Flannery O’Connor was ‘possibly the most theologically alert writer of the 20th century’

Opinion: She felt a strong solidarity and compassion for searching unbelievers

‘To Flannery O’Connor, faith was fragile and thinking you had lost your faith was “an experience that in the long run belongs to faith”.’ Photograph:  APIC/Getty Images

‘To Flannery O’Connor, faith was fragile and thinking you had lost your faith was “an experience that in the long run belongs to faith”.’ Photograph: APIC/Getty Images

 

The American novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor died 50 years ago on August 3rd. A significant voice in US fiction, she is also highly regarded as a theologian, and her work is informed by her strong Roman Catholic faith. Her fiction is set in the South (she was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925) and she sometimes described her style as “Southern grotesque”.

She took a degree in social sciences from Georgia State College for Women and at 21 went to the University of Iowa to study journalism. She won a place in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the university, where she mixed with budding writers and gifted lecturers.

At the age of 26 she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the autoimmune disease that killed her father. After the diagnosis she returned to the ancestral home in Baldwin County, Georgia. Expected to live another five years, she survived for 14.

Although confined to a sheltered existence, she had an extraordinary knowledge of human behaviour. As a devout Catholic living in the Bible Belt Protestant South she studied Catholic theology and lectured on faith and literature, travelling extensively despite her health problems.

Theologically alert

O’Connor’s published essays and letters showed her to be possibly the most theologically alert fiction writer of the 20th century. She read Thomas Aquinas every night and wrote reviews of at least 100 religious books for local Catholic periodicals. “I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,” she once said.

A tendency she perceived in Catholicism of demanding instant answers exasperated her. To her, faith was a “walking in darkness” rather than a theological explanation of mystery. As a result of her long battle with sickness she knew about suffering and sorrow, and an awareness of possible early death gave urgency to her tone.

She employed a kind of shock strategy in her fiction. When your society does not share your faith, “you have to make your vision apparent by shock”. Her twin targets were the defence mechanisms of a secular culture and its opposite, an overconfident religiosity, both of which she jolted with a certain extremism of plot and style.

She told stories of fundamentalist Bible Belt figures, encompassing characters of ferocious faith and of fierce atheism, with the intention of pushing her readers “towards mystery and the unexpected”, reflecting her belief that people’s imaginations needed to be enlarged.

O’Connor did not hesitate to distort appearances to show a hidden truth, which invariably was revealed by means of what one commentator described as “a divine explosion”.

Annihilating light

As she put it: “I don’t know if anyone can be converted without seeing themselves in a blasting, annihilating light, a blast that will last a lifetime.” She said of one of her stories that it was not so much a story of conversion as of self-knowledge, “which I suppose has to be the first step in conversion”.

Her stories are about conversion, about a character changing, which she attributed to “the action of grace”. She emphasised the conflict involved in the encounter with grace. Faith, for her, could be emotionally disturbing, often causing upheaval before bringing ultimate joy.

She felt a strong solidarity and compassion for searching unbelievers, and had little time for cocksure faith. To her, faith was fragile and thinking you had lost your faith was “an experience that in the long run belongs to faith”.

It was not just a question of knowledge but involved self- giving as well. “Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge,” she wrote, and the surest way to nourish it was in how you lived your life.

Brian Maye is a journalist and historian

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