Flannery O’Connor’s work has been described as “profane, blasphemous, and outrageous” by critics who didn’t understand what she was up to. Her stories are peopled by a sordid caravan of murderers and thieves, prostitutes, and bigots whose lives are punctuated by horror and sudden violence. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is the fact that it is shaped by a thoroughly Christian vision. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “Many of my ardent admirers would be roundly shocked and disturbed if they realized that everything I believe is thoroughly moral, thoroughly Catholic, and that it is these beliefs that give my work its chief characteristics.” 

How can this be? What do all those freaks and lunatics have to do with a “thoroughly Catholic” view of the world?

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

People are offended by Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and they ought to be. They’re offensive. I’m reminded of what Peter said about Jesus: he was “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” Jesus’s parables would offend us if we hadn’t heard them so many times–or if we were paying better attention.

After acting like a complete jerk, the Prodigal Son comes home, welcomed into his father’s arms. The older brother, who has been behaving himself, keeping his nose clean, takes offense, and we can all understand why. It’s a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother–much more shocking for Jesus’s original audience than for those of us who already know what we’re supposed to think about the story.

The parables, in my understanding, are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts. I claim to love grace, but I’m bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn’t line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense–to say it’s not really that offensive.

O’Connor’s stories are offensive and shocking in a different way; they were, to borrow her imagery, startling figures drawn for the almost-blind. But I do believe she was working from Jesus’s storytelling playbook, using shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint. It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway. In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already.


Biographer Brad Gooch has pointed out that the phrase “like something out of Flannery O’Connor” has entered the vernacular as a kind of shorthand to describe “a funny, dark, askew moment.” He might have added that the phrase is also used to describe a wide range of phenomena around the edges of American culture, from religious manias to violent crimes to reality-TV dysfunction and freakishness of every stripe.

“Like something out of Flannery O’Connor” is a wave of the hand and a wink that says, We already know what to think about this person, this situation, don’t we? We already know what to think about Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists and trailer-park criminals and undereducated coupon-clipping hoarders who sign their little girls up for beauty pageants, just as we already know what to think about serial killers and backwater racists and ignorant Bible salesmen who stump from country town to country town.

Except that in O’Connor’s fiction, it turns out that we don’t know what to think about them after all. Her fanatics and freaks can never safely be ignored or dismissed, for they have the unsettling habit of telling the truth in spite of themselves. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit understands things about Jesus that the grandmother never has. The freak-show hermaphrodite in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” has a grasp on theological truths that have eluded the good Catholics in the story. Wise Blood‘s Hazel Motes may or may not be crazy in the head, but his heart pumps a “wise blood” that finally brings him back to the ultimate truth that he tries so strenuously to escape.

In common usage, “like something out of Flannery O’Connor” is a license not to take a person or situation very seriously. But O’Connor did take her grotesque characters seriously. “They seem to carry an invisible burden,” she wrote; “their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity.”

In Flannery O’Connor’s body of work, there are as many kinds of misfit and maimed soul as there are stories–the street preacher, the prostitute, the moonshiner, the serial killer, the hermaphrodite, the idiot, the bumpkin, the false prophet, the reluctant prophet, the refugee, the amputee, the con man, the monomaniac, the juvenile delinquent. Perhaps the phrase “like something out of Flannery O’Connor” is so widely applicable because there is such a wide range of characters in her fiction.

But there is another character type that appears in O’Connor’s short stories at least as often as the freak. Most of her stories involve a main character who is convinced that he or she already knows what to think, whose certainty and self-righteousness have been a shield against the looming reality of sin and judgment and redemption. Joy-Hulga, the one-legged philosopher in “Good Country People.” Julian, the social progressive in “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” Asbury, the invalid and failed artist in “The Enduring Chill.” Throughout O’Connor’s body of work, the complacent and self-reliant are confronted with a choice, which usually comes in a moment of extremity, or even violence: they can clutch at their own righteousness like a drowning man clutching at a cinder block, or they can let their self-righteousness go, admit that they have been fools, and so enter into life. Some characters receive the offer of grace, and some reject it.

In “Revelation,” the smug, bourgeois Ruby Turpin finds herself in a doctor’s waiting room with a family she considers to be far beneath her. The young mother, “vacant and white-trashy,” sits in her bedroom slippers beside the snuff-dipping grandmother, who spouts off virulently racist remarks (in distinct contrast to Mrs. Turpin’s milder but no less insidious racism). The mother remarks that her grubby children subsist on “Co’ Cola and candy.” Mrs. Turpin knows exactly what to think of them.

There was nothing you could tell her about people like them that she didn’t know already. And it was not just that they didn’t have anything. Because if you gave them everything, in two weeks they would have chopped it up for lightwood. She knew all this from her own experience. Help them you must, but help them you couldn’t.

But when judgment thunders down on that waiting room, it is not the trashy patients who get it, but the respectable Mrs. Turpin. To her astonishment, she is denounced and assaulted by a prophet in the form of a purple-faced Wellesley student.

Later, after she has survived the attack, Mrs. Turpin somehow understands that her attacker spoke for God. So she asks God, “What do you send me a message like that for?… Why me? There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me.” 

Mrs. Turpin gets her answer in the form of a vision that shows how wrong she had been about the Kingdom of Heaven and her place in it vis à vis her social inferiors. A purple streak of cloud in the gloaming became a bridge, and upon it a vast horde of souls was rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [Black people] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.

Mrs. Turpin and her respectable husband have a place in the procession too, but it’s all the way in the back, behind all the people she had disparaged and judged so blithely.

The central figure in O’Connor’s fiction, as it turns out, is neither the freak nor the fanatic nor the felon, for which O’Connor is so well-known, but the Pharisee. If we cannot see ourselves in the lunatics and deviants, surely we can see ourselves in the upright and the self-assured who turn out to be so wrong about themselves and the people around them. We have all been, at one time or another, like something out of Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character finally comes to see the truth of his or her situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet.

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