Once when Flannery O’Connor was having dinner at the novelist Mary McCarthy’s flat, McCarthy opined that Holy Communion was only a symbol. In reply, O’Connor exclaimed directly, “if the Eucharist is a symbol, to hell with it!”
It is perhaps O’Connor’s most famous quote, and offers a distillation of her character: she was extremely quick-off-the-mark, irreverent and reverent at the same time and defiantly Catholic. A testing question for modern Catholics, is would we have her strength of character? Would we able to stand up for the tenets of the faith to a peer of ours?
It wasn’t as if O’Connor had not had practice in remaining faithful to the tenets of Catholicism, even if she was in the minority. O’Connor hailed from Georgia, and was steeped in the culture of the Bible belt. She had a deep Catholic piety and was very independent minded, but the majority of the characters in her two novels and 32 short stories are Protestant.
Her literary output is all the more amazing when you consider that her books were all written when she was in her twenties and thirties. O’Connor died at the age of 39 from the same cancer that claimed her father. She had spent the last 13 years of her life in crutches, her bones crumbling because she had lupus. When she was writing Wise Blood, she was on heavy doses of Cortisone and in frequent pain.
But in spite of ill-health she persevered in finishing a classic of American literature, and arguably her books continue to grow in popularity, as O’Connor’s unique blend of dark humour, bitter irony and foreshadowing has not been matched by any other writer. At the time that O’Connor was writing, her themes often horrified readers. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a family going on vacation encounter a serial killer who shows no remorse in shooting the family stone dead. In the successive decades since O’Connor’s death, her storylines have more in common with newspaper headlines and are more readily understood by the modern reader, who is not so easily shocked.
And ninety years after her birth, O’Connor is to grace a new US postage stamp, which also has peacock feather. O’Connor was forever sending peacock feathers to her friends and admirers – because the peacock is traditionally a motif of the eternal soul.
A proper reading of O’Connor means understanding that she was obsessed with the mortality of the body and the immortality of the soul. In contradiction to her Protestant peers, she didn’t believe that one was instantly “saved” but that a person had to spend their entire life earning their salvation and that the fear of death and contemplating the Four Last Things made someone a better person.
It was as though O’Connor wrote with a skull on her desk – which may have been because her own impending death. In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the central character the grandmother is a very flawed, manipulative woman who sets in place a chain of events that lead to the family being slain. At the end, when she is shot by the outlaw, he remarks, “she would have been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”. This betrays O’Connor’s central credo that people may be at their best if they live each minute as though it was their last.
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