medical, social and economic consequences of the pandemic, perhaps we can register the interrogation of an overscheduled lifestyle taken for granted in American culture, the more widespread demands for racial and economic justice and the newfound appreciation of our local communities as grace begun by displacement. Over the past year, it has become almost a meme to say that we currently live in a dystopia, but the works of Flannery O’Connor reveal that even the “old normal” is dysfunctional and that dystopia lives within us all. Indeed, the partisan motivations of responses to Covid-19 and attitudes towards vaccination demonstrate our risk of refusing to learn from the events of 2020 and 2021. If Mrs. Turpin had her vision today, one might wonder if the masked and unmasked would join the heavenly procession separately.

The works of Flannery O’Connor reveal that even the “old normal” is dysfunctional and that dystopia lives within us all.

The coexistence of profound theological vision, astute social commentary and lifelong racism in the life of Flannery O’Connor demonstrates an internal dissonance that should give us all pause. Yet while the coexistence of these realities may be the point of much of what O’Connor writes, her renderings of catastrophe and the subsequent breakthrough of grace are only a beginning for reflection on how we will choose to live; they offer the possibility of not only a new heaven, but a new earth.

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