The Gothic Inversion: Why Gothic Elements Prosper in the Work of Flannery O’Connor
I submitted this piece as my senior project in my final semester at Georgia State. I put weeks of thought and research into developing an original thesis, and defending it with academic sources. It shows my academic writing voice, and also offers some insight into my love of all things southern gothic!
There is something about a dark story that has a way of compelling readers and casting a mysterious spell over them. We are intrigued by the supernatural; many of us have a sort of grim curiosity towards horror and death. What people find grotesque or scary is very often a strong indicator of what their society is like, and disturbing stories can sometimes give a unique insight into what is scary to people and why. Growing up in the American south, certain passages and themes from various works of Southern Gothic literature resonated with me. I recognized the desolate towns with such outlandish residents that were being described in the stories, or how a slowly decaying antebellum house can be so unsettling. So when I delved into the work of Flannery O’Connor, I recognized that her vision of the grotesque in the American South was deeply insightful and hit the nail on the head so to speak. While O’Connor’s work hardly ever approaches what could be considered “horror”, most of her stories are almost universally considered to be unsettling, but usually in a subtle way. I believe that the way in which Flannery O’Connor’s work plays on examining the grotesque in the average mirrors the way in which Gothic literature showed the average in the grotesque: Simply put, Gothic literature shows normal people in fantastically macabre and grotesque situations, whereas O’Connor shows the fantastically macabre and grotesque inside of normal society.
The term “gothic” refers to the Goths who were an east-germanic (or northern European) originating people who lived in ancient Europe and are perhaps most notable for their large part in the downfall of Rome in 410 AD. The Goths spoke the gothic language; a now extinct germanic language that faded along with Gothic society. Despite what one might naturally think, the Goths are directly responsible for very little of what is colloquially referred to as “gothic”. Because of their role in the destruction of Rome, the term “Goth” was nearly synonymous with “vandal” due to the perception of the Goths being destroyers of classic accomplishments. Gothic architecture was titled such in a belittling manner as a way to refer to the genre of architecture that was replacing the more classic roman architecture, and this form of architecture did not emerge until the 12th century, several hundred years after the Goths had disappeared from history.
The etymology of Gothic literature has even less to do with the original Goths than the architecture does. Gothic fiction began to emerge in the middle of the Georgian period, and was referred to as such due to the renaming and subtitling of Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. When initially published, Walpole playfully titled the work "The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto," playing on a tongue-in-cheek claim that the story was recovered from an ancient Italian manuscript dating back as far as the crusades. This was not true however as Walpole was the original writer, using the name “William Marshall” as a pen-name for the would-be translator. The story features the lord Manfred who resides with his family in his castle. On the day of his ill son Conrad’s wedding, Conrad is crushed and killed by a helmet from a statue of a former prince of the castle, which Manfred fears could be the beginning of the fruition of an ancient prophecy that threatens that the castle will be passed on from the family. Manfred becomes enamored with the woman his son was to marry, and becomes overwhelmed with the desire to wed her and produce a proper heir with which his bloodline can continue and retain possession of the castle. Thus ensues a wild line of events in which Manfred attempts to secure his desires by any means necessary, all the while navigating the seemingly supernatural and ever increasingly ominous castle with its purported self-shutting doors, moving pictures, and secret passages where finally, tragedy strikes Manfred and he is forced to repent. The story was well received by an audience under the impression that they were reading an ancient story. Walpole went on to publish subsequent versions where he claimed full authorship under his real name and added the subtitle “A Gothic Story”, which led to the story being taken far less seriously and being seen as cheap. His use of the word “Gothic” in his subtitle was meant to be interpreted as barbaric or medieval and referencing the castle, but the word ended up taking on the meaning of the very essence of the story, and would go on to serve as the banner for an entire genre. What Walpole accomplished in writing The Castle of Otranto was blending two iterations of Romantic literature (the counterpart and source format for Gothic literature). He successfully combined aspects of both medieval romantic literature and the modern novel: there are elements of magic, supernatural, and grotesquery, yet they are presented in a straightforward, realistic narrative tone as if relaying a story as it happened.
