O'Connor appears to have developed, at a very early stage in her writing career, a sense of direction and purpose which allowed her to reject vigorously even proposed revisions suggested by Mr. Shelby, her contact at Rinehart. If changes were called for, she herself wanted to make them, and she did. In fact, the experimentation with atmosphere and tone which characterized the five stories in her master's thesis at Iowa and the seeming uncertainty about the direction of her work, which she expressed in an early letter to Elizabeth McKee, her literary agent, was replaced in less than a year by such a degree of self-confidence that she became interested in finding another publishing company for her yet-to-be-completed first novel.
In July 1948, O'Connor had written to McKee, "I don't have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again." In February 1949, she wrote to McKee again, "I want mainly to be where they will take the book as I write it." Two weeks later, she wrote again to McKee, concerning a letter received from Shelby, "I presume Shelby says either that Rinehart will not take the novel as it will be if left to my fiendish care (it will be essentially as it is), or that Rinehart would like to rescue it at this point and train it into a conventional novel. . . . The letter [Shelby's letter to O'Connor] is addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl, and I cannot look with composure on getting a lifetime of others like them."
The following day, O'Connor wrote to Mr. Shelby, "I feel that whatever virtues the novel may have are very much connected with the limitations you mention. I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I wrote from."
We may never know, as some critics suggest, whether O'Connor found in the writings of Nathaniel West, another American writer, confirmation of "the odd comic look of her world," or whether this confirmation strengthened her self-confidence to the extent that she could reject Shelby's suggested revisions. There is, however, evidence of O'Connor's acquaintance with West's work — especially in her story "The Peeler," a short story which first appeared in the December 1949 Partisan Review, and which was later revised to become Chapter 3 of Wise Blood.
West's cynical Willie Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts' editor (from West's Miss Lonelyhearts), appears reborn in Asa Shrike, the blind street preacher in "The Peeler"; he is then further transformed into Asa Hawks, the supposedly blind street preacher who cynically uses his "blindness," as well as his feigned religion, to wheedle a meager living from the people of Taulkingham (O'Connor's equivalent of Atlanta). When Hazel Motes (the protagonist of Wise Blood) discovers Hawks' fraud, the revelation functions as one of the turning points which leads Hazel to reevaluate his life and to turn again to the religion from which he had so desperately attempted to flee. Although one may grant West's influence on the overall tone and the style of O'Connor's writing, one must remember that, as one critic has suggested, "West and O'Connor wrote out of opposing religious commitments."
With the exception of a number of the early stories, O'Connor consistently produced fiction having an implicit, if not a totally explicit, religious world view as an integral element of each work. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her habit of attending mass each morning while she was at Iowa and going to mass with one of the Fitzgeralds each morning while she was in Connecticut. Even though O'Connor was, according to all available evidence, a devout Catholic, she did not let her religious conservatism interfere with the practice of her craft.
In numerous articles and letters to her friends, O'Connor stressed the need for the Catholic writer to make fiction "according to its nature . . . by grounding it in concrete observable reality" because when the Catholic writer "closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous." As she noted in one article, "When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
O'Connor's concern with the generally low quality of religious literature and the typical lack of literary acumen among the average readers of religious stories led her to expend large amounts of her carefully managed energy in order to produce book reviews for The Bulletin, a diocesan paper of limited circulation, because, as she wrote a friend, it was "the only corporal work of mercy open to me." This, in spite of the fact that she had written to the same friend concerning her frustrations with the inaccurate reporting by The Bulletin of some of her comments: "They didn't want to hear what I said and when they heard it they didn't want to believe it and so they changed it. I also told them that the average Catholic reader was a Militant Moron but they didn't quote that naturally."
As a writer with professedly Christian concerns, O'Connor was, throughout her writing career, convinced that the majority of her audience did not share her basic viewpoint and was, if not openly hostile to it, at best indifferent. In order to reach such an audience, O'Connor felt that she had to make the basic distortions of a world separated from the original, divine plan "appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural." This she accomplished by resorting to the grotesque in her fiction.
