[A] cage about six feet high [… with] something alive in it, and [Hazel] went near enough to read a sign that said, TWO DEADLY ENEMIES. HAVE A LOOK FREE. There was a black bear about four feet long and very thin, resting on the floor of the cage; his back was spotted with bird lime that had been shot down on him by a small chicken hawk that was sitting on a perch in the upper part of the same apartment. Most of the hawk’s tail was gone; the bear had only one eye. (WB 124-125)The great political struggle of the twentieth century devolves into a local grotesquerie; the combat between the symbolic representatives of the USA and the USSR is a bestial contest for dominance of a prison.
This is more than a denial of the ontology of Cold War politics, of the narrative of moral competition between democracy and communism, in favor of an alternative narrative of political or ethical struggle for a specific social form. O’Connor’s fiction instead denies the significance of political and social organization as an end unto itself. She presents human history as the setting, the means, for the enactment of the Christian narrative of Fall and Redemption. As such, though her writings are stylistically realistic they espouse “beliefs that are more mythic than modern. More than that, [they] insist that mythic thinking comes closer to reality and that the primitive world still enters this one with violence, in spite of our beliefs that we have ‘advanced’ beyond it” (Lake 56-57).
Rather than participating in a political struggle between left and right or traditional and progressive, O’Connor declares the whole ontological framework of the modern world (including the possibility that its flaws may be tempered by a traditionalist politics) an illusion, an act of mass self-deception ultimately serving to dissolve the proper relationship between humanity and divinity in the form of the Christian God.
Thus, though implicitly rejecting the potential for direct political opposition to the status quo, O’Connor’s identification of ultimate value outside the bounds of culture and government inherently and necessarily challenges a system that both regards these concepts as the limits of relevant existence and also regards its own particular embodiment as the apotheosis thereof. Yet, O’Connor does not celebrate a sort of Rousseau-ian or transcendentalist removal from corrupt civilization into “nature” or an isolated “spirituality”. Through the medium of fiction, she instead actively challenges the culture of a humanity alienated from God, embodied by the immediate social and historical context of post-World War America, depicting the disruption of that alienation in the awakening to a divine reality.
O'Connor Scholarship and This Site
Flannery O'Connor's twin status as an orthodox Catholic and a serious writer has often led critics to (dis)regard her as a "religious writer," and thus either celebrating this vision exclusively or denigrating her as reactionary and disengaged from the wider culture. Jon Bacon in Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture (1993) and Ralph Wood in Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (2004) each do much to correct this impression, Bacon by emphasizing O'Connor's literary critique of the culture of Cold War America and Wood by exploring O'Connor's philosophical affiliation with the larger "Christ-haunted" culture of the South and the opposition of that culture to American modernity.
These two works represent much of the critical background to this web-site. Like these scholars, I shall attempt to disassociate O'Connor from a strictly parochial position in literary history. However, I shall be framing her work against a more general culture of consumerism and materialism embodied by America in the 1950s. I will argue, as I say above, that O'Connor's primary purpose was the articulation of the action of divine grace in the midst of a world that had renounced it; however, in achieving this end, it is necessary for her first to disrupt the easy disregard of the historical culture she inhabited. It is from this necessity that her criticism of American culture arises. The design of the site, then, symbolically mirrors the narrative pattern of an O'Connor story: I begin by describing the culture of the 1950s via a close reading of a collection of advertisements, images, and artifacts from the period. Then, I explore the manner in which this culture diverges from O'Connor's own vision. After this, I examine the literary strategies by which she attacks the complacency of the culture, and finally I look at her conception of the alternative to consumerist society.