"...To Hell With It": A Progression of Realities in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction

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Title: "...To Hell With It": A Progression of Realities in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction
Author: Branyon, Susanna Gail
Advisors: Dr. Lucinda MacKethan, Committee Chair
Dr. Thomas Lisk, Committee Member
Dr. Barbara Bennett, Committee Member
Abstract: In a 1955 letter to her friend Betty Hester, Flannery O'Connor states that, "One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience"( Habit of Being 92). This paper explores the ways in which O'Connor translates her understanding of the Incarnation into fictional characters that "reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in the concrete, observable reality"(Mystery and Manners 148) —primarily, the reality of the body. Additionally, this paper proposes that O'Connor's writing focuses increasingly on the body as whole—inextricably physical and spiritual. O'Connor's unyielding focus on the body was, I propose, born of her orthodox Roman Catholicism. This world-view included the doctrine of transubstantiation; that is, the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are literally changed in substance to be the body and blood of Christ. O'Connor's concrete understanding of the Eucharist reveals a progression of realities, from literal or bodily reality (what the Roman Catholic Church calls "accidental" reality), to transubstantiating violence, and finally, to spiritual reality, what O'Connor called "ultimate reality." She launched her characters into several variations of this Eucharistic process by incarnating, via novels and short stories, body-centric individuals (her characters) who reveal their spiritual nature only after physical or emotional violence. Because O'Connor's treatment of her characters changed over her writing career, I will address her works chronologically, beginning with her first novel, Wise Blood. I will then move to two stories from each of her published short fiction collections: "Good Country People" and "The Temple of the Holy Ghost" from A Good Man is Hard to Find, and "Parker's Back" and "Revelation" from Everything That Rises Must Converge. Though every piece of O'Connor's fiction contains at least one character who follows the Eucharistic process from bodily reality to violent action to spiritual reality, these works contain characters who highlight the initial portion of the transubstantiative process—the bodily reality. These particular pieces also trace the evolution of O'Connor's "incarnational imagination" as it relates to the bodily treatment of her characters—a matter not frequently addressed in O'Connor scholarship. While most of the critical mass focuses on either the acts of violence committed upon characters' bodies or the ultimate insignificance of characters' bodily reality in the presence of a spiritual reality, I propose that O'Connor creates bodies that are significant, integral elements—in fact, increasingly integral elements—in both the violent and ultimate spiritual realities of her characters. As her writing processes from Wise Blood to A Good Man is Hard to Find to Everything That Rises Must Converge, O'Connor creates characters who are increasingly grounded in their bodily realities, so that in later O'Connor works, the inevitable "moment of grace" (or, in my argument, moment of transubstantiation) does not end the bodily reality or discount the bodily reality in light of the characters' new spiritual reality (Mystery and Manners 112). Rather, the moment of transubstantiation highlights the characters' persistent incarnation—their persistent corporeal existence—in the midst of a new spiritual reality. O'Connor forces her later characters to keep on living—and living bodily— so that, in the space beyond the page, they must reconcile their accidental reality with their transubstantiated reality. This evolution of O'Connor's development of her characters suggests that the body is perhaps her most useful literary tool: as a concrete signpost that points both characters and audience toward her "ultimate reality," the body is, in fact, O'Connor's art (Habit of Being 92).
Date: 2008-05-09
Degree: MA
Discipline: English
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/2161

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