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The "Innocents" of Flannery O'Connor
© 20 July 2002, Stephen Sparrow

Innocence, although often in disguise, is a subject freely canvassed in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, but, in a 1961 letter to novelist John Hawkes, O'Connor briefly showed her hand by talking of the innocent character, "always unpredictable and for whom the intelligent characters are in some measure responsible for, (responsible in the sense of looking after them)" and concluded by saying, "I am much interested in this sort of innocent person who sets the havoc in motion." I think we readers would all agree that there is no shortage of O'Connor characters who set the havoc in motion, whether by being mute bystanders or, on the surface at least, by being definitely and actively evil.

Innocence is defined in most dictionaries as being freedom from sin, wrong or guilt, but also included in the definition are the attributes of simplicity, guilelessness and ignorance, and here we come to a possible quandary; are O'Connor's actively evil characters really evil or are they simply victims of circumstance, shaped by the post modern environment of nihilism? In other words are they really responsible for their actions or are they truly innocent?

Before answering that question I think we have to accept that O'Connor was in the position to see things in a way that was denied many others. She was a devout Catholic all her life; she possessed a gift for writing coupled with emotional maturity; and overriding all, she had both vision and humility. She was also born and raised in the American South (Georgia) and lived most of her adult life there. Consequently, as a fiction writer, O'Connor was furnished with the unique opportunity to both observe and record the Protestant South with its Calvinist backdrop, through the lens of her Catholic faith. The stories O'Connor wrote are a valuable testament to a region that she once described as "no longer Christ centred but still Christ haunted". She saw the South as a region where most people lacked a central authority that unified faith, morals and liturgical practice, but with definite empathy, she saw those same people attempting to wrestle in various and sometimes absurd ways, with belief in the Redemption of Christ.

The Calvinist mindset that dominated Protestantism (especially in the Bible belt) saddled it with both an unnatural fear of God and the rigidity of Old Testament law. Calvinism 1 upheld the idea of Predestination, which means that God from the beginning of time had already chosen and would especially favour materially, those whom He would save. It was a direct negation of the virtue of Hope and it had disastrous consequences for the whole world. In its various guises, it was Calvinism that the early European colonisers used as justification for the maltreatment or extermination of many native races. So it was hardly surprising that wherever in the world Protestantism moved to, its fragmentation continued as adherents strove to purify and reform it and yet still keep it doctrinally separate from its Catholic Mother Church. O'Connor highlighted this problem in a letter to William Sessions in which she said, "One of the good things about Protestantism is that it always contains the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends---at one end to Catholicism, at the other to unbelief."

The unbelief O'Connor referred to was Existentialism2; a fuzzy stance that grew out of dissatisfaction and disenchantment with religion. While being hard to pin down, Existentialism is basically atheistic and almost inevitably leads onto Nihilism3 and it was this fog of Existentialist Nihilism that justified O'Connor's claim about the South being "still Christ haunted" as her fictional characters floundered and fought their way in a world where moral subjectivism4 held sway. And here is where her characters, mostly the ignorant and the innocent, differ from the characters of Sigrid Undset's5 great medieval sagas. Undset's characters lived every day knowing that at death either heaven or hell waited for them and that only by people ordering their lives toward the good of others, could they be assured of Redemption. Outside of idiots and little children, no Undset character could ever be called innocent. The moral landscape of Undset's 14th Century Europe was as different from O'Connor's 20th Century Bible Belt, as day is from night.

If we look at some of O'Connor's characters, in this case O. E. Parker and Sarah Ruth Cates from Parker's Back, we find that both of them fit easily into the category of "Innocents". Certainly, neither of them knows any better and it really hits home when the author describes their wedding. "They were married in the County Ordinary's office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous." And much later, when O.E. turned up with a tattoo of Christ covering his back, and which he'd had done to please his religious wife, she yelled at him, "He [God] don't look. He's a spirit. No man shall see his face." And she kicked him out of the house screaming, "Idolatry… I don't want no idolater in this house." Sarah Ruth; a "Christian"; has a weird and unbalanced "faith", which in reality is only a terrifying fear, but her husband O. E. somehow engenders sympathy. He is ignorant, uneducated, and uncouth and is possessed by an unbridled sexual appetite, but in spite of all this we get the feeling that his heart's in the right place. After all the tattoo was a gift for his wife, and just maybe it was something that for Sarah Ruth, so long as she remained married to O.E., was never going to be able to escape, viz. the all demanding eyes of the tattooed Christ. A rebuff to her heresy and perhaps even an enlightenment helping her to realise that Jesus Christ is both God and Man and that to be truly Christian involved seeing Christ in all those around her. O.E. with Christ tattooed on his back is an enormously successful Christian symbol. Somebody who carries a burden, a cross perhaps! In this case his wife.

