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Flannery O’Connor and Kierkegaard

What could make a woman resign herself to her own death and that of her family? The answer to this question emerges through reading southern writer Flannery O’Connor and the man often referred to as “The Father of Existentialism,” philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Both of these thinkers explore faith’s role in reconciling the finite with the infinite.  In O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother, who is able to accept the unacceptable, undergoes a process that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith from his work Fear and Trembling.

In his journals, Kierkegaard explores Christian truth, which he finds paradoxical because “it is truth as it exists for God. The standard of measure and the end is superhuman; and there is only one relationship possible: faith.” Similarly, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Grandmother confronts this sacred space when she undergoes her transformation. She begins with a shaky sense of belief, but when her life is threatened by an escaped convict called the Misfit, something unusual occurs. She doesn’t recoil, but rather trusts the moment enough to embrace life so completely that she can let it go.

At first, the grandmother is portrayed as metaphysically uncertain, which makes her crossing over all the more striking. When the Misfit is talking about Jesus raising the dead, she says, “Maybe He didn’t.” This moment of doubt is accompanied by a vivid image of the old woman’s posture as she sits with “her legs twisted under her.” This is notable because she will assume a similar pose after her revelation, but then it will have a very different connotation.

After she has conceded to the possibility that Jesus did not, in fact, resurrect the dead, the Misfit says, “If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” The idea of needing to witness to believe is incompatible with everything that faith is to Kierkegaard, who says, “Abraham I cannot understand, in a certain sense there is nothing I can learn from him but astonishment. If people fancy that by considering the outcome of this story they might be moved to believe, they deceive themselves.” The kind of conviction that requires proof is the opposite of the sort he espouses–that exists not in spite of the unbelievable, but because of it.

Right after the Misfit reveals his doubts, everything changes for the woman; however, the reader can neither witness nor experience her becoming a hybrid of what we know and what lies beyond that. The phrase that follows the Misfit’s expression of uncertainty, “His voice seemed to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant,” coupled with her subsequent words and actions have to be sufficient. This is our moment of faith as readers.

This man has just murdered her family and she knows that she is next. Yet something allows her to see that he’s about to cry and say, not something fierce, but “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She then reaches out to touch him, to make contact with him, and he takes her life.

The first step in her metamorphosis must have been what Kierkegaard refers to as “infinite resignation,” or “the last stage prior to faith.” In this scenario, the ability to abandon oneself to what is seems to be the portal to everything that could be. That is, the grandmother’s acceptance of her unfathomable situation gives her a new self that is capable of reaching out as a mother, or giver of life, to her own killer-to-be. She must make peace with the counterintuitive journey that Kierkegaard envisions, in which she takes in existence completely only so that she can give it up.

In her resignation, she becomes like Kierkegaard’s “knight” who “has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world, and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher.”This doesn’t mean that she’s immune to the sorrow of her position, but this change allows her to experience the peace of inhabiting paradox at last, holding both the finite and the infinite within her.

The wonder of O’Connor’s tale is that, faced with death, this woman becomes filled with a life so vast it can include even her destroyer. Her earlier twisted body positioning resurfaces with new meaning after her trip through faith and death. She “half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.” The last time she was arranged like this, she was in doubt and despair; this time, even though she is dead, she is blissful.  In the words of Kierkegaard, perhaps this is possible because she has seen truth in its “superhuman” form.