"Jesus Thrown Everything off Balance": Religious Crises and Agents of Grace in Flannery O'Connor's Short Stories
Anna Woodiwiss '03
Flannery O'Connor's short stories are, at first glance, small in scope. They describe a baptism, a trip to Florida, life on a farm. Each of them, however, centers on a moment of crisis and revelation that bears enormous implications for the individual and that is evidence of a sweeping religious vision that O'Connor sees intertwined with the bread and butter of everyday life. Faith for O'Connor is an absolute, totalizing force. One has it or one doesn't, and the transition from one state of belief to another often comes as a shock to the person experiencing it. From her vantage point as a reclusive Catholic in a largely evangelical Protestant, sociable culture, O'Connor crafts a scathing critique of self-righteous, complacent, well-intentioned people, the people who populate most of (white) Southern society. At the same time, she offers a constructive, though disconcerting, idea of the nature of belief. She chooses marginal characters as her representatives and suggests that God does the same. The mere presence of freaks, as she terms them, in people's lives serves to burst the bubble of their self-satisfaction and offers them the chance to view life with newly-opened eyes. The major themes in O'Connor's workcrisis/revelation, the need for true awareness of reality, and the use of children and freaks as Christ figures or agents of redemption in the elaboration of her religious visionpoint to the omnipresence of grace. Her characters cannot escape grace, try though they might.
In O'Connor's literary theology, the attributes and workings of God are incomprehensible to ordinary people. The salvific work that characters like The Misfit, Harry/Bevel, Mr. Guizac, and others perform for themselves and others often occur against their will. Frederick Crews characterized O'Connor's writing as "not finally about salvation, but about doomthe sudden and irremediable realization that there is no exit from being, for better or worse, exactly who one is" (Crews qtd. in McMullen 58). I would argue instead that O'Connor's idea of salvation is "being exactly who one is." Her characters are often shocked into recognizing unpleasant or difficult realities. Grace serves to bring about recognition of things as they are. O'Connor alluded to this when she wrote, "We should not be so prone to ignore how very divisive grace is; we should not so often forget that it cuts with the sword Christ came to bring" (O'Connor qtd. in Muller 100). Freaks, criminals, foreigners and childrenpeople on the margins of societyintroduce crises of grace into everyday life and provide those around them with the opportunity to recognize the presence of something Other than themselves.
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find," one of O'Connor's best-known works, describes a family on a trip to Florida and their encounter with an escaped criminal called The Misfit. The family members are a normal, instantly recognizable group of charactersthe loud, fussy kids; the over-worked mother with a baby; the sullen, distant father; and the nostalgic, interfering grandmother. Their lives seem insular, but no more than ours. They are jolted out of their everyday existence, however, when, after an accident caused by the grandmother and her cat, they encounter the Misfit and his henchmen. The criminals threaten their lives, but they are oddly courteous and friendly while doing sofar from the monsters portrayed earlier in a newspaper story. The Misfit creates a dual crisis for them: the physical crisis of survival and a spiritual crisis for the grandmother, as she pleads with the Misfit to spare their lives and change his ways. She tells him that she knows he's a good man at heart "I can just look at you and tell" (128). While she is saying this in a desperate attempt to save herself, her words force her to pay attention to the Misfit as a person, not just as a stereotype of a hardened criminal on the loose. She urges him to pray, saying that Jesus would help him, to which the Misfit responds that he doesn't want any help.
The Misfit then launches into an extraordinary monologue about Jesus. He says that Jesus threw everything off balance and that, except for the proof against him, his case is the same as Jesus'. He had said earlier that he was the kind of child who had to know everything, and he explains that not being able to know whether Jesus did what people claim for him has made him (the Misfit) like he is. The message of Jesus is portrayed here as one that requires absolute devotion or absolute rejection. The desire of the Misfit to know everything and his inability to confirm or deny Jesus' story has created an intractable dilemma that consumes him. He is on the verge of tears when the grandmother, through the miasma of fear that consumes her, experiences a moment of clarity and revelation. "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children," she says (132). This strange acceptance is too much for the Misfit to take and he recoils and shoots her.
The grandmother's acceptance of someone so different from her is wrenched out of her by extraordinary circumstances, and she is only partly conscious or rational as she expresses it. It forms the climax of the story and is the culmination of the interchange between the grandmother and the Misfit. This interchange incorporates all the themes of crisis, the need for perception, and the freak as teacher. The Misfit, in a sense, is the good man that's hard to find and an instrument of clarity, even as he is also a murderer. The grandmother's death is an example of another O'Connor trademark: the dramatic and irreversible consequences of revelation.
