What Flannery O’Connor Got Right About Epiphanies

Author Jim Shepard’s favorite passage from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” highlights a sad truth: A moment of clarity only lasts a moment.

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.

  • Barry Arrington

    Just so. My pastor once said, “People don’t need to be told. They’ve already been told. They need to be reminded.”

  • rumitoid

    It is my experience, and I know others like me, where an epiphany created a permenant fundamental change in attitude and outlook. What once was acceptable and not even questioned was, in what appeared like a moment, no longer acceptable. And with that came a cascade effect accompanied by deep soul-searching. And the question: How could I have been so blind for so long? A “conviction” is the term: is that different than “epiphany”?

    I grew up in the Bronx under the tutelege of a tough Irish father. He trained me to box starting at age four. He had been a former Golden Gloves contender and had a pssion for the “sport” of boxing. I was thoroughly infected with that same passion. Settling difficulties with my fists was a reasonable and just option, and viewing televised fights an instructive pasttime as well as highly entertaining. Also, I was considered quite good at defending myself, had something of a respected reputation as a “tough guy.” This was true for thirty-five years.
    One day I am watching a mediocre contest on TV and I have an epiphany: this is wrong! It started when I felt a little quesy routing for one over the other. This gave me pause. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I am aghast at this senseless violence, sickened by my previous enjoyment of it. I am an instantaneous pacifist and that extends into a chnaged view on war, capital punishment, patriotism, and even spanking children. Thirty years ago and I have never needed a reminder. I have heard other testimonies about such fundamental and lasting change from a sudden epiphany. The only thing I question is whether it was actually sudden or something working slowly in the subconscious that finally crossed a threshold point of awareness.