In one respect at least, Enoch from Wise Blood is similar to O.E.. Enoch enters the story as a clingy type desperate for friendship and recognition. He latches onto the main character Hazel Motes, trying to please him at every turn but succeeds only in annoying Hazel who makes frequent and sometimes violent attempts to shake him loose. Enoch doesn't so much set the havoc in motion but he certainly contributes to it. He's an innocent who operates by instinct alone, a comic moron, shocked by what he sees as looseness on the streets of Taulkinham and yet not above hiding in the bushes while spying on women at the city swimming pool and then, whenever he's saved enough money, visiting the local whorehouse. Enoch is a head shaking paradox. He's like those who "tut, tut," while judging the loose morals of others without being able to identify themselves as being part and parcel of that same grouping.

We meet a complete contrast to Enoch in Bishop, the intellectually handicapped child in The Violent Bear It Away. Bishop cannot help but be an innocent. His atheist humanist solo father is perplexed by the love he holds for his idiot offspring. He cannot understand why he will never be able to control his emotions, especially where filial love is concerned. Bishop's existence provides the springboard for the story's action, which results from the injunction laid on Tarwater by his backwoods preacher great uncle, to baptise the child whose role in this story is almost totally passive but who never the less, sets the havoc in motion.

O'Connor wrote several stories that featured children in active roles and the theme of 'Innocence' is common to the next three. Norton from The Lame Shall Enter First, and little Harry Ashfield from The River, both end up committing suicide in the technical sense. Norton is a ten year old who lives with his widowed father, an atheist humanist who is trying to wean the boy away from the memory of his dead mother's love. Poor little Norton is desperate to know where his mother really is and through being told something quite confusing, he becomes convinced that she is in heaven, which he thinks is a place somewhere in the sky among the stars. He hangs himself in order to reach her.

Little Harry Ashfield is at the mercy of his rotten parents who treat him as nothing more than an inconvenience. A babysitter takes Harry to a riverside healing conducted by the Reverend Bevel Summers. Summers preaches about the healing power of baptism, which brings people to the Kingdom of Christ where at last they will count and how at baptism, all of their pain will be washed away in the river of life. The baby sitter pushes Harry forward to be baptised, but Harry apart from getting wet remains unsatisfied. However he is determined to discover this Kingdom of Christ; this place where he'll count for something at last and early the next day he creeps out of the house without disturbing his 'hung over' parents, and returns alone to the river. The place of the healing is deserted but Harry wades into the water, is swept away and drowns.

A Temple Of The Holy Ghost is the last of the trio involving children as active innocents. This story is seen through the eyes of a twelve year old girl and throughout it she is called just 'the child', so for the reader there is no cosy familiarity with her character. We're not told her name; we know nothing of her personality. The reader is kept at arm's length, which means he focuses on her view of life, which in this instance is presented through the weekend visit to her home of two immature and scatty fourteen year old Catholic schoolgirls, who happen to be boarding at the local convent. We know they're immature and scatty through the genius of O'Connor who uses 'the child' to convey this view to the reader. 'The child' is undoubtedly innocent, but having been instructed in faith, she reveals wisdom well beyond her years and inwardly deplores the silliness and risky daring of the two girls, who in their own way also qualify as being innocent by virtue of the fact that their ignorance is compounded by emotional immaturity. In many ways we see in the 'child' that combination of innocence and wisdom that undoubtedly characterised O'Connor in her formative years.

In each of these three stories we meet children attempting to deal with adult issues. Norton and Harry encounter the world of adult reality, albeit shrouded in mystery, but without the guidance of wise and loving parents they lack the maturity necessary to deal with it. By contrast, the willingly instructed 'child' at twelve possesses the faculty to see that both the Supernatural and Reality are intertwined and inseparable. Wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

O'Connor touched on this when writing to Betty Hester (1 Jan 1956) "Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. And along this line, I think the phrase naïve purity is a contradiction in terms. I don't think purity is mere innocence. I don't think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naïve."

