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Davis J. Leigh, S.J
SUFFERING AND THE SACRED IN FLANNERY O’CONNOR S
SHORT STORIES
N
o reader of Flannery O’Connor can miss the importance of suffering in her short stories. Almost all her central figures undergo
physical, psychic, and spiritual pain from a variety of sources —
disabilities, displacement, discrimination, disorientation, disease, death.
What puzzles readers is that some of her characters suffer rigidly and
bitterly, undergoing no growth or integration, as in the case of the Bible
salesman in “Good Country People” or the Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard
to Find.” Other characters also suffer but eventually are transformed by
their suffering, such as Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” and Mrs. Mclntyre
in “The Displaced Person.” Many others undergo a partial change toward
greater integration or spiritual growth. What accounts for the difference
between unprofitable suffering and transformative suffering in her stories?
O’Connor herself was well aware that, as she says in a 1963 letter, suffering does not by itself “teach you much about the redemption” (HB 536),
and that its value is only possible, not automatically experienced (MM
165). What I will try to show in this article is that to understand suffering
as a transformative experience in the stories of O’Connor requires insight
into her framework of Christian faith and an ability to discem symbolic,
ironic, and allusive dimensions of her fiction.
Flannery O’Connor in her essays and letters makes it clear that she
is writing stories from a framework of Catholic theological assumptions,
but that she is also creating stories that must be read symbolically in order
to interpret how the manners in these stories reveal the mystery in accord
with her assumptions (MM 98-99, 111, 124, 132; HB 387, 389). In her
worldview, human beings are created by God with innate goodness and
freedom, not natural depravity, but with limitations and inclinations to
evil. In response to this human condition, God has taken on human nature
in Christ, uniting the divine and the human, in order to redeem the human
race by this act of grace in cooperation with human freedom. As she says
in an essay on the fiction writer, “For me the meaning of life is centered in
our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to
that” (MM 32). Such redemptive grace works through nature, both human
and physical, but transcends it. In short, human life “has, for all its horror,
been found by God to be worth dying for” (MM 146).
Within this theological overview, O’Connor agrees with Romano
Guardini, the German theologian who greatly influenced her, that, in
Guardini’s words, “what Christ suffered, God suffered” by taking on
/fÊA’65.5 (Fall 2013)
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human nature with its bodily and social existence and conflicts {The Lord
325). The central act of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection brings
about human transformation, for, as O’Connor says, “our return [to innocence] is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s
death and our participation in it” {MM 165-66). Or, in Guardini’s words,
“the brief life of God on earth is no episode ending with Jesus’ death; the
band that connects him with humanity continues through the Resurrection
and Ascension into all time” (325). Thus, suffering can become for
O’Connor and all people with faith “a shared experience with Christ” {HB
527). However, suffering as such, to be transformative, must be connected
with self-emptying love, humility, and solidarity with others, for those are
the reasons that God took on the human condition, including its suffering.
As St. Paul says in the hymn in Philippians 2, a passage cited by Guardini,
Jesus, “though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God
a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and
being made like unto men” (326-27).
Because of human blindness and rigidity, “suffering is the deepest of
mysteries,” according to Teilhard de Chardin, whom O’Connor read with
some agreement late in life (qtd. in Kilcourse 273).Teilhard also states
that suffering is at first experienced as “an Adversary,” but with the light
of grace it can be something we come to accept as a way that “uproots
our egoism and centers us more completely on God,” because ultimately
suffering “is a supremely active principle for the humanization and divinization of the universe” as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ
(qtd. in Kilcourse 273). For the individual, suffering, aging, and dying
become “forces of diminishment,” but they need not defeat one who is
united with Christ’s transformation of suffering and death into a way to
etemal life (Teilhard 87). As Teilhard says, “God . . . has already transfigured our sufferings by making them serve our conscious fulfillment” and
by making them deepen our union with God (87-88). One of the ways in
which suffering brings about humanization is through human solidarity
and compassion, especially with suffering people, which can be shown
through active efforts to alleviate others’ pain. Teilhard saw “Providence
across the ages as brooding over the world in ceaseless effort to spare that
world its bitter wounds and to bind up its hurts,” especially through people
who take on or relieve human suffering (84).’
