"My kind of comedy": An Exegetical Reading of Flannery O'Connor as Medieval Drama
One can understand O'Connor's strangeness by viewing her work with the eyes of the medieval exegete and analyzing her work as medieval drama, akin to the purpose of the dramatists of the medieval miracle, mystery, and morality plays, as seen in medieval and Renaissance England.
When Flannery O'Connor's collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge was posthumously published in 1965, O'Connor's reputation as a Southern writer of grotesque fiction was well set in literary and critical circles through her previous works: several uncollected short stories, the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and her earlier short story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find. She is a Southern writer because her characters and settings are of the South. Her fiction is grotesque because the world she portrays is ugly and distorted. Because of this grotesqueness, initial criticism interpreted her work as nihilistic, showing man as meaningless in the modern world, but later interpretations saw O'Connor's purpose of transmitting Christian meaning, albeit hidden by her defamiliarizing grotesqueness. Now, an overwhelming consensus of critics see O'Connor's fiction in this Christian context, as O'Connor herself saw her fiction, and these same critics primarily concentrate upon the violent elements in her grotesque fiction as representations of grace, violently shown to her spiritually distorted characters in a spiritually distorted world.
But O'Connor also saw her fiction as comedy - "my kind of comedy" as she states in a 26 December 1959 letter to John Hawkes - and while various criticism have analyzed comic elements in her work, not much scholarship has been done with regards to the dramatic tradition of comedy. Perhaps such a lack of scholarship is because of the false usage of "comic" to mean merely funny, and O'Connor's work, as violent as it is, does not seem to meet the standard of "comedy." But comedy, especially Christian comedy, is violent and deadly serious, for the matter of such comedy is ultimately the salvation of a sinner's soul. Thus, the grotesque and the violent are placed within the context of comedy: Her narrative technique of the grotesque ironically juxtaposes the absurdity of spiritually distorted man and the violence which confronts man with the truth of his own absurdity, that is, the need for grace. O'Connor's grotesque comedy, strange, alienating, and dramatically disjointed to the modern, everyday reader would not seem so to another kind of audience, those who participated in medieval exegesis and witnessed medieval drama.
O'Connor was aware of the medieval quality of her strange comedy: "Perhaps I have created a medieval study" (28 February 1960 letter to Cecil Dawkins) because "[t]he writer whose point of view is Catholic in the widest sense of the term reads nature the same way the medieval commentators read Scripture" (13 March 1962 letter to Charlotte Gafford). Trusting O'Connor's aesthetic sense of her own work, one can look for elements of Christian comedy in O'Connor's work, elements clearly seen in medieval miracle, mystery, and morality plays, using the hermeneutic tool of the four-fold senses of medieval exegesis: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic. In analyzing medieval drama as Christian comedy using medieval exegesis, one can similarly use this method to find analogues of medieval dramatic elements in O'Connor's unique Christian comedy.
Thus, the medieval dramatic tradition becomes important as a way of making sense of the comedy in O'Connor's fiction. As stated in Aristotle's Poetics, "Comedy... is an imitation of characters of a lower type - not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly," (Fergusson edition, 59). With the advent of Christianity, the lower types become sinners, and in the Christ-centered world of medieval drama, the comic drama of a sinner's need for God's grace is clearly evident as comedy - the sinner is raised up by God's grace. In the "Christ-haunted" world of O'Connor's fiction, this comic drama is not as obvious as its medieval predecessor, for her audience are not medieval Christians who are receptive to Christian truths but secularized moderns who regard Christian truths as unimportant or irrelevant to their everyday lives. Still, the pattern of Christian comedy, as seen in medieval drama and explained through medieval exegesis, is in O'Connor's fiction. In seeing this pattern, one can understand O'Connor's purposeful strangeness of her "kind of comedy."
D. Preliminary Outline:
I. Introduction: Previous critical stances and the argument at hand
B. Southern Gothic
C. Catholic - grace
D. Recent developments: Carnivalesque, drama, et al.
II. Four-Fold Senses of Medieval Exegesis
A. Historical Background
B. O'Connor, the Exegete
1. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
2. The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor
3. The Presence of Grace, and Other Book Reviews
III. Medieval Drama: History, Form, and Function
IV. Elements of Medieval Drama in O'Connor's Works
A. Early stories
B. Wise Blood
C. A Good Man Is Hard To Find
D. The Violent Bear It Away
E. Everything That Rises Must Converge
F. Later stories
V. Conclusion: A note on cartoons and other things.
1. Primary Sources
O'Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and
----------. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965.
