Joe Fassler, “What Flannery O’Connor Got Right: Epiphanies Aren’t Permanent” (via Alaina)
Writers talk a lot about epiphanies—what O’Connor, in her Catholic tradition, called “grace”—in short stories. But I think we’re tyrannized by a misunderstanding of Joyce’s notion of the epiphany. That stories should toodle on their little track toward a moment where the characters understand something they didn’t understand before—and, at that moment, they’re transformed into better people.
You know: Suddenly Billy understood that his grandmother had always gone through a lot of difficult things, and he resolved he would never treat her that way again.
This kind of conversion notion is based on a very comforting idea—that if only we had sufficient information, we wouldn’t act badly. And that’s one of the great things about what The Misfit tells the Grandmother in the line I like so much. He’s not saying that a near-death experience would have turned her into a good woman. He’s saying it would take somebody threatening to shoot her every minute of her life.
In other words, these conversion experiences don’t stick—or they don’t stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.
(There’s a great line in Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane, where one of the protagonist’s enemies says to him: “You’re going to need more than one lesson, Mr. Kane, and you’re going to get more than one lesson.”)
Now, O’Connor really believes that we can flood, momentarily, with the kind of grace that epiphany is supposed to represent. But I think she also believes that we’re essentially sinners. She’s saying: Don’t think for a moment that because you’ve had a brief instant of illumination, and you suddenly see yourself with clarity, that you’re not going to transgress two days down the road.
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