Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flannery O'Connor's grotesque

Flannery O’Connor used the Southern grotesque to instil in her novels and short stories a sense of the violence of redemption which is more extreme than any of her counterparts. Thelma J. Shinn explains this is because, ‘her writing is based upon at least two traditions – the Roman Catholic and the Southern Gothic.’ Friedman develops this point by suggesting: ‘Flannery O’Connor’s Catholicism separates her from most of her Southern contemporaries. Although her characters are mainly Bible Belt fundamentalist types they seem informed by a sense of Catholic sin and redemption.’ It was through the use of the grotesque that O’Connor attempted to lay bare the corruption she saw in the City of Man and to demonstrate the path to the City of God. Grotesques are essential to O’Connor’s work, but there is an important distinction to be made between them. As Thelma Shinn explains, there are three types: firstly the physical grotesques such as Hulga with her wooden leg or the tattooed Parker in Parker’s Back; secondly, her spiritual grotesques, such as Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away or Hazel Motes from Wise Blood, who blinds himself with acid in the search for redemption; and thirdly, the secular grotesques, like Rayber, who are impervious to the word of God. As Shinn explains:

it becomes apparent that [her] spiritual grotesques are also on the path to salvation. Their violence is directed toward the physical world; they are destroying the body to save the soul. Not so with Miss O'Connor's secular grotesques. If a physical affliction is the presence of God for the physical grotesques and God is Himself a physical affliction for the spiritual grotesques, the secular grotesques on the other hand suffer from a spiritual affliction. Their violence is directed toward the spirit rather than the body.

The difficulty I always have with O'Connor is the violence. With the spiritual grotesques I can perhaps see it if, like Haze, it is self-inflicted; but with characters like Tarwater, where the violence is not self-inflicted (he is buggered by the Devil) then I fail to understand the Christian sensibility behind it. Similarly, with the secular grotesques I see no need for violence whatever, either to the soul or to the body. As an atheist, I would have to count as one of O'Connor's secular grotesques, yet I feel no threat of violence to either my soul or my body. For me, she is creating a false premise.

No comments: