Chastened

Lorna Tracy

  • The Habit of Being: Letters by Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald
    Farrar, Straus/Faber, 639 pp, £8.25, January 1979, ISBN 0 571 12017 2
  • The violent bear it away by Flannery O’Connor
    Faber, 226 pp, £2.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 571 12017 2
  • A good man is hard to find by Flannery O’Connor
    Women’s Press, 251 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2832 1

As many letters in The Habit of Being show, Flannery O’Connor was plagued long before her death with Deep Readers from little colleges offering outlandish ‘interpitations’ of her fiction and to some extent her life. If the tendency of British academics has been to demand that short stories must be ‘short Tories’, successful or not according to how strictly they are plotted to deliver a short sharp shock – an early, violent and nastily surprising end – the corresponding vice among their American counterparts has been to require that every short story be a fruitcake of Freudian symbols. O’Connor’s stories fulfil neither prescription, though nothing has ever stopped a fully-automated Freudian from applying his insights to anything of human origin. The Fifties and Sixties, when O’Connor was publishing, coincided with the height of the symbol-seeking frenzy. An acquaintance told O’Connor that he hadn’t liked her second novel, The violent bear it away, whereupon she replied that she wasn’t a bit surprised to hear it ‘since you see everything in terms of sex symbols … My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain’t in Manhattan.’ She thought that poets were luckier than prose-writers if only because they weren’t generally read and therefore not generally misunderstood. All the same, some of the misunderstanding met with by O’Connor, a Roman Catholic of serenest orthodoxy all the 39 years of her life, had to do with the way the moral message she found in life was bound up in the meshings of Catholic doctrine.

The ‘meaning’ of her fiction is concentrated in the moment at which the Eternal penetrates Time: it is the flashpoint in virtually everything she ever wrote, although it is a much cruder affair than a classic Joycean epiphany, which it only superficially resembles. The reader, Catholic or not, who is prepared to take this moment seriously – that is, neither piously nor contemptuously – is the one she believed would get the best out of what she wrote. On matters of doctrine and the sacraments her letters are of considerable help, but you don’t have to know much about these things to get a powerful lot of pleasure and disquiet from reading her.

She was a Catholic writer who never directly wrote fiction about Catholics, nor did she use much Catholic ‘decor’: ‘The setting in which most fiction takes place is exactly a setting in which nothing is so little felt to be true as the reality of faith in Christ.’ What she found irresistible was the Protestant devil and the Protestant Jesus in Protestant rural Georgia, especially when manifested outside a decaying church tradition. Again and again, her fiction tells us that anybody that can get anybody else to put a dime in his collection-box can start him a church. There ain’t no copyright on Jesus. This sort of wild, ingrown, unguided religious impulse either dwindles into secularism and respectability or else goes unmediated and astray into grotesque and highly individual encounters with Jesus and the devil. To her, this home-made religion seemed ‘painful and touching and grimly comic’, and she did not mock it: ‘If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.’ The various dramatic forms this improvised Protestantism takes are ‘obvious enough for me to catch’, she said, adding with a sort of pride: ‘I can’t write about anything subtle.’ In this connection it is worth noting how matter-of-fact her own daily religious life was. She admiringly quoted Braque on painting, ‘I like the rule that corrects the emotion,’ and this rule is precisely what Catholicism provided her with. It wasn’t the gush of emotion people needed: it was prayers and God’s love. ‘I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth ... In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.’

In her fiction O’Connor worked out her understanding of good and evil, God and the devil, in terms of relations between the generations, the races, the ‘nice people’ and the ‘common ones’, between reason and mystery, which were equal and opposite forces in her economy, between the godless, bitter intellectuals and the uprooted, bedevilled prophets of God, with free will and original sin continually bashing away at all the poor human creatures who seldom truly know ‘who they are’. O’Connor knew the delusions of gentility and gleefully assisted the devil in setting up the proud ones for their chastisement. Typical of the chastened in her fiction is the middle-aged widow with the impudent bookish child. Such a decent woman, with over half a lifetime’s accumulation of bigotry and banality and hypocrisy to draw on, is thankful that she is not as (certain) others are. She must, therefore, be brought lower than these others so as to receive self-knowledge. There are many variations on this theme in O’Connor’s work.

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