“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”
The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor
I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.
Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism. However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature. As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable. That’s some achievement.
The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”
I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself). That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.
I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.
I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill. She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate. She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.