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Lessons on Grace: Flannery O'Connor and Christian Realism
All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (1979, 1988)
If you’ve read anything by Flannery O’Connor, you would understand her words immediately: her characters live and act in absurd ways, go through unexpected trials (disturbing, often terrifying or violent ones). At first read, one wonders where God has been in the story. There are too many unhappy endings to wonder otherwise than whether the deeply Catholic O’Connor really had faith in God’s grace and the possibility of heaven. The characters fail in important aspects: racism, poverty, ignorance, lust, and other problems are never conquered. And there are few genuine expressions of faith. Few characters have reference to prayer or the sacraments (O’Connor’s characters are often evangelicals, and not strong ones).
Take, for example, a relatively ordinary story of hers, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” wherein the characters attempt to show how racist they aren’t… and then discover that racism is not quite so easy to overcome. Not in thought, not in deed. Their attempts to address such tensions are met with apathy and anger.
In O’Connor’s works, there is no easy salvation. There is no quick conversion. Regardless of color or creed, the characters do not end the story reconciled, their hearts entirely converted.
The seeming darkness of O’Connor’s literature is often the visible reality of our world. Good intentions and attempts at reconciliation and peace fail–quite often, perhaps more often than not. Problems caused by selfishness, ignorance, condescension, lust–they do not disappear when O’Connor’s stories conclude. It all seems rather hopeless, does it not? Yet in The Habit of Being, she claims that she does not like to called a cynic; she would rather let it be known that the hardness of her works simply reflects the lack of sentimentality one must have to be a Christian realist.
This lack of sentimentality and the hardness of her work is a source of critical debate, for scholars love to argue over the morality of her stories. Think again of “Everything that Rises”: should we praise the characters for, however misguidedly, attempting some form of goodness and acceptance toward the people they encounter? Do we scorn them for being condescending or for reacting wrongly, and demean their efforts as lacking any true charity? Must we admit that racism will always exist in some form, despite our efforts? Are racist characters redeemable? Who is to say what we ought to have done, what we ought to do, to prevent racism?
None of these are really what O’Connor finds most important, of course, though it is common enough for scholars to ponder those questions. No, rather, she is concerned less with the ideals and more with a certain form of realism: the difficulty of change. For she says: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
The point of much of her writing, then, is not to analyze the character’s intentions, and not to propose “true solutions” to things such as poverty and racism, and not to ponder whether the characters are good or right. No, when one reads her short stories, one can see that these questions mean little if we read each character in light of God’s grace and how each of us struggles with or against it. Thus when we read her stories according to her own understanding, the simple characterization of persons as good, bad, heroic, or villainous falls away. The happy and sad endings do not matter so much. Even the O’Connor hallmarks of Southern culture and specifically American failures are not so prominent when we understand that she is showing us the reality of how we deal with grace.
Not well, apparently.
It is heartening to have uplifting Christian stories where there is a wonderful conversion experience, and a person emerges from a religious experience, permanently and visibly changed for the better. We need such stories; there are many stories of saints and Biblical figures whose complete conversions seemed to have taken a moment, or mere days. And there is certainly uplifting fiction that shows us this.
But for many of us, the immediacy and obviousness of grace is not an ordinary reality. These are wonderful fantasies, but at times they feel unrealistic. We often struggle to believe that God gives all sufficient graces for salvation; we struggle to see it in ourselves, and lacking charity, we struggle to see God’s grace in others. This is why “Everything that Rises” is an irritating, uncomfortable story. We wonder: was it wrong for the main character to deliberately sit next to a black man? What were his true motives? Was it right for the man to ignore him? Was it wrong for his mother to give what she believed to be charity (money) to the black woman and her child? Why did the woman reject it–was she right to reject the clear condescension and assumptions that the giver had made? Are any of these people good people or Christians, and can they be? All of these uncomfortable questions point us toward the fact that we fight against grace, and that, while alive, none are perfect.
In Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969), O’Connor says: “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”
This is why we don’t admire any of the characters; it’s rare to like a Flannery O’Connor character, I would guess. None of them act according to our notions of uprightness. But that is her point. We are damaged; we are influenced by the devil. We have bad impulses; we listen to the wrong voices. We fight grace. We resist it. It peeks through, for characters change in small ways, reconsider their thoughts, and then–perhaps they relapse, or perhaps they do wrong, or perhaps they do indeed move closer to God. But they have had grace, and they have responded to it. We may not be satisfied at the response. We may see that the devil’s voice was louder… although O’Connor’s characters do often change for the better; just not as we’d like, and not as much as we’d like.
Her stories leave some lessons for us, both as readers and as authors.
First, we need literature that confronts the difficult reality–that most of us resist grace, and strongly. Such literature, uncomfortable though it is, helps us face the fact that we, and others around us, both receive grace and grapple with it. This honesty is necessary both for our humility, and for our charity toward others.
Second, the infinitesimal glimmers of grace we see in ourselves and others are not a sign of God’s failure to aid us, but of His providence. (Such grace seems like glimmers because we are so blind to it, of course.) Despite our fallenness, we all do receive those graces. It does not mean we will all accept grace–but we do receive it. This is to say, when we cannot see grace visibly, it is still present; and it may move us and others in ways that are invisible, or nearly invisible, to us.
Third, we must not expect grace to work how we wish it to; we must not expect (though we might still hope and pray for) sudden conversions and irreversible moral changes in ourselves or others. This is the reality of Christian living: we change slowly, we backslide, God pulls us forward a little more, and it happens all over again. We must also not expect grace to suddenly and totally change others (possible though it is).
Thus the fourth point is simply this: grace is accompanied by suffering and pain.
Finally, we learn that it is not realistic to imagine a world of heroes who respond perfectly to grace. Only God is perfect; our fictional heroes should not yet be. Otherwise, how should we know and learn about grace? Think of a less extreme example of Christian realism than O’Connor’s stories: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Sméagol and Saruman had choices; they had grace, and they failed to respond well to it. They are villains. But what of the heroes? The otherwise virtuous, loyal Samwise falls prey to his hatred of Gollum. Frodo himself falls to the temptation of using and possessing the ring multiple times. Gandalf is tempted mightily, as is Galadriel. Boromir fails horrifically before receiving the grace of redeeming self-sacrifice. Yet the flawed heroes do prevail, by God’s providence. The failures of these heroes serve to show us how grace abounds all the more, and how all things work to the glory of God.
The fact that literary heroes are not perfect, indeed, that they often change very slowly, points to the reality of sainthood. Why do we have the canonized? They are hope for us, they show us extraordinary possibilities born of grace. They are visible proof of God’s grace. But it is hard at times to hope for such seeming flood tides of visible grace for ourselves. That is where the Christian realism of O’Connor to our aid, to bolster our faith in God’s providence. Her works show us that where grace is less obvious, it is still present. Though we fail often, grace comes to us all again. And we ought to look for it in ourselves and others; for we are no doubt missing, at this very moment, the graces to which we are even now responding.