In the religious drama within the story, the Misfit acts as both Christ and anti-Christ figure. He compares himself to Christ, saying, "It was the same case with Him as me, except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me" (131). Even though the Misfit cannot dedicate himself to either path, he recognizes that there are really only two alternatives in life: belief and disbelief. Inattention and indifference to faith, the position held by most of the characters in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and many in O'Connor's other stories, are unacceptable and ultimately untenable responses. The Misfit has named himself aptlyhe believes and yet cannot accept the message of Jesus. Gilbert Muller suggests that since the Misfit finds himself unable to attach his loyalties to an overriding ethical or theological position, he finds his consolation only in amoral acts of violence (85). The inability of the Misfit to live by a faith he believes to be true makes him a surprising vehicle for grace. There can be no question, however, of O'Connor's intent. The Misfit and his gun create a moment of redemption for the grandmother, albeit against her will. Despite his amorality, his actions extract from her a recognition born out of compassion, one that invites, simultaneously, her salvation and her destruction.
"The Lame Shall Enter First" is a story illustrating the dictum that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sheppard, the main character, is a man involved in local government and in counseling youths at the nearby detention center. He is very intent on rehabilitating the young people he meets, especially a troubled boy named Rufus Johnson. Sheppard sees this work as his special mission, and he is confident of his success. His wife died a year previously and his only son, Norton, is still distraught. Sheppard refuses to recognize this, however, and constantly criticizes Norton as being stupid, selfish, and overly dramatic in his grief. Rufus comes to live with them after he is released and it is soon clear that he is a challenge to all that Sheppard believes in. Although Sheppard persuades himself that Rufus is actually touched by his charity and simply too defensive to show it, the reader sees that Rufus is mortally insulted by charity and by Sheppard's condescension. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that Sheppard stuffs himself with what he believes to be good works in order to disguise the terrifying fact of his own emptiness (165). Sheppard, who thinks of himself and his methods as bringing light and reason into Rufus' world, is blind to Rufus' resentment. Sheppard continually places Rufus above his own son, making comments in Norton's presence about his selfishness and asking Rufus to help Norton with this problem.
One day, Rufus starts talking about heaven and hell and Norton is fascinated. He has not been able to accept the agnostic platitudes his father uses in reference to his mother's death and Rufus' belief in concrete afterworlds heartens him. Rufus starts to encourage Norton, reading the Bible with him and looking through a telescope with him. He acts as an iconoclast for all of Sheppard's truisms and he refuses to be altered in the slightest. The night that Sheppard finally kicks Rufus out, he sees Norton standing at the telescope. Norton has spoken of wanting to be an astronaut and he tells his father excitedly that he sees his mother through the telescope. Rather than listening, Sheppard continues to be consumed by thoughts of Rufus and tells Norton to go to bed. Rufus returns, arrested by the police and in talking to them, Sheppard finally experiences his moment of revelation. He says self-righteously, "I did more for him than I did for my own child" (480). After the door closes, his words ring in his ears. O'Connor describes his transformation:
His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himselfA rush of agonized love for the child rushed over him like a transfusion of life. The little boy's face appeared to him transformed; the image of his salvation; all light. (481-82).
Sheppard runs up the stairs to apologize to Norton, but the "image of his salvation" has hung himself, an act O'Connor calls his "flight into space" (482). Sheppard, an agnostic who has set himself up as his own Christ, is simultaneously redeemed and shattered.
O'Connor here reiterates her theme of revelation and redemption coming too late. Norton hangs himself out of desperation and love for his mother and Sheppard runs to his son out of the same emotions. His refusal for so long to see Rufus and Norton as they are, not as he wants them to be, has doomed him to live without either of them. Like the Misfit, Rufus is certainly no angelic messenger. He brings all kinds of disruption and disturbance into Sheppard's and Norton's lives. Both the Misfit and Rufus cannot accept the traditional virtues of Christianity, but neither can they escape its power. Rufus says of the Bible (and one could imagine the Misfit concurring), "Even if I didn't believe it, it would still be true" (477). Curiously, though, he (again like the Misfit) serves as a conduit for gracea fierce grace, perhaps, but still grace. Rufus's words bring a kind of pitiless consolation to Norton and he proves instrumental to Sheppard's full realization of suffering (McMullen 111). O'Connor may not see revelation as a glorious or positive experience, but she argues, through her stories, that it is necessary. Although her characters may not agree, she considers it better to live with suffering and be aware of it than to walk blindly and smugly through life. Her readers are left with no resolution to Sheppard's crisis, suggesting that the crisis itself provides all the meaning and lesson necessary.
