Table of Contents:
I. Introduction ………………………………………………… 5
II. Chapter 1
Poe’s and O’Connor’s Fascination with Deviant Behaviour – Its Source and Reflection in Their Short Stories …………………. 13
III. Chapter 2
The Impact of the Mysterious Force on the Degenerate Characters’ Transformation ...... 39
IV. Chapter 3
The Portrait of the Intellectual in E. A. Poe’s and F. O’Connor’s Short Stories .............................. 51
V. Chapter 4
The Mind in Conflict with the Whole World – “William Wilson” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” ………………... 64
VI. Conclusions ………………………………………………. 75
VII. Summary in Polish ……………………………………... 79
VIII. Bibliography …………………………………………… 81
Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) and Flannery O’Connor’s (1925-1964) fictional worlds may fascinate or repel but they never evoke boredom or indifference. While the central themes of Edgar A. Poe’s literary works touch such phenomena as madness, terror, cruelty, and death, F. O’Connor’s short stories abound with descriptions of brutality, moral corruption as well as physical and mental deformity. The writers represent different literary periods. Poe’s works were composed at the time when most of the Romantic writers created whilst O’Connor was writing after the Second World War. Despite the fact that there is a gap of more than one hundred years between E.A. Poe and F. O’Connor, both authors were occupied with similar issues. In their short stories, they explored the interior world but mainly focused on the dark sides of human nature. Those who read Poe’s and O’Connor’s works are highly unlikely to encounter characters who experience such emotional states as joy, peace of mind and harmony. Instead, the reader should be prepared to confront various manifestations of aberrant and pathological behaviour. The heroes of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories seem to be closely related to Flannery O’Connor’s protagonists. The former created such remarkable figures as Roderick Usher, the individual driven to self-destruction, or Egaeus, the hero obsessed with his dead lover’s teeth. Similarly, O’Connor acquainted the reader with such deviant cases as the Misfit, the character who did not remember murdering his own father or Shiftlet, the protagonist completely estranged from his emotional life. The accumulation of abnormalities in both authors’ fiction is extreme. The effect is even more profound when we juxtapose some selected freakish characters each of the writers created, and subject them to a close analysis.
It is worth mentioning that both Poe and O’Connor illustrated odd and deviant behaviour with astounding realism. Elizabeth Phillips in her study “Edgar Allan Poe: An American Imagination. Three Essays” notes that Poe was so competent in describing the nature of his characters’ mental disorders that it cannot be explained by his literary genius only. The critic emphasizes the author’s interest in medicine, psychopathology as well as Poe’s own disturbances and drink problem. It seems that the choice of Poe’s and O’Connor’s literary themes was not arbitrary. As I will be analysing the authors’ writing in connection with the sociological context of their times, it is advisable to examine Poe’s and O’Connor’s background as well as their position in literature.
As Vincent Buranelli states, neither of American writers is so hard to classify as Edgar Allan Poe. The critic defines Poe as “the most complex personality in the entire gallery of American authors” and points out that “no one else fuses, as [Poe] does, such discordant psychological attributes, or offers to the world an appearance so various.” Comparably, Philip Van Doren Stern notes that Poe’s uniqueness becomes evident when we contrast the author with his contemporaries. Although Poe lived in the period when most of the Romantic writers created, he was not a typical representative of his era. Edgar A. Poe did not follow trends, slogans and programmes of his day. As Edward Davidson states, “Poe does not conform to any general or basic American design or character […] Poe represents the hypertrophy of an imagination which had only its imported culture to feed upon.” Unlike Emerson, Thoreau, Melville or Hawthorne, E. A. Poe was not concerned with
the question of man in the new mass world of democratic society, of the new ‘American Adam’ whether in the wilderness or in the driving urgency for success, of the lonely self struggling to understand himself, his world, his God – these and many others Poe merely touched and passed by or even ignored.