To the "true believer," the "ultimate grotesqueness" is found in those postlapsarian (after the Fall) individuals who ignore their proper relationship to the Divine and either rebel against It or deny that they have any need to rely upon It for help in this life. In the first category, one would find those characters like Hazel Motes or Francis Marion Tarwater (the protagonists of her two novels), who flee from the call of the Divine only to find themselves pursued by It and ultimately forced to accept their role as children of God. Likewise, the Misfit, having finally decided to reject the account of Christ having raised Lazarus from the dead because he had not been there to witness it, accepts this world and its temporal pleasures only to discover, "It's no real pleasure in life."
In the second category, one can find those prideful, self-reliant individuals such as the Misfit and the grandmother (from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), Mrs. McIntyre (from "The Displaced Person"), and Hulga Hopewell (from "Good Country People"), who feel that they have conquered life because they are especially pious, prudent, and hardworking. To make these individuals appear grotesque to the secular humanist (one who argues that humans can, by their own ingenuity and wisdom, make a paradise of this earth, if given sufficient time), O'Connor creates, for example, the psychopathic killer, the pious fraud, or the physical or intellectual cripple. This display of what some critics have labeled the "gratuitous grotesque" became for O'Connor the means by which she hoped to capture the attention of her audience. She wrote in a very early essay, "when you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." For O'Connor, writing was a long, continuous shout.
No examination of O'Connor's view of her fiction would be complete without mentioning a couple of comments that she made concerning the nature of her work; in fact, anyone particularly interested in O'Connor should read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O'Connor's occasional prose, selected and edited by the Fitzgeralds. At one point in a section of that book entitled "On Her Own Work," O'Connor notes, "There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment."
At another point, she comments, "From my own experience in trying to make stories 'work,' I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace."
Without becoming totally bogged down in the Catholic doctrine of grace (a good Catholic dictionary will list at least ten to fifteen entries dealing with the subject), one should be aware of what O'Connor means when she uses the term in connection with her stories. Loosely defined, Illuminating Grace (the type of grace most frequently used by O'Connor in her stories) may be described as a gift, freely given by God, which is designed to enlighten the minds of people and help them toward eternal life. It may take the form of some natural mental experience, such as a dream or viewing a beautiful sunset, or of some experience imposed from outside the individual — for example, from hearing a sermon or from experiencing an intense joy, a sorrow, or some other shock.
Man, having been given free will, may, according to the Catholic position, elect not to accept the gift of grace, as opposed to a Calvinist position, which argues for a concept of Irresistible Grace — that is, man cannot reject God's grace when it is given to him. Even though O'Connor notes that she looks for the moment "in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected," one should not assume that she is attempting to pass judgment on the ultimate fate of her characters. That, from an orthodox point of view, is not possible for man to do. It is for this reason (much to the bewilderment of some of her readers) that O'Connor can say of the Misfit, "I prefer to think, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture . . . will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become."
Even though O'Connor's vision was essentially religious, she chose to present it from a primarily comic or grotesque perspective. In a note to the second edition of Wise Blood, her first novel, O'Connor wrote, "It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui [in spite of himself], and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death." Several friends have verified O'Connor's problem with public readings of her stories.
When on lecture tours, O'Connor habitually read "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" because it was one of the few of her stories which she could read without breaking out in laughter. One acquaintance who had taken a class of students to Andalusia in order to meet O'Connor and to listen to a reading of one of her stories reported that as O'Connor neared the end of "Good Country People," "her reading had to be interrupted for perhaps as much as a minute while she laughed. I really doubted whether she would be able to finish the story."
For individuals incapable of seeing humanity as a group of struggling manikins operating against a backdrop of eternal purpose, many of O'Connor's stories appear to be filled with meaningless violence. Even those characters who are granted a moment of grace or experience an epiphanal vision do so only at the cost of having their self-images, if not themselves, destroyed. In a very real sense, all of O'Connor's characters have inherited the Original Sin of Adam, and all are equally guilty. The only distinction to be made between them is that some come to an awareness of their situation and some do not.