Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
“The world in her fiction is scarcely endurable; we who cannot laugh at its dark mayhem enter it armored and withdraw as soon as we can.”. . . Clara Clairborne Park
“O’Connor’s satire is not based on the kind of moral standard her readers might readily accept but on a religious perspective that should theoretically render her satire ineffective among all non-believers.” . . . Mark G. Edlestein
“O’Connor’s realism is the aesthetic foundation for a comic art in which the concrete details of mechanization are the source of her greatest humor.” . . . Jeffrey J. Folks
In O’Connor’s world we learn that if there is a reference to an escaped convict in paragraph one, he will certainly appear before the end of the story and murder someone.
Her do-gooders wreck havoc, her preachers and Bible salesmen are phonies, and her nuns hug children unpleasantly.
Mrs. May thinks “the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”
It is typical in O’Connor’s world that few people acquire vision until they are about to die, and the exceptions are repellent to us.
The best that can be said for O’Connor’s Christians is that through disaster they manage to gain some higher vision.
The story “The Artificial Nigger” illustrates well O’Connor’s use of the tragic parody.
O’Connor’s use of the “artificial nigger” as a means of grace is in no way meant to denigrate African Americans.
Through incongruous means of grace, O’Connor moves beyond disaster into transcendent triumph by giving her character, in the midst of defeat, a new vision far beyond tragic proportions.
The grace of God is the conclusion of the structural dynamic O’Connor has been at such pains to craft.
Her readers’ laughter bears witness that human beings are not the stuff of tragic heroes, that they are all mired, petty, and blind.
Laughter in the Structural Dynamic of Flannery O’Connor
Presented at the Ninth International Conference on Humor and Laughter
St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada,1991
Edited for web publication
Flannery O’Connor wrote stories about escaped convicts killing babies, widows being gored by bulls, and nymphomaniacs provoking homicide―and O'Connor thought her works were hilarious. Delighting in her own stories, she wrote to her publisher, “The truth is I like them better than anybody and I read them over and over and laugh and laugh” (Park 249). Most of us readers, however, find our laughter greatly restrained and mingled with alarm and horror. Clara Clairborne Park in “Crippled Laughter: Toward Understanding Flannery O’Connor,” describes our defensive posture as readers: “The world in [O’Connor’s] fiction is scarcely endurable; we who cannot laugh at its dark mayhem enter it armored and withdraw as soon as we can” (252). Park sees this as a shortcoming in us as readers. Even with the benefit of the letters O’Connor wrote explaining her works, Park says, “Nevertheless, we go on reading the stories, as inadequately, most of us, as most readers have read them in the more than quarter century since they first began to appear, horrified still when we should laugh . . .” (251).
Yet it seems strange to chastise ourselves for not laughing more at convicts shooting babies and bulls goring widows. We cannot deny the violence. Nor should we. And neither should we deny the horror as a natural, healthy response to violence. It is my contention that both laughter and horror are appropriate and in fact necessary responses to O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor’s intermingling of the laughable and the horrible creates a dynamic of laughter leading through alarm to horror and finally to a vision. This dynamic is crucial to understanding O’Connor, to appreciating her, and to accepting her endings.
Religious beliefs and the hostile audience
O’Connor depends on this dynamic in order to communicate with her readers. As a writer, she was committed to communication. “’Unless the novelist has gone completely out of his mind,’ she once said, ‘his aim is still communication’” (Park 249). Yet O’Connor was acutely aware of the difficulties of a Southern Catholic writer with a strange affinity for Bible-Belt Protestantism writing to a Northern secular audience. “’You can safely ignore the reader’s taste, but you can’t ignore his nature. . .’ she warned. ‘Your problem is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from his’” (Park 256). And, according to O’Connor, “‘violent literary means’ were needed to communicate her vision to a ‘hostile audience’ that ‘does not believe in evil’” (256). Thus, violence is a means of bridging the gap between O’Connor’s belief and the reader’s unbelief, of convincing the secular world of the existence of evil.
