Flannery O'Connor's Quest

Article excerpt

Flannery O'Connor's fiction, written in the mid-twentieth century, depicts grotesque characters who are hard of hearing and almost spiritually blind. Consequently, violence is often used to foster their spirituality. In Mystery and Manners, O'Connor describes her Christian belief as "the engine that makes her perception operate" (109) Such a statement may cause the reader to expect a direct emphasis on religious matters in her fiction, but she generally depicts a world characterized by greed, pride and a lack of moral vision. The tension between what the writer says and what she portrays in her stories produces a need to reconcile her Christian faith with what John Hawkes calls the devil's voice in her fiction ("Flannery O'Connor's Devil" 396).

Speaking of this duality in her writing, O'Connor says her subject is the action of grace in a territory held largely by the devil (Mystery 117). Yet, in spite of the devil's large territory, she believes that man is still redeemable when his actions are assisted by grace (Mystery 196-197). Grace is Divine will which acts for the spiritual well being of mankind. It is a supernatural gift of God to intellectual creatures for their eternal salvation. It is therefore an expression of God's generosity and mercy. God's grace draws man toward an infinite truth, the truth of the divinity of Christ and man's identification with Him. It also illuminates that truth. When it is imparted to him, man "sees" and appreciates the reality of Christ.

Grace manifests itself in various ways in O'Connor's fiction. It operates through a water stain in "The Enduring Chill," the opening of the sky in "Revelation" and a fiery vision in Parker's Back." As different as these manifestations are, they all employ some aspect of the natural world, the world which O'Connor calls manners, as opposed to the supernatural, or what she calls mystery. This is in keeping with her belief that "grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human and even the hypocritical"(The Habit of Being 389).

Her characters are grotesque because they think they are self sufficient, but never because they are totally depraved or without hope of redemption. Though myopic and unaware of their spiritual potential, they are inclined toward good, for God's goodness, expressed through grace, pulls them toward redemption. They do not participate in the redemptive act through Christian beliefs and rituals. Instead, they take trips that lead them to violence, displacement and sometimes death. Those trips intimate that life is a quest, painful and difficult, but moving mysteriously toward blessedness. The degree to which her characters understand that determines the outcome of their quests. Violence shakes some of them into an awareness of their inability to save themselves, and they achieve redemption. Others do not achieve it because they deny the existence of spiritual reality and abandon the inclination to follow the promptings of grace. For others, the quest is incomplete because they are too nearsighted to see beyond the literal meaning of their journeys. They cannot fuse what O'Connor calls mystery and manners.

The Achieved Quest

The fusion of mystery and manners is the reality to be apprehended in "The Artificial Nigger," the short story in which the quest is most fully achieved. Embodied in his efforts to teach his grandson Nelson humility by exposing him to the dangers of false pride, Mr. Head's quest becomes an experience in which the secular and the spiritual are synthesized. The process, however, is difficult because the protagonist's impulse to embrace mystery is diluted by the distractions of the city as well as his rationalism and perverted vision. In spite of his difficulties, Mr. Head's efforts to teach Nelson a lesson lead him to his own spiritual awakening. The story works at the realistic, allegorical, moral, and anagogic levels. The shifting of levels becomes obvious to the reader, but Mr. …