A Sharp Eye for the Grotesque in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"
Robert C. Evans
"My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable."
—Flannery O'Connor, Collected Works 805
Practically anyone who has read Flannery O'Connor's fiction would agree that it is frequently "grotesque," and indeed for many readers its grotesqueness is a huge part of its appeal or fascination. The word "grotesque" appears repeatedly in printed commentary on O'Connor's writings: a numbered list of the hundreds of articles and books mentioning the term takes up more than a page in R. Neill Scott's huge and splendid Reference Guide, and it is difficult to find an analyst of O'Connor who has not used the word at some point in trying to describe the effects of her fiction. O'Connor herself, in attempting to explain her work, wrote one of her own best essays—a typically wry and ironic piece titled "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" (Collected 813-21)—and her personal comments on the grotesque are also scattered throughout her lively and thoughtful collection of letters, The Habit of Being. At least three books on O'Connor (by Gilbert Muller, Marshall Bruce Gentry, and Anthony Di Renzo) include the word "grotesque" in their titles or subtitles, and the articles and book chapters on O'Connor that employ that term in their titles are far too numerous to cite.
Nearly everyone, then (including O'Connor herself), agrees that her fiction is often "grotesque," but what, exactly, does the term mean? Not surprisingly for a word so widely used, definitions abound. A standard handbook on literature begins by noting that "grotesque" is a:
term applied to a decorative art in sculpture, painting, and architecture, characterized by fantastic representations of human and animal forms often combined into formal distortions to the point of absurdity, ugliness, or caricature. It was so named after the ancient paintings and decorations found in the underground chambers (grotte) of Roman ruins. By extension, grotesque is applied to anything having the qualities of grotesque art: bizarre, incongruous, ugly, unnatural, fantastic, abnormal. (Harmon 244)
Other discussions of the grotesque emphasize its typically incongruous "mingling of the fantastic and the ideal, the sordid and the real, [and] the comic and the horrific" (Barash 562), while still other commentators have stressed its focus on suddenness, surprise, and estrangement (Kayser 185) and its often violent juxtapositions of laughter and disgust, "the animate and inanimate, and the human and nonhuman" (Houlahan 339).
Anthony Di Renzo, in one of the best book-length treatments of O'Connor and the grotesque, discusses the grotesque effects of her fiction by pointing to her "violent slapstick," her "penchant for distorting the human figure," and the "prevalence of caricature" in ...