Speaking the Grotesque: The Short Fiction of Gayl Jones

By Clabough, Casey | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Speaking the Grotesque: The Short Fiction of Gayl Jones


Clabough, Casey, The Southern Literary Journal


Most [of the stories in White Rat] are written in first person and most deal with tensions in relationships, dynamics of psychology--psychic landscape--and ... the 'inward.'

--Gayl Jones in Rowell, "Interview," 49

Several reviewers of Gayl Jones's first two controversial novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), sought to interpret the books primarily in terms of their dark violent and even gothic qualities, muffling the formidable aesthetic dynamics of those works beneath the sensational, problematic vividness of their respective brutal episodes. (1) Critics of Eva's Man in particular used the novel's literal and psychological violence to accuse the text of social and aesthetic irresponsibility. For example, Loyle Hairston attacked the book for its "squalid appraisal of the souls of Black folks" (133), while John Updike lamented, "[T]he characters are dehumanized as much by her [Jones's] artistic vision as by their circumstances" ("Eva and Eleanor" 75). Summing up the majority of early critical reactions to the book, Clarence Major characterized Jones's second novel as a "sad, dark chant ridden with sex and blood" (834). Amid this stormy climate of reviewer condemnation (only a year after the publication of Eva's Man) appeared Jones's first collection of short stories, White Rat (1977). Not surprisingly, at least one reviewer was quick to equate the slender volume of short fiction with the perceived philosophical despondency of Eva's Man, Carol Pearson arguing that the stories "suggest no alternative to solipsism and despair" (1678). Yet, this assessment did not herald a chorus of critical censure. Noting the book's narrative power, one anonymous reviewer labeled the collection an impressive demonstration of "forcefulness" ("Review of White Rat," Booklist 140). Weighing the collection's unflinching and potentially disturbing subject matter with Jones's aesthetic craftsmanship, Barbara Bannon adroitly extended the "forcefulness" reading, concluding, "The excellence of her [Jones's] creations increases their impact and the result is literature, no matter how the stories affect the sensibilities" (63). Subordinating the connotations of potentially problematic subject matter to the dynamic "impact" of Jones's telling, Bannon dubbed the collection an undeniable literary success.

In her condemnatory review of White Rat, Carol Pearson makes an important observation about the general tenor of Jones's imagery, arguing that, rather than attempting to establish any kind of humanistic vision, the stories "are characterized instead by unrelieved distaste for the body, for sexuality, and for human life" (1678). Although it was not the result of conscious intention, Pearson's remark suggests elements of the grotesque and could even serve as a partial definition of that important and evasive aesthetic form. Other critics generally have ignored the explicitly grotesque qualities of Jones's work. However, Keith E. Byerman evaluated the gothic qualities of Eva's Man (2) before identifying its grotesque characteristics in a later essay, which dwells on the symbolic implications of Eva Medina Canada's crime: "a symbolic liberation from the particular grotesqueness of her society" ("Intense" 452). For Byerman, Eva's Man is a work of the grotesque in terms of the way it renders and interrogates the ugliness of racist, patriarchal American mores: "The supposed normalities of American life are shown to be absurd and ominous distortions" (447). Byerman's important observation serves as a foundation for other avenues by which the value of Jones's work--and her short stories in particular--may be illuminated through a delineation of its grotesque qualities.

Wolfgang Kayser, in The Grotesque in Art and Literature, details the etymology of the grotesque, relating how the Italian word literally translated as "from the cave or grotto" (hence grotto-esque) and became the accepted moniker for an entire genre of art (19-20). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Speaking the Grotesque: The Short Fiction of Gayl Jones
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.