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Flannery O'Connor and the Nature of BeliefTerm Paper

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Flannery O'Connor and the Nature of Belief

The southern American writer Flannery O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925. She was Edward and Regina O'Connor's only child. Her father would pass away when she was only fifteen from lupus, the same disease that would also kill her at the age of thirty-nine. Her father's death would have a profound effect on the budding writer; she almost never spoke of her father for the rest of her life, so devastated was she by his early death.

Even before becoming a writer, O'Connor had her first taste of fame at the young age of five. She managed to teach a chicken to walk backwards, and became a media celebrity. A film was made of this trick and shown all over the United States. O'Connor would later assert, with a hint of irony, that this period was the highlight of her life.

O'Connor would go on to study at the Peabody Laboratory School and the Georgia State College for Women (now known as Georgia College and State University), before moving on to the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Upon completing her M.F.A. In Iowa, O'Connor was invited to stay with the esteemed poet and Greek translator Robert Fitzgerald in Redding, Connecticut. Upon being diagnosed with lupus in the early 1950s, O'Connor moved back to her family's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. She would spend the rest of her life on this farm, raising peacocks and exotic birds. In fact, the peacock would go on to play a prominent role in many of her writings from this period on.

Belief was a fundamental concept to O'Connor, who was a devout Catholic, despite the fact that the south during this period was heavily Protestant. O'Connor was very reclusive towards the end of her life; despite her voluminous correspondence, she rarely left the farm, relying on her mother for companionship. By the time of her death on August 3, 1964, O'Connor had completed two novels and over two dozen short stories, as well as numerous essays. O'Connor's mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, would outlive her daughter by over three decades, finally passing away in the year 1997.

O'Connor continues to be admired for the profundity of her fiction - despite the fact that she herself shunned intellectualism. Still, this did not prevent her from etching such profound philosophical thoughts as the following: "Belief, in my own case anyway, is the engine that makes perception operate" (Charters 672). In this essay, I will explore the nature of belief in O'Connor's fiction, particularly as it pertains to the role of perception in her stories. By doing so, I hope to gain further understanding into some of the more puzzling aspects of O'Connor's writing and thought. I will focus my analysis on three short stories: "Good Country People," "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."

Good Country People" is characteristic of the more caustic qualities of O'Connor's fiction. Indeed, she appears to have very little sympathy for the majority of her characters, preferring instead to display them in all their grotesqueries in order to render a brutal depiction of the conflictual nature of the human condition. This story is quite relevant to our thesis, as it ultimately explores fundamental issues related to belief.

At the core of the story is an educated woman named Joy who has a wooden leg. Despite her intellect, Joy is a tortured individual who is constantly coming up against her Mother's hypocritical Puritan values. She had left home briefly to attend university, eventually finishing her Ph.D. In Philosophy, during which time she changed her name legally to the ugly-sounding Hulga in order to spite her mother.

Joy or Hulga is an atheist. Her ultimate belief, as her Mother haphazardly discovers one day when reading a passage Joy has underlined in a book, is in nothing. So strong is her belief that Joy is unable to give up her nihilism, even in the most extreme circumstances. She sheathes her unbelief in her intellect, thinking that this will somehow protect it - and her, by extension. In fact, her unbelief becomes her sole defensive device against what she perceives as a harsh, uncomprehending world.

The interruption of her solitary universe by the arrival of a door-to-door Bible salesman proves to be the ironic factor that disrupts her nihilism. The Bible salesman introduces himself as "good country people," and Joy and her Mother both fall for his act, despite the fact that they have little interest in purchasing any of his wares. The Mother, who pretends to be a good Christian and perhaps even believes herself to be one, does not have the heart to dismiss the Bible salesman, so she sends her daughter into perform the unenviable task. When the salesman reveals that he has the same heart condition that Joy has, and probably will not live very long, Joy, choked up in a rare moment of sentimentality, invites the salesman to have dinner with them. After dinner, the salesman begins to romantically pursue Joy, inviting her to go on a walk with him the following day. She agrees to it, cynically thinking in her mind of how she will seduce him and then break his heart. But it is ultimately her who has her worldview shattered by the deceptive Bible salesman. When the two are alone in a barn, he convinces her to remove her wooden leg. He opens up his suitcase to reveal a Bible inside, inside of which he has stashed a bottle of whisky and a deck of playing cards. Revealing his true, devilish nature, he refuses to give her back her wooden leg. He steals it and leaves her there in the barn, her harsh, nihilistic perception of the world having been shattered (O'Connor 1955a).

Good Man is Hard to Find" is a deceptively simple, yet no less brutal story. It involves a road trip undertaken by a family in Atlanta to Florida. Each of the characters in the story is depicted in O'Connor's graceful, yet unsympathetic prose, from the tense, self-loathing father to the obnoxious children. It is only the Grandmother who elicits any real sympathy from the reader, but even then, she is far from a flawless character; it is her who is responsible for the car accident that will lead to the death of each of the family members.

In one of O'Connor's typically wrought pangs of foreshadowing, the Grandmother warns the family that a deranged criminal is on the loose and headed to Florida the very day that they are planning to head out: "Now look here," she tells her son:

Here this fellow that calls himself the Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did" (O'Connor 1955b, 445-446).

Of course, Grandma's conscience is far from clear and innocent; her real motive for discouraging the trip to Florida is because she would rather go to eastern Tennessee. Grandma is depicted as a selfish character, who, despite her belief in God, clings to old-fashioned southern views on race (she uses the word "nigger" throughout the story) as well as matriarchal control over her son - and, by extension, the rest of the family - throughout.

Her belief in God receives its ultimate challenge in the climax of the story. After the family has suffered an automobile accident that was caused by Grandma, they flag down a car for help. The car just happens to contain the Misfit himself, alongside his two criminal sidekicks. Each of the family members is killed off one by one, leaving just the Misfit and Grandma to confront one another in an extended dialogue probing the nature of belief. Grandma tells the Misfit that he is not really a bad man, that he just needs to accept Jesus into his life, and he will be saved. But the Misfit will have none of it; he is unable to believe in something that he cannot see. Thus, he explains, with the absence of Christ in his life, with no hope of salvation, there is nothing left but to kill and cause misery to those around him. This nihilistic practice itself becomes his sole salvation. With her eminent death looming, it is here that O'Connor reveals how superficial Grandma's own belief is. Superficial, because she is in fact afraid of death, wishing to postpone it for as long as possible, only calling on Jesus to protect her from ultimately returning to Heaven. As one writer has written about O'Connor, "Icy disdain pervades her pages, and she is as religiously pitiless as Virgil admonishes Dante to become as he guides the trembling poet through the horrors of the Inferno" (Gordon 27). After he reveals her foolishness and the fragility of her faith, the Misfit… [END OF PREVIEW]

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