Flannery O’Connor and Ontological Mystery


          Trying to define the tenets of existential philosophy, whether theistic or atheistic, is like trying to pick up mercury. Not only do the philosophic writings of existential thinkers differ on many points, the translators and interpreters often fail to agree on principles even among themselves. Although the diversity of existentialists emphases and applications may be bewildering, one premise seems common to all such thinkers—the centrality of the individual. As F.H. Heinemann suggests, “The only reality which an existing being can know . . . is his own existence” (1).

          Within the ranks of the so-called Christian existentialists (some of whom vigorously deny the label), we again experience difficulty in detecting a system of principles to explain the theological position we expect to find in such a neat category as is implied by the term “Christian existentialism.” Soren Kierkegaard is usually credited with the initial push toward a theistic stance, although Gabriel Marcel and others have also added their voices to the chorus. Kierkegaard’s original mission, he felt, was to expose Christendom as a prodigious illusion and to call its adherents back to an existential Christian life (2). To Kierkegaard, religion and Christianity were “not something to be talked about, but something to be lived: religion is subjectivity, an inner transformation” (3). He maintained that people only call themselves Christians, but in reality, they are not. His message to the age was, “Do not pretend.” Put another way, if one thinks that he/she is a Christian, it will be difficult to become one (4).

          Despite the diversity of even the “Christian” philosophers, according to William Barrett, the central theme of all of them is that “the meaning of religion, and religious faith, is recast in relation to the individual” (5). The loss of Christianity then is not merely a loss of traditional faith, but actually a loss of self, resulting in a sense of alienation. “Man has lost his self, has ceased to be man, has suffered dehumanization. Having become ‘objective,’ he fails to be a subject. He has become an abstract phantom and has lost his concrete life. He has ceased to exist and is, in fact, nonexistent” (6). Marcel further defines man’s isolation as an essential “ontological mystery” (i.e., that isolation or alienation is an essential condition of being human). This barrier of alienation is something within a person, in which the person is engaged, and in which the person is engulfed at the same time (7).

          According to Barrett, man “is trebly alienated, a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants. But the worst and final form of alienation toward which indeed the others tend, is man’s alienation from his own self” (8). This essential kind of alienation leads first to anxiety and then ultimately to despair, as the self neglects that which is spiritual within his nature. The penetration of this “ontological mystery” affords the individual a glimpse of his true nature and provides the basis for his possible salvation.

          A study of the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor reveals her familiarity with this concept. Many critics even suggest that this “mystery” is the key to understanding O’Connor’s work. We know that she had read the works of several Christian existentialists and had even marked passages in Martin Buber’s The Eclipse of God, which speaks of ontological mystery (9). Several of her stories display characters who claim to know themselves and take pride in this knowledge. Only when they must confront the irrational or a disturbing conjunction of events do they become aware of the “ontological privation of man cut off from the source of his being” (10).

          O’Connor’s stories often “dramatize the sinfulness and the need for grace, followed, near the end of the story, by an epiphany in which the main character recognizes his need for repentance and either accepts or ignores the opportunity” (11). After this climax of awareness, the previously self-satisfied character comes to recognize his true nature that had lain hidden beneath multiple delusions that are common to humanity. An analysis of several of the short stories reveals the kinds of barriers that might prevent one from recognizing one’s essential alienated state.

          One of O’Connor’s characters who is sure she knows who she is and her place in the scheme of things is Mrs. May in the story, “Greenleaf.” O’Connor’s use of point of view underscores the irony of the situation because we see things through the limited perspective of Mrs. May throughout. She carefully screens out things that do not fit her pattern of thinking, and she either fully or partially ignores other realities so that her view of herself stays unobstructed. Even while the Greenleaf boys’ scrub bull calmly nibbles away her borders, she busily shores up her defense against what she sees as encroachment of her personal status—her all-important concern. She resents the intrusion by the Greenleaf family in to her affairs, although she is dimly aware that she has needed them to maintain her position in the world. No one has the right to disrespect the May family and what it stands for. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Mrs. May firmly insists that she has been treated unfairly, especially by her own two sons who do not seem to appreciate all she has done for them. Scofield, a struggling materialist who sells the kind of insurance “that only negroes buy,” and Wesley, a sterile intellectual who does nothing constructive, both see through their mother’s self-concept façade, yet they have neither the power nor the inclination to set her straight.

          Mrs. May considers herself to be a “Christian” and is appalled at the fanatical, though sincere, religious activity of Mrs. Greenleaf. To Mrs. May, religion is not part of real life. According to her, “the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”  In Mrs. Greenleaf’s presence, Mrs. May mentally lifts her skirts to keep from being soiled by such despicable goings-on. She is also bitter that the Greenleaf boys have risen in the world by taking “advantage” of their situations. “They had both managed to get wounded” in the war and now had pensions to support them. Her greatest fear is that some day the Greenleafs will be “society,” and the idea makes her sick.

          The crack in Mrs. May’s façade shows when she laments that her own sons make a poor showing next to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. Her determination and seeming self-sufficiency have been the only sustaining forces against the new wave of upstarts who threaten her fancied social position. “There’s nothing for it but an iron hand!” she claims stoutly, even though Scofield makes fun of her delicate blue-veined “iron hand.” When her wishes are disobeyed, she rationalizes. People disregard her because she is a woman. “You can get away with anything when you’re dealing with a woman,” she complains.

          One night, Mrs. May’s subconscious mind reveals itself in a dream sequence that foreshadows her impending destruction. At first, she sees herself threatened by an oncoming object that races furiously toward her. As she awakens to the crunching of the bull’s jaws beneath her bedroom window, she decides that she will endure it no longer. The next day, she orders her farmhand Mr. Greenleaf to shoot his son’s bull. As she waits for the shot to sound, suddenly she becomes very “tired.” She reasons away the fatigue, refusing to accept it as a sign of a struggle that over the years has become too much for her. She stands awaiting her fate, completely unaware that the bull, not she, is in control of the situation.

          The onrushing bull brings with it an epiphany, although for Mrs. May, the discovery of her human frailty comes too late. As the horns of the massive animal pierce her heart, she has “the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.” As she and the bull die together, her body slumps over as if to be “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.” Just as her life’s sole purpose seemed to be to maintain her imagined exalted position in society, she has become one with the very thing she has despised. Unfortunately, whatever insight she receives right before her death comes too late to benefit her.

          Another similar epiphany occurs for the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” She has only a little more time than Mrs. May does between the “discovery” of her true condition and her death, but she is able to articulate the change in her perception as well as any of O’Connor’s characters.

          The first half of the story centers on the pettiness of the grandmother’s world with its constant wrangling and “underlying sense of sterility” (12). Our first glimpse of her reveals her selfishness as she attempts to change her son’s travel plans to suit her own whims. Her traveling clothes are impeccable so that “in case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” Her world is one of her own making, which includes nothing that does not conform to her “system.” According to her, there is a correct way of doing everything, and it does not seem to disturb her that even her own family largely ignores both her and her advice. She sums things up neatly by saying, “People are certainly not nice like they used to be.” Of course, that does not include herself. She blames the change on Europe and closes the discussion. 

          The one time that she gets her way sets off a chain of events that eventually seals her doom. Her insistence on visiting an old house (which she later recalls is actually in Tennessee, not in Georgia) places the entire family in a situation devoid of rationale. For the first time in her life, the grandmother’s usual set of principles does not apply. Her confrontation with the fugitive Misfit disorders her neatly controlled worldview. Although the Misfit holds to all the social amenities, neither good nor evil motivate his behavior. This face-to-face encounter with irrationality forces the grandmother to take a fresh look at her life. In contrast to her own self-imposed view of the order in the world, the Misfit operates within the despair of Kierkegaard’s “sickness unto death” or Jean Paul Sartre’s “nausea.” The Misfit has killed his own father (authority or God figure), and his acts of criminality underline the essential meaninglessness of his world. He does not even derive pleasure from the violence (13). The conversation between the two reveals the total breakdown of all the grandmother’s conventional religious responses. Though he admits that Jesus would probably help him if he prayed, the Misfit insists, “I don’t want no hep. . . .I’m doing all right by myself.” It does not matter what one does, the Misfit has learned that sooner or later one is punished anyway. 

