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Truth and the Grotesque

"Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell's favorite sayings.
Another was: that is life!"" (264).
Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People (1955)

 

Points of Reflection

Flannery O'Connor's "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" (1957; 1965), 813-21

1. is Flannery O'Connor devoted to creating "average" protagonists whose lives appear "typical" and "normal" (813-14)?

2. what once-hidden aspect of human experience has ridden the wave of realism in early twentieth-century fiction, according to O'Connor (814 mid-bot)?

3. why does O'Connor claim that the "social sciences have cast a dreary blight on the public approach to fiction" (814 top)? What kind of alternative does "grotesque" fiction offer (815-16)?

4. does O'Connor believe herself primarily interested in what we do understand as humans, or what we do not (816 top-bot)?

5. why does O'Connor claim that writing grotesque fiction is, in one way, easier than writing the kind of realistic fiction produced by Henry James (816 bot)?

6. what definition of prophecy, as it applies to the novelists, does O'Connor offer up (817 bot), and what does she mean when she casts herself with other writers as a "realist of distances" (817 bot, 819 top)?

7. does O'Connor consider the reading public's clamoring for "compassionate" literature to be a blessing (817 top-mid)?

8. O'Connor writes, in 1957, that Southern writers can identify "freaks" so readily because they retain a theological conception of the "whole" human (i.e. soul, as well as body and mind) against which the freak is measured (817 bot). Is this true today? Do the majority of those living in the South see reality through a theological lens? Are they, like Southerners fifty years ago, "Christ-haunted" when not actually "Christ-centered" (818 top)?

9. does O'Connor identify herself as one who speaks "with" or "counter to" her own era's "prevailing attitudes" (819 bot)?

10. O'Connor provocatively asserts that if a reader's heart is in the right place, s/he will indeed find her/his heart "lifted up" by reading her fiction (819 bot), and that her stories point to the "the redemptive act," though they also highlight the high cost of such restoration (820 mid). Do you agree?

11. when O'Connor claims that "distortion" is necessary for certain writers to get their "vision" across to the reader, what does she mean (816-17, 821 top)?

12. is it possible to reconcile O'Connor's call to create "grotesque" fiction filled with atypical scenarios with the Biblical call to fill one's mind with "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . [with] anything [that] is excellent or praiseworthy" (Philippians 4:8)?


Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" (1955), 263-84

1. why might O'Connor open this story by spending so much time exploring Mrs. Hopewell's perspective, instead of that of her daughter, Joy/Helga (263-65)?

2. what assumption underlies Mrs. Hopewell’s idealistic talk about the Freemans and other “good country people” (264 mid)?

3. is the following opinion that of the narrator, or is it an example of free-indirect discourse (in which the narrator briefly adopts the voice and perspective of a character)? "Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people's in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack" (264 bot).

4. what do Mrs. Hopewell’s thoughts about her daughter reveal about her own values (267-68)?

5. unpack the contradiction in the following observation made by Mrs. Hopewell: "[She] said that people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not" (267 bot).

6. what narrative and symbolic functions does Helga's wooden leg serve in this tale?

7. why did Joy change her name to “Hulga”?

8. why does Helga’s face turn red the first time the Bible salesman says he wants to see where her wooden leg “‘joins on’” (277 bot), and then lose color the second time he makes this request (280 bot)? Is either reaction ironic, given her character?

9. does the story as a whole support Helga’s assumption that she has “true genius,” and the Bible salesman only an “inferior mind” (276 bot)?

10. why might O’Connor include Hulga’s reference to Nicolas Malebranche and her mother’s looking briefly at one of Hulga’s books about Science and Nothing (268-69)?

11. why does Hulga want to seduce the Bible salesman?

12. what strategies does the Bible salesman effectively employ in his dealings with the Hopewells?

13. why might the Bible salesman collect/steal prosthetics?


"The Anthropomorphic Cabinet" (1936)
Salvador Dalí


Dr. Paul Marchbanks
pmarchba@calpoly.edu