Optimism and Decay in the Southern Gothic: Faulker and O’Connor
In a certain Nobel Prize acceptance speech delivered in Stockholm in 1950, William Faulkner famously declines to accept the end of man. Elaborating, Faulkner goes on to promise that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” This faith, he insists, has its roots in the human soul, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” and Faulkner’s speech rings to a triumphant close in a lilting paean of polysyndentous optimism, affirming man by calling upon “the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”
This, from the author who – perhaps more than any other – epitomized the southern Gothic genre, is surprising. The champion of a literary tradition unapologetically characterized by decay and disintegration seems, in his fiction, fairly willing to accept the end of man. This conflict between hope and despair, endurance and decay, forms one of the most fundamental tensions in American modernism. Faced with the absurdity of a post-war world, American literature – its writers and its characters – pushes forward into the realist tradition that became a hallmark of literary modernism. However, these modernist attempts to cope with an absurd reality remain haunted by the idea of universal truth, and thus plagued by a desire to return to an earlier romantic tradition. Attempting to venture into realism but unable to cope with its abject lack of universal truth, American literature is suspended between the real and romantic, warping into a grotesque caricature of itself.
In this way, the southern Gothic genre emerges almost accidentally out of this tension between romanticism and realism, past and present, universal truth and the absurd. Looking at two canonical texts from the southern Gothic tradition, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I analyze the ways in which these texts grapple with this conflict, arguing that their ultimate inability to overcome it results in the grotesque.
Like their authors, torn between the traditions of the romantic and realist modes, the characters in these texts are repeatedly drawn towards the past in search of universal truth. In the same speech, Faulkner issues a call for a return to “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” However, for both Faulkner and O’Connor, it is this attempt to return to an earlier state of being that ultimately damns the characters to their grotesque demise. In “A Rose for Emily,” narrative time is fractured, thwarting traditions of linear chronology and leaving instead a kind of patchwork quilt of fragmented reality. The collective first person narration of the story suggests a kind of mass, communal rejection of linear time, echoed in the narrator’s account of the misplaced recollections of the old men, “confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years” (Faulkner 497). This rejection of the progression of time and the desperation to return to an earlier state manifest in the grotesque in Emily Grierson. Her deranged attempt to uncover and preserve the universal truths that Faulkner suggests are alive in an earlier state jar with the physical realities of time, and result inevitably in literal decay.
Meanwhile, a desire to resurrect the past also serves as the catalyst for the ultimate demise of O’Connor’s characters. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characters are led to the site of their downfall by a sudden whim of the grandmother to visit an old plantation from her childhood. Like the old men in “A Rose for Emily,” the grandmother is ultimately mistaken in her recollections, and her realization that the plantation is actually in a different state altogether ultimately propels the family towards their ironic demise. Thus, despite Faulkner’s call to return to “the old universal truths,” characters who answer this call are inevitably doomed for their efforts.
For Faulkner, this conflict between the old and the new parallels a tension between the spiritual and the physical, quietly ushering “A Rose for Emily” towards its jarring conclusion. The story’s Gothic heroine is so desperate to cling to the spiritual that she attempts to preserve it through the physical. This conflict results in literal decay, lending the story its bizarre, jarring conclusion. Of the decaying corpse, the narrator notes, “The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him” (Faulkner 497). Here, Faulkner illustrates the physical reality of death overpowering spiritual forces of love. Unable to cope with the abject realities of the physical world, Emily attempts to blend them, and the result is horrific cacophony. Trying to hold onto spiritual truth in a world that ultimately has none to offer, Emily grants the otherwise realistic story one of the most iconic images of the grotesque in the southern Gothic genre. The corpse in the story, in such a state of decay that it has “become inextricable from the bed in which it lay” emerges at the story’s conclusion as a grotesque manifestation of the abortive attempts in American literature to reconcile a need for spiritual truth with a world utterly devoid of any but empty, physical reality.
O’Connor’s realism is similarly adulterated and rendered grotesque by her attempts to uncover and establish universal truth through the revelation of the spiritual in the physical world. While Faulkner, through Emily, searches for a secular truth, O’Connor attempts to fight the absurdity of a fallen world with religion. It is this search for the spiritual itself, as well as its lack of fruition, that not only gives birth to The Misfit, but simultaneously disrupts O’Connor’s realism, leaving instead another grotesque monument to the southern Gothic.
The Misfit emerges in the text as an embodiment of the disillusioned modernist who, faced with an abject lack of meaning in the world, adopts a kind of moral nihilism. The Misfit maintains that he has no recollection of what his initial crime was, while also insisting his imprisonment was not a mistake. From this, The Misfit dissolves into nihilism, insisting that “the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it” (O’Connor 19). For The Misfit, the abject, meaningless order of the universe renders all acts equally punishable, and therefore no act – including murder – worthy of abstinence. However, The Misfit diverges from realism’s traditional modernist, as his universe is not one informed by the hallmark atheism of the modernist tradition, but rather by a somewhat obscure theological argument. The Misfit blames Jesus for the lack of order in the world, insisting that “He thrown everything off balance.” According to The Misfit, the idea of Jesus, whether real or not, condemns man to an abject state: “If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw 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 21). For The Misfit, the spiritual truth that O’Connor offers as a path to salvation in an abject world is in fact the very cause of the problem it proposes to fix. In his search for universal truth through Christ, The Misfit buckles under the tension between the need to find spiritual significance and the world’s inability to offer any, warping into the story’s grotesque villain while the rest of the narrative likewise descends into grotesque and caricature.
In both stories, the characters’ obsession with uncovering and preserving a universal truth is what ultimately ushers them towards their grotesque demise, pulling their narratives into the warped depths of the southern Gothic. Unable to cope with a meaningless world, the characters and their respective narratives desperately strain to unite realism with earlier illusions of romantic truth. Incompatible, these attempted fusions of romance and realism inevitably buckle and warp, leaving in their wake the decaying landscape of the southern Gothic. Just as the characters in the stories are drawn irresistibly towards the past, their writers, too, struggle to embrace modern realism, calling back repeatedly to old romantic traditions that ultimately only result in jarring cacophony with modern realism.
Amidst the hallmark decay and disintegration that epitomize the genre, it is easy to accuse southern Gothic writers of cynicism. However, as Faulkner and O’Connor illustrate, however unwittingly, it is not cynicism that propels their works to their abject conclusions, but rather unrelenting optimism. Faulkner is unable to cope with the state of the modern world, and instead repeatedly appeals to the illusory “universal truths” of the past, just as O’Connor and her characters cling to ideas of salvation that are ultimately incompatible with reality. Though Faulkner champions “the old verities and truths of the heart” as the savior of writing and of man, it is in fact this very perseverance, this very inability to accept “the end of man” that leaves both literature and its characters in a perpetual state of decay, grotesque monuments in the graveyard of the southern Gothic landscape.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Faulkner Reader: Selections from the Works of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1954. pp. 489-497.
Faulkner, William. “Banquet Speech.” Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 5 Apr 2017.
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A Good Man is Hard to Find. Orlando: Harcourt, 1983. pp. 1-22.
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