          As the grandmother faces the possibility of her own death, even her prayer becomes indistinguishable from a curse. The same Jesus she prays to is the same one the Misfit says has thrown everything “off balance” because ever afterward, the punishment has never fit the crime. All of life has been an injustice, and hope is not possible for one who cannot believe. In her final moments, “the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. . .and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children.’” She reaches out to touch the Misfit in a gesture of compassion and he shoots her three times. As her dead face smiles up at the sky, the criminal concludes, “She would have been a good woman. . .if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” O’Connor is perhaps suggesting that the grandmother becomes human only when she accepts her own mortality and identifies with all human suffering (14). A good woman like this is, indeed, hard to find.

          Perhaps O’Connor’s most condemning portrait of a character’s self-righteousness is her depiction of Mrs. Turpin in the story “Revelation.” Here, however, unlike Mrs. May and the grandmother, Mrs. Turpin is allowed time to reflect on her sudden insight into her own true nature. The story opens in a doctor’s waiting room where a microcosm of humanity waits together for help. Mrs. Turpin, of course, does not need any help; she is there only because a cow has kicked her husband. Her physical bulk seems to dominate the situation, and she mentally takes notes by “sizing up” the patients according to her “superior” value system. Nothing misses her notice. The waiting room itself comes under attack for being too small and too cluttered. “If she had had anything to do with the running of the place,” things world have been different. Mrs. Turpin’s only flaw, as she sees it, is that she is a bit overweight, but she is comforted by someone’s comment that at least she has a “good disposition.”

          As the patients wait together, Mrs. Turpin methodically compares herself to the specimens of humanity huddled around her. Even at 47 years of age, her skin is in much better shape than the acne-scarred face of the ugly girl reading the college textbook. The next two people sit like “white trash,” and the cotton print dress of the “leathery old woman” matches the print of the Turpin’s chicken feed sacks. The next woman is “gritty looking” and, according to Mrs. Turpin, dressed “worse than niggers any day.” Even the shoes of the people speak volumes. They are exactly “what you would have expected” them to be wearing.

          As she passes the time, Mrs. Turpin engages in her favorite mental speculation—“who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself.” She would choose to be black rather than white trash if she could still be herself inside. One of her favorite mental games is that of naming the various classes of people. Starting at the bottom are “most colored people,” then white trash, then homeowners, then home-and-land owners (her class). Beyond that, things are too complex because even though some people have more money than she has, they are not necessarily “better.” In her dreams, these classes tend to end up all squeezed together.

          Although on the surface, Mrs. Turpin seems to tolerate blacks, she admits, “I sure am tired of buttering up niggers, but you got to love em if you want em to work for you.” Sending them back to Africa would not be practical, she decides. “They got it too good here.” By her own analysis, Mrs. Turpin is a benevolent soul. Her philosophy of life is to help anyone who needs it. Being such a “good woman” compensates for any of her other slight deficiencies. Her gratitude to God for making her the way she is wells up inside her periodically. Perhaps it is “who she is” that provides her with such strong insights into the laziness and worthlessness of others. Her vast experience in life has taught her that she just cannot help some people. These hopeless cases should be sent back to Africa.

          As the conversation in the waiting room proceeds, the tension increases between Mrs. Turpin and the “ugly” college girl. In a high moment of gratitude, Mrs. Turpin begins to thank God aloud for making her the way she is. At that moment, the girl’s textbook hits her squarely in the face, and the girl lunges at her neck in an attempt to strangle her. During the struggle, the girl whispers to her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Later, they all agree that the girl must certainly be a lunatic.