"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" echoes similar themes of awareness and of a messenger from outside. Its protagonist is a child, however, and the story lacks a clear moment of crisis that appears in conjunction with adult characters. The child, unlike Sheppard and the grandmother, is fascinated by religion. She doesn't necessarily like saying her prayers, but she listens closely to the folk hymns and Latin anthems that her cousins and their backcountry guests sing, even as she scorns their company. The child imagines martyrdom at bedtime, gleefully rehearsing her mauling by lions in a great arena. She ponders being a saint, but decides she is too sinful, even though to the reader, her sins are far from mortal faults.
When her cousins come back from the fair, they tell her about a freak that was "a man and a woman both" (245). She's curious and tries to puzzle out how such a thing could be. As she falls asleep, the story of the freak mingles in her imagination with a story told earlier that day about a nun calling the body "a temple of the Holy Ghost." In her dream/vision, the girl sees the freak walking back and forth and preaching, as if in a worship service, claiming that God made it that way and that it, like the people watching it, was a temple of the Holy Ghost. The next day, the child accompanies her cousins back to their Catholic school and stays there for Mass. During the Mass, her thoughts drift for a while and then she begins to pray rather mechanically, no doubt as her mother taught her. At the climax of the Mass, however, when the priest raises the Host in the monstrance, she envisions the freak in his place, saying, "I don't dispute it. This is the way He wanted me to be" (248).
Marshall Gentry draws an illuminating parallel between the child's vision of the hermaphrodite as priest and the benediction hymn her cousins sang, a line of which runs, in English, "Types and shadows have their ending/ Newer rites of grace prevail" (Gentry 66). The hermaphrodite's speech is a new ritual, enlarging and perhaps supplanting the more rigid forms of worship and religious life. While O'Connor juxtaposes the freak with the priest, she does not do so in order to generate irony between the freak as freak and someone's lofty concept of it as a temple of the Holy Ghost (Oates 146). The hermaphrodite in all its freakishness simply is a temple of the Holy Ghost and as such, it causes those who see it (and those who read about it) to revisit their definitions of what is beautiful or loved by God and society. The child sees the connection that many adults have missed: that the freak, in all its grotesque splendor, is bound up with a deeper spiritual order of suffering, acceptance of reality, and strange grace. Ironically, the child learns on her way home that preachers have inspected the carnival (because, one assumes, of the hermaphrodite) and ordered it to be shut down.
"A Temple of the Holy Ghost" elaborates O'Connor's understanding of faith and of institutional religion much more fully than the other stories. Here, the freak is not only God's unlikely messenger, but it is directly identified with God's ordained servants. This pairing can be seen as both an indictment of organized religion's self-importance and an affirmation of God's own affirmation of all creation. Although they are only mentioned in the last paragraphs, the reader sees again the self-righteous ordinary Christians demonstrating their inability to understand what they profess to believe. The preachers shut down the carnival, no doubt on charges of displaying sexual perversion, even as the child understands that all people are temples of the Holy Ghost.
O'Connor's marginal characters often act as agents of grace, and sometimes as representatives of faith, but she also creates characters that are clearly intended to point to Christ. In "The Displaced Person," she links Mr. Guizac, the immigrant Pole, and the farm's peacock with each other and with images of Christ. The peacock appears in the first sentence of the story and the characters' attitudes toward it parallel their attitudes toward Guizac. When Mrs. McIntyre complains about the displaced person to his sponsor Father Flynn, the old priest looks at the peacock spread its tale and murmurs about the Transfiguration. Mrs. McIntyre complains that Mr. Guizac did not have to come in the first place; the priest, still watching the bird, answers, "He came to redeem us" (226). Guizac, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, offers the farm inhabitants the chance to make up for their lack of interest in the mass murders occurring there. He gives them the opportunity to break out of their insular, petty lives and recognize the needs of the world outside of the farm. The peacock is a source of sheer beauty, one that is nevertheless rejected by the farm people as loud and obnoxious. Muller suggests that Guizac represents the historical suffering Christ, while the peacock implies a Christ transcendent and divine (110).
"The Displaced Person" lacks the single crisis moment of some of O'Connor's other stories. Rather, the fact of Mr. Guizac's mostly silent presence serves as a constant chance for awareness, one that Mrs. McIntyre and the others consistently reject, even to the point of colluding in killing him with a tractor. There may be no crisis moment, but Mrs. McIntyre does at one point clearly deny the possible revelation that Mr. Guizac offers. Father Flynn is talking to her about matters of faith and begins discussing Christ when she cuts in.
