Southern Forms of Grotesque: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Southern Forms of Grotesque: Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Written by Anaïs Charbonneau-Poitras

for Prof. Pauline Morel

The grotesque is defined as the degradation and distortion from conventions of normality which often entices a paradoxical attraction of the repulsive. The southern writers William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor both present the Grotesque genre in shocking manners in their respective short stories “A Rose for Emily” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. In contrasting and comparing the grotesque in both stories, the grotesque in Faulkner’s becomes perverse and in O’Connor’s becomes violent. The stories characterize the element of the grotesque through the authors’ physical description of the main character, the protagonist’s psychological states, and through the concept of hybridity.

Faulkner’s and O’Connor’s descriptions of their protagonists indicate each story’s view of the grotesque. This tainted view is provoked by the imagery and figurative language used to describe the character of Faulkner’s Emily Grierson and of O’Connor’s character of the Grandmother. Throughout the story, Emily is described as a sad figure who lives in an old dusty plantation Mansion. Faulkner describes Emily similarly to that of a corpse: “look[s] bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water […] of that pallid hue” (135). He also often uses morbid, morose and decrepit vocabulary to describe her and her general inertia. These descriptions and Emily’s pre-Reformist past cause her to represent the aging southern Belle and its dying traditions. Therein lies old Miss Emily’s freakishness for she is described as going against conventions of life and vitality. Her corpse-like appearance is reflective of her secretive fascination with the dead that is revealed at the end of the narrative. The grotesque is explicit in Emily as she disturbs and distorts normality in living while having the appearance, stagnancy, and dormancy of death. Additionally, Faulkner’s view upon the grotesque can be seen here as Emily perverts the very concept of death with her fascination of decay.

The description of the Grandmother in O’Connor’s short is mostly done through the manner and style in which she dresses. Compared to the story’s other characters, she wears vibrant and vivid colours, such as a “purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet,” to demonstrate and substantiate her femininity (354). The outdated style, emphasis, and care she attributes to her looks is reminiscent of the aging southern Belle figure which corresponds well with her Southern background and past in Tennessee. The aging Belle figure becomes grotesque as it is associated with a disturbing history that “revolves around burdensome models of femininity, […] slavery […] its tragic legacy and a literally fatal regional patriotism” (Gleeson-White 46). This violent history vulgarizes the seemingly feminine beauty of the grandmother to the extent of distorting it into the domain of ridicule: “big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus” (353). At once, the style of her clothing seems ridiculous and extraneous on her, which contorts and fragments her body. This style demonstrates the grotesque which her character exudes since she distorts the femininity of the Southern belle by associating it, due to her age and ridiculousness in dressing as a Belle, to its tragic history. Thus, the vulgarity in the distorted Belle provokes a violent grotesque. Miss Emily’s likeness to cadavers causes the story to evoke a perverse grotesque, whereas the grandmother’s aging Belle association provokes a more violent form of grotesque in O’Connor’s story.

The psychology concerning Miss Emily and the grandmother greatly influences the form of their story’s grotesquery. Miss Emily’s character presents various psychological dilemmas through her fascination with death and the body. This ties in to Kelly Hurley’s idea of how abjection is in part a self-projection of inner abjection, wherein abjection is something which is hidden for it disturbs normality and conventions. It will often incite feelings of disgust and repulsion tinged with fascination, for it is “where meaning collapses” (Hurley 139). Abjection is often used in relation to human excrements or waste, which in Emily’s case would be corpses and their decay. Her home is a toxic and morbid environment of decaying southern values in which a horrendous smell permeates her atmosphere and yet she revels in it. She craves this just as she craves to keep her father’s body by attempting to deny his death to the public, who needs “to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (Faulkner 137). Her character, in a superficial reading, is void and lacking in identity and life; therefore, she seeks herself in abjection. She uses abjection as her identity. The abjection of death becomes a seductive fascination for her which causes her to desire the homosexual Homer Barron. This notion degrades her sexuality as an immorality and thus a source of evil. She becomes a figure of perversion herself due to her female sexuality which transforms her into the “monstrous-feminine” (Creed 53). Her ultimate perversion is the skeleton of Homer Barron in her bed – “in the second pillow was the indentation of a head” – and her cherishment of his corpse as she keeps it until her own death (Faulkner 143). This secret fascination and obsession for the morbidity of the abject denotes the perversity of Emily and of the story’s grotesque aspect.