          Later that night, the image of a wart hog invades Mrs. Turpin’s brain. She tries unsuccessfully to brush the idea aside, but it burns in her head even more. Her misery slowly turns to anger as the whole thing takes formal shape in her mind. She tries to go on with her daily routine, yet the experience will not release its grip on her consciousness. With the “look of a woman going single-handed, weaponless, into battle,” she marches down the road to her husband’s pig parlor. Standing alone with the hogs all around her, she begins to argue with God. How can she be both “saved” and from hell? Why has she, the obvious best of the bunch, been singled out for such condemnation? Had she not always done her best for the church? Who does God think He is anyway?

          Standing beside the pigpen at twilight, Mrs. Turpin experiences a vision almost in answer to her final question. She sees a procession toward heaven led by white trash, blacks, and lunatics. At the end of the line are people like herself who “had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.” As she watches in disbelief, all the virtues of her own group are burned away. She stumbles back to the house with a new view of her place in the order of things. O’Connor leaves her at this point, but the implication is that not even Mrs. Turpin could remain totally unchanged by this astonishing “revelation.”

          Another character whom O’Connor leads to a kind of revelation, but whose subsequent actions and development are denied us, is Mrs. Cope in “A Circle of Fire.” At the end of the story, she apparently experiences an insight of some kind, but there is no indication as to whether her attitude will change as a result. Mrs. Cope’s world consists of herself, her hired fold, her farm, and the woods that encircle her property. It is a closed system, and she is the hub. At her direction, everything runs smoothly.

          We see her first weeding the flower garden with her hired woman, attacking the intruders “as if they were an evil sent directly by the devil to destroy the place.” Her greatest fear is that “her” woods will one day catch fire and destroy the security of her world. She “sees the farm residents as a little circle of humanity with herself as center. It is this vision—of a self enclosing all within its range, or of a world where all needs are peripheral except one’s own—which is broken irrevocably” for her (15). Her “fall” begins with the appearance of three boys who intrude into her carefully controlled world and represent something with which she cannot “cope.”

          She at first tries to placate the lads with polite hospitality, but they seem insensible to regular social behavior. They have come to ride her horses and to have a good time, regardless of Mrs. Cope or her wishes. They represent an element outside of her jurisdiction, and they seem bent on destroying the long-standing traditions of the Cope farm. The boys are operating outside the boundaries and restrictions of the Cope code.

          Perhaps her attitude toward her property triggers the ultimate destruction of it. When the boys indicate that they will spend the night in the woods, she protests, “I can’t have people smoking in my woods.” The largest boy takes exception to the idea of the woods’ belonging to someone, and it increases his determination to set things right. One afternoon, after Mrs. Cope threatens to call the sheriff if they do not leave, the boys disappear into the trees. Thinking them gone, she begins to express her thankfulness that she had not been born into worse circumstances. The boys reflect on whose woods they are hiding in and come to the conclusion that the woods “don’t belong to nobody.” Reminiscent of Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin’s feeling about the ownership of the land, they agree that the woods are just as much theirs as anyone’s. If so, they can do whatever they want with them, and they want to set them on fire.

          As Mrs. Cope watches “her” woods burning, her face takes on a new expression. The symbol of her enclosed system begins to vanish and a “new misery” invades her being. Her face “looked old and it looked as if it might have belonged to anybody, a Negro or a European or to Powell [one of the boys] himself.” Her circle is broken, “however, Mrs. Cope’s physical loss represents ultimate spiritual gain. Through the acts of the children, she is divested of pride and learns her own true position in the ranks of a fallen humanity” (16).

          In contrast to the religious self-righteousness of Mrs. May, the grandmother, and Mrs. Turpin and the material pride of Mrs. Cope, O’Connor presents us with a character whose elevated view of herself derives from another source. Hulga (Joy) Hopewell in “Good Country People” takes special pride in her mental superiority to those around her, yet she is caught in a state of limbo between nothingness and belief. She is perhaps the most pathetic of the characters in that her dilemma seems impossible to resolve.

