The Pequod Review:
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was raised in the Deep South and wrote a number of short stories and novels that deal with nothing less than matters of life and death — religion, morality, and human transformation. Her work is strongly Christian (and specifically Roman Catholic) with a sense of prophetic mission, and it frequently builds to powerful moments of transcendence and redemption. Her narratives are often brutally violent, which has caused her to be lumped in with lesser writers in the Southern Gothic/Grotesque tradition, but her violence has a deeper purpose. As O’Connor would later say:
I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.
Her first novel, Wise Blood, opens with a simple but arresting picture of the book’s protagonist:
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in this section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so, too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.
He looked at her a second and, without answering, leaned forward and stared down the length of the car again. She turned to see what was back there but all she saw was a child peering around one of the sections and, farther up at the end of the car, the porter opening the closet where the sheets were kept.
“I guess you’re going home,” she said, turning back to him again. He didn’t look, to her, much over twenty, but he had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear. His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it.
The book continues as a story of religious mania, as Hazel returns from the war to his home in Tennessee and seeks to preach his anti-religious beliefs, a crusade that brings him into conflict with a variety of flawed individuals (con men, drifters, false prophets, and corrupt lawmen), all with different beliefs and ideas. Crucially, O’Connor treats her characters compassionately, recognizing that underneath their manic natures is a deep desire for connection and belief.