Of an Estranged World: Flannery O'Connor and the Grotesque

I’ll preface this post with a brief note that it was actually written several years ago, back in 2012. I set it aside at the time because it was so different from everything else I was writing, but I was reminded of it while re-reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood recently. The style is a bit different than what I generally use now, but I think there’s enough material here to be of interest that I’ve decided to finally publish it with only minor revisions.

I suspect that few would associate the word “grotesque” with Christian art. Though Medieval and Renaissance depictions of demons or hell were suitably horrifying, in most cases today “Christian” is often little more than a synonym for “family-friendly.” This is one reason I enjoy Flannery O’Connor’s short stories so much; her work is thoroughly Christian, yet it draws heavily from the gothic and outright grotesque style that I’ve always been drawn to.

Since the term “grotesque” is often used but seldom clearly defined beyond a synonym for something like “disgusting” a clear sense of this aesthetic is necessary for a meaningful discussion of her fiction. One study of the genre that I’ve found helpful is Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature. His book-length review of the history of the grotesque in the arts concludes that it has three primary elements common to almost all of the writers and artists who have employed the form. First, the grotesque represents the “estranged world,” second, it is “a play with the absurd,” finally, it is “an attempt to subdue the demonic aspects of the world." Though the first two aspects are certainly applicable to O’Connor’s work, the last describes it best. Kayser wrote that a certain comfort is found in the grotesque, where “The darkness has been challenged…” In few of O’Connor’s stories is the “darkness,” the sinful or deformed aspect of human nature, really defeated, but it is at least discovered and some catharsis can be achieved from that alone.

O’Connor, though, also had her own ideas on what constitutes the grotesque. She does not write about freaks and the repulsive just for the sake of sensationalism. There is a purpose behind them, and that purpose can best be found by reference to her Catholic beliefs, because the characters she creates are not grotesque just because they are physically or spiritually ugly, but because they deviate from a natural order. Though they are freaks, O’Connor also knew that most of her readership would not find them so, or at least not for the reasons she did; therefore, she exaggerated their faults all the more, and used violence to shock her audience out of complacency. She once wrote, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” To illustrate, let’s take a look at three of her short stories, “Good Country People,” “Revelation,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Let’s start by taking a look at Joy Hopewell, from “Good Country People,” who personifies the grotesque in both the popular and literary senses of the term. She’s homely and has a wooden leg, but rather than make the best of her situation she intentionally makes herself as ugly as she can. Shortly after entering college, she changed her name from the optimistic and pleasant-sounding “Joy” to “Hulga,” and she considers this to be her greatest achievement. She stomps around with her fake leg to make as much noise as possible, is intentionally rude to the other people, and is intellectually arrogant because of her Ph.D. in philosophy. That degree, though, provides a source of bitterness more than enlightenment, since her poor health prevents her from using it in academia and she must instead live with her poorly-educated mother and the Freeman family. As her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, observes, Hulga is growing “more like herself – bloated, rude, and squint-eyed,” and she could see Hulga teaching at university “looking like a scarecrow;” the “scarecrow” line reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” There’s much to be said for the study of philosophy, but based on the book Mrs. Hopewell opens about science “wanting to know nothing of nothing,” what Hulga reads is simply “solipsistic nonsense.”* It is deliberately obscure and esoteric, and seems to serve mainly as fuel for Hulga’s sense of superiority over her housemates.

That may be enough to qualify Hulga as grotesque in the popular sense of the term, but for O’Connor she merely has bad manners. What makes Hulga truly grotesque, rather than just rude, is her attempt to seduce the Bible salesman Manley Pointer. Sexuality, fundamentally life-affirming, even sacred, being used instead as a weapon is so repulsive that this “large and startling figure” should shock almost any reader and the grotesque, as the O’Connor sees it, should be clear.

The story, though, does not end there. The not-so-subtly named Pointer reveals himself as a hypocrite; he not only is not a Christian at all, he’s a nihilist and a pervert who carries playing cards and contraceptives in a hollowed-out Bible. He steals Hulga’s wooden leg and mentions that he has stolen other fake body parts, including a woman’s glass eye, before. Pointer is among O’Connor’s most grotesque characters, so much so that even Hulga is shocked. Here is a man who is just as much a nihilist as she, but he arrived at that conclusion without spending years studying philosophy. Her education, the basis of her sense of superiority, has failed her and she is completely deceived by an uneducated pervert.

