Flannery O’ Connor’s unfinished novel raises persistent questions
Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress by Jessica Hooten Wilson. Brazos Press, 2024. 192 pp., $24.99
Staring down our own limitations requires the greatest degree of courage. Writing in 1963 to editor and anthologist Sr. Mariella Gable, novelist Flannery O’Connor forthrightly unburdens herself of the creative and spiritual barriers preventing her next work: “I can’t do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.”
The revelation is more poignant because we know, as O’Connor knew, that she was slowly dying from complications caused by lupus. The O’Connor who sent that letter was mere months away from death. Yet some of her finest work still lay ahead of her. “Parker’s Back” articulates an incarnational spirituality set sternly against Gnosticism. “Revelation” renders the long-overdue comeuppance of a prejudiced farm wife who, in an iconic final scene, receives a mystical vision that upends the unjust racial hierarchies of the Jim Crow South. O’Connor completed both stories during her last months of life.
But when she writes to Sr. Mariella about “the larger things,” O’Connor seems to mean not these works for which she ought to be most remembered but her novel-in-progress Why Do the Heathen Rage? In this unfinished work, now available to the public in its first edition, O’Connor strives to grow beyond her comic gifts. She seeks to develop the latent strengths of her Dostoyevskian religious consciousness, chronicling life after the violent moment of grace while also handling social questions in earnest.
O’Connor died in August 1964, before she could finish these larger things she needed to do. What little she had made of Why Do the Heathen Rage?—fewer than a dozen disjointed vignettes—lay hidden in an obscure Georgia archive of her unpublished papers for more than fifty years. Thanks to the work of scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson, the unfinished manuscript of O’Connor’s last novel now appears for the first time in book form, together with Wilson’s own contextual framework and textual commentary.
To open this new book is to know O’Connor in a new way and grow to love her even more, despite her acknowledged flaws. In the central character of Walter Tilman—an intellectual trapped on his family’s farm, Meadow Oaks, not unlike O’Connor trapped at Andalusia—we find her searing critical wit (“Hysteria affects syntax”) alongside her tenderness rooted in the love of God (“The letter in his hand was an invitation, a plea, a cry from the heart”). We also see, through Walter, how the effects of this tenderness could be cooled by her own certainty of being right (“I’m leaving my death to humanity, so they can learn”).
Faced with the makings of existential tragedy, O’Connor opens with comedy. We find that Walter has been writing deceptive letters to a Northern activist—letters in which he impersonates Roosevelt, one of the farm’s black employees. These letters are meretricious, and Walter knows it—but on their basis, the activist insists on coming to visit Meadow Oaks. As Walter’s ruse stands ready to be exposed, O’Connor lets him view some of the flaws that led him to the “peculiar, small, contemptible vice” of pretending to be someone he is not: “Generosity and imagination had not quite been bred out of him—he had just enough of both to make him miserable—but the courage to act on them had.”
Considered in terms of artistic craft, the technical problems of Why Do the Heathen Rage? are mainly perspectival. What can its protagonist—a sheltered, white, somewhat broken Southern intellectual—really know about the world, about himself and his place, and about the lives of those who are different from himself? Isolated as he is, how can he overcome the spiritual pride that fuels his skepticism about anything he has not seen with his own eyes?
O’Connor means her reader to see and scorn the doubleness in Walter. She also wants the reader to see and honor his equally real attempts at self-honesty. In Walter lives her own double-mindedness: her practical dependence on an environment whose injustices, in theory, she detests; her lack of courage to speak up about those injustices in any way not too oblique to be readily recognized as a commitment. Yet it would be a misreading to identify O’Connor fully with Walter—or wholly with any of her characters. Something of her is also represented in the young idealistic activist, soon to be introduced, who continually challenges Walter and who “won’t be headed off.” Meanwhile O’Connor herself, as prophet-artist, stands offstage—poised like her own antihero Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away—hoping to bring a singular vision from the city of God to the city of man.
As the scenes progress, O’Connor attempts to expand the boundaries of her established artistic territory by using as a complicating incident the kind of religious conversion experience that in previous stories she used as a conclusion. She wants to explore what might happen after the unlikely prophet gets knocked off his horse and blinded. How might this plotline have played out, had she lived to complete it? Would Walter’s newfound Christian faith have become, as it was for Thomas in “The Comforts of Home,” a stronghold of intellectual pride? Or would it have become a strategic beachhead from which some of the falsehoods that plague Walter’s soul might have been eroded?
In her creative commentary, Wilson imagines a development in which Walter enters a cycle of ongoing conversions, each bringing him to clearer vision than the last. But this imagined resolution still leaves Walter solitary: a character who, without a meaningful foil, cannot move a story forward.
