Flannery O’Connor: Fall from Grace and Religious Motifs in Short Fiction

Flannery O’Connor highlights Christian motifs throughout her writing. From ideas and stories familiar to the Bible to death and religious perspectives, O’Connor’s writings suggest her religious fundamentals and understanding of God. In this way, Christian motifs can be observed through her contribution to American literature. O’Connor’s writings have distinct and unique qualities. She expresses her view of God in her writings, but she also writes about God’s antagonist (Satan). However, her view of God is not always clearly represented in the text. Her approach to these themes is untraditional and can be misconstrued by readers.  O’Connor is well aware that her writings may not be widely accepted by some. They may simply analyze her work as a literary presentation or only at face value. In attempt to subtlety create a gap between what she believes, O’Connor communicates what the reader can understand. This eccentric style of writing can draw unfavorable critiques. However, exploring and understanding her work from a religious perspective, O’Connor’s literature is no longer considered grotesque. It represents fall from grace, how an illusive antagonist can manipulate the characters through human weakness.

            Fall from grace is a theme observed in O’Connor’s writings. This includes the short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the River, and Good Country People. Analyzing these works, readers can observe the religious undertones and the concept of “fall-from-grace”. Specific context, imagery, and wordplay of dialogue between characters are consistent throughout these works. However, it may be difficult for readers to understand the differences in context. O’Connor’s obscure writing is not only to the layperson but also to other literary professionals. This is evident by her peers’ critiques of her writing, technique, and meaning. They draw from her school presentations, essays, conversations, and interviews to show that she wants readers to understand ideas that can be misconceived.  As a result, many call O’Connor the “anchored genre of fiction allegory” (Schaum 2) while others title her the, “Biblical illusionist”, (Zornado, 35). Despite how scholars and researchers describe the works of O’Connor, her style and artistic expression has coined her a classic American literary writer.

 Religious leaders and Christians also criticize O’Connor for portraying religion in an offensive manner.  They often site this for her use of violence and deception.  Religious peers and readers with similar beliefs write scathing analyses criticizing her viciousness. This is specifically observed in A Good Man is Hard to Find. In this story, the Misfit murders a family of six- a baby, two children, the grandmother, and parents. Unlike the other stories, however, A Good Man is Hard to Find does not have strong religious suggestions. Instead they are subtle. Until the family is confronted by escaped murders, there are no religious indications. Only after an assailant walks the father into the woods, the grandmother asks the Misfit, “do you pray”? (141). She goes on to encourage the Misfit to ask Jesus for help (142). This spurs a dialogue between the two concerning Christianity and religious beliefs. Here the Misfit admits that “Jesus thrown everything off balance” (142). Through the short conversation, the reader observes the differing views regarding religion between the Misfit and grandmother. The Misfit is associated with evil, the trickster, or the devil, (Schaum 2). In this scene, the Misfit provides reasoning of the original sin between Adam and Eve of the Bible, an Old Testament story in Genesis. However, the physical violence that occurs, the destruction of a family causes shock and awe to the reader. In this way O’Connor uses violence and death, techniques atypical among Christian writers. This makes O’Connor both unconventional and controversial.  

Religious suggestions and motifs are also observed in O’Connor’s short story, the River. In this story the main character, Harry, misunderstands the concept of religious baptism. The first day with his new babysitter, Harry is introduced to religion. “He found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter name Jesus Christ”, (149). Without explanation, she asks him if he is baptized and if not would he want to. However, she does not know that Harry is confused about the concept of religious baptism and sacrament. He wants to be healed, he wants to cure is mother from her drinking and partying, and he also wants to see Jesus. A Preacher by the name of Bevel, baptizes Harry giving description to the relationship between Christian faith and the running river. However at the end, the young boy drowns himself in the river. It suggests the misunderstandings that can occur in religion. Yet it draws into the different concepts of religion.  “Regarding baptism’s significance for Harry/Bevel… this loss functions as a kind of emotional block that prevents them from aching an illuminating experience of grace”, (Zornado, 35).

