’ Connor Essay, Research Paper
28 April 1999
The Gross and Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is known for her regional, Christian, gothic, grotesque writing. We see all these elements in her short stories. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction generates strong reactions because of her use of the gross and grotesque. According to Gilbert Muller, “Flannery O’Connor began writing about the grotesque because she could, and she readily admitted it in a letter to James Farham. O’Connor explained, Essentially the reason my characters are grotesque is because it is the nature of my talent to make them so” (21).
I think that Flannery O’Connor uses the grotesque in her writing because it shocks readers and makes them realize the moral point she is expressing. I feel that the application of the grotesque comes from her religious background and viewpoints. However, it is not just a gothic view of the grotesque. There is also a touch of humor in her writing. I think she mostly uses grotesque aspects to demonstrate the diminished state that her characters are in and how far they have to go for redemption. Muller states that, “Flannery O’Connor was successful in character depiction because she realized that the grotesque was the ideal vehicle for objectifying fears, obsessions and compulsion” (21).
Flannery O’Connor took everyday situations and confrontations, such as a visit to the doctor’s office and filled it with horror. I think that she used these everyday encounters to help her readers visualize that these typical horror scenes surround us. According to Muller, “O’Connor’s characters are induced to distortions in character and that the individual is floundering in a sea of contradictions and incongruities (27). Muller also goes on to say that the typical grotesque character in O’Connor’s fiction is an individual who projects certain extreme mental states which, while psychologically valid, are not investigations in the tradition of psychological realism” (22). Often I found that the main characters of her stories thought themselves to be superior to others, not realizing their lack of compassion until the desperate ending of the story.
According to Muller, “Miss O’Connor’s typical grotesque character, is a demonic and as such embraces as wide a moral range as characters, created through the techniques of psychological realism (23). Muller states that the grotesque protagonist is fated, obsessed and driven by demons” (23). I would have to disagree with Muller’s statement that the protagonists are driven by demons. I feel that most of her characters are blinded by the narrow mindedness of society during that time period. I don’t think O’Connor’s characters are influenced by demons, but rather they are confused about their Christian thoughts and views.
According to Muller, “Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” is an example of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque protagonist (28). Muller states that Hazel Motes is a young man continually buffeted by the incredible, by the essence of the grotesque vision of the world” (23). I feel that in the creation of Hazel Motes, Flannery O’Connor perfected the grotesque protagonist. Hazel is a fanatic. His nature is opposed to grace. He is obsessed with Jesus to a degree that is not normal. Hazel tries desperately to deny his fundamentalist background to the extreme.
According to Marshall Gentry, “O’Connor’s characters, inhabit the territory held by the devil and are generally considered to be grotesque (4). Gentry states that their grotesque state reflects and increases the characters’ separation from God and their spirituality” (4). I do not necessarily believe that O’Connor’s characters inhabit the territory of the devil or that their grotesque state separates them from God. Her characters are lost in their search for redemption. They continually are in search of God and their spirituality but are misled by society’s views. They then are led astray by false assumptions.
According to David Eggenschwiler, “O’Connor uses the grotesque in Hazel Motes as a contrast to the Christian humanistic position she assumes throughout her work (103). Eggenschwiler states that Hazel Motes’ attitudes are not only extreme and violent but they are morbid and “Manichean” (103). He also states that O’Connor uses several other characters in different stories with these same characteristics of the grotesque such as, Sarah Ruth in “Parker’s Back” and Mrs. May in “Greenleaf”.” (103). It is my belief that Flannery O’Connor uses the grotesque most of the time to make her readers take notice. She wants the reader to see the extreme and bizarre actions her characters exhibit. Society and/or religion usually oppress her characters. She also uses the grotesque to show the transformation her characters must make for redemption. It also helps the reader to see that the characters are whom they hate. They usually do not realize this until it is too late.
An example of O’Connor’s use of the grotesque to shock and to show the characters reformation is in her story “Greenleaf.” In “Greenleaf” one grotesque moment is when the bull gores Mrs. May, and his horns pierce her heart. Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” “stares straight ahead but the scene in front of her changes and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored” (Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, 333). Mrs. May’s violent death showed her need for salvation and redemption. According to Muller, “Mrs. May is forced to meet the extremities of her nature when she is gored by the bull” (84). Mrs. May dies in the story, but not before her eyes have been opened and her sight restored. According to Rath, Sura and Mary Neff Shaw, “the central sin in O’Connor’s stories is not seeing the violent visionary moment but instead allows the sinner (Mrs. May) to see herself in relationship to God” (42).
According to Gentry, “O’Connor’s protagonists are oppressed by degradations of society’s ideals such as: the economy of the South, ignorance, physical deformity and disease, by systems of class and race, and by the structures of religion (14). Gentry states that O’Connor uses half the positive and negative forms of the grotesque (14). He suggests that O’Connor uses the negative form of grotesque in that some of her characters feel degraded by physical deformity and isolation from their society (14). He also states that O’Connor uses the positive grotesque in that some of her characters are able to change or reform from their degraded ideals” (14). O’Connor addresses both the positive and negative forms of the grotesque to help her readers to see that some people can make a change for the better and some never do.