A
T the age of twenty six, O’Connor leamed that what she thought were
symptoms of arthritis were actually signs of incipient lupus, a disease
that led to her early death thirteen years later in 1964. This disease, which
also had taken her father in 1931 when Flannery was sixteen, manifested
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itself in progressive disintegration of her immune system that led to her loss
of her ability to walk and control her muscles. At first, when she believed
she was afflicted with what she called “AWRTHRITUS,” O’Connor wrote
ironically to Betty Boyd Love in 1952, “These days you caint even have
you a good psychosomatic ailment” {HB 22). When she eventually was
diagnosed with lupus, she rarely complained of its slow undermining of
her physical movements. She managed to create a routine in her home
in Milledgeville with her mother that allowed her several hours a day of
writing, which she continued to follow until her final days. In this life of
writing, O’Connor found the routine to be a form of purification, both of
her style and of her self. As she said in an essay, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.
. . . It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the
novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by
a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal” {MM 11-1%).This hope of salvation by the writer’s “self-abandonment” was explicitly
linked in O’Connor’s mind, according to John Desmond, with the sufferings of Christ. As she says in the same essay, ” . . . the practice of any
virtue demands a certain asceticism and a very definite leaving behind of
the niggardly part of the ego. No art is sunk in the self, but rather in art the
self becomes self-forgetful.. .” {MM 82-83).
Her most explicit comment on the self-purifying power of her illness
came in a June 28, 1956 letter to Betty Hester: “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long
trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where
nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and
I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies” {HB 163).
When she later read Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu in 1963, she
found its teaching on suffering helpful; as she wrote to Janet McKane,
“Père Teilhard talks about ‘passive diminishments’ in The Divine Milieu.
He means those afflictions that you can’t get rid of and have to bear. Those
that you can get rid of he believes you must bend every effort to get rid of. I
think he was a very great man” {HB 509). Even when she went to Lourdes
as a patient, she prayed primarily for others, or in her words in the same
letter, “I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones,
which I care about less, but I guess my prayers were answered about the
novel, inasmuch as I finished it” {HB 509). Her most hopeful theological
reflections on her body came in an earlier letter to Betty Hester in 1955:
. . . I think that when I know what the laws of the fiesh and the
physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as
we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the
Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the fiesh
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and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of
these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church puts
on the body…. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in
the law of nature” (HB 100).
When O’Connor was asked in 1961 to write an introduction to A Memoir
of Mary Ann, a short book about a twelve-year-old girl who died of cancer
at a hospice in Atlanta, she was led to reflect on her own growing awareness of the power of sickness in her own life. She wrote, “the creative
action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ. It is a continuous action in which this world’s goods are utilized to the fullest, both
positive gifts and what Père Teilhard de Chardin calls ‘passive diminishments”‘ (CW 828). Even in the passive diminishments of her last week of
Ufe in 1964, O’Connor was preparing for death by the “creative action” of
using her gifts to finish her short story “Parker’s Back.”
How did O’Connor insinuate, so to speak, these theological assumptions into the world of her fiction? First, she was quite aware that fiction
most often deals with human struggles, or, in her words, fiction “is closest
to man in his sin and his suffering and his hope” (MM 192). She never
apologizes for the violence and consequent suffering in her stories, for
they “best reveal what we are essentially” (MM 113-14), just as distorted
or exaggerated characters and conflicts reveal the human condition to a
world that is blinded by naturalism or secularism. As O’Connor sums up
her subject matter, “My subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory
held largely by the devil,” a territory of human sin and suffering (MM
118). More specifically in relation to her theological assumptions, the sufferings of the grotesques in her short stories — both the prideful and the
humbled — bring them a share in the redemptive patterns of Christ, who
underwent suffering and death as a way to resurrection and transformation
for all people. As a French critic has stated, O’Connor’s stories “place universal agony once more at the center of the human condition,” for God in
Christ “is an open wound” (Maurice Levy qtd. in Paulson 159).
