by Jordan Cofer
N HER INTERVIEWS, ESSAYS, AND PERSONAL LETTERS, Flannery O’Connor makes clear her interest in promoting Christian messages in her fiction. Scholars have long turned to religious references in her fiction as a means to understand and discuss her trademark eccentric characters and depictions of violence. With The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor, Jordan Cofer, Associate Professor of English at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, aims “to show how O’Connor’s fiction was influenced by the Bible itself” and the ways in which biblical characters, stories, and motifs are central to her entire body of work. Despite the large amount of theological scholarship published on O’Connor’s work, Cofer claims that critics have overlooked many of the biblical references that he sees as major contributions to O’Connor’s fiction. Cofer presents three ways in which O’Connor uses the Bible in her novels and short stories: first, O’Connor sets out to retell biblical stories so that "their power might once again be felt"; second, she demonstrates “the redemptive power of violence through her prophetic figures (grounded in the Bible)”; and third, she "[allows] the reader to feel the full power of the Bible’s reversing vision.”
Cofer consults O’Connor’s letters and nonfiction, as well as marks and marginalia in her personal Bibles, to support his claim that she uses the Bible more purposefully than has been previously observed. O’Connor worried that biblical stories, which were “often memorized and repeated,” had “become blunted, commonplace, and ordinary, and the message—now socially mainstreamed—is foolish to those who do not believe it.” Therefore, Cofer argues, O’Connor’s retelling of biblical stories, which she sets in the contemporary South, are meant to make their message once again meaningful to her twentieth-century audience.
Cofer begins by studying the biblical influences of O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, arguing that the novel is “an introductory primer to O’Connor’s anagogical vision.” He relates the story of Hazel Motes to that of Paul, a biblical figure who Cofer cites as a referential character in multiple pieces of O’Connor’s fiction. While his comparison of Hazel to Saul/Paul is a major focus, Cofer also details other biblical motifs in Wise Blood, including the significance of character names, the presence of prophets and false prophets, and O’Connor’s use of swine (which reappears in later stories). Detailed biblical allusions are of particular interest in this chapter; Cofer discusses subtle biblical references such as the cloud that follows Hazel on his first drive in his new car, which Cofer likens to the Old Testament story of God taking the form of a cloud as he followed the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert.
After setting up Wise Blood as O’Connor’s roadmap for future use of the Bible in her work, Cofer moves on to her short stories and her final novel, The Violent Bear It Away. He returns to the notion of biblical retellings, claiming that “the biblical dimension has been entirely overlooked in the criticism of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’” and arguing that “the story is not merely an allusion to but a radical re-writing of Christ’s encounter with the rich young ruler, with the Misfit serving as a recapitulation of the ruler.”
After discussing “Judgment Day,” another story Cofer interprets as referential to Paul, Cofer examines backwoods prophets in O’Connor’s fiction and asserts that they “often share at least one (or perhaps all) of three [. . .] biblical-based characteristics”: a marginalization from society, a reluctance to be prophets, and a message not of hope and salvation but of “violence and annihilation.” His claims about Mason Tarwater, Francis Tarwater, Hazel Motes, and Rufus Johnson, and those characters’ ties to biblical prophets, are among the most convincing studies in the book. And while examining The Violent Bear It Away, Cofer takes a cue from the novel’s own reference to an Elijah/Elisha relationship between Tarwater and his great-uncle, explicating it and moving on to discuss the ways in which Tarwater is a backwoods prophet who exhibits all three of the similarities to biblical prophets.
Cofer’s book closes with a discussion of biblical reversals in the stories “Parker’s Back,” “Revelation,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” He is correct to note that O’Connor’s ironies and reversals are nothing new to her readers—they are expected. He argues that, “while critics are quick to notice the pattern of reversals, the biblical nucleus of these stories has been neglected” and that “O’Connor often alludes to these ironies to clue readers into her intentions.” His addition to this discussion of ironies and reversals in O’Connor criticism is a careful study of biblical references, which, he argues, directly support those reversals. A particularly pertinent discussion of biblical names (such as Obadiah Elihue and Sarah Ruth) aids Cofer’s claims about “Parker’s Back,” a story that he parallels with the stories of Moses and, again, Paul. These “ironic reversals,” which are so often a trademark of O’Connor’s fiction, are, Cofer argues, used “to achieve the intended effects the original biblical reversals had on an audience.”
Cofer argues that many of the biblical allusions used in O’Connor’s fiction have not yet been identified, and, with his book, he seeks not only to unveil them but also to show how they form a cohesive body of work that exemplifies O’Connor’s authorial intentions. This book is useful to scholars pursuing the intricacies of biblical allusions in O’Connor’s fiction. Those interested in her choice of character names, for instance, will find this volume particularly interesting. Cofer’s study is accessible and does not depend on the reader’s familiarity with the Bible, as he not only lays out important plot points from O’Connor’s work but also explains the biblical stories and characters he references. His claim that “O’Connor presents the reader with a deluge of biblical imagery in hopes that they will recognize the importance of what is in front of them” is well-supported by the fact that Cofer often attributes multiple biblical references to a single piece of fiction. Cofer’s argument—that O’Connor made specific and purposeful use of the Bible—is supported by his careful attention to the evidence to support his claims and by O’Connor herself, as her own statements lend credibility to Cofer’s pursuit of Bible references in her work.
The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor is effective in its own theoretical sphere, meaning that other aspects of O’Connor’s fiction—her complicated views on race, for example, or her treatment of mid-century culture—fall by the wayside in favor of interpretations that are solely religious. These other secular aspects of her work cannot be discounted, but Cofer’s book is a useful addition to the discussion of O’Connor’s complicated and intricate fiction. Those who are interested in studying O’Connor from a theological perspective will find Cofer’s book a worthwhile aid to a comprehensive theological study of O’Connor’s novels and short stories, and even those with varying focuses on O’Connor will find it an interesting exploration of her fiction’s relationship to the Bible.