Instead, the author focused on inner conflict, the theme which took on different forms in his fiction. As Van Doren Stern notes, the content of Poe’s literary works indicate that the author was ahead of his times. He understood such phenomena as death wish or split-personality before they were defined and created suspense before the psycho-thriller was thought of. On the other hand, Julian Symons expresses the view that Poe transferred his own personality onto the characters of his stories. The critic claims that the author’s life and art were inextricably linked. Symons observes that “as an artist [Poe] worked always in the first person, looking again and again at his personality in a glass that often gave back frightening reflections.”
Several facts from Poe’s life are worth mentioning as they are considered crucial in examining the impact of the author’s personal experiences on his fiction. As the full account of the relationship between the two American writers’ lives and works is going to be presented in the first chapter, this part of the thesis gives only a brief outline of Poe’s and O’Connor’s life experiences.
Edgar A. Poe was orphaned in his early childhood and adopted by John Allan, a rich merchant from Richmond, Virginia. The boy did not get on well with his foster father, who treated him harshly. Poe had no close friends and, as he grew older, he often complained of loneliness. Moreover, the writer experienced numerous health and financial difficulties. As Buranelli writes, his letters, especially those to women, “show […] the drive of his compulsive neuroses.” In spite of Poe’s poor mental health, he worked on, creating his greatest masterpieces. Edgar Allan Poe’s writings were underestimated by his contemporaries and, as a result, he was miserably paid. Van Doren Stern comments on the writer’s bitter fate in the following way: “As a child [Poe] was motherless and set apart from other children; as an adolescent he was humiliated and thrust out into a hostile world; as a man he met continual disappointment and was denied the recognition he felt he deserved.” Edgar Allan Poe’s contemporary writers did not show much enthusiasm for his literary works. J. R. Lowell defined Poe as “Three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge.” Mark Twain and Henry James condemned him entirely. Walt Whitman appreciated Poe’s poetic genius but his poetry did not make any impression on him.
Not only Poe’s works but also his personality aroused a lively controversy among his contemporaries. Buranelli notes that E.A. Poe wanted to shine and to be admired so badly that he frequently created the conditions in which he was pitied, rejected and humiliated. Buranelli calls the writer ”[…] a man divided against himself” and explains that the protagonists whom Poe endowed with dual souls, for example, William Wilson or Dupin are, in fact, their creator’s self-portraits. Poe’s inner dualism was the main source of the author’s conflicts with his environment. He took delight in falsifying facts concerning his life and presenting himself in a way that had nothing in common with the truth. Although his education was incomplete, Poe attempted to impress others with his knowledge, giving quotations in foreign languages he did not explore sufficiently.
It is generally known that Poe maintained cordial relations with his aunt, Maria Clemm, and his cousin, Virginia. The writer married Virginia when the girl was only thirteen years old. It is worth mentioning that both Poe’s mother and wife died of tuberculosis at a young age. Poe’s letters indicate that he loved his wife. However, some critics claim that he desired her death. For instance, F. Lyra quotes E. Wilson who states that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories often portray a young woman who, like Virginia, falls ill and dies while the heroine’s beloved regains his freedom to love other women. The notion that Virginia was a prototype of Poe’s female characters is extremely popular. Buranelli claims that it was the author’s wife that inspired him to write such works as “Eleanora” or “Annabel Lee.” The critic also adds that Virginia’s death contributed to deterioration of Poe’s unstable mental state.
Despite the fact that Edgar Allan Poe frequently felt lonely and rejected, he did not take pains to change this situation. When feeling depressed, he sought comfort in feminine companionship. Another way of relieving his sufferings was alcohol. It cannot be denied that Poe was a heavy drinker. One of the sources indicating this fact is Edgar A. Poe’s correspondence. In a letter written on January 4, 1848, to Eveleth, a medical student and the writer’s acquaintance, Poe reported on a hard time he had had during his wife’s illness and in the period preceding her death: “I became insane, with long periods of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much.”