In publishing The Castle of Otranto, Walpole had unknowingly set in stone many of the tropes with which Gothic literature would be forever associated such as the old ominous castle, a beautiful maiden usually in danger, a supernatural presence, and many others. In the ensuing years, other writers would write stories drawing on themes that Walpole had touched on, creating their own visions of horror and mystery. Along with these novels came more tropes and devices that became more and more established, such as heroes versus villains, the church and sinister clergymen, isolation and insanity, and a long list of others. Despite many of the novels selling well and being widely read, most Gothic novels received less than favorable critical reviews as many critics felt that Gothic literature was low-brow fluff with little artistic value due to the grisly subject matter. This did not stop the works from finding an audience however; some authors were able to find great success from writing in the genre as the Gothic novel became wildly popular in the 1790s. “During the years from 1796 to 1806, at least one-third of all novels published in Great Britain were Gothic in character while on the London stage one Gothic melodrama succeeded the other” (Mayo 766). The wild popularity of Gothic literature despite the negative critical reception of the genre may seem surprising, but indeed, the genre flourished. Possible explanations for the popularity of the genre are plentiful; some find it thrilling to experience a dangerous and exciting story while reading safely from the comfort of their home, it prompted readers to use their imaginations to consider the impossible or supernatural, it played on existing, familiar tropes such as good vs. evil, or perhaps some people just liked the adrenaline rush. One compelling angle to consider is the fact that the majority of Gothic literature features a female character, and a large body of the Gothic literature produced was written by women, helping the works find their way into the hands of plenty of female readers. With its accessibility, Gothic literature gained a huge audience comprised largely of middle-class and women. “In the hands of Ann Radcliffe, the Female Gothic came into its own in the 1790s… driven by its tremendous adaptability to contemporary issues and cultural developments. In the face of such cataclysmic events as the French Revolution, an escalating Industrial Revolution, war, economic turmoil, burgeoning debates about women’s rights, and colonial issues like slave rebellions, the Female Gothic garnered widespread popularity and was reinvested with new power to address various ends” (Davis 144).
The genre became somewhat susceptible to parody and satire due to its popularity and extravagance. Jane Austen’s renowned novel Northanger Abbey is considered a satire of the genre. The novel features Catherine, a young woman spending time with her suitor and his family at their home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine is shown to be an avid fan of gothic literature early in the novel, and she frequently discusses Ann Radcliffe’s Tales of Udolpho with a friend of hers. The fixation with the genre leads her into becoming paranoid while staying at Northanger Abbey where she frequently imagines sinister elements at work, and embarasses herself multiple times when shown to be incorrect and that there is nothing to fear. The novel distorts several other traditional Gothic tropes, and serves as a foil to the Gothic novel. This example of a parody of the Gothic is interesting because it gives insight into the common perception of Gothic literature at the time. The outlandish nature of the Gothic was easy to make fun of and was often seen by the high-brow as pulp, in favor of more straightforward literature.
Gothic fiction’s popularity rose and fell; once well into the 19th century, the genre had become far less popular than it once had been, though was still being produced. As time progressed more and more writers were adapting and innovating the genre, but more importantly, more and more writers were being influenced by it. The expansion of the genre and its themes gave way to some of the more renowned novels that are considered Gothic such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gothic literature was not isolated to Great Britain, despite most of its notable examples originating there. The genre found new life in America through the minds of writers like Edgar Allen Poe. Nearly all of Poe’s body of work deals with the macabre and grotesque, with stories like Fall of the House of Usher standing out as particularly gothic. Other American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving adapted Gothic elements to their American experience by incorporating themes from American history such as the Salem Witch Trials, slavery, and Puritanical overzealousness. “American writers understood, quite early, that the Gothic offered a way to explore areas otherwise denied them. The Gothic is a literature of opposition. If the national story of the United States has been one of faith in progress and success and in opportunity for the individual, Gothic literature can tell the story of those who are rejected, oppressed, or who have failed” (Crow 2). These writers and their innovations to the Gothic genre established their own set of tropes for writers like William Faulkner who built on the innovations made by the earlier American gothic writers, adapting them further to their specific geographic and cultural location, and capitalizing on combining the grotesque with the ordinary.