Not far removed from being a child is Julian's mother, in Everything That Rises Must Converge. She is a pleasant well-meaning woman who lives in the past; an unconscious innocent chock full of naivety. While walking to the bus stop with her condescending and self centred son, she gets onto her favourite topic; how important and materially well off their ancestors were and how much better off the Negroes were when they were still slaves. Once on the bus, a large Negro woman wearing an identical hat to Julian's mother climbs aboard and a short time later when they all get off at the same stop, there occurs a classic encounter between the two women that causes his mother to collapse on the sidewalk with a stroke, but which results in an epiphany for Julian.

Ruby Turpin from Revelation is not unlike Julian's mother. Both women are living in the same time warp. At the conclusion of the story, Ruby who considers herself a cut above those around her, receives a vision showing the procession of all the people whom she had previously looked down on, making their way into heaven ahead of her. A whole host of the ignorant, the down and outs, the halfwits; all of them 'innocents' for various reasons; taking precedence over those like herself who had always stood for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour and reinforcing what O'Connor once wrote in a letter to Betty Hester, "we are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness… It is better to be young in your failures than old in your successes." Ruby Turpin is another of O'Connor's naïve innocents.

In The Comforts of Home, the mother of Thomas also qualifies as being innocent. Like Julian’s mother, she conforms to the stereotype of a pleasant female middle-aged Pharisee: a woman whose enduring, even endearing characteristic is a sort of genteel snobbishness. Sarah Ham, a young smartly dressed convicted felon is paroled into the care of Thomas’s mother. Thomas, an academic, lives with his widowed mother in the comfortable home established by his father and is totally opposed to his mother having anything to do with Sarah Ham. The matter quickly comes to a head when parolee Sarah loses her new job, gets drunk and is thrown out of her accommodation. With the only alternative being a return to jail, Thomas’s mother brings Sarah home to stay. Thomas makes no secret of his dislike for Sarah, a situation the young woman is not slow to both discern and exploit. The naively innocent and misguided mother falls for Sarah’s ploy and attempts to comfort her saying, "'Thomas does not hate you... We are not the kind of people who hate,' as if this were an imperfection that had been bred out of them generations ago." Abandonment of the core Christian Doctrine of Original Sin has left Thomas and his mother defenceless against a modern world that views evil as merely some form of aberrational behaviour that with appropriate therapy can be turned around. O’Connor once covered this mindset by writing, "Evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured." The author here presents us with the innocent mother as the catalyst who ‘sets the havoc in motion’ by bringing Thomas and Sarah Ham together under the same roof, the result of which is the story’s explosive dénouement.

O'Connor canvases almost the whole gamut of innocence in A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The family including the grandmother as well as the Misfit and his two sidekicks all fill the bill. But, only the Misfit has given any thought as to why he is in the world and without being sure of Christ's Resurrection, he feels no compulsion to be "good", at least not until the grandmother touches a raw nerve and unwittingly reminds him of his kinship and by inference his duty to all other human beings. Up until then his criminality was the result of innocence; but this innocence had always been under threat from his restless mind. Witness this description he gave to the grandmother of being in prison and not knowing why. "Turn to the right, it was a wall. Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling. Look down it was a floor." Surely we have here O'Connor's symbol for an enslaved mind, but a mind that at least knew the answer lay somewhere; outside of the "prison" walls. The answer was not long in coming. Immediately after killing the old lady he announced, "It's [killing] no real pleasure in life." It is there that all the signs add up to a conversion for the Misfit. From being told that pleasure does not lie in killing we're led to the inescapable fact that there is both good and evil in the world and that we can freely choose between the two. Without being told, we know that the Misfit will abandon waywardness in exchange for taking a step toward the threshold of Truth (the Mercy of God); an eventual shucking of the Existentialist mindset in favour of a lasting encounter with the Risen Christ in whom all goodness is justified and through whom the wicked become good and the good grow better. Of course in this story, the grandmother and the other members of her family were also innocent. They had just never been called to account in the spiritual sense until they faced death at the hands of the Misfit.

