[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, O’Gorman compares violent images in O’Connor’s short stories and her novel The Violent Bear It Away with those in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005) and Blood Meridian (1985).]
There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed.Cormac McCarthy
We are not living in times when the realist of distances is understood or well thought of, even though he may be in the dominant tradition of American letters.Flannery O’Connor, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
Cormac McCarthy was raised a Roman Catholic in Tennessee, and his fiction abounds with the “distorted images of Christ” that Flannery O’Connor saw as particularly characteristic of the region they shared in common (“The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” CW [Collected Works] 859). Yet he cannot be deemed a Catholic writer in the same way that she can. Unlike O’Connor, McCarthy has refused to elaborate on his views in lectures and essays, and for many readers the appeal of his fiction lies in the fact that it continually rearticulates religious questions with out giving clear answers to them. While his most recent novels seem to offer more sympathetic portrayals of Christianity than his earlier ones, McCarthy remains well characterized today by Robert Coles’s 1974 description of him as “a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning” (90). Yet we do know at least two facts that can help to illuminate the religious motifs so prevalent in his work. We know that as a young man McCarthy struggled to reject his family’s Catholicism.1 And we know that in his view, “books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life upon the novels that have been written,” so that we might well seek to understand the religious dimensions of his work in terms of intertextuality (quoted in Woodward).
Accordingly, I have argued elsewhere that reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses alongside the two novels at the center of McCarthy’s oeuvre, Suttree and Blood Meridian, can help us to better understand what Edwin T. Arnold has called the “mosaic” of McCarthy’s fiction (1). That reading—both intertextual and intratextual—focuses specifically on the figure of the priest and speculates more generally on McCarthy’s own quasi-Joycean identity as an apparently lapsed Catholic of Irish descent. In this essay, however, my first concern is with not McCarthy’s priests but his prophets—and prodigals—in relation to those of O’Connor. My second, inextricably related concern is with O’Connor’s and McCarthy’s identities not only as religious writers exploring the relationship between violence and the supernatural but also as American writers exploring the relationship between violence and the natural, between violence and nature itself.
While O’Connor and McCarthy’s similar regional backgrounds and their common penchant for violence have led a number of reviewers to casually link them as practitioners of a “Southern Gothic” mode of...