Flannery O'Connor and Religion

Updated on March 27, 2019
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Flannery O'Connor (Right)
Flannery O'Connor (Right) | Source

Introduction

Flannery O’Connor, throughout her numerous works, typically uses religious themes as a means of “expressing” her view that God’s love and forgiveness are available to people in everyday life. Examples of this can be seen in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” and “The Life you Save May Be Your Own.” It could be said that O’Connor portrays this religious message by “creating” selfish, and unobservant characters that are unable to see these acts of everyday grace in their lives, and often uses violence throughout her stories to “coerce” her characters into noticing God’s presence among them (Woods, 40-41). By looking at each of these stories through a “historical” and “cultural” perspective, given the time and era they were written in, and by looking at the underlying meanings of each story, one can easily understand and/or “see” the hidden religious element that O’Connor portrays as well as her decision to incorporate religion throughout many of her works.

Up close image of O'Connor.
Up close image of O'Connor. | Source

"A Good Man is Hard to Find"

O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” follows that of a “humorous” family outing that eventually leads to a very tragic, and violent end. O’Connor introduces several characters throughout the story, in particular, the grandmother who is a self-proclaimed “good” Christian woman. She is selfish, “pushy,” has a sense of “superiority” over others, and displays racist notions (Edgecombe, 69-70). All in all, she is an excellent example made by O’Connor to display the moral and social deficiencies of the old South and society, which is essential to O’Connor and her incorporation of religion in her works (Edgecombe, 69). This “pushy” and “selfish” mindset, ultimately, leads to the family’s demise when the grandmother “presses” the family to deviate from their current route in order to explore an old plantation house she remembers from her past. Shortly after their deviation, the family is involved in a car accident on their way to the old house, and soon finds themselves face to face with a group of men whom, upon first glance, appear to be merely “good samaritans” that are there to help the family. Using a lack of good judgment, however, the grandmother recognizes and “announces” that one of the men is actually an escaped convict and serial killer she had read about, known simply as “the Misfit.” Because of her lack of judgment on the situation at hand, the Misfit “feels” that he has no other choice but to kill the entire family.

As is custom with many of her works, O’Connor “uses” this climactic, and very violent event as a “catalyst” to implement her religious ideology into the short story, and “produce” the grandmother’s moment of grace (Walls, 44). In an attempt to escape death, the grandmother tries “sweet talking” the Misfit by repeatedly telling him that she knows he is from “good people” (Paragraph 131, O‘Connor). When it is apparent that she will not escape the violent fate that awaits her, the grandmother goes through a revelation or “spiritual awakening.” This is signified in the story when the grandmother looks to the Misfit and proclaims: “You’re one of my own children!” This quote represents a strengthening of the grandmother’s faith, as well as a final “experience” of grace before death (Friedman, 52). This quote could also be translated as being an “offer” of grace and salvation to the Misfit as well, who ultimately shoots the grandmother a total of three times (Perhaps a reference to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?) because of his desire to have nothing to do with religion. The Misfit had an opportunity to accept God’s grace and/or salvation along with the grandmother, but instead chooses to continue with his murderous ways since he cannot see any advantages to giving his current life up, and perhaps he feels as though the “transition” to a Christian lifestyle would be too much of a challenge for him as well. To conclude, O’Connor uses the portrayal of the grandmother to demonstrate her strong belief in the salvation of religion (Friedman, 24). O’Connor emphasizes throughout this short-story that everyone’s soul is deserving of salvation, no matter how sinful their actions are in life. All in all, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is an excellent example of O’Connor’s incorporation of religion into her works. The story is, in a sense, a tale of grace and redemption (Bandy, 110).

O'Connor's childhood home.
O'Connor's childhood home. | Source

"Good Country People"

