Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).
Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.
It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.
I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negation—hence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).
In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’t—here’s some summer reading for you.
This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern river—with lethal consequences.
Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.
Confirmation—“The Enduring Chill”
A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.
Eucharist—“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”
The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.
The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.
Confession—“The Lame Shall Enter First”
At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.
In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.
Holy Orders—Wise Blood
What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.
Unction—“A Good Man is Hard to Find”
If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”
I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it is—a few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.
Lots of peacocks.