And humor in O'Connor's work functions in a similar fashion. Mark G. Edlestein has remarked in “Flannery O’Connor and the Problem of Modern Satire” on the extraordinary success of O’Connor’s satire given her religious stance: the satirist, he notes, needs to write from or create a moral standard acceptable to his audience. But “O’Connor’s satire is not based on the kind of moral standard her readers might readily accept but on a religious perspective that should theoretically render her satire ineffective among all non-believers” (140). Yet, the hostile audience in fact, does laugh, an indication that O’Connor is successfully communicating as a satirist.
From laughter to horror
O’Connor, however, is considerably more than a satirist. Her laughable satiric portrayal of her characters serves to bridge the value gap between her and her unbelieving intended audience, to create a common viewpoint where none existed before. But she must move beyond the laughable to the horrible to fully communicate her world view. And we must embrace both the laughter and the horror to fully embrace O’Connor. To leave one out is to falsify her reality and to ignore the dynamic structure she creates.
In the struggle to understand O’Connor, many critics have delineated elements of comedy in O’Connor’s work. Charles Mayer traces the “comic spirit” in “A Stroke of Good Fortune.” Sura Presad Rath, seeing comic irony in O’Connor, has delineated Northrup Frye’s comic polarities in Wise Blood: “The elements of Catholicism, Southern regionalism, and the grotesque evolve into a mystical superstructure of comic irony in the novel, and our recognition of the dimensions of each comic type in this process helps us see O’Connor beyond her Georgian background” (258). Jeffrey J. Folks explores “The Mechanical in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge.’” Perhaps recalling Henri Bergson’s definition of laughter as our response to “the mechanical encrusted on the living,” Folks concludes that “O’Connor’s realism is the aesthetic foundation for a comic art in which the concrete details of mechanization are the source of her greatest humor” (25).
In an extensive discussion of “Comedy and Flannery O’Connor,” Russ McDonald maintains that O’Connor’s stories not only contain comedic elements but are formally comedic, that despite the horrible, “the patterns of action indicate that O’Connor’s narratives differ from the comic formula only in degree, not in kind” (196). McDonald, assuring us that it’s acceptable to laugh over O’Connor’s devastating stories, asserts that “laughter has normally been taken as a signal that comedy is functioning as it should” (201).
But if so, what of the horror? Most readers would have little trouble assenting to the humorous elements of O’Connor’s world. But trying to see the works altogether as structurally comedic is unsettling to say the least. The dissolution of laughter into horror suggests that O’Connor’s works, while they contain comedic elements, are generally patterned to be something more than comedy. The comedic elements are not mistakes, but neither is the horror, and the emotional dynamic should not be viewed as a flaw in either the works or the readers. Rather this structural dynamic is essential for communicating with a secular readership a Christian world view which those readers would just as soon dismiss. This emotional dynamic from laughter to horror is well illustrated in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
The story recounts the vacation mishaps of a family of six: two bratty children, a baby, a mother with a face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage” (117), Baily, a closed-mouth father, and a pious, pushy grandmother who insists on bringing along her cat Pitty Sing. Grandma, who wanted to visit relatives in Tennessee rather than go to Florida, has been putting her son Baily on a guilt trip by reminding him that a dangerous convict, the Misfit, has escaped in Florida. Continuing the power struggle, she badgers the family onto a dirt road to find an old plantation where, she says, there is supposed to be a cashe of silver from Civil War days. When the grandmother suddenly remembers that the plantation in question is in Tennessee, not Georgia, she jerks, startling the cat who leaps to Baily’s head, causing Baily to lose control. The resulting accident leaves them stranded and allows them to become victims of the Misfit and his companion. When the grandmother lets on that she recognizes the convict, he summarily shoots the entire family, grandma last. Just before her death, however, she suddenly sees in the Misfit the face of one of her own children and dies, “smiling up at a cloudless sky” (132).
The plotline is relentlessly grim. But O’Connor invites her readers to laugh, especially early in the story. Typically her characters satirize themselves through their speech and thoughts. Son John Wesley, for example, a ridiculous contrast to his namesake, pesters, “Let’s go through Georgia fast so we don’t have to look at it much” (119). We laugh at his negativism, his poor manners, and his easy disrespect for his home state. Similarly, the grandmother, O’Connor says, had pinned at her neckline “a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (118). We laugh in recognition of fastidious old ladies, we laugh in sympathy for their juniors who have heard those lines too many times, and we laugh with some derision, for this “lady” is obnoxiously uncompromising and is quite willing to play family power games to get her way.
