Elements of Fiction in Flannery O’Connor

When Flannery O’Connor was once asked to name her life’s key influences, she stated, “being a writer, a Southerner and a Catholic”. It is important to take these influences into account for the analysis of O’Connor’s fiction. The elements of fiction of this writer have been described as Christian tragicomedy. They are tragic because of the grotesque and violent events and characters that the author chooses to use in her stories. They are also comic because the author seeks to achieve humour in violent events. This paper explores three stories of Flannery O’Connor and the use of religion, grotesque and humor as the main elements of her fiction.

The most striking element in O’Connor’s work is Christianity. She believed that the function of a writer could mainly be described in terms of religion. She viewed the meaning of life and all she sees in the world as being centred in redemption by Christ. She considered her religious attitudes in disregard to the popular attitude of her time and built her fiction on this fact. She described her readers as wingless birds who misunderstood her stories. She claimed that some people were brought up without exposure to moral sense just like wings were bred off a certain category of chicken to produce white meat. She claims that her fidelity to Roman Catholicism does not inhibit but builds her fiction  writing. Christ is the foundation of O’Connor’s fiction. He is the standard against which she measures the soundness, goodness or badness of her characters.

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O’Connor held the opinion that faith was mysterious, which formed her grotesque writing. She felt that her readers were so much out of touch with the religious doctrines that they could not understand the mystery she discovered in faith. Therefore, she used grotesque to force the readers to confront the mystery. O’Connor uses grotesque in her fiction through characterization, sadness and surprise. She presents most of her characters with physical deformities to create a contrast between them and a complete man, in her case, Christ. She chooses characters of all appearances: beautiful and ugly, ludicrous and impressive. The characters have a quality that stands out despite  the grotesque element. She said that she managed to portray mystery of faith using grotesque because it formed spontaneously alongside her view of the world. She says that a writer with a Christian background finds contemporary life distortions to be distasteful. However, the audience will see these distortions as something natural and normal. The writer will seek to make these ills appear as distortions even among people who are comfortable with them.

The third element of fiction in O’Connor’s fiction is humour. Humour has a close connection with grotesque in the works of O’Connor. She raises humour at the middle of a catastrophic event and seriousness in ludicrous events. In fact, O’Connor describes her fictions as humorous. In this context, she refers to her works as comic art that does not digress from its seriousness. She portrays the world as being full of figures which are laughable in their features and response to situations. The initial reaction of the readers may be a grin at the experience of the world full of emptiness. However, laughter leads the readers to get involved in reflecting upon serious issues.

The first story of O’Connor that demonstrates the three elements is “The River “. In this story, the main character is a boy called Harry, who keeps changing dimensions after an experience with the babysitter, Mrs Connin. As the boy’s parents recover from hangovers every morning, they adopt a habit of constantly throwing him from one sitter to another. The boy cheats Mrs Connin that he is called Bevel. However, Bevel is the name of a preacher. This shows that the boy is struggling to locate his identity in the world filled with confusion. The boy is taken to the river for baptism. The experience he encounters after being baptised is unmatched. He encounters new insights into the world of spiritual people. Harry is shown a painting of Jesus Christ. In this portrait, Jesus is painted with long hair and a gold ring going round his head. The first lesson Harry learns in this experience is that he is made by the person in the painting.

The experience of Harry introduces the element of religion as the basis for the story. The reader can see the impact of baptism in the life of Harry at his tender age. The next day after baptism, Harry goes to the river to search for the kingdom of heaven but, unfortunately, he drowns. The element of grotesque is clear from this story. O’Connor uses the death of an innocent boy with an anterior motive of driving in a moral instruction. The changing of the boy’s name from Harry to Bevel is also an aspect of religion. It is synonymous of Saul changing his name to Paul after an encounter with Jesus in the Bible. After Harry realises that he is in a new, unfamiliar life, he prefers to be identified as Bevel. Initially, Harry is introduced to evil by the three sons of Connin. The three boys trick him to release the pig. As he goes through a religious book belonging to Connin, he encounters a picture where Jesus is driving demons out of a man and directing them into a herd of swine. Harry recognises that after being baptised he will become more important.The next day, Harry decides to explore the river, as he thinks it is the place where the Kingdom of Christ is found. After coming to the river, he does not find the Kingdom. Harry is then disgruntled and starts fighting the water. He then sees Mr Paradise following him but the current sweeps him away. As he tries to swim away from Mr Paradise, he draws near Paradise and the Kingdom of God he was initially seeking.