Van Doren Stern claims that a reason for Poe’s drinking was not difficult to determine. The critic states that E. A. Poe lacked affection and a feeling of security. His literary works seem to be a reflection of inner chaos and uncertainty that were destroying him. The circumstances of Poe’s unhappy life led him to depression and brought about death wish. Such characters as Roderick Usher, the protagonists of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” who are obsessed with pain, cruelty and premature burial may be a projection of the author’s desire for self-destruction. Van Doren Sterns summarizes the impact of Poe’s personal anguish on his fiction in the following way:
There have been many such ill-starred creatures, and most of them have gone down forgotten into their graves. But Poe did not merely take refuge in his fantasies; he turned them to account, setting down in prose and poetry the dark specters that thronged his unhappy, tortured mind.
As mentioned above, the relevance of Poe’s pathological mental state to his writings seems evident. His fascination with madness, neurasthenia and the dissolution of personality does not surprise the reader, already acquainted with all the hardships the author suffered. Similarly, Flannery O’Connor’s interest in evil, ugliness and deformity may stem from the circumstances of her own life. Josephine Hendin, in her study “The World of Flannery O’Connor” defines the factors which oriented the choice of O’Connor’s literary themes. The critic puts an emphasis on the writer’s Irish-American descent as well as the Southern background in which she functioned. The impact of the Milledgeville region on O’Connor’s writing cannot be denied. As Teresa Bałazy notes, in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, the Southern material is the most visible in the language and the setting. In her stories one may encounter the Southern brand of English. Moreover, farmhouses, roadside diners, gas stations and highways with religious slogans (Drive carefully. The life you save may be your own. ) fulfil an essential realistic function. Flannery O’Connor’s characters are defined through the particular objects which surround them, for example, a car of a specified make or a sweat shirt with a cowboy. Although the characteristics of Southern life are present in the writer’s fiction, it is worth mentioning that she made them “explode in new and unexpected directions.” In other words, O’Connor used Southern setting but portrayed her characters as freaks. Their alienation and degeneracy seem extreme, they manifest their nature through violent and shocking behaviour. Although violence and grotesque are inherent features of Southern literary tradition, Flannery O’Connor’s works differ from the Southern thought. It is worth mentioning that O’Connor was a Roman Catholic writer and the South she described is called the Bible Belt, a region where everyone is familiar with the Bible. Her attitude to grotesque is presented in her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann (1961), the essay written by O’Connor for nuns of the Atlanta Free Cancer Home about a small girl, afflicted with cancer. As Bałazy notes, Mary Ann’s face exemplifies “human imperfection and grotesquerie” but as the girl does not lose the faith, her face is also full of promise. In the introduction to the essay O’Connor refers to the Christian ability “to accept and turn to advantage the gifts as well as miseries of life.” However, contrary to Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, the main representatives of the school of the Southern grotesque, O’Connor does not allow her freakish characters to transform their deformity into a desire for human contact. These heroes cannot overcome their loneliness. Instead, Flannery O’Connor uses grotesque to portray human evil which may be overpowered by goodness. Distortion and ugliness are not shown for their own sake but to make the reader conscious of the mystery of human fall. The author’s aim is to subject her protagonists to violent and shocking experience and make them realize their corruption. Only then, can they open their souls to the gift of God’s grace. Both physical and emotional deformity serves to show that human being is incomplete in himself and must search for God to enlighten his existence. Flannery O’Connor’s characters are deliberately presented as distorted and ugly. Their imperfection is portrayed as contrast to the divine perfection of the Lord.
