The Southern Gothic in Three Key Flannery O'Connor Short Stories
Flannery O'Connor's literary style has been referred to as a quintessential example of the American Southern Gothic tradition. Her use of a variant of Southern dialects; the casual way that she tosses about inferences to southern racial discord; and most particularly, the brutal normalcy of tragedy and despair. As a stylistic rule, O'Connor's works have tended toward a sardonic bleakness that at once engages the reader and set the reader up to be emotionally shocked. It is, no doubt, the narrative style that produces this dynamic, creating a humorous and mounting tension to be released in brittle confrontation. This is observable in the narrative voice of such seminal works as O'Connor's 1965 short stories Revelation and Everything That Rises Must Converge and her 1955 masterpiece, A Good Man is Hard to Find, all of which explore the grotesque dysfunctions of human nature on display in a decayed and backwards southern culture.
In each, though to differing degrees of severity, there is a mounting tension throughout which implies that a confrontation is most assuredly coming. It is the narrative voice though which gives each story its powers. Revelation, published in the posthumously released collection also entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge, is a prominent example of a vehicle often employed to allegorical effect in O'Connor's body of work. Namely, the snapshot of a brief moment in several interceding lives is used to construct a conversation on class, race and self-awareness that betrays O'Connor as something of a voyeur in her geographical setting. For O'Connor, living in some remoteness due to the illness which plagued her throughout her life, the opportunity to observe the personality defects and cultural flaws of the Southern Christians comes through audibly in characters such as Mrs. Turpin.
The woman described persistently as extremely obese, enters a doctor's waiting room and immediately makes herself the center of the room's attention. She begins to speak idly to the extent that some opt to engage her and others don't. Her personality though strikes a cord of familiarity in the reader who is versed in O'Connor's works. Particularly in the hostility which she invokes from those of limited patience, Mrs. Turpin reveals herself as a protagonist similar to those which highlight many of the author's short stories. And consistent with other characters of this nature in her work, Mrs. Turpin finds herself inevitably headed for conflict. So is this foreshadowed in the kneejerk response which she evokes from young and unattractive Mary Grace. O'Connor tells that "the girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak while she tried to read" (O'Connor, 1965)
The annoyance exhibited by Mary Grace and the garrulous and intensely unaware demeanor of Mrs. Turpin echo a similar dynamic in A Good Man is Hard to Find. Here, it is grandmother who is both incapable of remaining quiet for even a second, with her son Bailey equally incapable of expressing anything other than quiet annoyance at his mother. On a drive with his family to vacation in Florida, she chatters incessantly and to the effect of a mounting tension. Again, the narrative voice which O'Connor brings to the story is one which seems to stand in judgment. We can't help but feel the same burning irritability that must have been Bailey's experience. When the family stops off for a snack, grandmother -- like Mrs. Turpin -- immediately dominates the room.
Grandmother is obsessing over a story she read in the newspaper about an escaped convict called The Misfit. As Red Sam complains that people cannot be trusted any longer, grandmother is given the opportunity to voice her concerns about this Misfit on the loose. Accordingly, "he and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right." (O'Connor, 1955)
These presumptions help to clarify another common thread in the narrative style assumed by O'Connor from one work to the next. Namely, her distinctly unfavorable characterization of common southerners comes through explicitly in both works. In Revelation, Mrs. Turpin's thoughts and words underscored a sense of superiority based on her material comfort. Her behavior being absolutely boorish, O'Connor uses the irony of her own impressions to make a fool of the woman. So do we note when Mrs. Turpin evaluates the white trash family in her head. Here, O'Connor denotes that "she had on a yellow sweat shirt and wine colored slacks, both gritty looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought." (O'Connor, 1965)
The casual use of racially charged language and the disparaging classicist judgment precipitate a confrontation that reduces Mrs. Turpin to a state of humble recognition. The outcome is far more severe for grandmother and family, who actually do encounter the Misfit. More an amalgam of southern social dysfunctions and religious nihilism than a human being, the Misfit provides the bleak assessment of God and Jesus that "if He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness." (O'Connor, 1955)
Here, O'Connor uses the Misfit to invoke critical scrutiny of the tenets of Christianity, perhaps most importantly doubting that these are sufficient to protect us from the evil and cruelty of our prodigal children. The shocking and brutal end of this story contrasts the hilarity of the scene in which Mrs. Turpin is struck in the face with the Human Development text. However, both present the reader through a compelling and versatile narrative voice, a picture of the decaying south as rife with dangers, character flaws and a collective social sickness. Perhaps in no category though is this sickness so compelling and observable as in the racial discord upon which O'Connor reflects.
Generationally and ideologically accustomed to the assumed social inferiority of African-Americans, those southern whites who were either willfully resistant to the changes and those who were uncertain of how best to channel their guilt over centuries of oppression would both find themselves struggling to adjust to a new racial order. In many ways, it would be a generation gap, between those of the former perspective and those of the latter, that would reinforce the difficulty for southern whites to understand or assimilate that changes incumbent upon them with the passage of time. This generation gap and the inherent racial issues ascribed thereto are the interceding themes which drive the relationship between Julian and his mother in O'Connor's 1965 title story, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," with Julian's illusive selfishness bearing a determinant impact on the unfolding of the story's narrative.
Julian is a child of a once prosperous southern family. As we gradually learn, the solitude and shabby modesty in which he and his mother subsist are emblematic of a faded antebellum glory. His great grandfather once a governor and his grandfather a plantation proprietor who claimed amongst his possessions 200 slaves, had left a legacy of decline and delusion in the lineage that had produced him. Of the mansion which had once housed his family and its fortunes, O'Connor remarks that "he never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing." (O'Connor, 1965) This is the duality which largely captures the miserable context of his life under the wing of his archaically racist mother. Repulsed by the system of slavery that had given foundation to his family and yet undeniably a beneficiary of its conceits, Julian is the embodiment of the experience for many white southerners in the distant aftermath of emancipation and the type of internally conflicted character that is quintessential to O'Conner's work.
Julian's passing and ill-advised interactions with African-Americans on the bus speak well to his disposition. Locked within his own machinations of the world, the rift between he and his mother has in some manner come to encapsulate a means to liberation from all of the horrible injustices of the universe.
Now, a theme of O'Connor's work begins to come into sharper focus. The alienation for those not unrepentantly nostalgic for black slavery would be a source of great discomfort and emotional unease, especially amongst southern whites who accepted or even approved the terms of Civil Rights. But the manner in which it manifests itself in Julian is certainly not lionized in O'Connor's. Instead, his investment…