All of these writers were instrumental in setting the literary stage for Flannery O’Connor. Born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah Georgia, Mary Flannery O’Connor grew up in a largely Roman Catholic community due to the number of Irish immigrants that landed in Savannah. Her father became ill with lupus erythematosus, and in the year following the family’s move to Milledgeville Georgia, he passed away, leaving young Mary Flannery with her mother Regina. O’Connor was active in writing and drawing while in school, and worked with the school’s newspaper. She entered into Georgia State College for Women where she worked as a cartoonist for the newspaper, developing cartoons that exaggerated and satirized local events and figures. She graduated with a degree in social sciences, and at the age of twenty-one, she moved to Iowa after being accepted into the University of Iowa’s prestigious writing program. Upon graduating, O’Connor for the next several years would work on her writing while living in either New York or Connecticut until 1952 when she was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus like her father, and was forced to return home to live with her mother in Milledgeville. She would live for another twelve years before dying in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine. O’Connor wrote two novels and published two short story collections containing roughly thirty-two short stories among some other journals and writings in her lifetime. She is considered an important figure in American and specifically Southern literature, and is often cited as a pioneer and definitive example of “Southern Gothic Literature”. Nearly all of O’Connor’s writings deal heavily with dark, macabre, and grotesque elements, usually taking place in the South and revolving around deeply flawed and troubled characters. While O’Connor never wrote specifically about ancient castles or the supernatural, her writings utilized various gothic elements with which she applied to everyday life. Rather than placing her characters into fantastic and supernatural circumstances in true Gothic fashion, O’Connor examined the already existing gothic elements in her own surroundings resulting in grotesque depictions of everyday life that Southern Gothic Literature has become known for.
Just as learning the origin of Gothic literature is crucial in understanding its tropes and significance, understanding O’Connor’s setting is crucial in grasping the poignancy and nuance of her writings. O’Connor lived all but five years of her life in the American South. She was born into it, and was very much molded by it as her entire childhood was spent there. She became something of an outlier when her family moved from predominantly Catholic Savannah into the heart of the Protestant bible belt. Particularly rural areas of the American South, especially in the early twentieth century, could be unanimously, zealously protestant. Oftentimes, Protestantism would absolutely dominate politics, education systems, and even social interactions. In Protestant-dominated bible belt towns, Catholics would often be marginalized and misunderstood. Despite this, O’Connor was highly active in her local church, and her personal faith. During healthier periods of her life she attended daily Mass, and devoted time from each day to prayer and religious reading. She was not deterred by the Protestant majority surrounding her, and despite various sly comments made about Protestantism throughout her life, she sought to maintain an appreciation for the church in all its forms. In a correspondence with a loved one included in the collection of letters she wrote, Habit of Being, O’Connor wrote “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it” (O’Connor).
Her religiosity did not however keep her from developing characters in her stories that were scathing satires of false protestant leaders or religious hypocrites such as Asa Hawks, the contemptible false prophet in Wise Blood, or Manley Pointer, the villainous miscreant parading as a bible salesman in Good Country People. Her experience living in the South and dealing with the effects religion had on her society is not dissimilar to the way in which the early Gothic writers dealt with religion in their own Georgian British society. The Anglican church was the prevailing religious authority, and it permeated most people’s lives. Michael Giffin, an Anglican priest and Georgian period scholar writes on religion during the Georgian period in his book Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England. Although the book focuses on religion portrayed in Jane Austen’s work, it still offers critical insights into the general religious climate of the time. “In Georgian England, the macrocosm of state and church, and the microcosm of estate and parish, were related to each other in an organic way… Religious issues were still held to be of public importance… Church and parish, through their link with the state and estate, were a major focus of social cohesion and social welfare, just as the Temple and synagogue are in scripture” (Giffin 23). Many aspects of both O’Connor’s society and Georgian society were dominated by their respective religions, both of which were Protestant. It is a common trope in Gothic literature for clergymen to be portrayed in a negative light; this is most likely due to the shift from the fervent religious violence of the 17th century into a more calm and accepting view on religion during the Georgian period, causing people to see traditional and strict religious practice as outdated, medieval, and therefore Gothic. Some of the most notable examples of early Gothic literature utilized this fear. Take for example Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 novel The Monk for example; the story’s convoluted plot features what begins as a pious and honorable monk named Ambrosio who throughout several episodes of struggling against his religious convictions and later nefarious religious ceremonies, becomes a raping, murderous shadow of his former self. At the end of the story, Lucifer (Satan) himself appears, claiming responsibility for most of the story’s conflict, and after accepting Ambrosio’s offer of his soul in exchange for restored health, Lucifer reveals even more evil misdeeds previously unknown to Ambrosio and the audience, and drops Ambrosio from a great height leaving him to slowly die, only to then suffer in hell for eternity. This depiction of Satan, while greatly exaggerated, is more or less consistent with what the Church would warn its congregants against, constantly reminding its congregation that the devil was lurking behind every corner in pursuit of your soul. This sort of warning against the devil was far more common in the dominating churches that predated the more relaxed Anglicanism of the Georgian era, so to see such a horrifying depiction of a man turned evil only to be killed by the devil himself and then to burn in hell for eternity was a jolting reminder of that aspect of Christian tradition. This is just one example of a well-established and cited trope of evil clergy and the ill-intentioned church being present in the Gothic, and an active ingredient in what makes it so unsettling.
