- Murder and Rape: Reading Flannery O’Connor alongside Eudora Welty
Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty are rarely talked about together, except perhaps in brief statements linking them as southern women writers.1 There is good reason for this, as they are very different types of writers, though both do struggle with a basic question: how does the writer communicate a sense of life’s mysteries, a sense of the ineffable and the transcendent? Exploring how the two writers approached this question, together with their quite different conceptualizations of the mysterious, provides a way to highlight their similarities as well as their differences. Also significant for both writers, though more so for O’Connor than for Welty, is the literary use of violence and the employment of extreme narrative strategies. As I will show, the literary use of violence is the most challenging and most troubling aspect of these two writers’ work, particularly in our increasingly violent era, and may for some readers finally be an insurmountable barrier for accepting each author’s imaginative vision—unless, that is, they are such diehard fans of the writer that they resist thinking through the unnerving implications of her work.
O’Connor never swayed from her commitment to portray the world as she saw it as a believer. “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy,” she declares forthrightly in “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” adding that “this means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction” (804–05). O’Connor here lays out the key tenets of her fiction and of her position as a writer: that the ultimate meaning, no matter what the surface action, touches upon the divine; that there is no comfortable middle ground—you either make a choice for Christ or the Devil; and that, given the modern temper of unbelief, it is extremely difficult for her to communicate her stark religious vision.
How to bridge the great divide she perceived between author and reader remained a central concern for O’Connor throughout her career, one that [End Page 89] she repeatedly agonized over and commented upon. She found no easy answers and she advocated various strategies for overcoming the divide. Over time two concepts became central to what she came to call her “Christian realism” (942). The first was that she had to depict the world as accurately as possible, not glossing over or ignoring aspects of life in order to create a rosy, feel-good view of Christian life and commitment. Drawing inspiration from two of her favorite writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, O’Connor came to see that only by depicting the visible world in all its fullness might the invisible world in all its mystery be glimpsed. Conrad, she notes in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “was interested in rendering justice to the visible universe because it suggested an invisible one,” while James championed the idea that “the business of fiction [was] to embody mystery through manners” (“Nature” 80; “Teaching” 124). “The mystery [James] was talking about,” O’Connor observes in “The Teaching of Literature,” “is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery” (124).
But revealing mystery by realistically portraying conventional manners, O’Connor realized, was not sufficient for communicating her vision to an unbelieving audience. O’Connor never aspired to be a southern Jane Austen. She knew that she needed to be more confrontational and disruptive, using tactics of narrative manipulation and distortion, what Christina Bieber Lake has chillingly termed O’Connor’s “shock and awe campaign” (27). Most of O’Connor’s readers know her famous comment from “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” that in writing to a largely unbelieving audience, writers of faith had to “make [their] vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and...