A Violent Illumination of Salvation
Flannery O'Connor uses violence to return characters to reality and prepare them to accept their moment of grace. The New Encyclopedia Britannica defines grace as the "spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine or the divine influence operating in man for his regeneration and sanctification" (401). At any cost, a soul must find salvation. O'Connor states, "In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace" (qtd.in Bain 407). Dorothy Walters, Associate Professor of English at Wichita State University, believes O'Connor's single theme is the battle between God and the devil "dueling for the human soul in the ancient clash" (105).
The illumination of salvation through violent means is essential because "both O'Connor and her God are ironists [unyielding] . . . her heros are willful characters who must be humbled in learning that the will of God must prevail" (Master-pieces 497).
O'Connor portrays two varieties of sinners who possess either excessive pride or aggressive evil traits. The price of redemption is high. O'Connor violently shocks her characters, illuminates their shortcomings, and prepares them for redemption as seen in: "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "Revelation," "The River," and "The Lame Shall Enter First."
Walters reasons, "The instruction of pride through lessons of humility is, in each story, the means by which the soul is prepared for its necessary illumination by the Holy Spirit" (73). The grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and Rudy Turpin in "Revelation" is each convinced that she is a lady of elevated status. When threatened by superior beings, their self-imposed facades fall. Inherent human weaknesses are not tolerated and the faulty soul is damned or violently returned to reality (Walters 72). In The Habit of Being, O'Connor emphasizes: "My devil has a name . . . His name is Lucifer, he's a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is destruction of the Divine plan" (456).
The grandmother is extremely prideful and identifies herself as a "lady" as O'Connor reveals in the clothing description:
The children's mother still had on slacks . . . but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress . . . trimmed with lace . . . In case of an accident, any one seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (A Good 11)
When the grandmother's trivial scheming causes the family to leave the paved road in search of a misplaced plantation, they do have an accident. Her cat, Pitty Sing, which she insists travels with them, pounces on Bailey's shoulder and causes them to crash. Unfortunately, the grandmother seals the family's fate when she identifies their rescuer as the Misfit. While her family is executed, the grandmother pleads for mercy by appealing to the Misfit's moral, family and religious values. The grandmother finally releases her hubris and experiences compassion as she exclaims: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" (O'Connor, A Good 29). This demonstration of selflessness is evidence that the grandmother has at last been admitted to grace. The Misfit says, "She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" (O'Connor, A Good 29). The grandmother's life must be endangered to reveal that everyone is equal in God's eyes.
Like the grandmother, Rudy Turpin knows she is a lady. Confident in her conviction of inner superiority, she habitually categorizes people as "white trash," "niggers," or "homeowners" (Walters 110). In her nightly prayers, she thanks God for her elevated status in life (Walters 25). Turpin's neat little categories are first challenged by a hot-tempered girl, symbolically named Mary Grace. After witnessing Mrs. Turpin's inflated projected self-image, Mary Grace physically and verbally assaults Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin again questions her superior status when the black laborers dutifully sympathize with her anguish. "Mrs. Turpin knew just exactly how much Negro flattery was worth and it added to her rage" (qtd.in Walters 125). Beyond frustration, she challenges God in the pigpen, screaming: "Who do you think you are?" (qtd.in Walters 112). In the climax, Mrs. Turpin is finally torn from her inflated self-image when the clouds part and she discovers herself on the bottom steps of Heaven's stairway (Walters 107). With the intervention of the divine grace, Mary Grace, Mrs. Turpin accepts the truth and discovers humility.
The use of violence is necessary for O'Connor to remind readers that they cannot begin to understand God's grace, but acknowledging graciousness, however shown, and understanding that all are equal in His eyes is the onset of salvation (Masterpieces 497). These sinners are the violent instruments used to reveal human faults.
God's intervention of grace can come in any form. Rufus in "The Lame Shall Enter First" and the Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" demonstrate aggressively evil sinners. Characters choose whom they will serve and they must accept the inevitable consequences of their choice. Still, the sinners may be saved.
Rufus is the hostile delinquent who fends for himself by stealing. He believes he is under "Satan's" power to commit crimes against man and nature. Yet, he will automatically be saved on Judgement Day because "the lame shall enter [heaven] first" (Bain et al. 370).