          Hulga’s self-deception ostensibly springs from her view of herself as intellectually a step above other people. In contrast to the banality of Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, Hulga congratulates herself for being “different.” Not only is she well educated, but she is “non-normal” physically; she is rather homely, and she has an artificial leg. As she views it, these distortions make her somehow more “interesting.” In an attempt to underscore her ugliness, she has discarded the name “Joy” in favor of “Hulga.” “She considered the name her personal affair. . . .She saw it as the name of the highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn it herself into Hulga.” She is pleased that “every year she grew less like other people and more like herself.” Just as the other four women set themselves apart by imagined superiority, Hulga does so by turning her negative traits into something distinctive in her own mind.

          Hulga, with her Ph.D. in philosophy, is intrigued by the concept of Nothingness. She has read about it and thought about it, but she has never been fully able to embrace it. Instead, she suspends judgment and ascribes no moral foundation to her acts. She admits to atheism and forces herself to tolerate Christian “good country people.” Her encounter with a young Bible salesman leads to an unexpected result. She begins by planning to intimidate and embarrass him, but she finds herself unable to control either the conversation or the events during their time together. This young, seemingly naïve, country boy is more than Hulga suspects. When her declarations of atheism fail to shock him, she is puzzled, but she continues to feel superior to him because she is obviously the “deeper” of the two. “I don’t have illusion,” she boasts. “I’m one of those people who see through to nothing.” 

          The Bible salesman ignores her philosophical arguments and calmly sets out to do what he has come to do all along—to steal Hulga’s wooden leg. To her, the leg is a symbol of her “self;” it makes her different and special. To her dismay, she learns that the young man has no real use for Christianity either, except as a ploy for peddling Bibles. As he snatches the leg and hastily departs, he tells Hulga, “You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” In this rare instance, O’Connor is concerned with “uncovering the self-deceptions and evasions that keep us from recognizing our identities” (17). In this, she reflects existential thought which insists that every man be made aware of what he is and that the full responsibility of his own existence rests squarely on him (18). After grappling with the world, O’Connor’s characters come closer to a realization of what it means to be a human being who must participate in all of life. As Marcel suggests, “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself cannot be self-centered. . .it must be centered in others (18). . . .The more my existence takes on the character of including others, the narrower becomes the gap which separates it from being; the more, in other words, I am” (19). Judging from Mrs. May, the grandmother, Mrs. Turpin, Mrs. Cope, and Hulga Joy Hopewell, Flannery O’Connor understood this concept very well.


1  Heinemann, F.H. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. New York:

            Harper & Row, Publishers, 1953, 40.

2  Ibid., 31.

3  Ibid., 33.

4  Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York:

            Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958, 17.

5  Heinemann, 36.

6  Ibid., 144.

7  Barrett, 36.

8  Feeley, Sister Kathleen, S.S.N.D. Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock.

            New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972, 75.

9  Browning, Preston M., Jr. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois

            University Press, 1974, 41.

10  Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery

            O’Connor. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968, 104-105.

11  McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Frederick Ungar

            Publishing Co., 1976, 19.

12  Martin, 65.

13  McFarland, 22.

14  Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.,       

            1973, 70.

15  Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor.         

            Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972, 141 .

16  Ibid., 10.

17  Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism (translated by Bernard Frechtman). New        

            York:    Philosophical Library, 1947, 19.

18  Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being. Vol. II. The Harvill Press, 1950-1951, 8.

19 Ibid., 33.


Works Cited

Barrett, William. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Doubleday &

            Company, Inc., 1958.

Browning, Preston M., Jr. Flannery O’Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University

            Press, 1974.

Feeley, Sister Kathleen, S.S.N.D. Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New

            Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1972.

Heinemann, F.H. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. New York: Harper & Row,  

            Publishers, 1953.

 McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,


Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being. Vol. II. The Harvill Press, 1950-1951.

Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Nashville:

            Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and

            Giroux, 1956.

-----. A Good Man is Hard to Find. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953.

Orvell, Miles. Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Philadelphia: Temple

            University Press, 1972.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Existentialism (translated by Bernard Frechtman). New York:

            Philosophical Library, 1947.

Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973.