"Breathing In Nihilism": Amorality
Opposition to the deadening conformity of the 1950s to spill over into an amorality driven by a sense of personal moral superiority, an amorality of action arising from a consciousness of moral principles. O’Connor presents a variety of conscious social rebels whose individualistic self-aggrandizement in response to the weight of social conformity tends as inevitably to violence as does the evil they claim to oppose.

Frequently, this attitude has helped to cast O’Connor in the role of misanthropic Southern reactionary, particularly where her expression of it intersected with the nascent Civil Rights movement. Ralph Wood, discussing O’Connor’s negative reaction to Eudora Welty’s story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963), written in reaction to the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, explains that her antagonism to that story and to the social justice movements of the period “did not mean that the integrationists and the segregationists stood on equal footing, nor that she refused to choose between them, but that they had both arrogated to themselves a righteousness that she found deeply disturbing” (Wood 96).

The opposition to social activism speaks to the central argument of this study: that O’Connor’s cultural antagonism is both genuine in its specific condemnations of the immediate context of 1950s America, but also universal in its application of opposition to all cultural forms that claim an inherent virtue. Thus she addressed the “difficult Christian conviction that all people are equally sinful, even though their sin is unequal in its effects and thus in its guilt” (Wood 97).

The depiction of social rebellion as motivated by an aggrieved sense of personal virtue instead of a genuine desire for good, in stories such as “Good Country People,” “The Partridge Festival,” “The Enduring Chill,” and others, comprises a sort of self-parody on O’Connor’s part. They reflect her own frustrations at being forced by illness to live with her mother on a farm in rural and isolated Milledgeville, Ga. Yet by writing these stories as she wrote them, she undercut any potential assumption of superior virtue on her own part, portraying the autobiographical figures as vain and self-centered (Wood 201). The characters in these stories do in fact rebel against genuine evils of cultural and intellectual complacency, their rebellion is inevitabely undercut by its own articulation as a self-born quality, an inherent personal virtue that serves to elevate the individual, by his own strength, against the corrupting society. Based in nothingness it cannot achieve good.

As such, the characters in these stories attain their extreme apotheosis in the figure of the Misfit, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. He recognizes that the attempt to find an inner virtue with which to oppose the world has failed, and he embraces the apparent result: a genuine nihilism articulated in his claim that a Christ-less reality leaves only the possibility of “enjoy[ing] the few minutes you got left the best you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him” (CS 132). His failure to attain personal virtue through social rebellion is parodied in the figure of the young and idealistic Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth in the story “The Partridge Festival”.

The two idolize the killer Singleton as a “Christ-figure,” a scapegoat and a superman, whose exalted personal nature must be stamped out for the town to enjoy its complacent celebration of the Partridge Festival (CS 435). Yet he is ultimately revealed as a banality: he produces “a steady monotonous cursing […] with a machine-like regularity,” by its repetition, his malice is made boring: he is an automaton rather than a superman (CS 442). His aesthetic sense is lower than that of the townspeople, whose “corrupt” festival he aspires to, propositioning Mary Elizabeth by offering “to put you on a float” before exposing himself to her (CS 443). Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth’s search for an ennobling, world-rejecting meaning in this figure is a pale imitation of the Misfit’s acceptance of reality as a Void, where meaning is utterly absent, where there is “no real pleasure” (CS 133).