Religion is also a common element in O’Connor’s work which was likely prompted by what she felt as a Catholic was a slightly misguided religiosity and zeal, which she would encounter in her daily life living among the Protestant majority of Milledgeville. Yet where traditional Gothic literature uses the presence of religious tradition as a threat, in O’Connor’s setting (both in her work and in her life), religious tradition was commonplace and comforting to most residents of the South. Yet as comforting as it was, O’Connor spared no detail in her effort to depict aspects of religion as grotesque. In her story The River, a young boy named Harry Ashfield is taken to a Christian “revival.” While revivals have taken place in many cultures in different periods of time, the revival in this particular story is highly indicative of the backwoods and fundamentalist faith healing session that were wildly popular in the South during the 20th century. After we are shown the four or five year old Harry is neglected at home early in the story, he is eager to be welcomed in by this riverside congregation, and is taken by the faith healing preacher and baptized in the river, where he is told that he now “counts.” The following day after he is returned to his neglectful family by the babysitter, he is left to himself in the morning while his parents remain asleep. Craving the emotional and spiritual high found yesterday in the water, he makes his way across the city and is able to find the same spot on the river. He rushes into the water “until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river. He didn’t mean to waste any more time. He put his head under the water at once and pushed forward” (O’Connor 173). Harry gets caught in the current, and unable to swim, drowns in the water. The inclusion of a revival or a baptism would certainly not have been grotesque or unsettling to the average reader of this story. What is unsettling is not only that a young boy dies in the story, but that he dies in a perversion of what protestants considered a sacred ceremony. While his soul may have been allegedly saved in the story, his life is taken by an inversion of the same ceremony. There is also perhaps a level of critique here thanks to O’Connor’s Catholic perspective, in that she is likely attempting to satire the fanatical faith healing revival; something that Catholics did not take part in or believe in. The story was widely criticized as many felt that the death of a young boy was in bad taste and that it was not necessary, which shows just how challenging and unsettling it was to readers at the time. In a way not dissimilar from how Gothic writers unsettled their audiences with the inclusion of religion, O’Connor unsettled hers with the inversion of religion.
Another aspect of O’Connor’s south that is crucial to understanding her nuance is the general state of the rural South during her time. Born just sixty years after the American Civil War, O’Connor’s South was one that still held elements of a war-torn society on the losing side of the war. Not only was the South struggling to recover and rebuild from the destruction that the war brought, it was also struggling to adjust to the absence of slaves; a crucial component of the South’s antebellum productivity. Racial tensions were high with the presence of freed African-Americans cohabiting with the children of former slave-owners, and industry was suffering. By the time O’Connor had grown up, further attempts to revitalize the South were in full swing.
The South of O’Connor’s adulthood was a region undergoing major structural transformation after a long era of relative stagnancy... Prominent regional politicians, journalists, and preachers had optimistically proclaimed a “New South” in the 1880s, but this New South in fact materialized as the poor, peripheral stepchild in an increasingly prosperous, powerful nation. As the majority of Americans left the countryside for the exploding cities, found jobs in the expanding industrial, corporate economy, and saw millions of European immigrants pour into this fast-developing matrix, the South stumbled into the twentieth century as a peculiar backwater. The population remained heavily rural, agriculture continued to be the backbone of the regional economy, and the region attracted but a trickle of incoming immigrants ...the region paid the lowest wages in the nation, and most of the industrial stock fell ultimately into the hands of capitalists outside the region (Hayes and May 45).
