The Torture Box: A Critical Look at Flannery O’Connor and Her Disproportionate Retributions

August 3, 2018 | 2 5 min read

In a word cloud of writing about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “grotesque” would be central, medium-large. The word is typically applied to the characters in her stories, whose spiritual deformities are often represented—in problematic authorial shorthand—by some kind of physical deformity. Hulga, in “Good Country People,” is archetypal, missing both a leg and the religious faith of her mother. Or Rufus, in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” with a clubfoot (she was big on legs and feet) that represents his essentially twisted nature. But the dictionary definition of grotesque, “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted,” also speaks to an essential quality of O’Connor’s work. Her stories are morally distorted, and the effect is both ugly and comic.

In the denouement of her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit, an escaped convict, has his henchmen systematically march the family members of the Grandmother into the woods and shoot them. The Grandmother, we are given to understand, has brought this upon her family and herself—in her deceitful vanity, she has gotten them lost, and then, having stowed away her verboten cat which attacks her son while he’s driving, gotten them wrecked and stranded. She is to blame.

It is a testament to both the power of O’Connor’s writing and the fame of this story that we do not generally find this ending odd. The Grandmother is annoying, true. She is a petty, class-obsessed bigot who wears perfumed cloth violets so that, in the event of a car accident, any onlooker “would know at once that she was a lady.” She names her cat “Pitty Sing” (“Pretty Thing” done in a reprehensible Charlie Chan accent). She makes up stories about her youth to impress her bored family. She flatters herself and holds fatuous opinions about the world. She is, in short, almost exactly like my own late grandmother who, ancient pain in the ass though she was, probably did not cosmically or karmically merit the murder of my entire family.

Yet we take this ending, in the context of the O’Connor universe, as more or less fair—if not deserved, exactly, then somehow structurally congruent. We accede to this kind of disproportionate judgment, and disproportionate punishment, in the majority of her stories. Disproportionality is at the heart of O’Connor’s work, and it represents both the worst and best aspects of her art.

A pattern of punitive excess repeats itself again and again in her work. Julian, in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is punished for workaday maternal contempt with watching his mother suffer a massive stroke. Asbury, in “The Enduring Chill,” guilty of being a proud, theatrical fool (not to mention, simply twenty-five), is consigned to a sickbed in his mother’s home for the rest of his days. True, we live in a world that can be mightily disproportionate, mightily unfair—we know this—but O’Connor is not merely describing our world and its injustice. These stories are torture boxes, lovingly designed by a master craftsperson to enact maximal punishment for minimal crimes. A flawed character is set inside; that flaw catches on the ineluctable, merciless gears of her narrative logic; they are ground to dust.

In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” the singularly named Sheppard and his little boy, Norton, have suffered the loss of their wife and mother. While volunteering at a local juvenile detention facility, Sheppard takes an interest in local ruffian Rufus Johnson—an intelligent child from a poor, criminal family. Rufus insists that he is evil, a claim repugnant to Sheppard’s rational atheism, and Norton becomes the battleground upon which these competing moral claims fight.

Although Sheppard’s obvious sin, in the medieval Catholic framework of O’Connor’s work, is his godlessness, it can be argued that the greater underlying emotional sin is his privileging of Rufus over Norton. His interest in helping Rufus supersedes his interest in his own son, whom he finds annoying and mildly repulsive, as the boy mirrors his own grief back at him. This is Sheppard’s emotional sin—his charity not beginning at home—and the penalty for this temporary neglect is the death of Norton, who hangs himself. We exit the story as the father kneels over his dead son’s body, utterly bereft in the coldest of all possible universes.

