Flannery O’Connor on the Grotesque in Fiction

Conversations with Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s fiction has frequently been described as “grotesque,” and the author herself considered whether her work fit the description. In fiction of the grotesque, the focus is on the strange and ugly, often as an aspect of the physical body. It can also encompass themes of horror, death, and violence, with abhorrent characters.

At the end of the day, O’Connor preferred her work be considered realism, rather than grotesque or gothic.

 Some of those who have analyzed the stories in her classic short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, have begged to differ, but we’ll let the author herself have the last word. Excerpted from her essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:

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What is the grotesque in literature?

“When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that come out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

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Out of the ordinary

“In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life … the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.”

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A good man is hard to find and other stories by Flannery O'Connor

 An analysis of A Good Man is Hard to Find

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Maimed souls

“Even though the writer who produces grotesque fiction may not consider his characters any more freakish than ordinary fallen man usually is, his audience is going to; and it is going to ask him — or more often, tell him — why he has chosen to bring such maimed souls alive.”

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Does grotesque equal sentimentality and compassion?

“… The general reader has managed to connect the grotesque with the sentimental, for whenever he speaks of it favorably, he seems to associate it with the writer’s compassion … Usually what I think is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human.”

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Flannery O'Connor Postage stamps USPS

Flannery O’Connor Quotes on Writing and Literature
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A penchant for freaks?

“Whenever I’m used why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.”

“I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in grey-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

— from Flannery O’Connor: Mystery and Manners (Occasional Prose, 1957 – 1969)

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