Although the life of Flannery O’Connor was quite short, she was able to contribute a great deal to literature. Her two novels and numerous short stories as well as her essays and speeches have puzzled and entertained readers and critics for years. Grace through violence is a habitual theme in O’Connor’s stories. It is rather easy to dismiss her writing as too morbid or depressing because of the brutality, but there is method to O’Connor’s madness. There has been much discussion as to why she used so much violence in her work. The acts of violence she describes in her stories vary and are not always an actual physical attack against another person, but more a violation of something sacred; yet all quite abrupt and shocking, giving the stories additional substance, but more importantly, serving as a catalyst for change for her imperfect characters.
Just as the violent act of crucifying Jesus brought (undeserved) grace to His followers, the violence in Flannery O’Connor’s stories contributes to the recurring theme of grace in her characters. Along with the violent behavior comes a humbling of the character, a chance to come to a realization, an epiphany. For the reader this is an “opportunity to peer into the soul of the character.” In the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Misfit and his gang have killed the whole family, right down to the baby, except the Grandmother. Just before the Misfit kills her, the Grandmother becomes humble and realizes all she has done wrong to get them to this point. She tries to reach out to the Misfit, but he shoots her anyway and leaves her slumped over in a very unladylike way. She dies, but she receives the opportunity of obtaining grace first. Speaking of this story, O’Connor says “you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.” The author uses these moments for the characters to take a good hard look at themselves, but perhaps it is meant to give the reader cause to stop and contemplate about his or her own life.
There are many opinions as to why there must be a violent event in her stories, and according to O’Connor, “the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.”
Some critics do not accept this as legitimate reasoning. According to Brian Abel Ragen in his essay “Grace and Grotesques: Recent Books on Flannery O’Connor,” “her critics have developed, expanded, and sometimes rejected O’Connor’s self-analysis.” Frederick Asals and Marshall Bruce Gentry consider “O’Connor’s grotesques as something positive,…revealing the development of character or pointing toward some transcendence.” Carol Schloss, however, argues that the “offers of grace” in O’Connor’s work are not “clearly presented.”
Without the violent conflict in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Displaced Person,” there wouldn’t be a story, or at the least these stories would not be as thought-provoking and would not be considered good examples of literary works. Wyndham Lewis writes in the introduction to his collection of short stories “Rotting Hill,” “If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I despise rot.” Perhaps this is another explanation as to the reason some of the issues are present in O’Connor’s literature. Many of her themes are controversial, but the fact that this is quoted in her own essay gives a little insight into her true feelings about such subjects.
In her essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor provides another rationale for her use of violence. “We have become so flooded with sorry fiction based on…the notion that fiction must represent the typical, that in the public mind the deeper kinds of realism are less and less understandable.” This statement implies that she enjoyed using these fierce “offers of grace” because they were not typical and she was not interested in writing “sorry fiction.” Violence is a difficulty that many can associate with and O’Connor’s stories have a way of keeping the audience captivated by telling of things that could happen and be related to by the reader, yet are just enough over the top to still be shocking to most.
The violence in O’Connor’s stories also sometimes physically happens to one character but causes a different character to have the moment of grace. The mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is attacked by a woman with whom she and her son had been riding on the bus. This attack causes the mother to have a stroke. Her son, Julian, thinks he is a much better person than his mother and resents her for her bigotry and for all she has done for him. As his mother falls to the sidewalk Julian has his moment of clarity. He cries “Darling, sweetheart, wait!” As he runs for help “the tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.” When Julian realizes that his mother may die he can see for the first time he truly loves her and how wrong he has been in his treatment of her.
The demise of the character Harry in “The River” is another type of shocking act demonstrated in O’Connor’s work. The little boy has a difficult home life. While his mother is recuperating from a hangover one day, he goes to a baptizing with his babysitter. The preacher illustrates the way to the Kingdom, telling the gathering to “lay it (their trouble) in that River of Blood, lay it in that River of Pain, and watch it move away toward the Kingdom of Christ.” The next day young Harry goes back to the river and drowns himself. Harry deems that this is the way to escape his unfortunate life and suffering and the way to the grace one receives from Christ. While this type of violence is not the norm in O’Connor’s writing, it is an example of a character having a moment of clarity, or in this case, the character believes he is having a moment of clarity.
The characters in Flannery O’Connor’s literary works are flawed. The main characters are typically hypocritical, racist, and small-minded. Many times, he or she senses they are better than others, as seen with Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” The Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Mrs. Turpin in “Revelations” believe they are good Christian people and not a bit racist, even as they are making racist comments. These types of characters are seen repeatedly in O’Connor’s writing. These characters are a reflection of the real world, as all human beings are flawed. The violent acts in her literary works are sometimes physical acts against another person, physical acts against the self, or violations of the boundaries of trust and love. However the reader sees it, the end result is similar-the characters sometimes die, but before the end of the story a character will have THE moment of great understanding and this could bring about a chance for the reader to have his or her own moment of grace.