Similar religious suggestions are observed in Good Country People. The antagonist in the story, Mr. Pointer is a missionary Bible salesman. However, this is just a form of deception to win the respect and hospitality of the Hopewell residence. Mr. Pointer utilizes this disguised occupation to encourage goodwill from the Hopewell’s. Upon meeting Mrs. Hopewell he asks her, “I know you believe in Christian service”, (248). Although he does this to encourage the family to purchase a Bible, it opens up a debate between Mr. Pointer and the residence. The topics include Christian service, good country people, and honesty. From here we learn about Hulga. She has no religious affiliation, no religious believes, and only takes things at face value. The reader realizes this when she states, “some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see there is nothing to see”, (252). This blindness is her fate as she is humiliated by a door to door Bible salesman. He tricks her with promises of love, disfigures her by taking away her glasses and wooden leg, then humiliates her by leaving without these things. Consequently, her religious blindness and lack of spirituality is her fall from grace. Due to these misgivings she is forced to face these disillusions.

“Evident if we would only be willing, alert, and flexible enough to see Lucifer doesn’t deceive us, we deceive ourselves” (Schaum 19). Deception is led by trickery which is characteristic of Satan or the devil. In the story of the Original Sin, Eve is encouraged to consume the forbidden fruit by Satan disguised as a snake. The trickery of the devil is the original sin and is the first fall from grace that can be observed by man. It is also the first sin committed by man. Understanding O’Conner, her Christian motifs, grace, one can better observe the religious suggestions and conflicts between good and evil. Through the tool of deception, many of the main characters fall from grace are easily deceived by those around them, having conflicting views regarding religion between the protagonist and the antagonist. In Good Country People, Mr. Pointer perpetrated himself as a Bible salesman, who is wielding Christian values and concepts of goodness. However, Mr. Pointers protagonist, Huga has opposing views. “In my economy … I’m saved and you are damned but I told you I don’t believe in God” (257).

From the short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, the antagonist, the Misfit does not believe in Jesus or God. In many ways, it doesn’t seem as if he is subject to anything good. However, he surprises the reader by his honestly and matter of fact nature. Unlike the antagonist in the other stories, he does nothing wrong except kill the grandmother and her family. He does not attempt to deceive nor trick the captive family. Ironically, he doesn’t even take the liberty to rob or steal from his captives. When the grandmother encourages him to just take her money so that she may live, again he is honest and there are no tricks involved. The Misfit turns down the grandmother’s money stating, “there never was a body that could give the undertaker a tip” (142). Not only do the grandmother and Misfit have opposing views on religion, they are also opposite on concepts of truthfulness and deception.

Finally, in the River, the opposing views can be observed in Harry, his family, Mrs. Connin, and the Preacher. Harry’s parents are upset when they learned Harry was baptized and did not encourage this sacrament. It indicates the religious feelings of the family in their disapproval of Christianity and possible disbelief of God. Mrs. Connin introduced him to religion and encouraged Harry to receive Christ. Yet Mrs. Connin fell short of her instruction. Neither she, nor the preacher informed Harry the meaning of baptism that could be understood by a young boy.  “Oddly enough, he refuses to be placed at the center of the text, refusing the role of spiritual authority, audience, and text clearly needed” (Zornado 37).

O’Connor’s writing technique of lighthearted comedy and her propulsion of the characters towards a spiritual encounter is obscure to readers who are unfamiliar with her work or lack understanding of Christian beliefs.  Through the use of comedy or word-play, the reader can better observe the fall from grace through human error and sin. In the short story, Good Country People, the main character Hulga is misguided and falls from grace because of her lack of spirituality and her ego. Hulga is manipulated by the self-proclaimed Manly Pointer. However, she is self-evolved. She consistently reminds the reader that she is intelligent; she has a P.H d and is a scholar of philosophy. However, Hulga is easily tricked by the antagonist Mr. Pointer. This can be observed when he asked her, “You ever eat a chicken that was two days old?” (256). Hulga does not recognize the word-play and falls further into his crate of deception. Sadistic or grotesque humor can also be observed in the stories ending. To teach Hulga a lesson and put her in her place after she refused his advances, Mr. Pointer steals Hulga’s leg. The conclusion is humorous and comedic. O’Connor believes the narrative does not need to spell out her meaning; instead, she believes that some things can be understood in the text without being written out.  She is not oppressing or teasing individuals who have one leg. Instead she is suggesting the irony of the situation as well as the fall from grace of Hulga. She has no religious affiliation, lacks spirituality, and is an educated scholar. None the less, the falls victim to the antagonist who takes her leg and proves her lack of intellect. Readers familiar with the analysis of literature and academic tradition expect ideas to be discoverable in the text.  O’Connor does not follow such traditions when writing of the characters’ opportunities or acceptance of grace.  Instead, she expects the reader to intuit her point. 