Rufus, malicious as he is, sees through Shepard's projected image and calls him "that big tin Jesus" who makes "immor'l suggestions!" (Bain et al. 391). Rufus's arrest and accusation are the violence necessary to illustrate Shepard's hypocrisy. Walters suggests that although Rufus' actions are destructive, he struggles against "an insistent pull toward salvation." He steals a Bible to teach Norton basic religious principals, demonstrating that he has not forsaken God. His "devouring" of the pages validates his faith (102). Walters further implies that without God, Rufus will continue his life of crime and be damned; with God, Rufus may become a preacher. He must choose (104).
Dorothy McFarland, editor and critic points out that the Misfit's actions are more terrifying than Rufus's, because he remains well-mannered while committing sinister acts against society (19). He politely apologizes to the grandmother for appearing before her without a shirt and asks if she would "mind calling the children" (O'Connor, A Good 21). The fugitive Misfit "cannot find salvation or meaning to life" because he is aware of his "fallen condition" in a society of people oblivious to their faults. Without God, a "good man" doesn't exist and with God, he knows that he is a "sinner" (Masterpieces 498).
Even though each story contains violence, a story is more horrific when an innocent child is the victim. Walters explains that a spirit is better off violently escaping surrounding evils by dying, than existing in a "living hell" without religious guidance (76). Norton in "The Lame shall Enter First" and Bevel in "The River" are examples of the innocent victims. Again, Salvation is extremely costly, yet in O'Connor's eyes, redemption is worth the cost at any price.
Norton's struggle to accept his mother's death without his father's support leaves him severely depressed. Shepard substitutes human intelligence for religion and considers himself a surrogate priest who hears confessions of misguided teenagers. Shepard dismisses Norton as selfish and lacking potential. Rufus is Shepard's special project, because he is "the most intelligent boy he had worked with" (Bain et al. 391).
Norton, being very impressionable, starving for attention, and ignorant of basic religion is enlightened by Rufus. Even though Shepard chooses to ignore God, Norton needs some form of faith to explain his mother's death. Rufus supplies answers and convinces Norton that he can locate his mother in Heaven and join her there if he goes while he is still a child. Unfortunately, he hangs himself, but according to Rufus, he is with his mother.
Another example of the absence of faith is the tragic death of Bevel. The child is consistently exposed to a corrupt society from malicious playmates and his parents' circle of friends. While his parents nurse a hangover, the babysitter, Mrs. Connin introduces Bevel to religion. Bevel, totally oblivious to religion, fails to recognize a picture of Jesus. In a search for more knowledge of the divine, he steals Mrs. Connin's book of "gospel truth." The book convinces Bevel that he was "made by a carpenter named Jesus" (O'Connor, A Good 38). Without comprehension, he is baptized in the "River of Life" to take away his "pain" (O'Connor, A Good 40). Bevel understands only the literal truth of the preacher's baptismal sermon. Believing that the river would not accept him the first time, Bevel sets out to baptize himself and "keep on going this time until he [finds] found the Kingdom of Christ" (O'Connor, A Good 51).
Both Norton and Bevel are rescued from their negligent parents. They are not abusive parents; however, they are negligent because they choose to ignore God. As Walters has noted, neither child has reached the age of reason nor consciously contemplates suicide, "both die in a state of grace" (76).
O'Connor's two sinners, the prideful and the evil, must be violently shaken to see reality or damned to eternal punishment. Awareness of God's grace does not come easily to these people. The truthful illumination of their soul may cost their own life or that of an innocent victim. As pointed out in Masterpieces of American Literature, "God's mercy is not a soothing balm[,] but a burning flame that purifies the sinner" (498).
Bain, Carl. E., Beaty, Jerome & Hunter, J.P. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
"Grace." The New Encylopedia Britannica: Micropaedia. 1990.
McFarland, Dorothy, Tuck. Flannery O'Connor. New York: Fredrick Ungar, 1976.
O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. San diego: Harcourt, 1976.
O'Connor, Flannery. Habit of Being. Ed: Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
"O'Connor." Masterpieces of American Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magil. New Jersey: Saturn, 1993.
Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O'Connor. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1993.