How could Walter be brought into real relation with the world beyond the prison of his own skull? Enter Oona Gibbs, Walter’s mysterious activist-correspondent, the Pollyanna who is present from the first line of the story, yet whose identity is never settled. Is she to be Walter’s lover, Walter’s cousin, or somehow just an emissary of Walter’s intellectual aunt—herself an underdeveloped character—who had escaped Meadow Oaks to live the urbane life Walter (and O’Connor) could only dream of? The draft contains some startling later scenes, in which the young woman confronts her dying mother. These establish that at least one version of Oona is undergoing a crisis of her own. Under her chirpy positivity, there are depths—and dangers—of which Walter sees nothing.
But whoever she is, Oona is positioned to shatter Walter’s illusions. She is also aligned in ideals with the group living at “Fellowship Farm,” a thinly fictionalized version of the real-life Koinonia Farm, where racial lines were crossed to bring like-minded people together in community. Mirroring the unresolved status of her own double-mindedness, O’Connor never manages to bring Walter and Oona together in a culminating scene, where their superficialities and deceptions might have been equally unmasked.
This incomplete, protean story shifted throughout its development, as stories will. And O’Connor more than once mined it for material to craft other, stronger works—as writers will. She never committed to one version. She ran out of time before she could realize her fuller intentions for it. So why bring O’Connor’s unfinished draft before the public at all?
Wilson’s stated intention is “to serve the art and provide for the audience.” She suggests that we let our stories “begin where [O’Connor’s] left off.” Especially for writers of fiction who, like O’Connor, happen to be Christians and are drawn to the same kinds of material that compelled her, this invitation glimmers with potential. But to accept it, we may have to examine where and whether our own visions may be glossed by popular ideologies.
In her commentary, Wilson suggests that O’Connor may have been unable to see racial equality as a theological issue. This may have blocked her efforts at developing fictional worlds that included robust Black characters. Yet from her initial treatment of Fellowship Farm (“They’re living like the gospels say live”) and from Oona’s commentaries on race (“Black and white is just a detail”), it seems plausible that at least a part of O’Connor’s mind saw Christ as the key to racial healing, as to all social healing. Viewed through the lens of the Catholic social teaching that O’Connor embraced, all pursuits of justice across lines of difference—like solutions to all vital issues—must share a common root: the dignity of the human person as created by God in His image and likeness, a dignity that reflects the full humanity of Christ. As O’Connor writes in a 1961 letter, “You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own.”
How can the truth of Christ, in whom alone all needs can be met and all contradictions resolved, be received amid the brokenness we see around us? Where the fullness of human dignity should be viewed as an inalienable unity, this fullness is instead broken down into atomized “issues.” Our “awarenesses” of the latter are played off against each other as though they were opposed rather than deeply related.
In this fragmented atmosphere, O’Connor’s failures and complicities with regard to racism have recently received more attention than her successful aesthetic resistances to it. Wilson brings attention to O’Connor as someone who felt “very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue—the whole racial picture” of civil rights, while not losing sight of aspects of O’Connor’s work and legacy that were recalcitrant against her own better angels.
As this incomplete draft shows, O’Connor never fully managed to deal with race or injustice in her finished fiction. Not only could she not speak to the complex inner life of a Black Southerner, she shied away from pinning down the significance of the lynchings and cross-burnings that took place almost on Andalusia’s doorstep. To that extent, she failed to see as completely or paint as clearly as her ideals would have driven her to do. To her credit, she knew it. Though she may not have known exactly how to crack the solution, the draft of Why Do the Heathen Rage? shows that she was applying her best energies to the problem.
It’s perhaps natural to long, as Wilson clearly does, that O’Connor had been more outspoken against the often-violent racism of her environment. From the full context of O’Connor’s work, it is clear both that this atmosphere grieved her and that she felt isolated and helpless against it. O’Connor wanted to focus on the sufferings of others but was stymied by the intensity and urgency of her own. She knew that Black Americans suffered terribly, yet she was also aware that zero-sum comparison or equivocation between her suffering and theirs could bear no good fruit. In the end her courage was directed not into the activism for which illness and dependence unfitted her, but rather into confessing her own sins and bearing her decline with what grace and art she could.
If we judge O’Connor to have missed out on what could have been her last and best successes—artistic, social, and spiritual—we must remember two things. First, such triumphs are not of the will alone. They are graces, gifts to be received from above. But more: Our vision, like Walter’s, is limited. We cannot see or judge the soul. Only God has such perspective.
Still, in Why Do the Heathen Rage? we receive some sense of what blows O’Connor bore in her spiritual combat against pain and prejudice, and how she may have faced them. We can find in her last work an exemplar of the kind of hidden self-emptying, or kenosis, which in the Catholic theological tradition is understood to have a Christlike value and impact of its own. Kenosis—seen as inner personal transformation—cannot be rushed or forced. It may be less legible, as it is certainly less popular, than sign-hoisting, slogan-shouting, or petition-signing. But it may be more necessary to the authentic healing of society.
Katy Carl is editor in chief of Dappled Things magazine, author of As Earth Without Water and Fragile Objects, and a senior affiliate fellow of the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. She lives in the Houston area with her husband and family.