On Offensive Stories

By

Tim Filston asked a great question regarding Flannery O’Connor, and I hated to let it languish in the comments (at Jonathan-Rogers.com), so I’ll address it in a post. He wrote:

I’m looking forward to your insights about her. Her willingness to face off with the dark, ugly side of human nature seems courageous to me, and not just in a thrill-seeking way. When a writer depicts the human heart as only a bruised thing, then the reader can only expect “there-there” assurance that everything will be alright. But, O’Connor calls the reader down into corruption (it seems to me) so that we might have a shot at being called up–higher up than we started. What do you think–am I in the ballpark with this, or is this a stretch?

Tim, I think you’re more than in the ballpark. I think you’re somewhere around the pitcher’s mound. I wrote this biography for all those people who have heard they’re supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O’Connor’s stories but just can’t get there. Your remarks get close to the heart of what O’Connor is doing in these awful stories (awful, you’ll remember, meant ‘filled with awe’ or ‘awe-inspiring’ before it meant ‘terrible’; I’m drawing on all those meanings here).

Here’s a relevant tidbit from the introduction to The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

Blessed are the freaks and the lunatics, who at least have sense enough not to put any faith in their own respectability or virtue or talents. The freaks in O’Connor’s stories stand for all of us, deformed in so many ways by Original Sin. All of us, as the old hymn says, are “weak and wounded, sick and sore…lost and ruined by the Fall.” The freakishness and violence in O’Connor’s stories, so often mistaken for a kind of misanthropy, turn out to be a call to mercy.

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

People are offended by Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and they ought to be. They’re offensive. I’m reminded of what Peter said about Jesus: he was “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” Jesus’s parables would offend us if we hadn’t heard them so many times–or if we were paying better attention. After acting like a complete jerk, the Prodigal Son comes home, welcomed into his father’s arms. The older brother, who has been behaving himself, keeping his nose clean, takes offense, and we can all understand why. It’s a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother–much more shocking for Jesus’s original audience than for those of us who know what we’re supposed to think about the story. The parables, in my understanding, are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts. I claim to love grace, but I’m bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn’t line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense–to say it’s not really that offensive.

O’Connor’s stories are offensive and shocking in a different way; they were, to borrow her imagery, startling figures drawn for the almost-blind. But I do believe she was working from Jesus’s storytelling playbook, using shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. To quote again from the introduction to my book:

If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint. It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway. In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his or her situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet.

If you keep asking questions, Tim, I might end up cutting and pasting the whole book into blog posts. Thanks for asking.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


19 Comments

  1. jacob

    I’m really looking forward to this book now. This analysis reminds me of how I’ve tried to explain why I like the movie No Country for Old Men so much. I think there is a link in the true horror told in these stories. The goodness is so hard to find sometimes and that seems to make it all the more valuable.

  2. aimee

    “I wrote this biography for all those people who have heard they’re supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O’Connor’s stories but just can’t get there.”

    This is exactly how I’ve always felt about O’conner’s stories. Every few years I open up a collection, read through the stories, and either feel there must be something askew in my own faith or else something wrong with the people who’ve heralded her stories for so long. I’m hoping to find, after all these years, both scenarios are wrong. Maybe I’ll know a little more about my faith and her storytelling after reading your book. Looking forward to it.

  3. Tracie

    I was led to the story Revelation by listening to Tim Keller. It’s a powerful story and I wanted to read more of her work, but I was disturbed by her constant use of the word Ni**** in several stories. I’ve been dying to hear someone speak to this. Does your book? or can you here?

  4. Jerome

    Hmmm. I just read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” again, and I have to say I couldn’t find any good in it! The grandmother seems to be just trying to find whatever angle she can to get out of being killed by The Misfit. Instead of coming to terms with God and herself, she just seems to go mad, finally. It just seems evil and pathetic. Sorry!

  5. yankeegospelgirl

    It’s a fair question Jerome, but I think we are to accept that the grandmother does have a genuine moment of grace when she says, “Why… you’re one of my babies.” I personally think it’s sudden and not as believable as it could be, but that’s where it’s supposed to happen.