O'Connor wrote A Good Man Is Hard To Find before coming into contact with the writings of French philosopher Simone Weil6 but it is uncanny the way she has the Misfit see eye to eye with Weil on this whole question of penetrating mystery. In order to illustrate the slavery of the mind, O'Connor uses the analogy of being in a prison cell. Weil wrote, "When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door." Weil's method is to acknowledge the problem and to look and wait patiently for the door to appear so it may be opened. O'Connor has the Misfit find and open the door by killing somebody. Prior to that act the escape door had been invisible for him. The Misfit was definitely not a patient man.

Looking for the reasons for the Misfit's behaviour we see that he was not so much a deliberate Existentialist as he was a victim of prevailing Existentialist thought, which is the parent of Nihilism. We should read again what O'Connor said in her letter to William Sessions, "One of the good things about Protestantism is that it always contains the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends---at one end to Catholicism, at the other to unbelief." After killing the grandmother, the Misfit's "innocence" had vanished and if the story did not end there, O'Connor would doubtless have shown us the Misfit turning his back on unbelief.

Innocence or ignorance is always relative and is invariably a state of contentment. As the saying goes, "Ignorance is bliss." But, if we think about it, we know that Truth can never be grasped in its entirety and continually it seems to slip away as most of us go through life grappling with elusive fundamentals, and O'Connor's innocent characters are no exception as they struggle uphill trying to find a place from which they can look out to see where they're headed. She put her finger right on the problem with one sentence of a letter she wrote to Louise Abbot, "When we get our spiritual house in order we'll be dead."

In an interview given to journalist Joel Wells, Flannery O'Connor talked about the God given nature of her mission and said, "There is the prophetic sense of 'seeing through' reality and there is also the prophetic function of recalling people to known but ignored truths." I think she was referring here to those she wrote about in her letter to Jack Hawkes; "those innocent character(s), always unpredictable and for whom the intelligent characters are in some measure responsible for, (responsible in the sense of looking after them.)"

The importance of the message in Flannery O'Connor's fiction is how dangerous it is to point the finger and judge the actions of others, and that we should always try and find explanations in charity, and following on from that, we perhaps can see that there does not appear to be a lot of difference between those of her characters who act out of true innocence and the actions of those Roman soldiers who in their 'innocence' carried out the instructions of Pontius Pilate and nailed Jesus Christ to the cross, thereby fulfilling Scriptural Prophecy and for whom Christ pleaded, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

1. Existentialism: In essence a belief that the universe and all it contains has no meaning and no purpose. There is no such thing as God. In fact the true Existentialist is in a very difficult position. He cannot pass judgement on the world without betraying his own principles, viz. that all judgement is meaningless. Existentialism today often "means" indifference to meaning and purpose.

2. Nihilism: is the assumption that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. (from The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy)

3. Calvinism: Named after French theologian John Calvin 1509 - 1564, who was one of the chief architects of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Calvin's beliefs had an enormous influence on European Protestantism and resulted in the idea of a vengeful God becoming firmly entrenched in Protestantism and that idea even crossed back over and infected the Catholic Church, where it was considered a heresy and became known as Jansenism. France and Ireland were the countries most affected by Jansenism, and its legacy, although today much diminished, lingers still. But, the real effects of Calvinism caused the new Protestant movement started by Martin Luther, to completely lose the plot, with negativity and fear becoming the ruling mindset. Luther's Reformation began as a protest against the outrageous morality of Pope Alexander VI's obscene regime but then the movement was hijacked by agenda driven theologians like Calvin. The end product was a religious system, which permitted adherents to love Jesus Christ and yet despise and hate their neighbour.

4. Subjectivism: Belief in one's own opinion as being Truth.

5. Undset, Sigrid: [1882-1949] Norwegian woman writer; best known for her historical novel "Kristin Lavransdatter". For this Middle Age trilogy Undset received the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature. She gave the money from this prize to help families with disabled children. Among many other famous books are "Jenny", "The Master of Hestviken", "The Faithful Wife" and "Madame Dorthea". Many of her novels deal with problems about regret and guilt. She grew up in an agnostic family and her father was a prominent archaeologist. Undset converted to Roman Catholicism in 1924 in a move that earned scorn from the then ruling clique of emancipated women. Undset early on stood up publicly against Nazism because of its contempt for weakness and had to live in the USA during the German occupation of Norway in World War II.

6. Weil, Simone: [1909-1943] French Philosopher. Background Jewish and agnostic. Made her own way to Christianity but was never baptised.

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