Flannery O’Connor and the Problem of Freedom


Stephen Mitchell

Article ID:



Jan 11, 2024


Feb 1, 2021

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist, essayist, and short story writer whose Complete Short Stories won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972. Her fictional work explores existential questions of grace, morality, freedom, and transcendence in the lives of grotesque characters. In her essay collection Mystery and Manners, O’Connor posits a distinction between Christian and secular freedom, contending, “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it that way. There is not much possibility of understanding between the two.”1 In her novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, this conflict appears as a question: are humans free to determine the nature of reality, or does reality (both spiritual and material) precede the human will and make a legitimate claim on it? Is truth a construct erected by powerful people to sustain their own power, or is it a bedrock structure against which humans rebel at their own peril?

In Wise Blood, O’Connor develops a character, Hazel Motes (Haze), in revolt against himself, the world, and a God whose existence he is determined to deny. Comically grotesque, the story opens when Haze, having completed military service, returns to Tennessee with plans to embark on an orgy of sin so as to prove once and for all that “he didn’t believe in sin, since he practiced what was called it.”2 Protesting repeatedly that he believes neither in Jesus nor in sin, Haze reveals that he is obsessed with both. He is afraid that Jesus — with no regard for Haze’s own will — will redeem him from sin. In short, Jesus is a threat to his freedom.

The grandson of a fiery itinerant preacher, Haze concludes, while still a boy, “The way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”3 But in the army, someone tells him that he does not have a soul. The possibility intrigues him, hinting of an absolute freedom to do whatever he wishes.4 For if he has no soul to redeem, Jesus can have no interest in him. Jesus is, then, no more than a man, His divinity and saving power a myth concocted to keep Haze from his rightful freedom as the master of his own fate.5 Furthermore, Haze concludes that he is morally clean because, without a soul, there is no sin, and, without sin, there can be no savior: “There was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing mattered but that Jesus was a liar.”6

Concluding that a man who does not believe in sin ought to have a woman to sleep with, Haze contracts a relationship with a prostitute, Leora Watts.7 Obese, greasy, and green-of-tooth, Watts is repulsive, but Haze chooses her to assert the supremacy of his will. “He felt that he should have a woman, not for the sake of the pleasure in her, but to prove that he didn’t believe in sin.”8 For Haze’s purposes, Watts is valuable because she provides him the opportunity to prove that humans need only sensual comfort. “I don’t need Jesus,” he tells the charlatan street preacher Asa Hawks. “What do I need with Jesus? I got Leora Watts.”9 Indeed, were Haze drawn to Watts by her beauty, he would be drawn by a power outside his own will, beauty being as dangerous to his freedom as are Jesus and redemption.

Purposes notwithstanding, Haze fails to overrule the desire that structures his being. Vulgar and retrograde though she is, Watts still awakens Haze’s sexuality. This combination of attraction and repulsion confuses Haze, who experiences Watts’s ability to arouse him as a threat to the independence of his will.10 His decision to leave her signals the first defeat in his war with reality as well as his determination to continue the battle elsewhere.

Believing a car will empower him to escape any claim laid on him by woman, man, God, or place, Haze buys one, describing it as “a place to be that I can always get away in.”11 Haze’s car is, in fact, decayed, dilapidated, and mechanically unsound — a piece of junk. According to the narrator, “It was a high rat-colored machine with large thin wheels and bulging headlights.…one door was tied on with a rope….The back seat was missing but it had a two-by-four stretched across the seat frame to sit on.”12 Ignoring the reality of its condition, Haze repeatedly declares the car good, its quality and soundness resting on his willful declaration alone. In pronouncing his car good, Haze displays the hubris of his will-to-power as he arrogates the right to decree the nature and quality of whatever he encounters in this world. Both his moral cleanness and the goodness of his car depend on the bald assertion of his will. Only when the car is destroyed (pushed over a cliff by a patrolman exercising against Haze the same will-to-power that he has been exercising himself) does Haze face the limits of his freedom to determine reality.13

In the interim, however, he founds an antichurch, preaching “the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way….it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”14 Hearing Haze demand a new Jesus who will not rise from the dead, Enoch Emory, Haze’s moronic sidekick, presents Haze with a mummy from the city museum.15 With this mummy, O’Connor portrays the implications of Haze’s demand for freedom. If there is neither redemption nor salvation, neither God nor resurrection, then Haze is, indeed, free to do as he pleases (to the limits of his power — economic, technological, social, or political). But if there are none of these things that bespeak life beyond the grave and no God to whom humans answer for their choices, then there is, finally, only death. Only in a world where death triumphs is Haze safe from the demands of a God who loves him enough to pursue him.16

That Haze rejects this mummy suggests that he will soon recant his nihilistic rebellion and accept the God who seeks him. What Haze understands — finally — is that both his being and his redemption are gifts. He can accept these gifts, or he can reject them. He is not, however, free to construct the world to please himself. He is not God, and he does not have the power to determine the structure, form, or essence of being, neither of cars nor of himself nor of other persons.

Wise Blood reveals a link between truth and freedom. Humans can lament this link; but to reject objective reality in the name of freedom is to reject our own identities as creatures whose existence depends on One who is — in every way — superior to us. When Haze, having murdered a man and lost his car, accepts that he is sinful, he blinds himself with lye. Through this disturbing act, he shows that he accepts a reality transcending his own will, a Divine Reality who gives to the world and to his life its meaning.

