Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky
By Jessica Hooten Wilson
Cascade Books, 2017
156 pages, paper, $21.00
It is a sad and tragic irony that many private Christian schools do not teach Flannery O'Connor. I say it is sad and tragic because O'Connor was one of the very few major American authors who was an orthodox, Nicene Christian. As far as I can tell, not a single canonical American poet or fiction writer between the Puritan period and O'Connor could have signed a statement affirming their belief in the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and/or Resurrection.
I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but I do not believe that it is. Consider the roll call of the American literary pantheon: Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe, Faulkner, London, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Henry James, William James, Longfellow, etc. Not a true believer in the lot. Granted, the authors of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur were strong Christians, but neither is considered a member of the pantheon. T. S. Eliot did mature into a Christian, but only after he left America for England, Toryism, and the Anglo-Catholic Church.
In sharp contrast, O'Connor's faith in the Incarnate and Risen Christ who died for our sins is as evident in her novels and stories as it is in her letters and essays. Why then do many Christian schools shy away from her? Part of it is her use of the "n" word, but that is not the whole story, since that forbidden word crops up in other authors.
The deeper reason why O'Connor is left off Christian reading lists is that her work is dark, pessimistic, and unsettling. Evil is just too real, too tangible in her stories, and that disturbs students, parents, and teachers alike. Never mind the fact that Christian parents allow their kids to watch truly despicable, utterly non-redemptive movies and television shows about serial killers. Somehow, that's OK, but O'Connor . . . well, best not to upset and confuse the laity.
Of course, by that logic, Christians should also avoid the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, for his stories are as dark, pessimistic, and unsettling as those of O'Connor. "O'Connor and Dostoevsky," writes Jessica Hooten Wilson in her new book, Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, "both created deformed characters--prostitutes, idiots, holy fools, and social pariahs--to explore such problems as the suffering of children as a refutation to God's existence, the moral bankruptcy of modern atheism, the universal parricidal impulse, the demonic as a real force, and the potential for grace to manifest itself in the natural realm" (11).
Wilson, Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and associate director of the Honors Scholars Program at John Brown University, is certainly not the first critic to forge a connection between O'Connor and Dostoevsky. But she has done something both original and admirable in drawing out for her readers the dialogue with evil--not abstract but personal evil--that gives such resonance to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and O'Connor's Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and stories like "The Displaced Person," "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "A View of the Woods," and "The Lame Shall Enter First." Dostoevsky and O'Connor, Wilson explains, are unique among modern writers in that "they give the demonic a fair hearing, and make evil appear powerfully real" (14). Indeed, she argues that "[n]othing frustrates first-time readers of O'Connor and Dostoevsky as much as their convincing portrayals of the demonic" (14).
Why is it vital that Dostoevsky and O'Connor give the devil his due? Because at the core of their work lies a choice, an either/or choice between following Satan and his Kingdom of Violence or yielding to the authority of Christ and embracing his sacrifice and mercy. Ivan and Rayber, the chief voices of atheism in The Brothers Karamazov and The Violent Bear it Away, refuse to accept the reality of the Christian God because they are tormented by the evil and suffering in the world, particularly that inflicted upon innocent children. And yet, for all their passionate outrage, the suffering innocents remain to them but abstractions. Neither evil nor goodness touches them as an incarnate reality.
Their rejection of God prevents them from feeling any active kind of love or compassion toward those who suffer. Worse yet, it prevents any possibility of hope for the sufferers or meaning in their suffering. "Although Ivan and Rayber desire to save the victims of the world, they are removing themselves from the opposition to violence, the source of protection, the foundation of individual worth, the only God who suffers, the origin of love itself. And thus, their love is nothing but mere fantasy" (33). The stories Ivan recounts about abused and terrorized children are disturbing to read, but we should be even more disturbed by Ivan's unwillingness to consider the only possible solution.
Dostoevsky and O'Connor's focus on innocent suffering makes their works hard to read, but that pales beside an even more disturbing element of their fiction: their frequent recourse to parent-child strife, often resulting in parricidal violence. Wilson argues effectively for the centrality of such strife and violence to the spiritual message of her authors. There is a direct link between the desire to kill one's father and the desire for there to be no God; both desires promise autonomy to the one who frees himself from the tyranny of the father/creator.
The overbearing mothers who populate O'Connor's fiction are often there, Wilson explains, to "prompt their children to recognize that they are not self-begotten creatures, that they have an origin apart from themselves. For similar reasons do people reject God--he reminds them of their origin and asks them to renounce their self for the good of others. O'Connor reveals autonomy as the identifying feature of many of her characters, so any relationships that disturb this autonomy are intolerable" (69). Like Milton's Satan, who claims that he begot himself, the human being who chooses Satan rather than Christ as his model will fall, with equal folly and destruction, into the false lure of autonomy.
Wilson does a fine job explicating this spiritual-emotional-ethical agon, this struggle over whom we will imitate in our search for self-identity, but she does not do it alone. In keeping with a much-needed revival of interest in the work of René Girard that has been sweeping through the Academy, particularly the Christian Academy, Wilson couches her analysis in the terminology of such incisive Girard studies as Violence and the Sacred, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky.
According to Girard, "all human beings are essentially mimetic creatures who imitate the desires of others" (2). Our first mimetic desire is directed toward our parents, particularly our father, but it later spreads to include others in the community. This does not pose a problem in and of itself until two people desire the same thing, causing them to become rivals, and leading ultimately to violence. Throughout history, communities have dealt with the problem of mimetic rivalry through the ritual of scapegoating. Indeed, the role of sacrifice is, and has always been, to redirect violence into safe, non-destructive channels.
But Ivan Karamazov refuses to accept the divine scapegoat who would save him from the destructive potential of his mimetic rivalry. As a result, his desire becomes violent, leading not only to the murder of the father but to his own psychological and intellectual suicide--for to kill the father with whom one identifies is to kill oneself as well.
Piggybacking off Girard's analysis of Dostoevsky, Wilson maintains that this dual relationship between father and son, murder and suicide "parallels that with the divine creator in whose image we are made. . . . in an effort to project ourselves as autonomous individuals, we necessitate the disposal of those who begot us. Thus, the rejection of supernatural authority or metaphysical origin corresponds with the rebellion against earthly authority and origin" (52).
The unitarians, transcendentalists, deists, and atheists who make up the American literary pantheon rarely confront us with our own mimetic rivalry against authority figures, whether human or divine. Indeed, most exalt the formation of the autonomous individual as an absolute good. Sadly, there are many Christian writers today who share in that exaltation. Like their skeptical counterparts, they would rather not be challenged by Girardian writers like O'Connor and Dostoevsky who remind us that the temptation to shake off all social and moral codes and limitations often proceeds from a very real, very personal devil.
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, Literature: A Student's Guide, and Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition.