Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence
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Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence

Flannery O’Connor Famously insisted that the subject of her fiction “is the action of grace in territories largely held by the devil” (Mystery 118). While, as James Mellard notes, O’Connor largely has “had had her way with critics” (“Flannery” 625), her interpreters have been hard pressed to reconcile the signature violence in her fiction with traditional religious beliefs. When called on to explain this seeming contradiction, O’Connor remarked: “Violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (Mystery 112). The operative word here is “strangely,” and scholars have found very strange, even inexplicable, the redemptive properties of murder, rape, and mutilation.1 Claire Katz writes that O’Connor “unleashes a whirlwind of destructive forces more profound than her Christian theme would seem to justify” (55); and Preston Browning observes that O’Connor’s enigmatic fiction calls for interpretations that go beyond religious orthodoxy: “If it was Christian orthodoxy to which she subscribed, her work is manifest proof that it was orthodoxy with a difference. For her persistent habit of finding the human reality in the extreme, the perverse, the violent calls for closer examination” (56).

Even if the redemptive value of destruction is not immediately apprehensible, O’Connor’s insistence on the purposive nature of violence readily maps onto the white, Western logic of difference. This Western, exclusionary logic holds that a sense of individuation and autonomy issues out of a power struggle between opposing terms. The marginalization or violent suppression of one term in a binary guarantees the ascendancy of its opposite. For example, working from this [End Page 127] logic, male authority seems to depend on female subjection, and white supremacy is confirmed by the domination of people of color. As feminist theorist Jessica Benjamin explains, “The ideal of freedom carries with it the seeds of domination—freedom means fleeing and or subjugating the other; autonomy means an escape from dependency” (221).

Critics like Katz and Mellard have argued that one formulation of this Western notion of autonomy, the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalytic narrative, seems particularly congruent with O’Connor’s insistence on purposive violence. According to Freud, entry into a cultural order organized by polarities begins with a fear of castration, and, for Lacan, “symbolic castration” introduces socialization.2 Seizing on this notion of symbolic castration, these critics have cited figurative castrations in O’Connor’s stories, like the sodomizing of Tarwater, the theft of Joy/Hulga’s prosthetic leg, or the goring of Mrs. May by a bull, and have suggested that violence functions in O’Connor’s texts according to a Freudian Oedipal formula; that is, it works to stabilize social hierarchy and positions of dominance.

My purpose here is decidedly not to apply a Freudian schema to O’Connor’s texts. Rather, I propose that the Roman Catholic writer, like feminist theorists, rethinks and rewrites a phallocentric, Western, exclusionary narrative of social individuation, which is inscribed in the psychoanalytic master-narrative. As evidence for this assertion, I invoke O’Connor’s admission that her texts bear a complicated, adversarial relation to Freud’s theories. Writing to a friend, she states: “As to Sigmund, I am against him tooth and toenail but I am crafty: never deny, seldom confirm, always distinguish. Within his limitations I am ready to admit certain uses for him” (Habit 110). Like a feminist revisionist, O’Connor has “uses” for Freud, but also moves beyond his model. To interpret the changes O’Connor rings on a Freudian Oedipal paradigm, I turn to feminist revisionist of psychoanalytic theory, Julia Kristeva, whose theory of abjection, I propose, can help to untangle the riddle of O’Connor’s redemptive violence.

With an insistence reminiscent of O’Connor, Kristeva argues that violence can be “productive” (Revolution 16). Like O’Connor’s shattering violence, Kristeva’s abjection “pulverizes the subject” (Powers 5), and, for both writer and theorist, this violence opens onto a sense of powerlessness. Critics have long noted that “the common experience [in all of O’Connor’s fiction] is that of humiliation” (Napier 23); similarly, [End Page 128] Kristeva writes that abjection...


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