Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Grotesque


This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O’Connor. (AP Photo)

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”  –Flannery O’Connor

Standing among the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor has become a foundational figure in the Southern Gothic tradition. O’Conner is considered a pioneer of the Southern Grotesque– her short stories and novels leave readers somewhat horrified by blatant violence, yet somewhat intrigued by mysterious subtext. Growing up a devout Catholic in 1920’s Georgia, O’Connor was compelled to write about what she saw. Her writing centers on Southern identity, racism, and religious hypocrisy. Her direct writing style lends itself to the jarring, confrontational descriptions and events that accompany the Gothic. Her short stories, with their mixture of light, almost comical prose and graphic violence, are especially disorienting. In her most famous short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, an outlaw called The Misfit murders an entire family of five as they drive to their Florida vacation. As the grandmother of the family is held at gunpoint, she attempts to discuss religion and salvation with The Misfit. After killing her, he muses, “she would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Many of her other stories (notably Good Country People, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and Everything That Rises Must Converge) include the same sort of elements: religious discussions, interactions with an outsider (usually disabled, of a different race, poor, or a criminal), violence, and deeply imperfect, hypocritical, racist characters. Her writing includes very clear details, but somehow leaves so much up for interpretation. O’Connor explains, “In these grotesque works, we find … some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day… there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence… their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.” It is this intentionality, this precise and clear motivation, that sets her on a high literary echelon. Some would find the violence and offensive characters disturbing, but O’Connor leans into the discomfort in order to push the boundaries of what a story can accomplish. Her grotesque makes the reader squirm because it exposes harsh realities and contradictions within and between cultures. In the midst of violence and chaos, her characters have revelations of where they have fallen short. It is no wonder that, in a society fraught with racial and religious tension, O’Connor causes us to stop and think. Where do we fall short?


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