The Genius of Flannery O’Connor

To those who, through no fault of there own, are ignorant of the writings of Flannery O’Connor, I implore you to get to know this great American and Catholic writer of the 20th century. I have, myself, only recently become acquainted with this gifted author. In my part of town there is this great book store that routinely has absolute gems on it’s shelves for prices around $5-$7. One of the books I happened to see about a year ago was a 1971 hardcover edition of The Complete Stories of Flanney O’Connor. I probably paid $5.95 for this amazing book (the usual price for most books in the store), that has contained within it’s 555 pages, all of the short stories written by Miss O’Connor.

Known for her brutally honest assessment of humanity as being marred by original sin, O’Connor brings to life in her fiction some of the most remarkably vivid characters to be found anywhere. She’s wholly unafraid to put any number of sins into the mouths and thoughts of her characters including envy, pride, gluttony, ingratitude, irreverence, and, most famously, racism. What strikes the reader most when reading Flannery O’Conner is that we see a bit of ourselves in her characters. We see our own prejudices, our own selfishness, and our own spiritual immaturity, when we read her stories. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we are sinners in need of grace. In today’s narcissistic world of self-absorption, this is a message that needs to be heard.

One short story of Flannery’s, entitled The Turkey, will help illustrate her subtle way a portraying grace in the midst of “everyday” life. The plot revolves around a young boy, age 11, who is out in the woods playing by himself when he providentially spots an injured turkey in the wooded brush. Thinking that this must be his lucky day, he runs after the turkey, imagining what it will be like when he returns home in triumph with the turkey slung across his shoulders. Oh how highly they will think of him! He’s often ridiculed as being such “an unusual boy”, but this will show ’em. He’ll be the talk of the town, the hero of the family.

After much effort and many bumps and bruises, he finally loses the chance to catch that darn turkey, or so he thinks. Why was he shown the turkey if he was never to catch it? This must be God’s idea of a cruel joke. He then proceeds to profane the name of God and curse in ways that would make his grandmother’s “teeth fall in her soup”. Typical of a boy at that age, he giggles at his display of “naughtiness” and imagines what would happen if his mother or grandmother could hear how he’s talkin’ now. They’d slap him silly! That’s what they’d do. Maybe he’ll “go bad” like his brother and start smoking cigars and drinking alcohol. Why shouldn’t he? It’s the way he feels. God surely doesn’t care. All He wants to do is play jokes on hapless boys for His own amusement. Bah! Who needs God!

But wait! What’s that in the bush? It’s the turkey again. By this time it becomes apparent, the turkey has been shot and is now too exhausted to run away any longer. The turkey is finally his! With the turkey slung across his shoulders, he decides against taking the shortcut trail to get to his house. After all, he has some time to kill, why not take the long way home through the center of town? Along the way he begins to repent of the things he had thought before, and most especially the things he had said. In the end, God did give him the turkey. See how great God is after all. In this spirit of repentance, he even prays that God will send him a beggar so that he may give away his last dime to show his gratitude for the turkey that was now his.

While walking through town to get to his home, all eyes are on him and his bird. They must think he’s sumpthin’ else. Look at ’em. They can’t take their eyes off him. Along they way he thinks maybe God won’t send him a beggar after all. But he so desperately wants to show his gratitude. God won’t refuse, will he? As luck would have it, a notorious town beggar appears. He hands her his last dime (oh how wonderful of him) and makes his way home. Along the way, some town boys had been following him. He just knows they want to see his turkey. So he turns around and asks if they’d like to take a look at it. Sure they would, but as it turns out, they not only want to look at the turkey, they want to steal it. And they do, and there’s nothing Ruller (that’s the boy’s name) can do about it. Here the story abruptly ends.

What are we to learn from this mundane, but remarkable tale? The moral themes of pride and spiritual immaturity are obvious. The young boy has all kinds of grand images of himself as captor of the elusive turkey. They will think so highly of him. They might even be jealous. And why shouldn’t they be? But the moment his fortunes turn and the turkey seems lost, he turns on God (i.e. spiritual immaturity). And as soon as the fortunes turn yet again and the turkey is caught, he turns back to God (i.e. spiritual immaturity par excellence). Further more, he is now willing to help the poor, now that he has been helped by God (a bit of self-righteous quid pro quo). It’s here that we find the moral gravitas of the story. Ruller is not only asked to give up his last dime, but he’s asked to give up his turkey as well. The turkey God gave is now the turkey God taketh away.