Overtones of alarm
Yet these humorous lines have very alarming overtones. The family does not get through Georgia fast―they never leave it. Grandmother is in fact found dead on the highway, and at that point no one is thinking about violets. In O’Connor’s world we learn that if there is a reference to an escaped convict in paragraph one, he will certainly appear before the end of the story and murder someone. So our laughter becomes mixed with uneasiness as family members grate on one another in ways that in real life we would consider intolerable. Uneasiness is joined by dread as childish insistence and aged stubbornness lead the family toward certain trouble. And dread is joined by horror when the Misfit appears, the grandmother foolishly lets on that she recognizes him, and the family’s death becomes a certainty. Once the baby has been shot, we don’t laugh at the grandmother trying to bribe the Misfit with money and compliments, even though she is technically laughable. We are disgusted at her attempts to convert the criminal to Christianity, and we are horrified by the final results.
If O’Connor is using this emotional dynamic from laughter to horror to communicate a Christian world view, it is certainly not so that her readers will admire Christians and condemn everybody else. On the contrary, it is typically O’Connor’s freaks and criminals who enunciate the Christian message. It is the Misfit who articulates the heart of the Gospel: “If [Jesus] did what He said He did, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him” (132). And typically O’Connor’s Christian and church people are either hypocritical or grotesque. The grandmother, who claims to be a Christian, is fatally shallow and stubborn. O’Connor’s Christians and church people are as much as anyone workers of destruction and thus subjects of sharp satiric laughter. Her do-gooders wreck havoc, her preachers and Bible salesmen are phonies, and her nuns hug children unpleasantly. In creating her characters this way, she avoids a charge of sentimental piety and naiveté and creates another bridge with her secular readership which has pointed to immoral or unbecoming behavior in Christians as the compelling if non-sequitur justification for rejecting the Christian faith.
In the story of “Greenleaf” we can see O’Connor willing and eager to portray church people in an uncomplimentary fashion at the same time that her structure is working to communicate her Christian world view. Mrs. May is a widow who struggles to keep up a scrub farm with no help at all from her two insolent adult live-in sons. Mrs. May thinks of herself as “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” On the other hand, Mrs. Greenleaf, the wife of Mrs. May’s hired hand, is a repulsively enormous woman who neglects her children to conduct what she calls prayer healings. She cuts out newspaper clippings of criminals, rape and accident victims, and the like and buries them in the woods and then “[falls] on the ground over them and [mumbles] and [groans] for an hour or so” (505) calling out the name of Jesus. Mrs. May thinks “the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom” (506). She also thinks Jesus would tell Mrs. Greenleaf to go home and wash her children’s clothes.
The reader is likely to agree with Mrs. May, at least on the last point. Mrs. Greenleaf, far from winning the secular reader to Christianity, is repellant. Even if her prayers have some effect, her neglect of her children―"even the youngest one dipped snuff" (505)―her poor personal habits and her seemingly bizarre prayer life assault the reader's sensibilities. Her husband and grown sons, while prospering, are poorly cultured and care little that their scrub bull has gotten loose and is trampling Mrs. May’s garden, threatening to ruin her herd and worse.
But Mrs. May is no sympathetic heroine. She is a self-righteous, nagging enabler to her sons’ insolence and mockery; slaving to preserve an inheritance for two very nasty people who delight in tormenting their mother. And she obsesses spitefully over the prosperity of the Greenleaf sons, which she blames on World War II, the GI Bill, and the government generally. Thus, we laugh at Mrs. May, Mrs. Greenleaf, and just about everybody else, even while O'Connor is evoking our horror at human depravity and its outworkings.
We are forewarned in the story's first line, describing the bull in the moonlight devouring Mrs. May’s hedges. In an O’Connor story, a bull on the first page bodes a goring by the end. Thus, we are not surprised though still horrified when Mrs. May, obsessed with getting rid of the animal, tries to assist Mr. Greenleaf in corralling the bull, becomes mesmerized by the animal. and is gored by it.
But she does receive vision: “the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable” (523). She died pulled forward onto the animal’s head, “so that she seemed . . . to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear” (524).
