“I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are . . . Please help all the ones I love to be free from their suffering. Please forgive me.” – Flannery O’Connor
This prayer was written by O’Connor when she was not yet twenty-one. With everything going on in the world at the moment, its sentiment speaks volumes to my soul. I’ve felt the need to put myself aside to know how to feel, think and respond to what is going on in our nation. My heart aches from the pain, anger, and evil in our world. When the world seems too big, I often turn to literature. Not just as a place of escape (not escapism, which Tolkien argues is very different), but as an ethical guide and teacher of virtue.
Recently, I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor, who was an Irish Catholic living in Savannah Georgia during the 1950’s. Her insight and experience is different than mine, yet her fiction describes people we all know and have met before. Her writing is factual, not fantastical. As a Catholic novelist of the Protestant South, O’Connor did not try to sugar coat reality. In her letters, she explains that the church and her faith in no way hinder her creative writing or storytelling abilities, but rather enhance them. As she puts it, “The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them” (O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”).
O’Connor is an expert of the grotesque, grotesque in the gothic sense, and her stories are frightfully realistic, even comical at some points. In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor explains Southern fiction is always considered “grotesque” by those who are not from the South and is only realistic if and when it is in fact grotesque. After all, fiction starts with human knowledge. The grotesque is often covered with compassion as way to excuse human weakness without judgment. But in the South the whole view of man is still for the most part theological. O’Connor explains Southern writers do a better job writing about freaks because they are still able to recognize them.
While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God . . . it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
O’Connor’s literature does not mirror society to “lift it up” in thought. Instead of giving a mock damnation or mock innocence, O’Connor suggests writing a Dante, a balance of realism and romance.
I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.
The grotesque and ugly are supposed to shock us because they are signals as to how things actually are underneath. In her final collection of short stories, O’Connor wrote three stories with extreme religious themes: “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Judgment Day.”
At first glance, the ugliness in “Revelation” is found in the rude white trash Mrs. Turpin comes into contact with while waiting in a doctor’s office. Mrs. Turpin is described as a very large woman whose presence makes the waiting room seem small. She is your typical middle class white woman with the “bless your heart” sarcastic manners of Southern politeness. Immediately, Mrs. Turpin judges everyone by the quality of their shoes. She is the type of woman who, when she can’t sleep, asks herself who she would chose to be if she could not be herself. If given the option of being a n*gger or white trash, she prays God would make her African American, but not a “trashy one,” a more clean respectable kind, like “herself but black.” These are the inner thoughts of Mrs. Turpin.
While waiting for the doctor, Mrs. Turpin talks to the “pleasant woman” in the room who is her equal while trying to ignore the “white trash woman” and the ugly fat girl, Mary Grace, next to her. The whole time the ladies are speaking, the girl glares at Mrs. Turpin with a look that could kill. The women discuss whether the blacks should be sent back to Africa and agree a good disposition is better than being pretty. Just as Mrs. Turpin thinks how grateful she is that she wasn’t made black, a white trash or ugly, the fat girl throws her book at Mrs. Turpin’s face and tries to choke her. As the girl is being sedated by the medical staff, she sneers at Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.”
Mrs. Turpin lays in bed haunted by the girl’s remark. Mrs. Turpin tells the black help about the incident, but she is only annoyed by their flattery. She then marches to the pig parlor to argue with the hogs. She yells at them, disgusted that she would be likened to such creatures, then she has a vision of saints ascending to heaven. At the top are white trash cleaned up and blacks in white robes. At the bottom are hard-working average people like herself, yet altered so that “even their virtues were being burned away.”
Mrs. Turpin would rather cry, get angry and defensive than admit her attitude is uglier than the people she comes into contact with. She is like a pig with a ring in her snout (Proverbs 11:22). She is like us if we do not repent of our pride.
“Parker’s Back” is a story about false devotion. O.E. Parker is a profane tatted man who marries a religious woman, Sarah Ruth, who has a talent for “sniffing up sin.” Parker never wanted to get married, her of all people, and he is gloomier than ever. To spite his wife, he decides to get anther tattoo, or as she calls them, a “heap of vanities.” She would say, “At the judgement seat of God, Jesus is going to say to you, ‘What you been doing all your life besides have pictures drawn all over you?'” Dissatisfied Parker decides to get a tattoo not even Sarah Ruth would object to — the image of Christ on his back. At first the tattoo artist refuses. “I don’t put tattoos on drunks,” he says, “You’ve fallen off some. You must have been in jail.” “Married,” is Parker’s reply. Regretfully, the artist draws “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” across his whole back. No one can look at it without trembling in fear. When he shows it to Sarah Ruth, she rejects it as idolatrous and Parker is left sobbing by a tree. Parker discovers God even though his wife does not recognize him or the image on his back.
The final story is a reworking of her earlier story, “Geranium.” In the story, Tanner, an aged white man from Georgia moves in with his daughter in New York, as long as she promises she will burry his body back in GA. When a young African American couple move in next door, Tanner gleefully calls them n*ggers, which is what he called his black friend Coleman back home. His daughter seriously rebukes him.
“All right now you listen to me,” she said. “You keep away from them. Don’t you go over there trying to get friendly with him. They ain’t the same around here and I don’t want any trouble with n*ggers, you hear me? If you have to live next to them, just you mind your business and they’ll mind their business. Live and let live.”
Of course, the old man does not listen. He tries to befriend the New York natives and greets the man as “Preacher” and assumes he is from South Alabama. Tanner’s motives are misinterpreted and the young man slams him against the wall, causing a concussion and stroke. The final blow is when the old man decides to leave the city and return home, but on his way out the door he has another stroke. The angered neighbor finds him at the bottom of the stairs and Tanner mistakes him for his companion Coleman. Instead of helping him up, the black man stuffs the old man’s head and arms between the spokes of the banister where his body remains until his daughter finds him dead. “Bury me here and burn in hell!” was the curse that haunted Tanner’s daughter, so his body was dug up and shipped back to Georgia. While alive, Tanner was stripped of his pride, but his body finds peace.
O’Connor loves to use symbolism in her writing. In all three of these stories, there is conflict socially and spiritually. A conflict of pride and grace. The characters receive revelations from God and by consequence become images of Christ themselves. Mrs. Turpin has a change of heart only once she has her vision. Parker, who’s real name “Obadiah Elihue” represents a biblical contradiction, experiences awakening even though his legalistic wife, who also has a biblical name, rejects him and the Christ on his back. “Judgment Day” is the most potent of all because it leaves the reader wondering if Tanner got what he deserved, since refusing to work for “n*ggers” in GA is what made him decide to move in the first place. He seems innocent but his manners are a mere appearance of friendship in the traditional black-white relationship.
O’Connor uses what is considered grotesque to reveal what is actually grotesque — the heart of sinful man. Manners and appearances only cover the ugly of “what-is.” How someone appears on the outside does not always reflect what is true on the inside. Man judges based upon outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). O’Connor understood that man is a fallen creature and was not afraid to be honest about the hypocrisy of humanity. Yet she does not leave out hope. There is hope for every sinner in Christ. Her stories are difficult to digest because they are realistic, almost more realistic than reality itself. But extreme examples can reveal truth and cut through our personal deception of what is actually grotesque. Like a Dante, she exposes our sinful hearts by putting aside appearances and opinions to show us what is actually ugly. To know what is truly good and beautiful, we must “push ourselves aside” and learn what is truly grotesque.