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Grace and Sin in Flannery O'Connor
Virtually all of Flannery O'Connor's short stories contain the receiving of grace by an unworthy protagonist at the tale's climatic moment. The hero of "Parker's Back" gets a Catholic, Byzantine tattoo of Christ on his back to please (unsuccessfully) his fundamentalist Protestant wife. The grandmother of "A Good Man is Hard to find" sees the face of the divine in the escaped convict known only as the 'misfit.' Even in the hearts of the most sinful of O'Connor's characters, it is possible for human beings, the author suggests, to receive grace. Grace comes unexpectedly to these characters, as it does to all human beings in O'Connor's theological understanding of the world, but it does come, blessedly and however briefly, and the human heart is changed for the better as a result.
According to the Flannery O'Connor scholar Karen Bernardo, "all of O'Connor's stories deal with the workings of grace in the everyday world. O'Connor saw grace all around her, but no radiant angels 'sent by God' appear in her fiction," instead these angels tend to be ugly and unlikely, like the homely epileptic and hostile child Mary Grace of O'Connor's short story "Revelation." (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003) Rather, O'Connor believed that grace more often than not came as a rude shock, like the revelation of the title, "if not an outright trauma." (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003) This was necessary because people had to be jolted out of "complacency and into an awareness of their need for salvation. In both 'Revelation' and 'Greenleaf,' this comes through the encounter of smug, self-righteous female protagonists with secondary characters they consider to be inferior," and in some stories like "Everything rises must converge," the encounter of a smug and self righteous male protagonist who thought himself educated with the workings of reality in a false sense of intellectual superiority. (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003)
It is particularly interesting to read O'Connor with her religion in mind, given that modern critics "tend to read literature [only] from a secular viewpoint," and want the central question in the story to be whether bourgeois propriety gives one the right to demean others," as in "Revelation," rather than how grace works in the world (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003) But grace comes to rich and poor, ignorant and educated in the whole of the O'Connor cannon, so to presume an economic or caste reading of "Revelation" is fundamentally misguided.
Grace is sudden, democratic and traumatic, in O'Connor's terms. Even the epileptic girl who attacks Mrs. Turpin in "Revelation," is a catalyst "in the process of spiritual redemption." (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003) Like her counterparts in other O'Connor stories, she jars Mrs. Turpin out of her easy assumptions about life, and catapults Mrs. Turpin into a newer and more profound relationship with the Divine power of God to work miracles in the world, that the woman previously and smugly assumed as a given, something she already knew and was well versed in because of her superior lifestyle and economic gifts. (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor," 2003)
But what is grace in theological terms? The dictionary definition of the theological understanding of grace is "the state of grace is a state of sanctification by God; the state of one who under such divine influence;" as, in O'Connor's stories, however momentarily, the most sinful protagonists can labor under -- the divine influence through physical interventions in the world, such as Mary Grace's attack and calling Mrs. Turpin a "hog." In Christianity, "the conception of grace developed alongside the conception of sin" and in Catholicism "it was debated whether saving grace could be obtained outside the membership of the church" In Catholicism as well, although Christ, the saints and "the Virgin lived in a state of grace" in perpetuity, most of humanity will sin, fall from grace, and return to a state of grace through the sacraments and institutions of the church. (Word Reference.com Dictionary. 2003) Or, in O'Connor's slightly iconoclastic view, humans redeem themselves from sin, experience change and a return to a more full structure of religious through the divine intervention of God in the humble, physical world, in addition to the church and the sacramental physicality of communion and confession.
Protestant Christianity, in contrast, tends to stress the determinism of the soul's propensity to enter a state of grace, and stresses the interiority of faith being achieved through the individual's soul or belief structure alone, rather than acts of the will in the world -- one reason for the displeasure of Parker's Protestant, born-again wife in the aforementioned O'Connor short story "Parker's Back," at his idolatrous tattoo. Remember that O'Connor was a Southern, Catholic writer. Her religiously marginal status in a largely Protestant, fundamentalist Baptist region of the country gave her a unique perspective -- she was both of her community, and against it in religious terms, as a believer in Christ but a nonbeliever in Protestantism. She was sacredly focused in a secular America, yet not of the religious community of the region she otherwise identified with quite strongly. Although her characters are mainly Protestant, grace is always transient, and manifested through physical, one could say sacramental realities in the world, rather than internal states of faith.
Specifically, in the O'Connor story "Revelation," the sacramental and physical presence of grace in the world is manifest in an unlikely source, the appearance of a woman's daughter named Mary Grace, who sits near her mother reading a book called Human Development. At the beginning of the "Revelation," the main voice 'heard' by the reader is that of one Mrs. Turpin, who is very pleased and self-satisfied with her position in life. She seems to have a grace of sorts, a pleasure with her state of being in the world. "If it's one thing I am, it's grateful," she says, a sentiment the reader or even O'Connor might approve of were the woman's sense of gratefulness in the divine presence in the world not measured against those who were different than her in skin color and class.
"When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!" She continues, in revelry, "Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!'" Mrs. Turpin would probably go on and on in the doctor's waiting room, and she does until Grace, as physically manifest in the presence of Mary Grace in the story intervenes and stops the woman's monologue. After Mrs. Turpin has engaged in her lengthy discourse about her pleasure with her state in life, Mary Grace suddenly throws Human Development, her significantly titled book, at Mrs. Turpin, hitting the woman in her eye.
Then, after attacking the woman with her bare hands and attempting to choke her, Mary Grace appears to have an epileptic fit, a disease that has long been associated with mental and emotional instability, as well as physical danger, and also has a strong mystical significance, as many saints were said to have gone into fits when they suffered visions of great intensity and religious insight. "Tradition holds that St. Paul was an epileptic. In many primitive cultures, the ecstatic states of shamanism are occasionally brought on, preceded, or characterized by convulsions. Seen in this light, Mrs. Turpin's following question of Mary Grace "is a request for a revelation from God through the oracular function of someone who has just seen Him -- and this is the explanation most consistent with the title of the story." (Bernardo, "Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation," 2003)
What does Mrs. Turpin ask? At first, it seems Mrs. Turpin is so mechanistic in her responses, even after the girl has suffered this fit, when the woman asks her "What have you…[continue]
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