Insight in allusion
Typical of O’Connor, the exact nature of the discovery is left to our speculation. But there are clues, particularly in the characters’ names. The name Greenleaf suggests Psalm 1:3, describing the righteous person as “like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields it fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (RSV). Prosperity, it would seem, comes not from government programs but from God.
On the other hand, Mrs. May’s name suggests the pagan revelries of May Day, and the bull recalls Baal, the god of the Canaanites. In fact O’Connor compares him at the start of the story to “some patient god come down to woo [Mrs. May]” (501). Her sons, Scofield and Wesley, refer to the compiler of the Scofield Reference Bible and John Wesley, founder of Methodism, both revered figures in Bible-Belt Protestantism. In this context, the names are harsh reminders of Mrs. May’s hypocrisy and her sons' scoffing. Mrs. May's death suggests an ironic sacrifice to the pagan god. The sudden new vision of “a dark wound” suggests a recognition of the wounds of Christ for her depravity.
But all of this is allusive, not stated. It is typical in O’Connor’s world that few people acquire vision until they are about to die, and the exceptions are repellent to us: the only character in "Greenleaf" to have some spiritual vision without having to be gored by a bull is Mrs. Greenleaf.
We can see in both “Greenleaf” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” the patterned dynamic of laughter to horror. But we can also see that O’Connor is not using this pattern to communicate her Christian world view by exempting Christians from satiric laughter and self-destructive behavior, grating habits, and the multitude of sins great and small typifying O’Connor’s characters.
If we look at the entirety of O’Connor’s dynamic structure, it is clear that while O’Connor is a master satirist, to call her works satire is inadequate. While her works contain comedic elements, the patterned undercutting of comedic expectations makes calling them comedies dubious. And while she claims to be communicating a Christian world view, to call her works sermons glorifying Christians is laughable. The best that can be said for O’Connor’s Christians is that through disaster they manage to gain some higher vision. In fact, vision is central to O’Connor.
The insight gained by her characters and the dreadful irony of O’Connor’s endings give a tragic aura to her stories and tempt us to look at them in terms of tragedy. Indeed, there is a good deal of mock heroic in her characters. Instead of people of elevated social and ethical stature with fatal moral flaws, O’Connor’s characters are of middle to low social status and morally petty, proud, and stubborn with few if any redeeming traits. In a parody of the tragic hero who is free and empowered to act but confounded by an impossible moral dilemma, O’Connor’s characters are mired, trapped, bound, and blinded by their own natures. As they stumble through ordinary existence, their routine persistence in perversity leads them inevitably to disaster.
“The Artificial Nigger”
The story “The Artificial Nigger” illustrates well O’Connor’s use of the tragic parody. Mr. Head is everything the tragic hero is not. In fact, O’Connor characterizes him in mock heroic: “He might have been Virgil summoned in the middle of the night to go to Dante, or better, Raphael, awakened by the blast of God’s light to fly to the side of Tobias” (25). In reality Mr. Head is poor white trash trying to raise a grandson, Nelson, dumped on his doorstep as an infant. The two have been engaged in a running battle over whether or not Nelson can claim to have been to Atlanta on the basis of having been born there. Mr. Head, offended by the boy’s arrogant claim to sophistication, is about to embark on what he considers to be the moral mission of demonstrating the boy’s ignorance by taking him to the city.
Mr. Head is, alas, vastly overconfident of his own familiarity with Atlanta, and the two get hopelessly lost. Eventually, when Nelson gets himself into a scrape, Mr. Head denies even knowing him. Nelson is stunned, and Mr. Head is suddenly made aware of his own depravity. A mock tragedy has become a grim disaster. It takes a deteriorating statue of a Negro footman to reconcile Mr. Head and Nelson in a mutual understanding of their common need for grace.
It should be noted that O’Connor’s use of the “artificial nigger” as a means of grace is in no way meant to denigrate African Americans. Mr. Head has rested much of his pride on a prejudicial belief in his superiority to any black. For him to receive the grace of God through this vehicle―the statue of a black person in a servant role―is for him to begin to cast off his prejudice. The statue indicates the extent to which Mr. Head has been humbled.