  6. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Hello, Tracie–
    You ask a great question, and one that I do address in the book. I’m not going to formulate a full answer here, but will point out three things:

    1) O’Connor was fully aware of the offensiveness of “the n-word.” This is not a case of a 1950s-60s Southerner being less sensitive to the word than we are. When Robert Penn Warren (I think it was Robert Penn Warren) opposed her use of the word, she said “The kind of people I write about wouldn’t use any other word.” Her artistic commitments wouldn’t allow her to soft-pedal that word. It is worth pointing out that the word isn’t used by O’Connor’s narrators, but only in dialogue, spoken by characters who, again, wouldn’t be inclined to use any other word when speaking of black people. Without exception, the black people in O’Connor’s fiction come across as more human and more humane than white people who speak disparagingly of them.
    2) However, racism is not the unforgivable sin for O’Connor, either in her fiction or in her life. Racism is a symptom of deeper soul trouble, and that soul trouble was O’Connor’s real concern. “Everything that Rises Must Converge” is the one story in O’Connor’s ouevre that appears directly to address “the race problem” in the 1960s South; but even that story turns out to be about an interpersonal relationship between a mother and a son. The progressive son is just as foolish as the retrograde mother. Neither is able to see the black mother and child on the bus as human beings. In “The Artificial Nigger” (a story with a purposely offensive title), the openly racist main characters experience the beginnings of a redemption. And yet, best I can tell, they are still as racist as they ever were. When, in their brokenness, they begin to reconcile, they reconcile over a racist joke! We want the first sign of soul-healing in those characters to be a more progressive attitude on racial matters. But O’Connor won’t make it that easy for us. She had absolutely no tolerance for anyone substituting social awareness for actual spiritual transformation. O’Connor was keenly aware that social progressivism often leads to self-righteousness. And she viewed self-righteousness as the greatest of all spiritual dangers. Racists come off pretty poorly in O’Connor’s fiction, but it’s the self-righteous–whether they are racists or social progressives or church-going people or atheists–who really get it.
    3) I’m more or less reconciled to O’Connor’s racial attitudes as expressed in her fiction. Her letters are a little more troubling. She can be pretty free with racial epithets; even those (at least the ones that make it into The Habit of Being) can mostly be explained away as a kind of self-parody. When writing to Maryat Lee, her East Coast Liberal friend, she portrayed herself as some kind of genius redneck, mostly for laughs, I’m convinced. But even if we explain away her more offensive language, there still persists in her letters a habit of treating black people mostly as objects of comedy, and a habit of ignoring the real problems that American blacks faced in the 1950s and 60s. In the final assessment, I would say that O’Connor was on the progressive end of the normal range of racial attitudes for white Middle Georgians in the 1950s and 60s…but she was still in the normal range.

    In my opinion, the best thing written on O’Connor’s racial attitudes is a chapter in Ralph C. Wood’s book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. I commend the whole book to you.

    That, Tracie, may have been a lot more than you were bargaining for, but I will leave you with a note I composed to be placed at the beginning of my book.

    A highly offensive racial slur occurs some thirteen times throughout this book, in each case quoted from Flannery O’Connor’s fiction or correspondence. The publishing team discussed at some length how best to handle this word in light of the sensibilities of twenty-first century readers. In the end, we decided to let the word stand in its full offensiveness, on the grounds that the repugnance the reader feels at the word is a key reason O’Connor used it in the first place. It may be true that there was more open racism in the 1950s and 1960s than in the twenty-first century, but that hardly explains why O’Connor used the “n-word” in the thirteen instances quoted in this book. A reader of literary fiction in the 1950s would be no less offended by the word than a reader of literary fiction in 2012. To expurgate O’Connor’s language would be to suggest that we understand its offensiveness better than she does, or perhaps to suggest that the readers of this book are more easily offended than O’Connor’s original audience. We have no reason to believe that either is true. So we leave O’Connor’s language intact, and we leave you with this warning: you may find some of the language in this book offensive; that is as it should be.

  7. aimee

    Hmmm, I can’t say whether I’ve read The River or not, checking into it now…thanks for a nod that direction.

  8. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Jerome, it is true enough that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” like the rest of O’Connor’s stories, are free from “Instant Uplift” of the sort one finds in, say, radio that is marketed as being “Safe for the Whole Family!” The stories are an invitation to enter into a mystery, and they’re hard. As I mentioned in my piece above, I suspect that they are hard in the same ways that the parables of Jesus are hard. I think his original audience would have had a hard time seeing anything good in some of his parables because they so consciously oppose what we have imagined the good to be. I love what O’Connor wrote in “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (in Mystery and Manners): “I once received a letter from a lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine that she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.”