----------. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.
----------. A Good Man Is Hard To Find. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.
----------. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1979.
----------. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1969.
----------. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.
----------. Three by Flannery O'Connor. New York: Signet, 1983.
----------. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960.
----------. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.
2. Selected Secondary Sources
Asals, Frederick. Flannery O'Connor, The Imagination of Extremity. Athens:
U of Georgia P, 1982.
Balee, Susan. Flannery O'Connor: Literary Prophet of the South. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.
Baumgaertner, Jill P. Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring. Wheaton, IL: H. Shaw Pub, 1988.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Flannery O'Connor. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Brinkmeyer, Robert H., Jr. The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1989.
Browning, Preston, Jr. Flannery O'Connor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois P, 1974.
Clark, Beverly L. and Melvin J. Friedman, eds. Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985.
Coles, Robert. Flannery O'Connor's South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1980.
Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.
Di Renzo, Anthony. American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993.
Drake, Robert. Flannery O'Connor: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1966.
Driggers, Stephen G., Robert J. Dunn and Sarah Gordon. The Manuscripts of Flannery O'Connor at Georgia College. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.
Driskell, Leon V. and Joan T. Brittain. The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1971.
Eggenschwiler, David. The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1972.
Enjolras, Laurence. Flannery O'Connor's Characters. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1998.
Farmer, David R. Flannery O'Connor, A Descriptive Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishers, 1981.
Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1972.
Fickett, Harold and Douglas R. Gilbert. Flannery O'Connor: Images of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1986.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1986.
Getz, Lorine M. Flannery O'Connor, Literary Theologian: The Habits and Discipline of Being. Lewiston, NY: E . Mellen Press, 1999.
Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1989.
Gordon, Sarah. Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2000.
Hurley, Jennifer A., ed. Readings on Flannery O'Connor. San Diego: Greenhaven P, 2001.
Johansen, Ruthann Knechel. The Narrative Secret of Flannery O'Connor: The Trickster as Interpreter. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1994.
Kessler, Edward. Flannery O'Connor and the Language of Apocalypse. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986.
Kreyling, Michael, ed. New Essays on Wise Blood. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1995.
McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Flannery O'Connor. New York: Frederick Ungar Pub, 1976.
McMullen, Joanne Halleran. Writing Against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1996.
Magee, Rosemary. Conversations with Flannery O'Connor. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1987.
Martin, Carter W. The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1969.
May, John R. The Pruning Word: The Parables of Flannery O'Connor. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1976.
Muller, Gilbert H. Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1972.
Orvell, Miles. Flannery O'Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991.
Ragen, Brian Abel. A Wreck on the Road to Damascus: Innocence, Guilt, and Conversion in Flannery O'Connor. Chicago: Loyola UP, 1989.
Rath, Sura P. and Mary Neff Shaw. Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996.
Schloss, Carol. Flannery O'Connor's Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Seel, Cynthia. Ritual Performance in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001.
Spivey, Ted Ray. Flannery O'Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon: Mercer UP, 1995.
Stephens, Martha. The Question of Flannery O'Connor. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1973.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullars, and Flannery O'Connor. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Flannery O'Connor. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1995.
3. Selected Sources Regarding Medieval Drama
Bevington, David. Medieval Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Browne, Elliott Martin. Mystery and Morality Plays. New York: Meridian, 1958.
Cargill, Oscar. Drama and Liturgy. New York: Octagon Books, 1969.
Davidson, Charles. Studies on the English Mystery Plays. New York: Haskell House, 1965.
Hardison, Osborne Bennett. Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.
Harrison, Tony. The Mysteries. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1985.
Moore, E. Hamilton. English Miracle Plays and Moralities. New York: AMS Press, 1969.
Potter, Robert A. The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.
Schell, Edgar T. and J.D. Schuchter, eds. English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Spinrad, Phoebe S. The Summons of Death on the Medieval and Renaissance Stage. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1987.
Wickham, Glynne, ed. English Moral Interludes. London: Dent, 1976.
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