Strange Bodies: Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers

By Sarah Gleeson-White | Go to book overview

Critical Survey
McCullers and the Southern Grotesque

To date, there are three discernible strands in the critical appraisal of McCullers's work that have as their respective foci the adolescent, spiritual alienation, and the concerns and identity of women. All three approaches have connections with the grotesque: the adolescent is often read as a grotesque figure; spiritual alienation is symbolically represented by the grotesques; and finally, most feminist commentary has concentrated on the construction of women as grotesque. The grotesque has for a long time defined the literature of the South. William Van O'Connor, for example, claims that “[p]erhaps the South has produced more than its share of the grotesque…: Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams” (340–42). Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury, in their historical overview of American literature, argue that American novelists were influenced by Gustave Flaubert and the Russian realists, who “bred new grotesquerie, and the new 'realism' “ (142). They cite the prominence of these elements in the writings of Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Faulkner, whose “Gothic perspective” influenced “the work of successors like Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor” (190, 315).1 McCullers herself nominates the Russian realists (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, Aksakov, and Turgenev) and Flaubert as the literary antecedents of the southern grotesque and implicitly acknowledges their influence on her own work; she also regards Faulkner's Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying as the major contemporary examples of this southern grotesque

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