Politeness in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction: Social Interaction, Language, and the Body

By Hardy, Donald E. | Style, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Politeness in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction: Social Interaction, Language, and the Body


Hardy, Donald E., Style


1. Introduction

Although the social context of Flannery O'Connor's fiction has been studied in some detail, especially the racial social context, relatively little O'Connor criticism has detailed the linguistic patterns of O'Connor's style and none thus far has thoroughly analyzed the linguistic patterns of politeness. (1) This neglect is quite surprising given the long history of politeness studies on authors as widely varied as Hemingway (Hardy, "Strategic Politeness"), Shakespeare (Magnusson), Ionesco (Simpson), and Dickens (Cecconi). My analysis of politeness in O'Connor's fiction makes the argument that there is a stylistics of politeness in the fiction: that is, that there are characteristic patterns representing politeness in O'Connor's fiction. In particular, politeness in O'Connor's fiction is intimately linked to O'Connor's concerns with the body, the grotesque, and the sacramental.

When asked in an interview how "Southern manners bear on the racial turmoil" of her time, O'Connor answered, "Manners are the next best thing to Christian charity" (qtd. in Magee 102), expressing at once a pessimism about Southern race relations, a faith in the power of manners that would today certainly seem misplaced, whether in the American South or any geographical region, and a keen awareness of the differences between charity and manners. As Jan Nordby Gretlund points out, "the demands of the social order in O'Connor's rural Georgia often prove more than a match for ethical standards and Christian ideas of neighborly love" ("Flannery O'Connor and Class" 123). Charity (love) would ideally create a cohesive society, regardless of race and class. In the absence of charity, the distancing formalisms of manners preserve a civil--if not a loving--society. In elaborating on the relationship between manners and charity, O'Connor expressed doubt in an abundance of "unadulterated Christian charity" in the South but also expressed "confidence that the manners of both races will show through in the long run" (qtd. in Magee 102). In spite of her clear belief in the ideals of Christian charity, O'Connor very much believed in the efficacy and necessity of formality: "Formality preserves that individual privacy which everybody needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing" (qtd. in Magee 104). And that formality is there to protect everyone, according to O'Connor:

When you have a code of manners based on charity, then when the charity fails--as it is going to do constantly--you've got those manners there to preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other. The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he's made out to be. He's a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy. (Magee 104; also qtd. in Day 137)

Given O'Connor's own privileging of religious issues in discussions of her fiction, it is not surprising that social manners have not been among the foremost issues that O'Connor critics have grappled with. D. Dean Shackelford, for example, argues that for O'Connor "earthly values, including those involving racial relations, were, in comparison to spiritual conviction, insignificant" (89). There are exceptions, such as Gretlund, whose analyses of O'Connor's sensitivity to both race and class concentrate their attention on "The Displaced Person" ("Flannery O'Connor and Class," "The Side of the Road"). And there is Ralph C. Wood's recognition of the role of manners in supplying" the constraints necessary for social intercourse" (The Christ-Haunted South 124). Wood's contrastive analysis of the early "Geranium" and the late rewrite "Judgement Day" foregrounds the manners of both Tanner and Coleman in the later story, manners that create both charity and friendship between two people who without those manners would be enemies, against the "fake manners" of the early story (The Christ-Haunted South 134-39). Barbara Wilkie Tedford argues that O'Connor criticism has too frequently focused on "theological implications" (27). …

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