Prose fiction was born Protestant. It is a child of the Enlightenment, and though it has some exotic forebears—romance most nearly, drama and poetry further back—it could only have seen the light of day because of its parent, journalism. Whatever the novel does, it gives us information. The traditional novelist believes that narrative explains and illumines, that we follow him for the number of hours we do because in tracing the ins and outs of a character’s actions, in learning the inner secrets that constitute his character’s motivations, we will experience the display, the demonstration that we believe we need in order to enable us to know. Most storytellers believe that a story has a line, although in a lecture Flannery O’Connor recalled this story about Henry James, who would write to someone who had sent him something he didn’t like by saying, “Your subject is very good, and you have dealt with it straightforwardly.” If this line is not a straight one, at least it is a line that seems to be unbroken. However elaborate the logic, there is a logic the writer believes in: something happened to the character because of something that happened before; the character did something related to something he did before and something he may do again. He learns by seeing and doing, and we learn by seeing and doing with him. There is suspense, but this is in the realm of action rather than character. Prose fiction is bourgeois in its origins, and above all the bourgeois temperament believes that life is knowable and if not predictable, at least it is not a series of unpredictable shocks.
For most prose writers before the twentieth century, vision was granted to their characters through a series of enlightening actions, through suffering, through a gradual accrual of wisdom or the full flowering of a good nature or a good heart. Even Dostoevsky’s characters, for all their wild oscillations, learn in ways that are traceable to their early appearances in the fiction. But how do Flannery O’Connor’s characters learn and grow? Who are the teachers, and what is their pedagogy?
Flannery O’Connor is not a child of the Enlightenment. Her enemy is always bourgeois respectability, and although she is the opposite of a bohemian, and has not much interest in the aristocracy, it is ordinary law-abidingness and common sense that she sees as the true death dealers in her world. The Protestant virtues of thrift, temperance, probity, sexual clean living exist in her fiction only to be exploded and destroyed. Good behavior, even good intentions, are in her fiction almost always a blind behind which self-satisfaction grows and prospers, fattening the good behaver until the flesh grows up around his piggy eyes. O’Connor does not believe that in every day and every way we are getting better and better. You can only imagine the kind of scorn she would heap if, walking into a bookstore, she saw a section sign-posted Self-Improvement. For she does not believe that the self can improve the self. She would even reject the term “improvement.” She would say that the self is redeemed.
Does this make her a Catholic Writer? Certainly, Catholics have claimed her as a Catholic writer, and she has served as a kind of bogeyman for Catholic women writers who have come after her. A dream that I had about her will illustrate this. I dreamed that Flannery O’Connor and I were speaking together on a panel. Her hair was perfectly coifed; she was wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and a perfectly crisp white blouse, and perfectly shined penny loafers. My hair was filthy, my slip was showing, my stockings were ripped. In the dream she said to me, “Your problem is that you don’t believe in perfection.” And I said to her, because it was my dream, “I do believe in perfection, but you think perfection is flawlessness, and I think it’s completeness.” Well, that just shows how she can scare a Catholic girl, because we do think of her as a Catholic writer. But why is she a Catholic writer? What is the difference between her perception and the perceptions of Protestant Fundamentalism?
For one thing, the terms she uses come to her from a Catholic rather than a Protestant tradition. The most important of these terms are “Mystery” and “Grace.” In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she says, “The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of its characters, or by a believable imitation of a way of life, or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story for him to occupy himself with. That is not to say that he doesn’t have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with these only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”
Whatever beliefs she professed as an orthodox Catholic, her fiction suggests that not only is human fate mysterious, human behavior is as well, and for this reason all notions of reward and punishment are entirely beside the point for her. This, I believe, separates her from Protestant Fundamentalists. Her characters may be deeply moved by the fear of hellfire but she is interested in hellfire only as it interests them. Even the terms of reward and punishment are difficult to discern in her fiction. Many of her characters have soul-expanding experiences that end in death. Are the characters, then, said to be rewarded or punished? Is Nelson, the fat dull child of the do-gooder social worker father, who is cloaked in a noble mourning invisible to his father, rewarded or punished in “The Lame Shall Enter First” by the death he achieves when he tries to join his dead mother among the stars, urged by the wily Satanic crippled boy who will not take Nelson’s father’s good intentions for what they are? Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” is gored by a bull: is this her comeuppance or a rapture of ecstasy? Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is smacked in the face by the pocketbook of a furious black woman wearing a hat identical to hers: she meets her end, but is it a punishment for racist condescension or the corridor to paradise?
The very unanswerability of these questions, and the fact that the characters’ fates are random, disproportionate, and surprising, puts them smack in the corral of mystery and outside the territory of motivation. The idea of human happiness, human prosperity, is untraceable. If we look at the endings of O’Connor’s greatest stories, we see that the characters, most of them miserable and entirely unlikable, are often treated to a bounty that nothing in their lives could have suggested they deserved. And although we have seen and known them as clearly as any character in any fiction written by anyone who has ever held a pen (she reminds us in her essays that a fiction writer’s job is, after all, incarnational and that ideas can only be apprehended through the senses), we follow these characters to a world in which sensory experience is only the first step.
For all their joylessness, these characters, broken apart or exploded by shock, violence, and the presence of death, often enter a realm of sheer joy. For all her austere and styptic beauty, O’Connor often grants her characters a lyrical beneficence, their reward for their loss of decency. Mrs. May’s goring is a great love scene: “She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. . . . The entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.” Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” runs to get help for his stricken foolish mother and learns love in the process: “The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into a world of guilt and sorrow.” The child Norton’s death is described in this way: “the child hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space.” And Mrs. Turpin, in “Revelation,” is catapulted into a mystical vision by a girl who throws a book at her in a doctor’s office, outraged by her stupid conversation, calling her an “old warthog from hell.” But her reward for it is this:
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but unblinking on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
This is not the world of justice, but the realm of Grace, where nothing can be earned or planned.
In discussing her own work, O’Connor said: “I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as the story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in a story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.”