The Stylistics of Syntactic Complements: Grammar and Seeing in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction

By Hardy, Donald E.; Durian, David | Style, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Stylistics of Syntactic Complements: Grammar and Seeing in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction


Hardy, Donald E., Durian, David, Style


David Durian [1]

Very slowly, his expression changed a if he [Bevel] were gradually seeing appear what he didn't know he'd been looking for.

Flannery O'Connor, "The River"

"We are all damned," she [Hulga Hopewell] said, "but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there's nothing to see. It's a kind of salvation."

Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People"

Flannery O'Connor's near obsessive concern with the fallibility of human knowledge is widely recognized in the critical literature (e.g., Asals; Desmond; Dowell; McCarthy; Oates; Orvell; Reesman); Desmond, for example, comments that "a major theme in [O'Connor's] work" is "deceptive consciousness, the mind's capacity for distortion in apprehending the real and its proneness to closure when impinged upon by the divine" (36). In commenting on the importance of mystery in O'Connor's fiction, Orvell writes that "in essence, mystery is what is finally unknowable" (18). O'Connor herself wrote of one of her stories, "It's not so much a story of conversion as of self-knowledge, which I suppose has to be the first step in conversion" (Mystery 299). An essential part of self-knowledge for O'Connor is the recognition of the inherent limitations of human knowledge. These limitations transcend class boundaries. Although O'Connor seems to have been as "obsessed with the sham intellectual as she was by the prophet," Orvell (121, 152 ff.) demonstrates that even backwoods characters like Mr. Head in "The Artificial Nigger" are driven by their compulsion to demonstrate superior knowledge, in Mr. Head's case, knowledge of "the city." Despite the vast critical literature on O'Connor's fiction, there is barely a handful of intensely stylistic analyses of her work (e.g., Hardy "Narrating Knowledge"; Hardy "Dialogic Repetition"; Hardy "Free Indirect Discourse"; Kennelly; Kessler; Ludwig; Mayer; McMullen). Of these studies, only Kennelly and Hardy ("Narrating Knowledge") examine the stylistics of knowledge. Hardy ("Narrating Knowledge") examines clausal presupposition, which is the site of much contested knowledge in O'Connor's fiction. Kennelly analyzes exhortative discourse in Wise Blood. She argues that exhortative discourse "promotes an intense conviction and 'alien' view" through the use of emotion and a reliance "on a clear, easily understood literary style that uses the copula and concrete description" (153). Implication, or ent ailment, is another promising area of stylistic investigation of knowledge since a true proposition normally guarantees the truth of its implications. We show in this paper that fiction, specifically Flannery O'Connor's fiction, provides the data to refine linguistic theories regarding the boundary between semantics (e.g., implication) and pragmatics (e.g., presupposition).

In particular, we investigate the semantics and pragmatics of various phrasal and clausal complements to the verb see in O'Connor's fiction. The prevalence of sight imagery and verbs of sight in O'Connor's fiction has been commented on frequently (Freeman 26; Kennelly; Mellard 53; Orvell; Reesman; Sloan 136; Shaw). Kennelly argues that Haze's s "visual errors" and "reliance on vision" in Wise Blood are part of O'Connor's metaphorical dramatization of "vision's inherent deceitfulness" (163-65). Orvell comments on the importance of literal vision in the reception of grace in several of O'Connor's works and concludes, "O'Connor's first principle is thus rooted in the perception of the world and not in some disembodied cogito: rather, video ergo sum" (168). But no one has yet investigated in detail the quantitative or qualitative stylistics of any of O'Connor's verbs of sight and imagery and how those stylistics are reflective of O'Connor's concerns with knowledge. As the following passage from Mystery and Manne rs indicates, there is a close connection between belief and vision in O'Connor's poetics:

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. …

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