Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

From the Incarnational to the Grotesque in "Revelation," "Parker's Back," and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

From the Incarnational to the Grotesque in "Revelation," "Parker's Back," and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Article excerpt

Winner of the 2011 Sarah Gordon Award

O'Connor's interpreters have often viewed her characters' physical deformities as an index of their spiritual deformities, a reading that tallies with her comment that the grotesque was meant to assist "almost-blind" modern readers who suffered from a sort of moral myopia (MM 34). From this perspective the function of the grotesque is decidedly negative: it measures, by degrees of distortion and monstrosity, how far her characters remain apart from spiritual wholeness. Recent scholarship, however, has emphasized O'Connor's deeply positive understanding of the grotesque in which the prospect of renewal is present even-and sometimes especially-in the ugliest, most deformed human bodies.1 In this view, as Christina Lake argues in her study of O'Connor's "incarnational art" (12), the essential goodness of the body stems from the Incarnation itself, from the Word becoming flesh and assuming a physical presence in the world. For O'Connor, the event of the Incarnation means that matter matters; it also means that the deformed or grotesque body, in its resemblance to the broken body of Christ, has redemptive potential. "Incarnational art," Lake writes, "insists on the broken and limited human body as its starting point-the acknowledgment of which is the only means to spiritual growth. O'Connor believed that the only way to give that body a real presence is to make it grotesque" (12).

Rather than approaching O'Connor's "positive" grotesque through the lens of her Catholicism, as many critics have done, this essay sets her alongside another writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose fiction contains a similarly "incarnational" vision of art. Like O'Connor, Dostoevsky places religious concerns squarely at the center of his fiction; deals with extremes of belief and unbelief, the holy and the demonic, and the sacred and the profane-and, as I will try to show, employs a strikingly similar use of the grotesque that is at once affirmative, unsettling, and redemptive. I argue that many of their grotesque characters, far from standing exclusively as objects of disgust or repulsion, are often sources of renewal. What at first glance appears ugly, deformed, or worthless may, in fact, be redemptive. I pair Crime and Punishment (1866), a text that is particularly concerned with suffering, death, and renewal, with "Revelation" and "Parker's Back," two stories containing instances of O'Connor's positive grotesque at work.

As "a great reader of Dostoevsky," in the words of Norman McMillan (16), O'Connor owned many of his novels, including a Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment, and mentioned him in a number of letters and essays (Kinney 154). In addition, a few critics have linked his atheists, especially Ivan Karamazov, to the "innerleckshuls" that populate her fiction,2 while others have examined ways in which his "saintly" characters, especially Zosima and Myshkin, represent O'Connor's ethical ideals.3 In spite of these biographical details and critical remarks, however, there is no way of knowing what O'Connor really thought about Dostoevsky. In raising this comparison I assume, as most critics have assumed,4 that Dostoevsky did not influence O'Connor directly but rather that a number of shared concerns-especially their use of the grotesque-are borne out in their fiction. The principle aim of this essay, then, is to trace a genealogy of the grotesque from Dostoevsky, the Russian realist, to O'Connor, the modern southerner, in order to explore the strange confluence of violence, suffering, and renewal in their fiction.

I want to begin by highlighting a shared tendency among both O'Connor's and Dostoevsky's readers, whose responses often swing between an emphasis on the religious and the demonic. A perennial point of disagreement, for instance, concerns whether O'Connor's own account of her fiction, specifically her emphasis on the Incarnation, is consistent with what actually happens to her characters. …

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