Seeing is all
Through this incongruous means of grace, O’Connor moves beyond disaster into transcendent triumph by giving her character, in the midst of defeat, a new vision far beyond tragic proportions. The tragic ending typically allows the hero a new understanding of him or herself or the world which may be some consolation in defeat. The O’Connor anti-hero, however, quite unexpectedly from the eyes of unbelief, achieves a vision of him or herself which is not a small consolation but rather an enormous triumph. In O’Connor, seeing is all. The best one can say for any of O’Connor’s characters is that they have seen― admittedly only partially―but they have seen. Initially laughable characters who through their own pettiness, stubbornness, and pride work relentlessly to bring destruction and violence upon themselves and others in the end, by grace, are granted a glimpse of a spiritual reality far greater than their own mired existence. Often the insight seems minimal or elusive. The grandmother saw in the Misfit the face of one of her own children and she was transformed. Mrs. May saw the tree line as “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky” (333).
Mr. Head’s new insight is considerably more systematic but thoroughly consistent with the vision gained by other characters as well as with Christian orthodoxy. Mr. Head “had never thought himself a great sinner before, but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter paradise” (270).
From violence to grace
What Mr. Head perceives and O’Connor articulates here for us is the heart of Christian orthodoxy, which undergirds all the insights that O’Connor’s heroes are given. Each sees in part, “through a glass darkly” as the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians. And each sees a different part. Ruby Turpin in “Revelation,” for example, realizes the meaning of the phrase “the lame shall enter first” and sees her own respectable, common-sense, safe Christianity as much inferior to the faith of the poor, the freaks, and the lunatics. In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a snotty child perceives not only her own meanness but also the pervasive presence of God, even in a circus freak. The grandmother of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” perceives her common humanity with a criminal, and Mrs. May sees the tree line as “a dark wound,” symbolizing the wound of Christ. For O’Connor this vision is not a consolation in the face of tragic loss but rather triumph. The light that dawns on these laughably depraved characters who persist in bringing violence and physical destruction upon themselves is the redeeming grace of God. The grace of God is the conclusion of the structural dynamic O’Connor has been at such pains to craft.
O’Connor can not force this vision of reality on a hostile audience. But she can lead them right up to it through a complex structural emotional dynamic from laughter through horror to vision, a dynamic which transcends common generic boundaries in order to communicate a Christian world view to an unbelieving readership.
To communicate with a hostile audience, O’Connor assiduously avoids heavy religious overtones that would turn off her audience. If readers enter her world armored, it is not because they anticipate a religious barrage but because they anticipate deformity and violence. Her humor is disarming, assuring readers that she has no intention of lording anything over them, of forcing theology or Christianity down their throats. And she uses humor to persuade them that all these characters―in fact, all of humanity―has little to recommend it. Then she uses violence to convince readers that evil is real and that human beings, while laughable, are moving headlong toward destruction. Her readers’ laughter bears witness that human beings are not the stuff of tragic heroes, that they are all mired, petty, and blind. Her readers’ alarm and horror bear witness that these humans are grinding their own mills of destruction. Her readers’ reactions manipulated by O’Connor’s dynamic structure bear witness to the human condition as O’Connor perceives it.
As for the vision, O’Connor can not force her readership to accept the action of grace, redemption in Christ, and the work of the Holy Ghost in, around, and through all this pettiness and destruction. But if the audience has followed O’Connor through the dynamic of laughter, alarm, and horror, they are hard-pressed to deny the need for some divine redemption, and they may be at least tempted to feel grateful at even the suggestion that some such redemption might be available. And that is all that O’Connor can hope to accomplish.
Folks, Jeffrey J. “The Mechanical in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge.’” Southern Literary Journal 18 (1986): 14-24.
Mayer, Charles W. “The Comic Spirit in ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune.’” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979):70-4.
McDonald, Russ. “Comedy and Flannery O’Connor.” Southern Atlantic Quarterly 8 (1982): 188-201.
O’Connor, Flannery. “The Artificial Nigger.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 249-70.
_______. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 117-33.
_______. “Greenleaf.” Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library Classis of the United States, Inc. 1988. 501-24.
_______. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 488-509.
_______. “A Temple of The Holy Ghost.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 236-48.
Park, Clara Clairborne. “Crippled Laugher: Toward Understanding Flannery O’Connor.” The American Scholar 51 (1982): 249-57.
Rath, Sura Prasad. “Comic Polarities in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984) 251-58.