The Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Literature

Should Flannery O’Connor’s work be called grotesque? Many people, including Flannery O’Connor herself, have explored this question. Grotesque fiction brings something extraordinary and often disturbing to life by distorting the ordinary. O’Connor rejects such a label, in part because she rejects labels of any kind, arguing that labeling a writer or their work, with such titles as Southern or grotesque, limits what readers and critics expect upon reading their works (Mystery 37). Furthermore, she rejects the label grotesque, arguing instead that her works are better categorized as realism (Mystery 40). O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is filled with violence, deceitful characters, horror, and death in the context of everyday life in the South. Even if the author is resistant to calling her work grotesque, many people claim otherwise. Many aspects of O’Connor’s fiction support this argument, some of which can be explored in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.

One of the more common comments made on O’Connor’s work is that it can be analyzed as a “psychoanalytic narrative” because her stories often suggest Freudian psychological theories (Fowler 128). Freud argued that a fear of castration is necessary for acceptance into society. Many critics, such as Kats and Mellard, see figurative castrations of characters in the violence of O’Connor’s stories. They see this violence as “purposeful” and serving to “stabilize social hierarchy and positions of dominance” (Fowler 128). Although O’Connor herself rejects Freud and his ideas because she believed he stood in opposition to religion, some of her works can be interpreted as reflecting his ideas (Wehner 300). One of the most commonly used examples supporting this claim is in “Good Country People” when Manley Pointer stealing Hulga’s prosthetic leg. Many critics interpret this scene as a symbolic castration, congruent with Freud’s theories. His theories focus greatly on the Oedipus complex, which most would agree, is an extremely disturbing concept. It’s only logical to conclude that a work of literature that reflects such disturbing ideas would fall into the category of the grotesque.

The characters O’Connor creates in her stories are undeniably a combination of grotesque and utterly ordinary. Katie Oliver points out that all of O’Connor’s works depict characters that are flawed in some way or another and that those “bodily handicaps symbolize the greater handicaps of the intellect, the heart, or the soul” (233). Her characters’ dearth of morals and intelligence is manifested in some kind of outward abnormality. One example is Hulga’s leg in “Good Country People,” which can be interpreted as her lack of faith. Each one of O’Connor’s stories features at least one character that is riddled with problems, which come back to haunt them. Such unique and disturbing characters make for an interesting, often frustrating, and most certainly grotesque read.

Another aspect of O’Connor’s fiction that enhances its absurdity is her characters’ names. A big part of one’s identity is contained within a name, and O’Connor uses names, nicknames, and their connotations to reflect her characters’ natures. Her characters often change their names, like Harry/Bevel in “The River” and Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People.” These name changes also tend to increase the absurdity and grotesqueness of the story. When Joy changes her name to Hulga it is because she feels it more accurately reflects her personality and her unattractive prosthetic leg, but for the reader, simply reading the name Hulga instead of Joy changes the tone of O’Connor’s work. A name can accurately accentuate the role and importance of certain characters, especially in the context of literature, where the reader can only envision what the author chooses to include in their descriptions. The character of “the Misfit” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has quite an understatement of name in the context of his murderous escapades. The discrepancy between his name and actions makes his character even more grotesque, as if the feeling of not fitting in is a good enough reason for murdering people. O’Connor also cleverly utilizes character names to create an abstract struggle between God and the devil within the physical struggle of Harry/Bevel’s drowning in “The River.” Mr. Paradise, whose name conjures images of heaven, tries to save Harry/Bevel from drowning after he has returned to the river to seek salvation but finds only death, as Mr. Paradise cannot reach him. O’Connor contradicts characters’ names and connotations with their actions and personalities to create an off kilter balance and disturbing realities.

Just as grotesque literature takes the ordinary and distorts it, O’Connor’s descriptions are often a puzzling and powerful combination of seemingly conflicting ideas or objects. As a reader you expect certain ways of describing sunsets and people, but O’Connor defies expectations by presenting these things in a different, more grotesque light. In “A Stroke of Good Fortune” O’Connor describes Ruby as “a short woman, shaped like a funeral urn” (A Good Man 67). Of all the ways to describe a person’s shape, O’Connor chooses to compare her to a funeral urn. It is just an object, but carries the weight of death and grief and the question of life beyond, transforming a typical physical description into a thought-provoking image. Mr. Shortley, in “The Displaced Person,” is described as “[folding] his hands on his bony chest and [pretending] he was a corpse” (A Good Man 224). Another author could have described this same posture as sleep but O’Connor takes the image to a gruesome level by describing him as dead. In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” the last image of the sun setting is described as “a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood” (A Good Man 102). Sunsets are generally depicted as beautiful sights, filled with magnificent colors. O’Connor’s choice of words to describe the sun as “drenched in blood” and earlier on in the story as “bruised violet” maintain the typical colors one would expect in a description of the sunset but distort them by reflecting violence instead of beauty (A Good Man 91). Descriptive images such as these are scattered throughout the various short stories in this book and serve to create an ominous tone and often foreshadow the horror that is to come.