Similar to the short-story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor’s short-story, “Good Country People,” follows much of the same violent and religious themes as well. Like that of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the reader is once again presented with a central character that O’Connor “uses” to implement her religious ideology through. In this case, the story follows a young woman named Hulga Hopewell. As the reader learns early on throughout the story, Hulga deals with many physical afflictions. She has a heart condition, poor eyesight, and an artificial leg from a hunting accident when she was just ten years of age (Paragraph 18, O‘Connor). Because symbolism is apparent in many of O’Connor’s works, and because O’Connor’s characters display attributes of being spiritually and morally corrupt, perhaps it could be said that O’Connor “created” Hulga’s afflictions to represent and symbolize her “emotional, intellectual, and spiritual impairments” (Oliver, 234). Her weak heart is representative of her “emotional” detachment, and/or her “inability” to love anyone or anything (Oliver, 234). As stated in the story, Hulga “didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men” (Paragraph 19, O’Connor). Lastly, Hulga’s need to wear eyeglasses represents her intelligence, as seen with her high degree of education, while her artificial leg is symbolic of her false spirituality and rejection of religion for philosophy (Oliver, 234-5). Following O’Connor’s “typical” religious concerns, however, it could be said that the spiritual defects are of the utmost concern to O’Connor (Oliver, 235). Because of Hulga’s lack of faith, she becomes a “spiritual cripple,” and one who must rely entirely on her own weak and artificial resources to “walk” throughout life (Oliver 234). Looking at the short-story through O’Connor’s perspective, “religion would have provided Hulga with all the spiritual and emotional support she needed.” In all respects, “religion would have provided her with a so-called ‘real leg’ on which to stand upon” (Oliver, 235-6). Hulga is a “self-proclaimed” atheist, however, and her “salvation” comes from her belief in philosophy, particularly a philosophy based upon “nothing” (Oliver, 236).

Once Pointer has left Hulga in the loft of the barn, taking with him her leg, her glasses, and a small “piece” of her heart, she finds herself “confronted” with the emptiness of her emotional, intellectual, and spiritual life that has been built upon this foundation of “nothing” (Oliver, 236). In the past, one might say that Hulga had placed her faith solely in her education and her wooden leg. Upon being left stranded and vulnerable by Manley Pointer, however, O’Connor uses this moment to “coerce” Hulga into rethinking her current faith. Not only does this somewhat violent and crude event allow Hulga to experience a “spiritual awakening,” like that of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but it is possible that this experience will also dramatically change her life for the better as well. Like “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” this story is another clear example of O’Connor’s incorporation of religious elements into her works.

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

— Flannery O'Connor

"The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

Finally, another religiously themed story by O’Connor can be seen with “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Like “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “Good Country People,” O’Connor once again centers the attention on one particular character, that being Mr. Shiftlet. As stated, religion plays a significant role throughout the story with the idea of “redemption” being heavily emphasized during the closing moments of the short-story. The reader learns early on in the story that Mr. Shiftlet is a lonely, wandering man that travels from town to town seeking purpose, and perhaps “meaning” to his life. Upon “stumbling” onto the Crater’s home, Shiftlet is finally offered a chance at having “purpose” and “meaning” in his life when Mrs. Crater offers to let him stay on their land and work for food. Upon proving himself to be quite “resourceful,” Mrs. Crater even offers Shiftlet the opportunity to marry her mute daughter, Lucynell. For one of the first times in his life, Shiftlet now has an opportunity for redemption from his lonely and meaningless lifestyle that he has been living by (Clasby, 515). Through her use of symbolism, O’Connor “uses” Lucynell to symbolize Shiftlet’s salvation that can be reached through his new wife. While at the diner on their trip out of town, this symbolism can be seen when Lucynell is referred to as being an “Angel of Gawd” by one of the men working in the diner. Instead of embracing his new wife, however, Shiftlet chooses to abandon Lucynell at the diner. In doing so, he has unknowingly “abandoned his chance at salvation as well” (Clasby, 515-7). Like many of O’Connor’s characters, Shiftlet desires materialistic things over anything else in life. Because of this peculiar mindset, Shiftlet takes both the car and money given to him by Mrs. Crater as a wedding gift for him and Lucynell, and continues onward in his “search” for a meaningful life. Shiftlet had a chance at redemption with his new wife, but instead chooses to “pass it up.” By the end of the story, Shiftlet is again searching for salvation, apparently unaware of the great opportunity he has just passed up with his new wife. On his way to Mobile, Shiftlet even passes a sign that reads “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” perhaps also signifying his missed opportunity at salvation with Lucynell once more. He prays to God: “Break forth and wash the slime from this Earth” (Paragraph 97, O’Connor). Shiftlet, in this instance, is now seeking God’s help in his life, which is now more complicated than ever before. Perhaps it could be said that the “guffawing peal of thunder” he hears overhead, as he speeds toward Mobile, is the final piece of symbolism that represents his missed chance at redemption and/or salvation. Furthermore, perhaps O’Connor “uses,” Mobile, to “suggest” that Shiftlet will continue wondering a lonely life “devoid of significance” (Clasby, 518).

