Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Sacramental Irony of Flannery O'Connor

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Sacramental Irony of Flannery O'Connor

Article excerpt

Whenever a writer commits himself publicly to a position of theological dogma, he can expect a certain predictable mode of critical analysis to be applied to his work. And when the writer goes further to declare--extra-textually--that his theological convictions are not only present and significant in his work, but that they are also inevitable and effective, he guarantees such a critical approach.

It is an approach in which, once the writer's given dogmatic attitudes and beliefs are known, the critic sets about indicating the degree of correspondence between the theology and the fiction. Symbols, for example, both overt and obscure, are analyzed as supporting, with varying success, precisely articulated views of man's basic nature and destiny. Of course, when the writer's theology has been codified within an historical organized religion, the job of the critic using this "correspondence" approach is rendered quite simple. He need only learn the essential doctrine and then, by treating the given piece of writing as a jigsaw puzzle, fit its literary elements together to yield a reproduction of the doctrine.

Now it frequently happens that some theological concepts within that doctrine are, in their articulation, capable of analogy with critical understandings of literary art. One such analogue is the concept of "sacramentality." Most organized religions which use a sacramental system interpret the sacramental as the outward sign of inner reality. Literary criticism uses the term "metaphorical" in much the same sense, with I. A. Richards's "vehicle" and "tenor" corresponding to "outward sign" and "inner reality" respectively. It is when the vehicle of literary metaphor is stretched on the Procrustean bed of the "inner reality" of theological dogma in the name of literary "sacramentality" that the weakness of this kind of critical analysis becomes apparent.

Much criticism of the work of Flannery O'Connor has been of this type, and for the understandable reason that O'Connor has gone out of her way, as it were, to ensure that it would be so. Her extra-textual statements on her theological orthodoxy are strong and uncompromising, (1) and undoubtedly they account for the somewhat uniform criticism O'Connor has received, especially from her co-religionists. (2)

I suggest that "sacramentality," when applied to literature, should be understood as an interpretive concept, and, therefore, directly dependent for its validity upon the tools of critical analysis. O'Connor's fiction is indeed sacramental, but critics' easy reference of its literary power to the impact of orthodoxy has robbed it of much of its inherently literary richness. In the following analysis I shall be concerned with illustrating an understanding of sacramentality as an enriching characteristic of satiric irony, and with establishing the artistic achievement of O'Connor's use of it.

It is the writer of non-satiric Utopias who will tell us what he thinks man ought to be. But the ironic or satiric writer uses his vision of what man ought to be to measure what he is. And from the light of that vision he tells us what we are: absurd and grotesque. We must be so in his eyes if we are not yet what we ought to be. It is out of her fierce belief in a fundamentalist, albeit Catholic Christianity that Flannery O'Connor draws the moral standards by which she judges what man is. The significance of the title of her posthumous book, Everything That Rises Must Converge, (3) lies in its being a quotation from Teilhard de Chardin, who speaks most hopefully in his The Phenomenon of Man of the glorious possibilities of mankind. (4) But "possibilities" is a term with its roots in the present and its flower in the future, and so long as the present is viewed from the standpoint of belief in a fulfilling future, it must appear grotesque and absurd. This, it is clear, is a part of the meaning of O'Connor's irony. But there is another aspect which is even more peculiarly hers, and which is more intrinsically literary and artistic. …

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