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  • Writer's pictureCasie Szalapski

There is Grace in the Grotesque:On Reading O’Connor’s Fiction for Sanctification

“You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.” (Flannery O’Connor, Writing Short Stories)

Good literature prods and pinches in our most ticklish, sensitive, and tender spots. We squirm under a good book’s scrutiny because good art is revelatory. Anyone who has cracked open the pages of a Flannery O’Connor short story (or for the extra brave, her novels), will likely have found themselves simultaneously horrified, amused, and convicted by O’Connor’s characters and their outrageous predicaments. Many O’Connor readers know the double-experience of feeling, “what on earth?” and “oh, me too” when reading her work. Why is that?

Flannery O’Connor employs the grotesque to shock readers out of their complacency and into real and deep introspection. However, she recognizes that her audience may not share her vision for how life ought to be. She therefore employs the grotesque through tragic and comic plots to create an unsettling, but effective, revelation for the reader. The grotesque is intentionally jarring because we are morally and spiritually numb. As O’Connor argues, you must “make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (“The Fiction Writer and His Country” 34). These “large and startling figures” carry distorted beliefs, and their actions instigate horrifying and absurd situations. When you encounter the grotesque in O’Connor’s works, the protagonist is often arrogant, myopic, self-righteous, and morally blind. These qualities set the story up for both the comic and tragic to unfold, but in order for the reader to see the events as both tragic and comic, O’Connor must create a sense of dramatic irony; that is, she must construct her stories in such a way that the reader has greater understanding of what is unfolding, both regarding the plot and within the internal struggle of the characters.  Moreover, dramatic irony is a powerful literary device because it appeals to the reader’s sense of what ought to be. 

"The grotesque is intentionally jarring because we are morally and spiritually numb."

O’Connor was acutely aware of how her works of fiction played on the reader’s sense of the ideal. She writes of her own landscape (the American South) as a place that is “Christ-haunted” and for that reason, there remains a concept of the imago Dei and a vision of the ideal and whole human person (“The Grotesque in Southern Fiction" 44). O’Connor’s fiction exploits these assumptions of her fellow Southerners so that when she creates an absurd story with outlandish characters, she is appealing to her reader’s notion of the ideal. Her ironic play between distortion and wholeness sets the stage for profound climactic moments of revelation for her characters (and thus her readers, if they have eyes to see). Here are two examples:

In “Good Country People,” the character Joy Hopewell, who renames herself Hulga, is a highly educated, petulant, thiry-two year-old woman with an artificial leg. She lives at home with her mother, always seems “glum,” and tends to flaunt her ugliness, shouting to her mother, “If you want me, here I am–LIKE I AM” (“Good Country People” 274). Hulga is proud of her advanced education and feels enlightened over and above “the good country people” she is loath to live amongst. She declares herself an atheist, an unusual identity in the “Christ-haunted” South. Hulga declares her views to Manley Pointer, a nineteen year-old con-man pretending to be a zealous bible salesman: “In my economy…I’m saved and you are damned”; “I don’t have illusions. I’m one of those people who see through to nothing”; and “We are all damned…but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation” (“Good Country People” 286, 287, 288). In typical O’Connor style, Hulga is arrogant and proud, seeing herself as Manley's savior from his naive Christian ways. However, she doesn’t discern that Manley only asks her to join him for a picnic to seduce her. In fact, she fantasizes about seducing him and then comforting him when he inevitably feels remorse for succumbing to her charm. Hulga thinks to herself, “True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind. She imagined that she took his remorse in hand and changed it into a deeper understanding of life. She took all his shame away and turned it into something useful” (“Good Country People” 284). Of course, none of this comes to pass. In an ironic twist, it is Hulga who is naive–she doesn’t recognize Manley as a trickster–and it is Manley who, in his twisted attempt to seduce Hulga, leaves her remorseful yet perhaps with a deeper understanding of herself. 

Throughout the story, numerous references are made to Hulga’s artificial wooden leg. It is one of the first identifying characteristics the reader gets about Hulga. Her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, lives with remorse that her daughter was robbed of a “normal” life by the hunting accident that took her leg at the age of ten and treats Hulga as a child. A family friend, Mrs. Freeman, seems unduly fascinated with Hulga, and Hulga surmises it is due to her artificial leg: “Mrs. Freeman’s beady steel-pointed eyes had penetrated far enough behind her face to reach some secret fact. Something about her seemed to fascinate Mrs. Freeman and then one day Hulga realized it was the artificial leg” (275). Furthermore, Hulga makes a point to trudge around the house making noise with her wooden leg. Her artificial limb seems to define her. That is why when Manley asks Hulga to prove her love for him by teaching him how to remove her artificial leg, she balks at first, feeling as though revealing her leg would be akin to revealing the depths of her soul. There is something about Hulga and her relationship with her artificial leg that is very precious, but Hulga is blind to the fact. The reader, in great dramatic irony, can see that Hulga’s vulnerability lies in her leg–remove it and she literally cannot walk. Remove it, and she is vulnerable. But also, remove it, and what does she have to wield around in outrage as a constant reminder to others of the injustice of her situation as a highly educated, enlightened woman trapped among “simpletons?” 