  9. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    “The River” is quite good. It includes a scene in which a child gets bowled over by razorback hogs. Before encountering these particular pigs, the child had been under the impression that pigs were pink and wore bow ties.

  10. Tracie

    Thank you so much for your time and detailed response. I appreciated every word and insight.

  11. April Pickle

    Thank you for sharing all of this with us. Especially these two lines:

    “Jesus’s parables would offend us if we hadn’t heard them so many times–or if we were paying better attention.”

    “Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts.”

    O, for grace for vulnerability and courage to be holy offended and maybe even read some Flannery O’Conner!

    I’m reminded of a Michael Card song from years ago:

    “It seems today the Scandalon offends no one at all
    The image we present can be stepped over
    Could it be that we are like the others long ago
    Will we ever learn that all who come must stumble”

  12. yankeegospelgirl

    The message of Jesus’ parables is that all are called to repentance and humility, be they outwardly unsavory or respectable. He let nobody off the hook. The prostitute was told to go and sin no more, and the Pharisees were rebuked for cutting corners to avoid keeping the law.

    I find this wholly in keeping with the character of God. It doesn’t particularly “offend” me, though it does encourage me to pursue holiness.

  13. Dustin M. Smith

    Thanks, Jonathan, for stepping up and addressing this incredibly difficult question. I love O’Connor’s fiction, and her non-fiction even more, though I, too, often struggle with being able to reconcile her fiction with the popular Christian fiction of today.

    Recently, I’ve been reading through ‘Novelist and Believer’ (from Mystery and Manners), which seems to me to contain at least a portion of the answer:

    “St. Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this- as the western world did up until a few centuries ago- this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source. The artist usually knows this by instinct; his senses, which are used to penetrating the concrete, tell him so. (…) The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, teh image of ultimate reality. This in no way hinders his perception of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and a necessary result of our freedom.”

    Later, continuing on with the same train of thought, she describes what she believes to be the root of the problem:

    “For the last few centuries we have lived in a world which has been increasingly convinced that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, that there is no ultimate divine source, that the things of the world do not pour forth from God in a double way, or at all. For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man.”

    And, finally, the role she believes art / literature have in addressing the problem:

    “The theologian is interested specifically in the modern novel because there he sees reflected the man of our time, the unbeliever, who is nevertheless grappling in a desperate and usually honest way with intense problems of the spirit.”

    To me, that’s why O’Connor’s fiction is so bizarre to us, but also so necessary. She’s willing to go down into the depths of humanity, to the very darkest parts where it’s nearly impossible to see any light. And of course we find little of what we consider ‘goodness’ down there… but that is exactly where God so often sends us.

    As Jesus said in Mark 2, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

  14. Dan Kulp

    I was listening to GK Chesterton “Alarms & Discursions” this morning and caught this – which reminded me greatly of this post –

    That is, I fancy, the true doctrine on the subject of Tales
    of Terror and such things, which unless a man of letters do well
    and truly believe, without doubt he will end by blowing his brains
    out or by writing badly. Man, the central pillar of the world
    must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts
    and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose.
    All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between
    the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.
    Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will
    not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will
    worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained
    to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante,
    to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell.
    It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has
    probably been made.

    * * * * *

    Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare to-night;
    she whinnies to me from the rocking tree-tops and the roaring wind;
    I will catch her and ride her through the awful air.
    Woods and weeds are alike tugging at the roots in the rising tempest,
    as if all wished to fly with us over the moon, like that wild
    amorous cow whose child was the Moon-Calf. We will rise to that mad
    infinite where there is neither up nor down, the high topsy-turveydom
    of the heavens. I will answer the call of chaos and old night.
    I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.

  15. Ken Lacey

    I took a class in college years ago that was all about O’Connor and Eudora Welty. I found myself being much more interested in O’Connor’s stuff than Welty’s. I loved “The Violent Bear It Away.”
    On the subject of the “N” word, I think it is a shame that we invest so much power in a word that, though offensive to our enlightened ears and clearly indicative of racial deprecation, is an artifact of common use in former days. School children have been deprived of the likes of Huckleberry Finn simply based on the existence of that word in the dialog. If ever there was a book that was subversively anti-racist, Huckleberry Finn fits the bill. Same thing with O’Connor’s stories. I don’t know if she was a racist or not in her personal life, but it’s absurd to view her literature as planting any seeds of bigotry.

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