"Father Flynn!" she said in a voice that made him jump. "I want to talk to you about something serious!" The skin under the old man's right eye flinched. "As far as I'm concerned," she said and glared at him fiercely, "Christ was just another D.P." (229).
Dismissing the conjoined identities of Christ and Guizac prepares Mrs. McIntyre for her tacit approval of the displaced person's murder. Unlike in "The Lame Shall Enter First" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," O'Connor lingers on the after-effects of the religious crisis in her characters' lives. Once Guizac's death is perpetrated, the world loses its formerly sharp outlines and is translated into something amorphous and terrifying for those who assumed complicity in his murder (Muller 86). If the displaced person's death achieves any redemption, it is a negative oneone that requires the destruction of the farm and the purgatorial suffering of its owner. Although O'Connor makes her message clearit is dangerous and destructive to refuse grace in othersshe ends the story with the vignette of the gentle priest explaining to the bedridden Mrs. McIntyre the doctrines of the Church, indicating that a second chance for conversion may arise.
O'Connor chooses freaks and other marginal people to be her messengers, and she writes about them and about children as people who are fully aware of who and what they are, and who possess a dynamic, if mysterious, faith.1 Her child characters, the girl in "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," Bevel/Harry in "The River," Norton and to some extent Rufus in "The Lame Shall Enter First," are able to accept faith and its totalizing power without fear and without feeling the need to shape it to their comfort. For these children, acceptance of faith sometimes brings dreadful consequences. Bevel/Harry drowns himself looking for the Kingdom of Christ in the river and Norton hangs himself in an attempt to reach his mother in heaven or space. As terrible as these endings seem to adult readers, O'Connor suggests the children are rewarded for their faith and given what they seek, even as those around them are shocked into a kind of conversion. Mrs. Turpin's cry to God in "Revelation" voices what almost all adult characters feel: "Who do you think you are?" (507). The children do not ask this. They know who God is, they recognize God's messengers and if they do not understand, at least they have no fear of the uncomfortable answers that may lie at the end of their search. The child protagonists do not always understand the workings of grace, but somehow they manage to penetrate it at the end of their journeys, perhaps because they learn to accept the interrelatedness of the temporal and the spiritual and to recognize grace's presence (Muller 60).
Flannery O'Connor's argument for openness to difference, to surprise, and to reality is eloquent, if disturbing. It is easy to read her religious vision as entirely negative, calculated only to unsettle her presumably very settled readers. This view is overly simplistic. Throughout her stories, O'Connor affirms the need for crises and revelation, the value of the cast-offs of society. She does not guarantee happy endingsfar from itbut she insists that it is better to be aware of suffering than to live in a daydream. When she writes about freaks and other marginal people, Christ's lesson about feeding, clothing, and welcoming him through feeding, clothing and welcoming those in need is echoed. Her use of a child's faith as a model for adults references the gospels directly, in which Jesus tells his followers that they must have faith like a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only her child characters receive that reward. O'Connor's depiction of faith may be frightening, but with a close reading, one realizes that it is deeply grounded in the everyday, familiar words of the Bible. Her writing forces us to read those words with new eyes. Jesus may have "thown everything off balance," but O'Connor tells us that what we call balance is nothing but blindness and denial. The strange, incomprehensible grace that Christ and his messengers offer forms the path to true salvation, even though it may shatter all our ideals and expectations along the way.Note
1 For further examples of freaks/outsiders as messengers, see "The Displaced Person," "Revelation," and "The River." Also, Rufus' line to Norton about where he'd end up if he died"Right now you'd go where she is, but if you lived long enough, you'd go to hell (p. 462)"is in keeping with O'Connor's theme of children as not yet blind in their faith.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. 1986.
McMullen, Joanne Halleran. Writing Against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1996.
Muller, Gilbert H. Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. 1972.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1971.
Oates, Joyce Carol. New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature. New York: The Vanguard Press. 1974.
Anna Woodiwiss was a religion and political science double major at Swarthmore College. She currently lives in DC and is looking for jobs in the House of Representatives, having just finished a stint as deputy finance director for a Florida congressional campaign. She looks forward to attending graduate school in a few years and plans to study international human rights and humanitarian crises from religious and political/legal angles. Her approach to writing varies depending on how interested she is in the subject, and how long she's procrastinated before starting. She says, "If I'm really interested in the subject, time flies, and the words all come out right. I enjoy playing with words, and I often take as much pleasure in the turn of a phrase as in the construction of an argument. I do think it's important to leave yourself enough time to sink into the actual writing of the paper. All the preparation is worthwhile when I can sit down and just write for hours. I love that." This paper was the winner of the Jesse H. Holmes Prize in Religion .