“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
– Flannery O’Connor
In the last post I discussed some comparisons in O’Connor’s short works with Christ’s parables. I suppose outside of Jesus’ pointed stories, Flannery O’Connor owes the greatest debt to the life and story of Jonah, son of Amittai. Just as the protagonists in her Southern Gothic tales are hardly likable characters, so the prophet Jonah is far from the amiable hero. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Hulga in “Good Country People” are self righteous, graceless figures devoid of compassion, but full of ferocious retribution. In other words, in them we see ourselves. Any grace which breaks through in the story comes in forcefully, unwelcomingly. It knocks them off their feet and, in at least one instance, quite literally hits them upside the head.
In commenting on her best known story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”
We are meant to judge these characters as pig-headed, small-minded, bigoted and hateful, and then, with a sudden shock, realize we might be looking into our own heart.
Jonah, the largest recipient of God’s grace in his story, is commanded by God to warn the Ninevites of their wickedness and urge their repentance. Jonah, however, truncates the message from God by simply announcing certain doom and damnation to the Assyrian capital. God, in his bounteous grace and mercy, sends a storm, a great fish, a vine and a worm all to save Jonah from his judgemental attitude. Even by the end of the question dangling at the end of the book Jonah never understands the depth of grace God has offered him. He never see himself in need.
In his half-repentant and desperate prayer, Jonah preached against his own soul from the belly of the undetermined fish. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8)