Gentry states that “O’Connor was aware of the positive qualities in the grotesque in her statement in “A Memoir of Mary Ann” that ” a new perspective on the grotesque had occurred to her as she learned about the child, who had a tumor on the side of her face” (14). According to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald,
“Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil,
to look it in the face and find our own grinning reflections
with which we do not argue, but good is another matter.
Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that
its face too is grotesque that in the good is something
under construction. The modes of evil usually receive
worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied
with a clich? or a smoothing down that will soften their
real look when we look into the face of good, we are liable
to see a face like Mary Ann’s full of promise” (Fitzgerald 226).
Gentry wrote, “O’Connor’s characters use the positive grotesque to realize that they can transform the grotesquerie into a force for redemption (15). According to Gentry, O’Connor took it as her artistic enterprise to transform images of negative grotesquerie into part of a redemptive process. Gentry also states that O’Connor produced work after work in which the grotesque reveals itself conclusively as redemptive (18). He goes on to say that O’Connor’s characters generally have to annihilate themselves to conclude the grotesque process in redemption” (19).
Several of Flannery O’Connor’s characters demonstrate this concept that the grotesque reveals itself as redemption. It is seen in Mrs. Shortley (” The Displaced Person”), Mrs. May (”Greenleaf”) and in Mrs. Turpin (”What Rises Must Converge”). Eggenschwiler states that “O’Connor’s characters begin as godless people filled with anxiety and comprehension, and when grace is offered, the characters can accept it only when their demonic or grotesque defenses have collapsed; it is usually moments before death” (33-34).
According to Muller, “O’Connor used the grotesque in an exaggerated form for melodrama, to surprise and shock” (9). In many of O’Connor’s stories, the conclusions or endings are surprising, as they are ridiculous and horrible; thus, she uses the grotesque for a melodramatic effect.
I do not see much humor in Flannery O’Connor’s use of the grotesque even though some critics believe it is there. According to Gentry, “on a basic level, the term grotesque describes images of degraded physicality with an effect at once humorous and disturbing” (11). I do not feel that O’Connor uses the grotesque to be humorous, but to show the absurd, the bizarre and the disturbing. I think O’Connor uses grotesque in her wok to degrade her characters or to show that they feel or see themselves in a degraded sense not comically or humorous. Muller states that “O’Connor’s work is comical in the sense that she uses the grotesque in an exaggerated form (6). He also states that the grotesque character is either exerting himself against the absurd or is part of the absurd and therefore is comical” (6). One point Muller makes that I agree with is the fact that “O’Connor uses an exaggerated form in development of her characters” (10). Muller states that “O’Connor’s uses of caricature that frequently establishes a comic rhythm partaking of the incongruous, the irrational, and the grotesque (10). Muller comments that some of the more “memorable’ characters who are thus caricatured are Tom T. Shiftlet, the shifty and shiftless prankster in The Life You Save May Be Your Own and his prospective mother-in-law Lueynell Crater, whose name reflects a wasteland environment; Mr. Paradise, a pig-like encarnation of the devil and Joy Hopewell, the cynical and atheistic cripple in Good Country People, who by the end of the story is the benefit of joy, hope and well being” (10). This form of humor I can see in Flannery O’Connor’s works.
Some critics have stated that O’Connor’s use of the grotesque is demonic and that it cannot be religious. They believe her work does not state religious intent. Robert Golden identifies these critics to be “Josephine Hendic, John Hawkes, and Claire Kahane” (5). I do not agree with this school of thought. I believe O’Connor’s use of the grotesque as I stated earlier is a form of writing to show the extreme transformation her characters must make for redemption. I think her work is religious and has meaningful vision. According to Gentry, “O’Connor herself described her work as deeply Catholic” (3). Flannery O’Connor stated, “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ. I describe the subject of my fiction as the action of grace in a territory held largely by the devil” (qtd. in Gentry pg.3). I think O’Connor uses the grotesque and untraditional to make the redemption more convincing. O’Connor uses the grotesque in her stories to provide emphasis on the characters’ need for grace.
Muller stated, “O’Connor emphatically denied that she utilized violence and the grotesque as a gothic contrivance, because gothic fiction had no moral foundation and no moral vision (77). He goes on to say that violence and grotesque in O’Connor’s fiction forces the reader to confront the problem of evil and because O’Connor’s uses violence to shock her readers, it becomes the expression of sin in her stories and work” (79).
In Fitzgerald’s classic statement on the value of the grotesque, one can see how violence fits Flannery O’Connor’s works:
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in
modern life distortions which are repugnant to
him and his problem will be to make these appear
as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing
them as natural; and he may well be forced to take
ever more violent means to get his vision across.
When you assume that your audience holds the same
beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal
ways of talking to it. When you have to assume that it
does not, then you have to make your vision apparent
by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for
the almost blind you draw large startling figures”
I have discussed many ways in which Flannery O’Connor uses the gross and grotesque in her writing. I believe O’Connor uses this form of writing to startle the audience, and to get her point across. Not only does she use the grotesque to astound, but she also uses it for its comical effect, and for the melodramatic effect. I do not feel she uses the grotesque, as many gothic writers do, for a purely evil or demonic effect. I believe she uses the grotesque in a religious sense to show how degraded her characters are, and how far they must go to achieve redemption.