When Violence Is a Good Thing (or What Do Flannery O’Connor & the Hunger Games Have in Common?)
I’ve developed a weird sort of crush on Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve never read anything she’s written, I would highly recommend it. But be warned: you probably won’t enjoy it.
Her writing is not fun, nor is it entertaining in a lighthearted sense. Pretty much everything she wrote was dark. Her stories are filled with death, murder, doubt, blasphemy, and all sorts of debauchery and violence. This much shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Much of what we read and watch contains all kinds of darkness. But here’s the kicker: Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic.
How can a person with a profoundly Christian worldview write stories that are dark, violent, and depressing?
For O’Connor, the use of exaggerated violence was actually an aid in getting people to see life for what it is, and to see themselves for who they are:
“We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 113-114)
In other words, extreme situations force us to look beyond all of the decorum and comfortable habits that adorn our daily lives and see what we are at the core of our selves. As O’Connor says, the violence is not an end in itself, it is a means of cutting through the irrelevancies and showing us who we really are.
I have already written a fair amount about The Hunger Games, but it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the strong points of those stories. When faced with a violent and dehumanizing situation, we find out who these characters really are. Some of the “tributes” from districts 1 and 2 show their predatory nature, while Katniss, Peeta, and Rue find ways to uphold the dignity of humanity. Those commitments were there the whole time, but it took an extreme situation to draw them out.
As we read or watch this type of fiction, we see ourselves in the characters. Our books or tv screens become mirrors and we are forced to ask, What would I do in such a situation? It forces us to wrestle with that deepest part of ourselves that may not see the light of day in the course of our daily routines.
Of course, many people will pursue violence as an end in itself. But violence can be a good thing when it points beyond itself to reveal the “qualities least dispensable” in our souls, “those qualities which are all we will have to take into eternity with us.”