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O’Connor: The Sinner and The Saint

Flannery O’Connor had a way of capturing the day to day lives of ordinary families. Though she was raised in a somewhat affluent Irish Catholic family in Savannah, she obviously had a talent for writing about people from various walks of life – though all decidedly southern in nature. Her stories contain enough variation to hold your interest while maintaining some dominant themes. While many of her stories focus around Christianity and the various forms that it may take in southern culture, she also seems to have had a fascination with criminals and con men. This is a reflection of the potential that we can find in all people – the sinner and the saint.

While in many cases, such as “The River” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”, the religious characters are clear and earnest in their intentions, O’Connor also presents us with “Good Country People” where the Bible salesman turns out to be a con man or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”, where the suitor turns out to be a grifter who abandons his unsuspecting new wife at a café and runs off with her mother’s car. In addition to these obvious contrasts in intentions, we also see a great deal of hypocrisy within those who consider themselves to be good Christian folk.

In “Revelation”, we meet Mrs. Turpin who, while in a doctor’s waiting room, proceeds to size up and judge (at least in her thoughts) every person around her. While she considers herself to be a good Christian woman, she admits to having thoughts at night while trying to sleep about what she would have chosen if God had no other options for her except to be incarnated as white trash or a black person. Clearly, she has spent a great deal of time thinking about people she considers to be inferior to her and how she is blessed by God that she isn’t them[note]
O’Connor, Flannery, and Sally Fitzgerald. Flannery O’Connor: the Complete Stories. New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1972.[/note]. This is not sound theology. We see in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” [note]
Scofield, C. I., and E. Schuyler English. Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version: New Scofield Study System with Introductions, Annotations, and Subject Chain References. New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
[/note]. This passage tells us that all of humanity is created by God regardless of skin color or background.

She also admits that she makes lists in her mind about the “classifications of people” listing them this way: colored people/white trash, home owners, home and land owners, wealthy people with bigger houses and lots of land1. Nowhere in the scripture do we read anything about land owners being superior to non-land owners. In fact, we see the opposite. We are constantly challenged with the idea of humility and charity. When asked by a young man who had kept all of the commandments what else he was lacking, in Matthew 19:21 we read, “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” 2. In this case, we see exhibited the kind of religious legalism that is so pervasive in the Bible belt. Mrs. Turpin likely believes that she follows the commandments given in the Bible, but she has clearly missed a very big element of Jesus’s message.

The most interesting part of this story is when the girl across from her finally tires of hearing her talk about how blessed of God she is, and proceeds to throw her book at Mrs. Turpin’s head and then attack her physically. While Mrs. Turpin was shocked by the physical attack, she was more injured by the words the girl says to her. After the attack, the girl said, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog”1. This turned Mrs. Turpin’s world upside down as she had always seen herself as a good woman – maybe a saint. Whereas the girl saw her clearly for what she actually is – a self-righteous hypocrite – a sinner.

In “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, we see a similar character in Julian’s mother. Her haughty attitude towards those around her left her tone deaf and incapable of understanding her current state. When she tries to explain to her son that his great-grandfather had been the governor of the state and his grandfather was a prosperous landowner, he tries to convince her to take a look around and accept her current situation. They live in a neighborhood that was once nice but had become less desirable in recent years. Julian’s mother refuses to see this saying, “You remain what you are” and “Your great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves”1. She announces this with great pride, while Julian sees it for what it is.

We continue to see the mother’s haughty attitude when she is relieved to see that there are no black people on the bus when they get on for their ride to the Y for her exercise class. Later, when a black mother and child do get on the bus, Julian is delighted and hopes that they sit next to his mother. When she finally notices the child, her response is somewhat favorable if condescending. She takes this as an opportunity to exhibit her idea of Christian charity (giving a small black child a penny) but it actually came across as patronizing and offensive. When the gesture is met with anger, the woman is shocked. Her world, in fact, is shattered. She no longer fits here in this time and place1.

The downfall of both of these women is pride. It is one that the scriptures warn against repeatedly. In Proverbs 6:16-19, we see the seven deadly sins listed:

“16 These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:
17 A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,
19 A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren”2.

They both have a superior attitude that leads them to act in a less than Christian manner that is off-putting to many around them. In the end, both women see their world is altered and that they cannot continue as they had before. In “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, the mother simply slips away and the son is left to deal with his “guilt and sorrow”1. In “Revelation”, we see that the incident with the young girl in the doctor’s office has weighed heavily on Mrs. Turpin. Even in the interaction that she has with the black people that work for her. She is beginning to see that through their insistence that she is “.. the sweetest white lady I know”, perhaps they are being less than honest with her and that she may need to rethink her life1. This ability for introspection gives us hope for the possibility of change. This is the goal to which all sinners aspire.

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