O’Connor’s grandmother, insistently and constantly, aspires for the ideal of the lady. Her age, as previously discussed, distorts the ideal of the Belle and lady. The title “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” hints at the southern white woman ideal and her necessity for a man. This Belle ideal depicted women as self-consumed in their affirmation of beauty and as fragile in their dependency upon men. The ideal goes to the extreme of depicting women as “prey, and so as vulnerable, passively in need of protection by their white-clad knights” (Gleeson-White 49). Throughout the story, this depiction seems to be the pivotal ideal of the grandmother as she speaks of older, better times that contained ‘good men.’ This ideal raises the question of whether she is looking for her own knight – a good man. However, once her family are ambushed by the Misfit, she uses this lady ideal as a status to save herself. Her usage of her lady status to protect herself from the Misfit – “‘You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?’” – demonstrates her degradation of the ideal (O’Connor 362). The Misfit responds by shooting her, which depicts the brutality associated with southern womanhood. Therein lies the violence of O’Connor’s story’s grotesqueness. Through Emily’s identification with abjection, the story’s grotesqueness becomes perverted and the southern ugliness of O’Connor’s story depicts the corruption in its form of grotesque.

The hybridity of the narrator in “A Rose for Emily” and of the Misfit influences the form of grotesque in each short story. Faulkner’s story is presented through an unusual first person plural narrator. The circular narrative comes off as the townspeople’s voice of gossip. The narrative often distorts and confuses the reader’s perception of time through its chronological style: “the chronology deliberately manipulates and delays the reader’s final judgment […] by altering the evidence” (Getty 230). Throughout the story the relationship between the narrator and Emily seems a confidential one, the sense of a confession, where Emily is unaware of its observance. The narrator often has knowledge of intricate details about the protagonist’s private life, especially concerning the abjection within her. This knowledge comes off as intrusive and hints at voyeurism in the narrator. Again a sick “half-hypnotic fascination” for the morbid is shown in the story (Hurley 143). However, the hybridity of the narrator lies in its liminal state of being between the past and the present in its chronological narration in which it has no proper boundaries. This liminal temporality becomes grotesque as it disturbs human understanding of time. The voyeurism of the narrator’s voice is the perverse element in this grotesque narrative.

However, O’Connor presents hybridity not through the narrative but through the Misfit. O’Connor’s Misfit is interestingly not portrayed as the monster of the story. The Misfit is the one to deliver the death that the family is so fascinated with. The author presents the Misfit as the most likeable character in the story – the grandmother even calls him a “good man” – and yet he is the murderer (362). The Misfit’s hybridity lies in representing both the civilized and the savage, in which he undermines both binaries. He brutally murders the family that depicts the misled idealized past of Southern values. The Grandmother deceives herself both with this idealized Southern past and through her denial of the Misfit’s bloodthirst. However, when the Grandmother encounters the Misfit, she is struck with a fascination in which she cannot bear to look at the Misfit or look away from him. Her imprisonment in this fascination is shown in her inability to cease talking at this point in the story. The Misfit vulgarizes this grotesquery by killing her, which depicts the violence of human relations and the moral depravity of the reality of the Southern past and present. The hybridity of the narrator’s voice through voyeurism and the Misfit’s hybridity, through the author’s appropriation of his exploitation of misery, provokes the vulgarization of the grotesque.

Contrasting and comparing Faulkner’s and O’Connor southern short stories demonstrates how the authors portray the concept of the grotesque differently; Faulkner depicts the grotesque as perverse and O’Connor depicts the grotesque as brutal. The form of grotesque in the stories is influenced by Emily’s and the grandmother’s literary and psychological descriptions and by the cause of hybridity. The original ‘monsters’ of the story, according to concepts of the Southern Gothic, are not the presumed villains.


Works Cited

Creed, B. “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” Horror: The Film Reader, edited by Mark Jancovich, Routledge, 2002, pp. 67-77.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Stories, edited by J. Kelly, Norton, 2015, pp. 133-143.

Getty, L. J. “Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” The Explicator, vol. 63, no. 4, 2005, pp. 230-234.

Gleeson-White, S. “A Peculiarly Southern Form of Ugliness: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 46-57.

Hurley, K. “Abject and Grotesque.” Routledge Companion to the Gothic, edited by E. M. Spooner, Routledge, 2007, pp. 137-146.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Stories, edited by J. Kelly, Norton, 2015, pp. 352-368.


About the Author:

Anaïs Charbonneau-Poitras is a 19-year-old Dawson College Psychology student. Born and raised in the rural Eastern Townships, she recently moved to the bohemian city of Montréal. As a writer and poet, she is influenced and inspired by the American Gothic, Romanticism, and Surrealist literature, as well as Horror cinema. Her passion for writing and literature began with her reading of the dark Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the German Grimm brothers Jacob and Wilhelm. The featured essay “Teatro Grottesco: A Predestined Spectacle of Insignificance” was written during her first year at Dawson for an English course with Kristopher Woofter, whereas, “Southern Forms of the Grotesque: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ and O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’” was written during her second year for Pauline Morel’s course.

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