The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Flannery O’Connor’s use of grace:
A self-study of faith in writing

Rachael Conlin Levy

The short stories Flannery O’Connor wrote in her lifetime are shrewd, full of human frailty, hard, compassionate. When arranged chronologically, they showcase the power of her disturbing tales as well as her growth as a writer whose final story is a rewritten and transfigured version of her first.

When read in combination with her letters to friends, fans, editors, fellow writers, and priests, I gained insight that would’ve been hard to find outside a classroom. Rather than rely on a teacher to focus the conversation, O’Connor spoke directly to me about what I found interesting — how her ideas on spirituality, morality and ethics shaped her stories.

Sin, judgment, redemption and grace resonate with me, probably because I’m a lapsed Catholic, probably because I’m quick to judge, probably because I’m inclined to see things in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Predictably, the correspondence I read with the greatest interest was between O’Connor and “A,” a young woman whose fan mail evolved into a friendship that ended with O’Connor’s death at age 39 to lupus. O’Connor’s letters to her were filled with heady spiritual discussions, the care and disposition of peacocks, and gentle writerly encouragement like this:

“No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are executed to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you.”

O’Connor’s advice to “A.” on storytelling and theology was patient and openminded; her friend eventually renounced their shared faith. In a letter written in 1957, two years into their epistolary friendship, the author discussed a critical flaw in her friend’s main character:

“If there is no possibility for change in a character, we have no interest in him… I think you could correct this by having the boy not quite so evil, by having him hesitate before each of his evil acts and decide on the evil for a reason which he figures out. Otherwise there is no use to write about him. You’ve got to show him killing the little bit of good in himself; and it seems to me you could do this fairly easy. Let him be a monster because he wants to be a monster, not just because he is a monster. He seems to me evil but not sinful. Sin is interesting but evil is not. Sin is the result of an individual’s free choice, but evil is something else.”

O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” about a family who comes to a violent and tragic end when they meet the criminal The Misfit, is an example of how she let the monster choose to sin. On first read, the story is so awful and shocking that I recoiled, a common reaction in her readers.

“Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it,” O’Connor wrote. “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”

This time around I read the story alongside her letters, returning to the passages that she discussed and explained. The story, she said, is a duel between the grandmother and her superficial beliefs and The Misfit’s more profoundly felt involvement with Christ’s actions, which set the world wrong.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance… Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

O’Connor said that to a Catholic, grace uses as its medium the imperfect, human and even hypocritical, therefore it can and does act through both the grandmother and The Misfit. The Misfit, she explained, is touched by the grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, just as she is touched by the grace that comes through him in his particular suffering. The Misfit shoots her out of horror at her humanness, cutting himself off from grace, and affecting the very foundation of his soul.

“But after he has done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. True enough,” O’Connor wrote.

The concurrent reading of her story and her commentary deepened my understanding of and appreciation for her work. Again and again in “Good Country People,” “The Comforts of Home,” “A View of the Wood” “and more, she guided me in her use of symbolism, clarified a character’s development, shared an alternate ending — all pure, joyful learning about faith and writing.

It was the second time I’d deep-dived into an author and his work, having first read “Madame Bovary” followed by the double portrait of the book and its maker in “Flaubert and Bovary” by Francis Steegmuller. It’s a practice I heartedly recommend.

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