“Good Country People,” though, is an extreme example of the grotesque; even those unfamiliar with O’Connor’s philosophy would recognize it as such. On the other hand, “Revelation” is more difficult to interpret. Certainly, protagonist Mrs. Turpin is obnoxious as she proclaims her own self-righteousness to all around her in a doctor’s waiting room, and there are some elements of the gothic in the small, claustrophobic doctor’s office. Again, though, mere bad manners or gothic elements are not sufficient to qualify a story as grotesque. The grotesque in this story comes from Kayser’s third conclusion about the grotesque, an attempt to “subdue the demonic aspects of the world.” The demon here, though, is not supernatural or a plainly evil character like Manley Pointer. Instead, the demon is Mrs. Turpin’s pride, which angers fellow patient Mary Grace enough that she calls her a warthog from hell and attacks her (yes, again, O’Connor isn’t subtle when naming her characters).

Mrs. Turpin is understandably shocked by Mary Grace’s assault, but she is even more disturbed by the label “warthog from hell.” Mrs. Turpin, after all, is a respectable citizen with good manners and runs a successful pig farm with her husband. She obsesses over the phrase for the rest of the day, and while she washes her pigs in the evening she sprays water in their eyes, hardly aware that she is doing so. The action is likely symbolic; if she is a warthog, the pigs are her fellow swine. The water, usually a symbol of life and cleansing, in the pig’s eye prevents it from seeing clearly. Similarly, Mrs. Turpin’s virtues prevent her from seeing clearly that she is not superior to other people.

While she washes the pigs, though, Mrs. Turpin has a vision. A large crowd of people in white clothing ascend a staircase into Heaven. However, the crowd is lead by blacks and poor whites, whom she had always envisioned at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Wealthier whites, like herself, are at the end, and “even their virtues were being burned away.” Mrs. Turpin is amazed, and overjoyed at the revelation she receives. Though O’Connor does not make the exact meaning of the vision clear, the significance is almost certainly related to Christ’s saying “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt. 19:30). Everyone, even those who are not particularly successful in a worldly sense of having good manners or good fortune, may enter Heaven. The higher classes of people, like Mrs. Turpin, still get in also, but only at the rear of the procession. The virtues that are burned away seem ambiguous, but it may refer to civic virtues like good manners which, while good in themselves, are not what determine a man’s holiness.

One more example of the grotesque similar to “Revelation” is “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in which both the Misfit and the grandmother must confront the grotesque, “demonic aspect of the world.” As in many of O’Connor’s stories, most of the action in the early part of the story is darkly comic. The mother’s head is compared to a head of cabbage, the two children are brats who get excited when after the car crashes and are disappointed nobody died, the grandmother is constantly reminiscing about her youth, which probably was not as pleasant as she remembers anyway, and the hapless father spends most of the story feeling irritated by his children and mother. The humour, however, serves as a contrast to, and thus a heightening of, the sense of danger when the Misfit arrives after the accident.

The demon the grandmother confronts at the story’s climax is the Misfit, whose accomplices lead the other family members into the woods to kill them. The Misfit appears terrifying, because he kills without malice, and in this case without any real purpose. He needs a new set of clothes and a car to help hide from the police, but this does not require killing an entire family. The grandmother attempts to appeal to him as a “good man,” but to no avail, because the Misfit is busy confronting demons of his own.

The Misfit sees religious faith as a dichotomy; either one believes in Christ or one does not, and his violent crimes “point to the spiritual disorder of the world.”* That belief depends on whether or not Christ really performed the miracles that Scripture attributes to Him. Since the Misfit was not present for those miracles he feels he cannot know for certain, so he chooses the path of unbelief. Like Hulga in “Good Country People” he is a nihilist, but while Hulga does nothing with that belief besides sulk, the Misfit acts upon his conclusion. However, he works as yet another of O’Connor’s “large and startling figures” because he is not grotesque just because he is a criminal. O’Connor once wrote that “The Catholic novelist believes that you destroy your freedom by sin; the modern reader believes, I think, that you gain it in that way.” The Misfit, then, is grotesque because he has enslaved himself to this lifestyle, ultimately by his own free will. The grandmother, however, finds an alternative to violence when she calls him one of her “children” and tries to touch him. This act of love, though also an act of desperation, so startles the Misfit that he instinctively shoots and kills her.

I’ll leave this analysis there for now, but one can find these same concepts in O’Connor’s other short stories as well as the novel Wise Blood, all of which are excellent and well worth reading.


*These phrases come from Gilbert Muller’s book Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O’Connor and the Catholic Grotesque, which also informed my analysis of the Misfit.

The quotations from O’Connor come from her collection of essays, Mystery and Manners.