Trickery and deception by the story antagonist can also be observed in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find. Here, the grandmother has difficulty believing that the Misfit is indeed a misfit. Throughout their encounter she continues to question his good qualities, family, and religious believes. Despite her list of possible qualities, the Misfit offers her nothing in return. “You shouldn’t call yourself a misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell”, (138). Once the grandmother was introduced to the misfit, she continued to misjudge him and his inherent evil. She continues to plead for him to show kindness and mercy. However, he remains unchanged. She does this until she begins to discuss Jesus and religion. Even then, the Misfit still manages to trick and deceive the grandmother. Although she at first encouraged the Misfit to turn to God and religion for help and support, after hearing the Misfit’s interpretation of the original sin, she too questions her religion. When the misfit remarks that only Jesus rose from the dead; the grandmother responses, “maybe he didn’t raise from the dead” (142). From the use of trickery and deception, the grandmother believed not only that the Misfit was good; he somehow encouraged her to lose her faith. Without understanding and recognizing the religious suggestions throughout the short story, the average readier may not have picked up on this. Like various scholars, they may only find violent themes within these short stories instead of their fall from grace. Before being murdered by the Misfit and his band, the grandmother was no longer a Christian due to her unbelief. This further questions the stories conclusion and religious themes. Does the grandmother still go to heaven although she lost her faith in Christ just moments before her death? Thus, the Misfit “becomes the disruptive force that paradoxically makes possible social and spiritual renewal” (Schaum 4).

Incidents of trickery and deception can also be observed in the short story, the River. In this story, not only does Harry misconstrue the concept of God and Baptism, he also utilizes forms of trickery and deception. This can be observed in the first scene when he lies to the babysitter informing her that his name is Bevel. Later, he deceives his baby sitter again when he steals her most valued and prized possession- the Christian children’s book and family heirloom. “He had managed to get the book inside his inner lining without her seeing him… now it made his coat hang down a little farther on one side than the other” (150). The trickery and deception by Harry indicates that his lies and thievery are his short comings and his fall from grace. Although Harry was just a child, he also falls victim to his own trickery or misunderstanding. He also had misgivings that made him similar to many O’Connor characters. Like the other characters Harry had faults that indicate the plural dynamics of good an evil not only in people but greater society.

In A Good Man is hard to find, the grandmother thinks of herself as a Christian, she is good, and considers herself a lady. She is careful about her clothes. Even before leaving on the trip with the family to Florida, she makes sure that she is dressed appropriately and eloquently as expected of someone such as herself. Here she states, “anyone seeing her dead … would know at once that she was a lady” (422). In the beginning of the story she has no real spirituality. She is stubborn and thinks often of her son and their children. She doesn’t seem to have a grasp or appropriate concept of reality. She is nagging, criticizing, and apparently annoying to her son and her grandchildren. She blames this on society of the day. The grandmother constantly criticizes others as the source of problems and insists that, “In my time […] people did right” (423). In addition, she appears to be sheltered from poverty and other social problems. This can be observed when they stop to eat as well in her naivety and assumption in what makes a good man. In this story, the grandmother is a hypocrite. She is unable to see the reality of murder when she is faced with it. She is unable to tell the difference between Good and Evil. Although the Misfit is an escaped convict and murder she continuously stresses the Misfit good nature. She attempts to convenience him and also herself, that he is a good man. She can tell by looking at him, she can tell he is Christian, and she can tell that he is good. She even involves his family and parentage, when she explains, you “must come from nice people” (427). This could be done out of fear, however her nativity was observed in the beginning of the story when she so stubbornly brought her cat on the long car trip. In return, he robbed the grandmother of her eternal salvation. The Misfit created doubt, fear, and concern within her when he began to massacre her family. The Misfit is “a sinister literalist who is unable to believe in Christ because he wasn’t there”, (Schaum 19). He was the antagonist who represented the evil nature of humanity. While the grandmother had her faults as well, she attempt to encourage spirituality, religion, and the concept of good will unto him. She did this in the hope to save her life, however it was all in vain as her soul remains unsecure and in limbo between believe and nonbelief of Christianity. 

O’Connor’s works are filled with religion themes and motifs that characterize her literary style during this era. She continues to allow her character to face evil, Satan, and trickery by the evil doers. Many readers are unprepared for this finds her literature to be gothic and full of death and violence. Tragedies continue to be an inevitable conclusion in all her works. In a Good Man is Hard to find, all of the characters die at the hand of escaped murders. In the short story, the River, the main character Harry drowns himself on his quest to find God. Lastly, in Good Country People, Hulga is humiliated by an impersonating Bible sales man. The thief runs off with her leg and her pride. He makes her into the fool that the reader perceived her to be since the beginning of the story. “For O’Connor’s religious “pretenders,” a moment of religious grace–a revelation of Truth–often does come, but at a devastating price” (Cook).

Flannery O’Connor was a scholar and attended religious studies in South Georgia. This perspective and outlook to religion can be observed during these years as it is reflected throughout her short stories. Grace is an important theme to theology. Grace is associated with many good things such as Godliness. As one scholar suggests, individuals receive God’s grace through faith and believe. The theme of faith and believe is consistent in many of her short stories including the three that were studied and analyzed. Grace means “God’s love for, and forgiveness of, humanity” (Day). The theme of grace, and humanities fall from it, presents to be a conflict for this writer created a new way to idealize and understand religion. In this way, she encourages others to obtain and sustain grace through literature. Through her pieces, she is encouraging others find grace, to live by it, and hold on to it. Therefore, through Christian motif she is encouraging change not only in the individual but also society. Death is a mystery, God is a mystery, and Satan is a mystery. They all represent the super natural, death, and the paranormal. O’Connor stated that, “for all its horror, has been found by God to be worth dying for” (146). All people must die. They must also face the concepts of religion, spirituality, and heavenly authority. It is the life process and also evolves fundamental questions that many humans have asked during their life time. The unknown can never be understood. Harry attempts to find understanding by seeking God. However found death instead. The grandmother, on the other hand attempts to find refuge and safety through her faith. However in the end her faith crumbled at the trickery of the Misfit. Ironically, Hulga discovered faith when deceived and tricked by Mr. Pointer. Here she says, “it was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously in his” (260).

Flannery O’Connor is an extraordinary writer of her time. She had the gift and ability to take a topic such as grace and apply it to literature that is considered violent and grotesque. Many readers are unable to observe the Christian motifs found throughout all her work. In stead, many are thrown off by humor, comedy, and word play. Readers are able to observe the human dimensions in all her characters making them real. All of her characters fell from grace, they either had large ego’s, were liars, or easily deceived and manipulated by the things around them. O’Connor teaches us through her work that things do not often appear as they seem. In many instances beauty can be found in tragedy, and ugliness can be stained by literature and art. Through the work of O’Connor readers can find the grace in the grotesque using themes and motifs based around Christian concepts.

 

 

 

 Work Cited

 

  1. Cook, D. “Light and Shadow: Religious Grace in Two Stories by Flannery O’Connor Read more: http://mediaspecialist.org/cooklight.html

    2.  Day, M. “Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Code of Manners.” Journal of Southern Religion. (2001): n. page. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://jsr.fsu.edu/2001/dayart.htm&gt;.

    3. O’ Connor, F. A Good Man is Hard to Find. New York, New York: Signet Classic, 1955. Print. 

  1. Schaum, M. “Erasing Angel: The Lucifer-Trickster Figure in Flannery O’Connors short fiction.” Southern Literary Journal. 33.1 (2000): n. page. Print. <http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/2010/175/etexts/oconnor_good-man/33.1schaum.html&gt;. 
  1. Zornado, J. “A Becoming Habit: Flannery O’Connor Intended Objective and the Unknowing.” Religion and Literature. 29.2 (1997): 27-59. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <http://digitalcommons.ric.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1246&context=facultypublications&sei-redir=1&referer=http://scholar.google.com/scholar?start=20&q=flannery+o%27connor+lessons+of+grace&hl=en&as_sdt=0,11
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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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One Response to Flannery O’Connor: Fall from Grace and Religious Motifs in Short Fiction

  1. Pingback: Analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” | ElMonzon.com

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