In The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor tackles the problem of freedom via the experience of Francis Tarwater, a southern adolescent reared on a backwoods farm called Powderhead and fighting against his prophetic vocation. When his prophet-uncle and mentor Mason Tarwater dies, Francis leaves for the city, determined to live by the light of his own will. Shortly after Mason’s death, Francis delineates his philosophy of freedom with specific reference to his uncle’s former commands: “Smoke if I want to and don’t if I don’t….Bury [Mason] if need be and don’t if don’t.”17 Indeed, the need to prove that his will is supreme lies at the root of all that Francis does.

Once in the city, he locates his cousin Rayber, the philosophical rival of Mason. All that Mason believes in (sin, redemption, resurrection, and vocation) Rayber, a school psychologist, rejects. He sees Mason’s religious beliefs as self-serving psychological obsessions. According to Rayber, “[Mason’s] fixation of being called by the Lord had its origin in insecurity. He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called himself.”18 For Rayber, the prophet is merely neurotic. Conversely, all that Rayber believes in (a life of scientific, utilitarian service dedicated to eradicating human suffering) Mason understands as freedom-destroying determinism. If Rayber can account for all human behavior by some combination of biology and environment, then the possibility of a free response to a divine call is denied. Therefore, Mason warns Francis, “I saved you to be free, your own self!…and not some piece of information inside [Rayber’s] head. If you were living with him, you’d be information right now, you’d be inside his head.”19 For Rayber, freedom is reason exploiting nature to fulfill human desire. For Mason, freedom is responding to the call of God on one’s life. To each man, the other seems a slave.

Bishop, Rayber’s intellectually disabled son, is the locus of conflict between these two men. Mason wants to baptize Bishop, showing, thereby, his worth to God, his divine image, and his human dignity. “‘That boy cries out for his baptism,’ the old man said. ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord even an idiot!’”20 Rayber, however, prohibits Bishop’s baptism, seeing Bishop’s intellectual disability as an insult to and an evacuation of his dignity.21 Because Bishop cannot reason, he is a creature without value who ought to be destroyed. “In a hundred years,” says Rayber to Francis, “people may have learned enough to put [children like Bishop] to sleep when they’re born.”22 Nevertheless, and despite himself, Rayber loves Bishop with a love that surpasses reason, against which he fights every day.23 For to love Bishop is to affirm that his existence is good, and to affirm that existence will lead Rayber to affirm the goodness of all the created world. From that affirmation, Rayber fears, will follow a full affirmation of God’s goodness and of His authority to issue Rayber a call to prophecy. But Rayber prefers scientific information, wishing only to discover those physical laws whose exploitation will allow humans to control the world.24 He has no room for God.

Into this decades-long conflict steps Francis, who (committed to the absolute freedom of his own will) finds the visions of both men restrictive. Tasked by his now-dead uncle to baptize Bishop, Francis feels the power of this call on his life but resents it precisely because it limits his freedom. As O’Connor observes of her own life, “Vocation implies limitation.”25 To baptize Bishop is to legitimate the claim of God on Francis’s life. Conversely, to follow Rayber is to accept the determinism of biology and environment. In Rabyer’s account of human beings, Francis can, in principle, be entirely understood; neither mystery nor freedom invest his person. Although each man’s vision protects Francis from the other’s, neither offers him the unconditional freedom he wants. To Rayber, he sneers, “I’m free.…I’m outside your head. I ain’t in it.”26 But of the freedom offered by Mason, the narrator remarks that Francis feels “a slow warm rising resentment that this freedom had to be connected with Jesus and that Jesus had to be the Lord.”27

To resist the pressure of both God (in Mason) and Rayber, Francis resolves to drown Bishop and return to Powderhead. But as he drowns him, Francis utters, involuntarily, the words of baptism, words whose power he struggles to deny. Nevertheless, having murdered a helpless child so as to assert his absolute freedom, Francis begins the walk back to Powderhead.28 On the way, he is drugged and raped by a man who offers him a ride.29 This brutal assault mimics Francis’s own. As Francis violated the dignity of Bishop, so the rapist violates his. Such freedom as Francis has desired requires that neither he nor Bishop (nor anything nor anyone else) have a specific creaturely dignity that commands reverence and limits, thereby, the will of another. This freedom proves itself nihilistic by denying to the world a deep identity. Recognizing the link between his demand for freedom and his own violation, Francis accepts his vocation to be a prophet.

For O’Connor, human freedom is limited by reality. In attacking those realities we do not like, we open ourselves to attack from those who do not like the reality that we are, to those who would reduce us to servitude. Thus, freedom is found in assenting to the nature of one’s being, a nature given by God and intended, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, “for the praise of God’s glory.”30

Stephen Mitchell teaches English and chairs the Department of Humanities at Covenant Day School in North Carolina. He holds a PhD in humanities.



  1. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 116.
  2. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 106.
  3. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 16.
  4. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 18.
  5. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 72.
  6. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 101.
  7. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 106.
  8. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 106.
  9. O’Connor, Wise Blood,
  10. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 29.
  11. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 111.
  12. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 65, 68.
  13. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 209–212.
  14. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 101.
  15. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 182–88.
  16. O’Connor, Wise Blood, 15–16.
  17. Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 37.
  18. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 19.
  19. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 16.
  20. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 33.
  21. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 34.
  22. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 168.
  23. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 113–14.
  24. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 33–34; 170–73.
  25. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 221.
  26. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away,
  27. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 20–21.
  28. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 203–210.
  29. O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, 226–33.
  30. Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth (Washington, D. C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1993), 17. Pope John Paul II is quoting Ephesians 1:12, but the context he provides makes the passage especially significant for our purposes
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