In a 1955 letter, devout Catholic and Southern fiction author Flannery O’Connor wrote, “It is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.” This sense of the operation of grace as part of the natural world is reflected in her short stories and two novels, which often synthesize graphic physical violence and spiritual beauty. Contra mundum, the Catholic Society motto for the year, applies to O’Connor’s challenge to the drearily secular literature prevalent in the mid-20th century, and to her ability to express spiritual realities which are in, but not of, the world.
O’Connor’s vision of the supernatural dwelling within the natural contradicted most literary norms of her time. She characterized the writing typical of her peers as “lacking in a sense of spiritual purpose and in the joy of life” and wondered whether “stories lacking such are actually credible.” By contrast, O’Connor’s true faith in Christ, the sacraments, and salvation led her to understand that any accurate representation of the world was necessarily an accurate representation of grace. From her perspective, “Realism” failed to realistically depict the world because it failed to account for the stubborn existence of the immaterial. In order for a story to be truly realistic, it had to have that element of the transcendent, the spiritual, the divine. O’Connor’s stories, though shocking, leave room for spiritual transformation and redemption, and it is because of this that they are more satisfying than purely secular literature.
What sets O’Connor’s work apart from that of other explicitly Christian authors is her emphasis on an accurate representation of the world. That is, in her words, “[T]here is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” Rather than superimpose a pious veneer on reality or deal only with devotional topics, O’Connor chose to dramatize how grace actually works, through her unlikely (and sometimes unwilling) characters. Examples include the hermaphrodite at a freak show in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost;” Asbury, the bitterly agnostic invalid in “The Enduring Chill;” and Enoch Emery, the demoniac zoo guard in Wise Blood (a personal favorite). Although these characters and their situations may appear grotesque, O’Connor believed that they were more realistic than not only secular literature, but devotional literature, which often ignored the impossibility of separating our experience of grace from our experience of the material world.
Flannery O’Connor’s use of Christian realism in her fiction appeals to those of us who are dissatisfied with most literature as either cynical or unrealistically optimistic. To acknowledge the extent to which sin, suffering, and violence prevail in the world is to acknowledge also the wondrous, almost frightening ways that God uses his creation for the benefit of all. Perhaps O’Connor says it best herself: “[Christian realism] is not a set of rules which fixes what [the author] sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.” The world is corrupt, and it is beautiful; reading O’Connor’s stories is one way to form our imaginations so that we, too, may revere creation and salvation exactly how God intended.