O’Connor embodied the theme of suffering in her main characters in
myriad ways throughout her short stories. Some of them suffer from the
results of their sins, which bring about their own pain and alienation; some
suffer as they undergo a stage of human growth or as they meet societal
injustice; and some suffer in conscious solidarity with others or in their
work to alleviate human pain. The type of suffering, as we shall see, is varied; whether suffering is destructive or redemptive is a matter of grace and
freedom. Some of her characters move from suffering to despair, some
never reflect on the meaning of their misery; some begin to be transformed
in part but retain certain prejudices or blindnesses; others move radically
to hope and new life. Thus O’Connor affirms only the “value that suffering
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can have,” but this value the secular world does not realize. Discussing
suffering in O’Connor’s first and last stories one critic has it that:
Within personal loss and recovery O’Connor finds a new order of
creation. The pattern beneath all patterns for her turns out to be a
death and a resurrection. In the mature unfolding of O’Connor’s
imagination, the duty to suffer amounts to the devoir to redemption. (Giannone, “Consecration” 10)
I
N the first volume of her short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find,
O’Connor clearly, if ironically, portrays characters who experience suffering in surprising ways. The most ironic are those who remain trapped
in their suffering and are never transformed by it, principally because they
are fixed in their secular or self-centered minds. Such is Manley Pointer,
the Bible salesman in “Good Country People.” At first during their tryst,
Hulga resists his efforts to make her say “I love you” by showing a sort of
hopeless compassion: “You poor baby . . . We are all damned, but some of
us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a
kind of salvation” {CW 280). As she looks out from the bam loft, she sees
dark woods beneath a hollow sky, a symbol that suggests the presence of
Mystery even in her skeptical world. When the salesman insists that she
show him her love is true by taking off her wooden leg, Hulga mistakenly
trusts in love for the first time: “It was like surrendering to him completely.
It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his”
(€^^281). At this point, she undergoes a partial transformation by sharing
her suffering out of love and compassion, as echoed in the Gospel allusion to Christ’s call to find one’s life by losing it (Mark 8:35, John 12:25).
However, without her leg, she feels totally dependent on the salesman, a
feeling that he uses to accuse her of having some sort of faith: “You just
awhile ago said you didn’t believe in nothing. I thought you was some
girl!” {CW 282). Finally, he reveals that his exploitation of her is part of
his diabolical routine: “I use a different name at every house I call at and
I don’t stay nowhere long…. I been believing in nothing ever since I was
bom!” (CW 283). In this powerful scene, Hulga’s compassion leads her to
total rejection by the salesman, who, in his demonic despair, never faces
his own suffering and instead makes a mockery of hers. Hulga herself ends
up watching him run off, “his blue figure struggling successfully over the
green speckled lake” (283). As Ralph Wood has suggested, here she envisions Pointer as a sort of pseudo-savior who appears to walk on water, but
whose rejection saves her only from a “false faith” (209). She has been
seeking a philosophical freedom, what Preston Browning calls a freedom
“to shed the weight of consciousness and pain which life in the world
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entails,” and seeking “to circumvent, without the suffering which redemption always entails . . . the fallen nature of man” (48-49). The woods of
Mystery have disappeared and she is left only partially transformed by
her suffering.
Three other early stories also portray people trapped in their suffering, either because they exploit others or are victims of exploitation. The
most vicious exploiter is Mr. Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your
Own,” who tricks the Lucynell Craters, both mother and daughter, by a
false marriage and by stealing their automobile. Although he mouths pious
praise of his mother and says he is seeking a view of the sunset, he ends up
isolating himself and feeling “that the rottenness of the world was about
to engulf him” (CW 183). In a more comic mode. General Sash in “A Late
Encounter with the Enemy” seeks to regain his falsely achieved past as
a general in a Civil War film premiere by presiding as a famous guest at
his granddaughter’s graduation. But in his bittemess of dementia at 104,
he dies onstage under the illusion that he is being chased by the hollow
words of the speakers and cheated by the disappointments of the past. In
“A Circle in the Fire,” the young girl is introduced to the power of evil and
helpless suffering when she tries to confront three teenage boys who terrorize her mother and then set fire to destroy the property they cannot have.
As the girl looks at the face of her mother at the end of the story, “It was
the face of the new misery she felt, but on her mother it looked old and it
looked as if it might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or
to Powell himself. . . She stood taut listening, and could just catch in the
distance a few wild high shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in
the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them” (CW 251).
The mixture of meaningless suffering and the hint of a prophetic path to
meaning in suffering is caught in the ironic use of the Book of Daniel in
the final quotation.