This same distorted quality is also largely responsible for the black humor of her writing. She is a very funny writer, with a Mel Brooksian sense of the inherent comedy of the suffering of others. As he put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Comedy, in other words, is inherently disproportionate, at least partially premised on the lopsided limits of empathy where the suffering of oneself and others is concerned. Seinfeld’s humor, for example, is based on juxtaposing the main characters’ utter insensitivity to other people’s plights—in particular, Jerry’s breezy unconcern—with their extreme sensitivity to their own trivial problems. A child trapped in a germ-free “bubble” is fodder for jokes, while not being able to get seated at a Chinese restaurant becomes a kind of personal hell. Cartoons, likewise, are almost completely predicated on a similar dynamic. Wile E. Coyote’s suffering is funny not only for the extreme violence of the physical comedy—the faulty boxes of dynamite and ill-planned catapults—but in a meta sense, the fact of his Sisysphean struggle, the brutality of his universe and its two-fold cruelty, assigning him an unappeasable desire for the Roadrunner that can only result in his destruction, for all eternity.

So it is in much of O’Connor’s writing, which, despite—and because of—its bleakness, is essentially comic. “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” says the Misfit, after finally putting the Grandmother out of her misery. With these words, he dispatches the Grandmother’s moral existence as summarily as he has dispatched the lives of the family. It’s justly one of the most famous lines in any short story, and one of the funniest as well, in its bathos and casual horror. In a sense, the entire story is an enactment of Mel Brooks’s epigram, with the audience enjoying the bleakly funny spectacle of the Grandmother, in all her petty obliviousness, leading her family straight toward the open sewer that is the Misfit.

Asbury’s bedridden fate in “The Enduring Chill,” while not comic in itself, is comic in the inexorable steps that lead to it. His prideful, self-dramatizing silliness leads to an ill-considered show of solidarity with his mother’s field hands during which he gulps a bucket of tainted milk. The fact that he does not “deserve” to become gravely ill forever—while arguably a moral flaw in the storytelling, is a pure advantage in the comic rendering of Asbury’s pathetic existence.

In a larger sense, there is something horribly comic in the experience of reading an O’Connor story. You pull back the cloth draped over the torture box, see the unlucky character enter, and nervously titter as you learn the terms of their demise. It is awful, and it is funny, and it is funny because it’s awful. It is funny because we live in a world that can be so awful, in which we spend large swaths of our time attempting to avoid that awfulness, and here is an artist training her godlike powers on the creation of perfectly awful worlds for her characters to inhabit. In this sense, the aesthetic experience of watching Wile E. Coyote and reading Flannery O’Connor are not very different:  in both, you are waiting for the two-ton anvil to fall from the sky.

This is also to say, however, that there is something fundamentally cartoonish about the moral unfairness of O’Connor’s work, an unfairness rooted, if one is inclined toward biographical interpretation, in her Catholicism and illness. Here was a genius twice cursed—first with original sin, then with lupus. These outsized personal afflictions surely inflected her worldview, a worldview that allows characters no agency—rarely, if ever, does the cool breeze of free will blow through her humid North Georgia hellscapes.

It is an art of typology: types of characters, types of flaws and sins, types of punishments. This monolithic, caricatured quality is both a weakness and strength, manifesting in ways that are impossible to disentangle. It lends, in my mind, an imposing greatness to the work that sometimes comes at the expense of truth.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.


  1. An intriguing assessment of O’Connor, although the “disproportionate judgment, and disproportionate punishment” is something she shares with Dante, yes? Yet I doubt you’d similarly damn him with faint praise. O’Connor’s art is certainly not Dante’s art, but it deserves to be looked at in the same way—through “the medieval Catholic framework” they share, not through the lens of Dr. Phil-level psychology and pop culture. You wouldn’t (I hope) drag Wile E. Coyote into a reading of Dante. O’Connor deserves more respect than this.

  2. Hi Joseph,

    Good comparison, and yes, I would absolutely also bring Wile E Coyote into a discussion of Dante. I really couldn’t respect O’Connor more actually, both in terms of her genius, and the endurance it took to write these stories with the lupus that should have killed her in her twenties.

    But I do detect a sadistic streak that runs throughout her work, and I think it diminishes what’s otherwise an unimpeachably great body of work. I don’t think it’s “Dr. Phil-level psychology,” but basic moral inquiry, to wonder what Sheppard or Norton have done to deserve their fates; likewise a five year-old drowning in The River; likewise Hulga being humiliated and shamed; likewise likewise likewise.

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