O’Connor uses humor to engage readers in her gruesome stories and compel their participation. Talking about Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell said, “I find it hard to think of a funnier or more frightening writer” (A Good Man back cover). Readers can identify the capacity for such grotesque beliefs and acts in the characters of O’Connor’s stories and also within themselves by participating in the characters’ misery through humor. The humorous instances in her stories often create self-reflective moments for the reader, in which they can look into themselves, question why they found that to be funny, and discover where such violence, horror, and ugliness could come from.   In “A Circle in the Fire” after Sally Virginia eavesdrops on the three black vagrant boys’ discussion of what they would do with her mother’s precious woods and watches them set the woods on fire she runs to her mother and exclaims, “Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!” (A Good Man 158). It’s humorous because her mother’s paranoia of the woods catching fire has been emphasized throughout the story, but at the same time it’s terrible to laugh because her paranoia has become reality. By adding humor to her work O’Connor subtly downplays the grotesque on the page but enhances it in the readers’ experience.

O’Connor’s works often emphasize Christianity and religion. She herself is an enthusiastic Catholic woman, who, through her literature, hopes to depict “the action of grace in territories largely held by the devil” (Fowler 127). Wehner calls her the “defender of the faith in twentieth century American literature” (301). The level of success she achieves in accomplishing this goal is questionable. In many of her stories, her characters are completely let down by religion and by their faith. Religion is an important theme in all of O’Connor’s works but is quite obvious in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The grandmother’s insistence that the Misfit comes from “good people” and he just needs to pray to Jesus is obliterated as the Misfit and his minions murder each of her family members and finally her. Religion is a system of morals and virtues as well as sin and damnation. Its dual nature is both merciful and vengeful, and often advertises the appearance of good but undeniably also has a darker and more grotesque side as well. The hope that many of O’Connor’s characters find in religion and rely on makes their disappointment and disillusionment even harder to witness when it fails them.

The most significant way in which O’Connor’s stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find should be considered grotesque is by readers’ reactions. Most people would agree that her stories are bizarre and leave one captivated, revolted, and everything in between. She does this by presenting absurd plots in the context of ordinary places, often leaving the climax of her stories unresolved. A good example is the ending of “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which follows the graduation hopes of an older woman and the dementia and death of her grandfather. The story ends with the sentence: “That crafty scout had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down the flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine” (A Good Man 175). O’Connor’s combination of the boy’s fascination with the Coca-Cola machine and the grandfather’s corpse creates a disturbing image in which death is just an afterthought, a side note quickly mentioned and dwarfed by the excitement of a soda machine. O’Connor’s style of writing enhances the grotesqueness of her stories. She tells her stories in a very straightforward manner with short sentences, generally using simple grammatical structures and dominated by statements of action and dialogue. She gradually leads the reader on, hinting and foreshadowing what is to come, and then the big climax occurs. It’s often some horrible event or devastating epiphany which is told in an understated manner, as in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” leaving the reader in a state of shock.

In contrast to the argument made here, many still claim O’Connor’s work should not be considered grotesque, even that such a category of literature does not exist. Flannery O’Connor describes what she considers to be true grotesque writing as realistic, and what people label as grotesque is just how Northerners see Southern writing (Mystery 40). The South is a place of appearances; where people emit the illusion of sophistication with their manners, pride, faith, and hospitality, but underneath it is a place ravaged by violence and a haunting history of prejudice and oppression. All of the stories in A Good Man is Hard to Find are set in the South, which is an appropriate setting for grotesque fiction as the previous sentence shows, but they are grotesque in more than just the eyes of Northerners; they are grotesque to people from everywhere. O’Connor argues her work is realism, that “[v]iolence is strangely capable of returning [her] characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace” (Fowler 127). But it’s hard to reconcile the level of brutality and violence in her stories with her goal of illustrating grace. Her characters more often end up death or miserable than finding grace.

 

Works Cited

Fowler, Doreen. “Flannery O’Connor’s Productive Violence.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal ofAmerican Literature, Culture, and Theory 67.2 (2011): 127-54. Project Muse. Web. 3 May 2014.

Kate Oliver (2004) O’Connor’s Good Country People, The Explicator, 62:4, 233-236, DOI: 10.1080/00144940409597232

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery, Sally Fitzgerald, and Robert Fitzgerald. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Google Books. Web.

Wehner, David Z. “Pulverizing The Idols: Flannery O’Connor’s Battle With Sigmund Freud And Carl Jung.” Mississippi Quarterly 65.2 (2012): 299-319. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2014.

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