In “The Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a young Catholic girl confronts
the problem of evil in the form of the suffering body of a circus freak. At
first she considers herself superior to two visiting fourteen-year-old cousins, whom she calls “practically morons” in part because they think that
the teaching about the temple of their bodies is extremely silly (CW 197).
The girl herself shows her pharisaical pride by thanking God that she was
not a member of an evangelical sect, like that from which two young men
came who were courting the cousins. When she tells her cousins that “I’m
not as old as you all, but I’m about a million times smarter,” they tell her
about meeting a hermaphrodite at the fair. When he is viewed as a freak,
he tells the onlookers that “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He
may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I
ain’t disputing His way” (CW 206). When the girl half dreams about the
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hermaphrodite, she hears him chanting “You are God’s temple” and “I
am a temple of the Holy Ghost” {CW 207). The next day, when she rides
with her cousins on their return to the convent school, she follows her
mother into the chapel where she kneels and finally realizes she is in the
presence of God and of Christ in the Eucharist. Suddenly, she thinks of
Christ and the hermaphrodite in the same vision, and comes to realize that
he and Christ were both suffering from being exhibited to the public eye
as “freaks” of nature. After the Benediction, she is embraced by the big
nun who “nearly smothered her in the black habit, mashing the side of her
face into the crucifix hitched onto her belt” (209), an event that comically
brings her close to another adolescent form of suffering. On her way home,
the girl has a sort of epiphany when she sees the sinking sun as another
identification with the elevated Host in the chapel. Both were “drenched in
blood,” a final symbol to her of the redemptive suffering of Christ, for her,
for the hermaphrodite, and for all bodily human beings {CW 209).
In two other Good Man stories, the main characters encounter each
other in a painful conflict, and one is transformed while the other is fixated by the suffering. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Misfit admits
that he is not a “good man” (CW 148) but does not want any help, for, as
he says, “I’m doing all right by myself (150). He admits a sort of secular
belief in Christ as someone who “thown everything off balance” by his
life and death (151), but without faith in his resurrection, the Misfit finds
“no pleasure but meanness” (152). At the very end of his encounter with
the grandmother, he is given a chance to move out of his pain by the old
lady, who gives up her own meanness in an unexpected act of compassion,
when she sees “the man’s twisted face close to her own as if he were going
to cry” and she murmurs, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of
my own children!” This act of gratuitous care causes the Misfit nothing
but pain, “as if a snake had bitten him” (152). The result is that the grandmother becomes “a good woman” in the last moment of her life as she
suffers death from the Misfit’s gun.
Similarly, in “The Displaced Person,” Mr. and Mrs. Shortley encounter Mr. Guizac, the displaced person from Poland, whom they see only as
a threat to their jobs and as a foreign enemy, like those the husband had
fought in World War II. The displaced person’s suffering in the war and
now in exile elicits no compassion from the Shortleys, who remain fixed
in their bitterness and see him only as a threat to bring suffering on them.
As a result, Mrs. Shortley brings upon herself a stroke and Mr. Shortley
destroys the threat by setting up an accident that kills the displaced person.
Ironically, this deadly cruelty eliminates the threat but also leads him to
lose his job. This hardness of heart in the face of suffering is contrasted in
the story with the compassion of the priest and with the final beginning of
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change in the owner, Mrs. Mclntyre: she becomes unable to continue running the farm and ends up disabled by a nervous disease to such an extent
that all she can do is receive visits from the priest, who feeds the peacocks
(symbols of Christ and transflguration) and explains Catholic teaching to
her. According to O’Connor’s personal interpretation of the story, “the
displaced person did accomplish a kind of redemption in that . . . he set
Mrs. Mclntyre on the road to a new kind of suffering, not Purgatory as St.
Catherine would conceive i t . . . but Purgatory at least as a beginning of
suffering” (7/ß 118).
The most controversial transformation through suffering in this earlier
volume occurs in “The /Artificial Nigger,” a story whose theme, according
to O’ Connor herself, “was the redemptive quality of Negro suffering for us
all” {HB 78). However, some critics find that this theme is too deeply hidden in the final scene of revelation, in which the rural proud Mr. Head and
his grandson, after suffering exile through getting lost in the big city, come
up against a dilapidated plaster figure of a Negro on a rich family’s lawn.