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Conclusion

In conclusion, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” are excellent examples of O’Connor’s incorporation of religious themes throughout many of her stories. While O’Connor’s works often leave the reader with a mixture of interpretive “puzzles” to solve, her intent in each story remains the same; she declares herself to be a Christian writer “addressing” a spiritually “deaf” and “blind” society (Mills, 233). All of the main characters addressed in these three fictions were sinners, but O’Connor points out that “all were capable of being saved through God’s grace and forgiveness” (Ragen, 389-390). Looking at these short fictions through a historical and cultural perspective allows the reader to further understand why O’Connor felt such a strong “desire” to integrate a religious element in much of her works as well. The South (during O’Connor’s era) was considered to be a very racist, and prejudice society; devoid of Christ, or “Christ-haunted” as O’Connor states (Asals, 220). It is ironic, in a sense, because the South has long been regarded as being the “Bible-Belt” of the nation. With that said, it would appear as though O’Connor was merely attempting to “point out” the hypocrisy of people for this time. People in the South often proclaimed to be devout Christians, but their racist and prejudice actions typically proved otherwise. It is no wonder then that O’Connor felt such a need to include religious themes throughout her many stories. In closing, perhaps it could be said that this “desire” she had comes from her strong Catholic upbringing as well (Cash, 14). Whatever the case, religion certainly “plays” a massive role throughout all of O’Connor’s works. If one is to ever “truly” understand O’Connor’s writings, the religious significance of each of her stories must be kept in mind at all times.

Works Cited:

Articles/Books:

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O'Connor; The Imagination of Extremity. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 2007.

Bandy, Stephen C. "`One of My Babies': The misfit and the grandmother." Studies in Short Fiction 33.1 (Winter96 1996): 107. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9707153051 &site=ehost-live>.

Cash, Jean W.. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.

Clasby, Nancy T. "`The life you save may be your own'..." Studies in Short Fiction 28.4 (Fall91 1991): 509. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9705041541 &site=ehost-live>.

Desmond, John. "FLANNERY O'CONNER'S MISFIT AND THE MYSTERY OF EVIL." Renascence 56.2 (Winter2004 2004): 129-137. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=11859777&si te=ehost-live>.

Desmond, John F.. Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History. Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. "O'Connor's A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND." Explicator 64.1 (Fall2005 2005): 68-70. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=19389751&si te=ehost-live>.

Friedman, Melvin J., and Beverly L. Clark. Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor (Critical Essays on American Literature). Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1985.

Mills, Elizabeth McGeachy. "Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South." Journal of Southern History 74.1 (Feb. 2008): 232-233. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=29324674&site=ehost-live>.

Oliver, Kate. "O'Connor's GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE." Explicator 62.4 (Summer2004 2004): 233-236. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=13941135&si te=ehost-live>.

Ragen, Brian Abel. "Grace and grotesques: Recent books on Flannery O'Connor." Papers on Language & Literature 27.3 (Summer91 1991): 386. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=9610231635&site=ehost-live>.

Walls, Doyle W. "O'Connor's A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND." Explicator 46.2 (Winter88 1988): 43. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=7207595&sit e=ehost-live>.

Wood, Ralph C. "Such a Catholic." National Review 61.4 (09 Mar. 2009): 38-42 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=36606671&si te=ehost-live>.

Images/Photographs:

Wikipedia contributors, "Flannery O'Connor," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Flannery_O%27Connor&oldid=888426225 (accessed March 27, 2019).

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Larry Slawson

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      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I've never read any of Flannery O'Connor's work. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard of her before. I intend to explore her writing now that I've read this article. Thank you for introducing O'Conner to me and for sharing the interesting information, Larry.

      • Larry Slawson profile imageAUTHOR

        Larry Slawson 

        4 months ago from North Carolina

        Thank you Cheryl! I’m glad you enjoyed. Yeah, I think you will really like some of her stories. Most of them are really short, but really well-written.

      • Cheryl E Preston profile image

        Cheryl E Preston 

        4 months ago from Roanoke

        Very detailed and interesting story. I am now inspired to read some of her works.

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