Realism and Faith in Flannery O’Connor

By Thomas Byrne
Source: The Georgia Humanities

Stories can give us great insight into spiritual things. Much like Jesus used parables to preach the good news of God’s kingdom, Catholic writers and theologians have used storytelling to help the faithful further meditate on the moral and spiritual life of the Church.

Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories are some of my favorite works of Catholic literature. Born in Savannah, Georgia in the 1920s, she was not shielded from the racism and religious fundamentalism that was prevalent in the southern states at the time. Being raised in this environment certainly influenced her writings. The majority of her stories are set in the south during the 20th century, and she is regarded as a preeminent contributor to the “Southern Gothic” genre of American literature.

Oftentimes in today’s world, religion is watered-down to sentimentality or misconstrued as a coping mechanism that provides an escape from the evils of this world. Modern Christian cinema, literature, and music to often present its own religion in this way. O’Connor, on the other hand, would undoubtedly refute this approach to faith. Her short stories are uncomfortable to read at times. Their main characters often act in gravely immoral ways and face tragic consequences for doing so; however, in the midst of the corruption and grotesqueness taking place within the stories and characters featured in them, O’Connor maintains an overarching sense of the merciful and just nature of God.

This can seem paradoxical at first. Where does God fit into the violence, confusion, and moral depravity of this world? The answer is Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. He enters into the sinful and fallen nature of humanity to bring about new life for those who trust in his teachings and strive to imitate Him. Paralleling this truth, it is those who do not follow or actively reject Christ’s teachings that end up meeting tragedy in her stories. Art imitating life, if you will.

O’Connor’s blend of realism and Christian sensibilities is both unique and thought-provoking for readers. Her stories never fail to spark my imagination and new insights about the faith that we hold so dear. Two of my favorites, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The Lame Shall Enter First”, are good places to start with O’Connor. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!