As the two wanderers, who have lost trust in each other during their travel
to Atlanta, peer at the figure, they unconsciously stand “almost exactly
the same way and their hands trembling identically in their pockets” {CW
230). In becoming like each other, Mr. Head and the boy become also
aware of the “great mystery” embodied in the demeaning plaster Negro.
The vision “dissolves their differences like an action of mercy.” Although
the grandfather tries to laugh off the experience, he later admits to himself
that mercy “grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and is given
in strange ways to children.” He realizes for the first time that mercy “is
all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned
with shame that he had so little of it to take with him” {CW 230). Whether
or not this insight is too explicitly theological for such an uneducated character to phrase in those words, it is clear that Mr. Head and his grandson
have been partially transformed by sharing the suffering of each other and
of the people embodied in the plaster Negro. The grandfather realizes his
sinfulness, but also “that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as
his own . . . since God loved in proportion as He forgave” {CW 231). The
boy’s final words also echo what O’Connor may have thought about this
explicitly theological ending to what she once called her best story: “I’m
glad I went once, but I’ll never go back again” (231). As in other stories
by O’Connor that deal with prejudiced Southern whites, Mr. Head and his
grandson reach a partial change of heart through an imaginative solidarity,
through they never fully transcend their racial biases as they return to their
lives in segregated Georgia.”*
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I
N her second volume of stories. Everything that Rises Must Converge,
O’Connor continues to create characters who suffer but whose suffering leads some to despair, others to unreflective blindness, some to partial
change, and others to radical transformation. However, she also devises
more complex stories that show how people who cause suffering in others
eventually may begin to realize their pride and undergo a painful conversion to repentance and love. Sometimes this change comes too late to help
those they have despised, or to instill in them a Christ-like love.
In the title story of her second volume, the main character, Julian,
spends most of the story causing suffering for his naïve and prejudiced but
good intentioned mother, who thinks she knows who she is in her Southern
pride and condescension. Her son remains aloof in his educated liberal
“mental bubble, from [which] he could see out and judge, but in it he was
safe from any kind of penetration from without” (CW 491). Only after he
experiences the suffering of his mother, who has a stroke at the end of her
conflict with a proud African-American woman, does Julian emerge from
his bubble of self-satisfaction. When he sees her with her distorted face
and unfixed eyes, he cries out in his own pain and his first act of compassion, “Mother . . . Darling, sweetheart, wait!” and runs for help toward “a
cluster of lights he saw in the distance ahead of him.” These lights, symbols perhaps of grace and enlightenment, fade as he encounters suffering
and death for the first time: “The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him
back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world
of guilt and sorrow” (CW 500). As with Mrs. Mclntyre, the suffering and
death of another person becomes the occasion for the first movement of
Julian into the light and possible redemption.
Another character whose pride and lack of faith mislead him into causing suffering is Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” In this story,
the main character in his atheism believes he is able to save the disabled
Rufus by getting him a special shoe, but is unable by his strict discipline to
save his own son, Norton, from self-centeredness and grief over the death
of his mother. As the delinquent Rufus reveals to Sheppard his ineffective
attempts to play the savior, the father finally realizes, in his words spoken
at the end of the story, “I did more for him [Rufus] than I did for my own
child” (CW 631). Here he sees that the sufferings he caused his child and
tried to alleviate in Rufus were the results of his attempt “to feed his vision
of himself as a savior who “had stuffed his own emptiness with good
works like a glutton.” Like Julian’s feeling toward his mother, Sheppard
has a last-minute feeling of “agonizing love for the child” that “rushed
over him like a transfusion of life.” As he runs upstairs to see Norton, he
imagines the boy to be “his salvation; all light.” He promises wildly that
“he would never let him suffer again. He would be mother and father . . .
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he loved him . . . he would never fail him again” (CW 632). This enlightenment and beginning of compassion, unfortunately, come too late to save
his son from the suicide that the boy believed in his naïveté “had launched
his flight into space” to be with his mother. However, the epiphany shows
that Sheppard is moving from being a false, Pharisaical “Good Shepherd”
who causes suffering to his son to being a tme father who seeks to prevent
suffering in others. Sheppard’s transformation is tragic because it comes
too late, but be certainly undergoes a sort

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