This is why her encounter in the barn loft with Manley is so poignant. She goes up there with her own designs to seduce him into an enlightened state of being, yet all the while Manley goes up to seduce Hulga and run off with her leg. She is blind to his motivations and, surprisingly to Hulga, she finds herself touched by Manley and his “real innocence.” She is impressed enough to surrender herself completely to him (meaning she will teach him how to take her leg on and off), which O’Connor writes, “was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his” (“Good Country People” 288). Perhaps without knowing it, Hulga reveals her truest self when she lets Manley remove her leg. But how tragic that she is blind to Manley’s trickery, and her evaluation of Manley’s “real innocence” (the boy “who came from beyond wisdom”) is misplaced. Despite Manley’s deception, something is opened up in Hulga that is deep and true: he “had touched the truth about her” (“Good Country People” 289). Despite different but simultaneously dubious motives for bringing each other up to the barn loft, the encounter will touch Hulga in a way that reveals the truth about who she is, or who she thinks she is. What is revealed in this moment is that Hulga’s identity is wrapped up in her leg. Whether it is on or off, it is tied to her intrinsically, which is why Mrs. Freeman’s gaze was so unnerving: it seemed to discern her secret, that Hulga’s sense of self is not in her degrees, but in her leg. Without it she is raw and needy, although perhaps more herself. 

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”–perhaps her most famous short story–O’Connor creates a tragic climax that once again results in shocking self-revelation. We see a similar pattern here: the grandmother is completely self-absorbed, smug, and constantly complaining that good people are hard to find. She chatters non-stop, exasperating her son and his family who have taken her on their family vacation. In her arrogance, she is confident that she remembers the way to an old house from her childhood. Her son, Bailey, doesn’t want to take the time to find it, but the grandmother deceives the family by embellishing her descriptions of the house’s architecture, working up the children into a nagging frenzy until Bailey gives in. Her actions lead the family right to The Misfit, a notorious murderer on the run. In true O’Connor absurdity, the family gets into an accident when a cat that the grandmother had brought along, despite her son’s objections, leaps from the basket it's been hiding in. When The Misfit and his gang stop to assess the accident after the grandmother flags them down, she makes the fatal mistake of remarking that she recognizes him from his wanted photo in the paper. What transpires is a desperate and disorienting conversation between the two of them where The Misfit demonstrates O’Connor’s claim that “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive” (“The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” 44-45). 

The Misfit is certainly “haunted” by Christ. This is illustrated in his conversation with the grandmother, who tries to get The Misfit to pray to Jesus. He replies tellingly that Jesus “thrown everything off balance” (“A Good Man is Hard to Find” 132). While he can’t prove the resurrection–“I wasn’t there so I can’t say he didn’t”–he recognizes that if Jesus did all that the Bible claims, then he must follow him (“A Good Man is Hard to Find” 132). It seems to trouble The Misfit greatly that he can’t know for certain and as his voice rises in anxiety and his face “[twists] close to her own,” the grandmother recognizes herself in The Misfit (“A Good Man is Hard to Find” 132). She reaches out, touches him, and says “Why you’re one of my babies. You're one of my own children!” (“A Good Man is Hard to Find” 132). In response, he shoots her dead. Her peculiar statement has flummoxed many readers. Does she really think The Misfit is her offspring? I’d argue that in a metaphorical sense, she does, and by seeing herself in The Misfit, she realizes that she, too, is no better than a murderer.

Like with Hulga, the grandmother’s revelation happens in a moment of tragedy brought about by comic means. Each comic action comes out of distorted thinking. Hulga thinks that her educated and enlightened ways will save the bible salesman from his delusion so she, as a thirty-two year-old woman, attempts to seduce this nineteen year-old con-man. The grandmother is so certain she knows the location of an old plantation from her youth that when she realizes that it is in Tennessee, not Georgia, she is so flummoxed that she upsets the basket with the hidden cat and causes the car accident. Readers are often torn about how to react to these stories. Discomfort settles on the reader. They may laugh at times, but then quickly realize that they are laughing at events that will lead to humiliation and tragedy. What’s more is that the tragedy seems to outweigh the seemingly benign decisions of the character. We should find it ridiculous that a jumping cat leads to the murder of an entire family on vacation or that an educated adult woman isn’t able to see through the antics of a smarmy nineteen year-old con man. Yet, could it be that O’Connor is using outsized tragic consequences to get the reader's attention so that they attune themselves to their own character? O’Connor writes in her essay, “Novelist and Believer,” that when a reader is apt to see an action the writer deems important as meaningless, the writer has “to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument…This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal” (162). What exactly does it reveal? I think it may be different for each reader, since we each bring to our reading a lifetime of experiences and beliefs that uniquely form us. These two short stories cause me to reflect on how life is full of moments where destruction follows from what we may perceive as idle chatter or inconsequential action. We will reap what we sow, and if our actions are characterized by arrogance, moral blindness, or a stubborn lack of self-reflection, then what proceeds from those actions will be tragic and reveal just how greatly we’ve drifted from the Christian ideal. However, O’Connor doesn’t leave the characters or the readers without hope. She has been accused of writing tragic stories with no “happy endings” but those who have read her works thoroughly, including her nonfiction essays, note that O’Connor sees the tragic circumstances as acts of grace. Without them, the characters would have continued in their self-deception indefinitely. Without her use of the shocking and grotesque, perhaps we as readers would fail to ponder the effect of her unconventional characters, with their distorted thinking that brings about outrageous consequences. It takes effort to read O’Connor’s work, but if one perseveres with openness, those “large and startling figures” will hold up a mirror to the reader. 

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 36-50.

—. “Novelist and Believer.” Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969, 154-168.

—.“Good Country People.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, 271-291.

—.“A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, 117-133.

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