This story covers all elements of religion, grotesque and humour. Religious issues form the baseline of the entire story. The most significant practice is baptism. The young preacher is presented as the model of a religious man. His message is that people should choose either Jesus or the Devil. Through the preacher, O’Connor expresses her personal views. The use of grotesque is seen when the story ends with the demise of an innocent boy. Harry is neglected by his parents and resolves to seek something to fill the gap left by his parents. Grotesque is also seen in his encounter with Mr Paradise. He is described as a monster-like figure with a cancerous growth on his ear. Harry associates him with a pig. Through this character, O’Connor demonstrates that human beings take the resemblance of beasts when they are of evil nature. In the story, humor occurs sporadically amidst serious scenes. Humour in the story is expressed in Connin’s conversation with Harry about healing. Harry inquires whether Jesus will heal him. When Connin asks what Harry wants to be healed of, Harry says he is hungry.

The second work of Flannery O’Connor which demonstrates these elements is “The Good Country People”. Religion is shown by the foil characters of Mrs Hopewell and Mr Freeman. While Mrs Freeman is described as a good person, Hulga is proud and condescending. The author associates the source of Hulga’s physical imperfections with her physical deformities. Hulga lost her leg when she was young and now has a prosthetic leg. This helps O’Connor emphasise the importance of religion in living. The author relates her physical problems to her spiritual imperfections. The account of a salesman helps to portray religion in the story. When the salesman comes to the house of Hulga, she conceives a desire to seduce him. However, when they go for a picnic, the bible salesman steals Hulga’s prosthetic leg. The man represents the biblical wolf in a sheep skin as he looked so innocent and incapable of doing this evil.

Grotesque is expressed by Manley, the bible seller. He collects outrageous items such as Hulga’s prosthetic leg and glass eyes and also sells bibles. The collection of unique items and of unusual circumstances clearly demonstrate grotesque. Humour is also rife in the story. When Hulga encounters the simple Bible salesman, she thinks she will seduce and dominate him. It is humorous in the end how this man, who was thought to be simple, dupes and dumps Hulga, who is a highly educated person.

The third story that uses these elements of fiction is “A Circle in the Fire”. The element of religion is seen from Mrs Cope who is a widow and boss of a lucrative firm. She tells everybody she encounters to be always thankful to God. She always asks people she encounters if they thank God for everything they have. However, it can be seen that Mrs Cope’s faith is not true, but it is instilled by fear. She constantly fears that somebody will either sue her or set her woods on fire. On the one hand, she is thankful to God for her possessions. However, she contradicts her statements when she tells Mrs Pritchard that her possessions are not a gift from God but merit for her hard work. The author uses this character to portray Christian hypocrisy. Later, three boys set the woods of Mrs Cope on fire and leave her powerless.

Grotesque in the story is seen in the boys that set the forest of Mrs Cope on fire. The fire is surprising and sudden. The evil desires of the boys to ride forbidden horses, go to a place they are not allowed and set the forest on fire induce both empathy and disgust. Humour is exhibited through Mrs Cope who boasted to have the best-kept place in the country because of her hard work. However, she is not able to use her ability to work hard to rebuild herself.

O’Connor displays great success in coordinating religion, humour and grotesque as elements of fiction. In all three stories, these elements are interdependent. Grotesque is used to emphasise faith, which is a religious message. Humour is used in the midst of grotesque. She spans on a broader context above religion to emphasise moral issues that all people can relate to.