Isn’t this precisely how God works? How many times do we tell God, I’ll give you this, but not that? Anything, but that. It’s mine and why shouldn’t I keep it? Does anyone else hear echoes of The Lord of the Rings? It’s my precious… and you wants to takes it from me. But God does ask for “our precious”. Whatever that may be for us, individually. We justify ourselves by focusing on how much we already “do for God”. We tithe, write checks for the needy, help people get through tough times in their life, hardly ever curse, show up to church every Sunday, and pray everyday. Does God really want this too? Can I really be expected to give up contraception (it’s my body!), pornography (I’m not hurting anybody), or drunkenness (I’m just having fun)? Doesn’t God already see what I do for Him?… Yes, but He wants more. He wants us to be holy as He is holy. His only goal for us is to spend eternity with Him. Deus caritas est. It is this divine love that spurns us onward toward perfection. It is Jesus who invites us on this journey when He says to each of us, “Follow me”.


13 Responses to “The Genius of Flannery O’Connor”

  1. 1 Broc S. July 5, 2008 at 12:57 am

    Very good. (I ran across this post in a google search). I just finished reading that story with my wife and we were talking about some of the same things you mentioned. Good LOTR connection too. Another point: Ruller was willing to give up something that was given to him as a gift from his grandmother, something which he did not have to work for. Yet he was unwilling to give up what was dear to him, that which brought him glory.

    O’Connor brilliantly shows the cruciform life and what is demanded of those who are united to Christ. Self-denial and self-abasement were not what Ruller had in mind, therefore what he clung to was taken away from him.

    • 2 Fellow Sinner June 29, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      Why have you chosen to judge and condemn Ruller for sinning, which we are all guilty of? Your high and mighty way of crowing about how he got his comeuppance from God reeks of the very same sin Rully was guilty of: pride. From the tone of your writing, it seems you think you’re better than Rully, don’t you? The writer of this blog also gleefully condemns Rully in a pseudo-Christian fashion, thinking that he/she is in a position to judge a sinner, albeit a fictional one, as though he/she has God-given authority to do so. The whole point of the story is to open our eyes to the painful but true realization that we are no better than Rully, for we are all sinners. Both you and the blog writer think Rully got what he deserved because he sinned, but we must remember that in the Book of Job, even those who are especially good and faithful to God are not exempt from being punished, although in Job’s case, God voluntarily allowed the Satan to punish Job. You two are acting like Job’s three “friends,” who were convinced either he or his family must have sinned horribly to be punished by God so, but God rebuked them for acting like they were morally superior to Job and able to comprehend His motives. In the end, only Job was truly faithful to Him; only Job had pleased Him. As must be painfully obvious by now, God works in mysterious ways. For us to even to think that we can understand or even guess His motives is to give in to the sinful pleasure of insolent pride. We are all equally beneath Him, and this only He has the right to judge us.

  2. 3 GC February 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Excellent post! I am a fan of Flannery O’Connor but had not read this story. Now, I will. Thanks!

  3. 4 Paul was Saul August 2, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Hard to take your righteous literary opinion seriously when you make such a juvenile grammatical error in your first sentence.

    What a turkey.

  4. 5 MGW October 9, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Studying O Conner . This really helped me. I liked your commentary very much. Spot on!

    I agree with you about the importance of her legacy. Great post, thanx!

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  11. 12 Franco Reguzzoni April 23, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Thank you for your useful comment here. I hope you’ll forgive me if I make one little annoying observation (I teach grammar in a Catholic high school). In the first paragraph I have already found 2 occurrencies of “it’s” with the apostrophe when what is meant is “its” without apostrophe. I am just pointing this out because a lot of people are ready to use any excuse to criticize Christians and Catholics in particular.

  1. 1 Day 247 — The Turkey « oneaday2013 Trackback on November 13, 2012 at 11:56 am

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