As Hendin writes, Flannery O’Connor “instinctively abandoned the traditional concerns of Southern fiction for her own peculiar obsessions, obsessions which sprang from the unique circumstances of her life.” The critic explains that the author’s complex personality underlies her strange and violent fiction. On the one hand, O’Connor was a devout Catholic and a good, dutiful daughter who lived together with her mother on Andalusia farm in Georgia. On the other hand, Hendin defines her as the enigmatic writer of odd and violent tales and quotes Robert Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s friend and literary executor who describes her as the “shy, glum girl.” Similarly to Poe, Flannery O’Connor spent her life in isolation. Both writers were afflicted with poor health but O’Connor’s illness was not of mental origin. She suffered from lupus, a degenerative disease of blood vessels, which struck her at twenty-five and led to her premature death. Both Poe and O’Connor died relatively young. The former ended his life at the age of forty while the latter lived only to be thirty-nine. O’Connor’s illness exerted an influence on her whole life. While lupus was progressing, the author was unable to function independently and needed her mother’s constant care and attention. O’Connor carried out her work in seclusion and maintained the contact with her friends mainly through letters. On Andalusia farm, she raised fowl – swans, peacocks and ducks. Hendin stresses the writer’s extreme loneliness stating that the birds were the only creatures she was genuinely attached to.
Flannery O’Connor, who was the only child of a patrician family, was praised by her mother for her lack of attempts to seek company. It is worth mentioning that her illness was not the major reason for her isolation. It only contributed to strengthening her loneliness but, regardless of consequences of O’Connor’s disease, she had always felt different. Hendin illustrates this thought referring to a cartoon Flannery O’Connor created when she was a student of Georgia Women’s College. “It shows a girl who looks like O’Connor wearing huge eyeglasses and sitting alone at a dance while couples dance all around her. She has a desperately cheerful smile. ‘Oh well,’ the caption reads, ‘I can always be a Ph.D.’” The critic points out that the writer tended to treat her weakness humorously and learnt to detach herself from her own suffering. This behaviour seems to have its roots in the code of Southern, genteel womanhood. This code prohibits confession and promotes politeness and sweetness. As Hendin writes, Southern mode of behaviour is visible in such proverbs as “Pretty is as pretty does,” or “I was brought up to be nice to everyone and not to tell anyone my business.” Flannery O’Connor, who used to listen to such “pearls of wisdom” from her early childhood, learnt to keep her feelings under control and was never close to anyone.
The feelings and emotions repressed by the author found their outlet in her fiction. O’Connor’s characters resemble their creator as they are tight-lipped and deny the truth about themselves. Such heroines as Mrs Hopewell, Mrs May or Mrs Turpin tend to “do pretty” regardless of what they feel. However, as mentioned above, an essential characteristic of O’Connor’s fiction is violence. As Hendin notes, the violence unleashed by the author’s characters is, in fact, the accumulation of O’Connor’s own suffering. It is the writer’s rage at her own impotence in the light of inevitability of forthcoming death. All the suppressed emotions become visible in her fiction. For example, in a short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” we witness a scene of mass murder. Hendin states that the Misfit, a criminal psychopath, is an embodiment of O’Connor’s negative emotions. The critic points out that the writer’s rage manifests itself when “the Misfit with great politeness has the family exterminated, or when he answers the grandmother’s ‘niceness’ with a gunshot and thereby suggests that neither Christian charity nor Southern politeness can contain all the darker human impulses.”
Hendin makes the interesting remark that those who read O’Connor’s fiction, claim that there is something “different” in it while her characters are described as “peculiar.” Her short stories portray the figures who suffer from “ice in the blood,” or, in other words, from emotional death. Their peculiarity lies partly in the inability to feel anything at all. Her characters – assassins, freaks or psychic cripples are totally devoid of positive emotions, such as love or compassion. As a result, they experience a state of death in life. Hence, only through acts of violence are they capable of coming close to other human beings. Josephine Hendin points out that O’Connor wrote about the issue she understood the best, namely, “what it means to be a living contradiction.” Flannery O’Connor was both reconciled with her fate and full of grief over the nearness of her death. She possessed such features as kindness and fear of human contact. Her art may be seen as “a release and a vindication of her life.”
As the main objective of the following thesis is to analyse odd and deviant behaviour in selected short stories by Poe and O’Connor, the chapters 1-4 are meant to acquaint the reader with this engaging theme.