While the South certainly still had cities that were able to flourish, you did not have to go far to find cities left in ruins either by the war, agricultural failure, or being left behind by the industry elsewhere in the country. O’Connor typically avoided placing stories in large, flourishing cities besides a couple exceptions. In an essay examining O’Connor’s use of urban versus rural settings titled The City Reconsidered: Problems and Possibilities of Urban Community in “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and “The Artificial [Expletive], Thomas Haddox refers to O’Connor’s preference to place stories in as rural a setting as she could, as if urban settings and cities “lacked the talismanic communal ethos and sense of place” that were found in more rural settings. Old houses often sit in disrepair in the works of O’Connor, residing in near ghost towns with little to no activity. This theme and tendency of O’Connor’s mirrors closely not only the quintessential Gothic trope of an old decrepit castle, but the poignant theme of isolation. Where the remnants of medieval culture served as a grim reminder of dark periods to the Gothic author, the remnants of antebellum culture contributed to the malaise of O’Connor’s settings. The inversion of this trope however is a physical one. The inclusion of old, decrepit castles was Gothic tradition from the very inception of the genre, thanks to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Similar castles serve as the setting for a majority of definitive gothic works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or later works like Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. Again, these setting serve to add an ominous air to a story, reminding readers of a darker time. A similar effect is achieved in O’Connor’s work not only in physical settings or presences, but in the people themselves. As Gothic literature induced unease in readers by placing its characters among old relics of a dark, haunting past, O'Connor induces unease in readers by placing relics of a dark haunting past within her characters. A common character that persists through the work of O’Connor is the gossiping, naive, would-be genteel old woman. Whether it's the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find who can't stop talking about how much better things were when she was young while being obsessed with herself being perceived as a “proper” lady, or Julian’s mother in Everything That Rises Must Converge, the overly cheerful yet blatantly racist woman who refuses to ride the bus without her son escorting her due to her fear of the recent racial integration. Similar characters exist in several of her other stories such as Revelation and Greenleaf, and they all share the same characteristics; vapid, hypocritical, selfish, loudmouthed, romanticizing of the past, but perhaps most importantly, a complete failure to see themselves as anything but perfect. While it is abundantly clear that O’Connor is writing the characters in a mocking manner, most readers during O’Connor’s time (especially in the South) would immediately recognize this type of personality. O’Connor herself was most certainly familiar with the type, as she claims to have had to live with someone who fit the bill. In her correspondence, O’Connor makes frequent mention of the frustrations she had with her mother, her aunts, and her mother’s friends. Considering the circumstance of O’Connor’s living situation makes this frustration seem not only plausible but likely; after growing up in Milledgeville with her mother, she had the opportunity to finally leave the south where she was able to study in Iowa to work on her writing, or live in forward thinking, progressive New York City. Yet the opportunity was short lived, as once she became sick with lupus she was forced to move back in with her mother for the remainder of her life. Whether Regina O’Connor was as hard to live with as the characters inspired by her is hard to say, but one can see how the lack of choice of a roommate was fuel to the fire for O’Connor. But just satirizing the southern woman stereotype was not enough for O’Connor; she had to introduce the elements of the grotesque. In nearly every one of the stories containing one of these characters, they end up meeting being brutalized. The Grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find is shot through the chest shortly after her whole family is killed all because she couldn’t keep her mouth shut, Julian’s mother in Everything That Rises Must Converge is knocked out by one of the African Americans that she is so fearful of due to her condescending nature, Mrs. Turpin of Revelation is faced with a horrifying yet humbling religious vision (or revelation, as the title would suggest) after having been insulted and assaulted with a book by a young girl who had had enough of her played up sense of propriety, and Mrs. May of Greenleaf ends up being gored by a bull due to her impatience. Indeed, fancying yourself as a proper southern lady in the world of Flannery O’Connor is a dangerous game. While in Gothic literature, the mere presence of a relic of the past is enough to inspire a sense of ominousness, what is unsettling in O’Connor’s stories is a bit more complicated. It is not the characters themselves or even their shortcomings that are disturbing to readers; it is the grisly ends they meet. O’Connor erects these characters as beacons of the old south, but has them brutally destroyed each time. The sentiments of the past that these women hold are not what is unsettling here, but the consequences of that mode of thought are what shocks the reader.
What may be the primary inversion of the Gothic is the difference in the way that the characters face and deal with the grotesque circumstances they find themselves in. Most typically, traditionally Gothic stories feature the protagonist finding themselves in grotesque situations and attempting to work their way out of the macabre situation. The plot of the story usually details the character’s struggle against the darkness, and their attempt to make things right and normal again. Manfred of The Castle of Otranto does not wish any supernatural misfortunes upon himself; all he desires is for his bloodline to prevail and to maintain possession over his domain. The monster of the titular doctor Frankenstein does not want to be a monster, but simply to experience affection and acceptance, just as his creator didn’t set out to create a monster but was chasing achievement. You will find the same pattern in most protagonists of the Gothic; characters thrust into unfavorable circumstances from which they only want to escape. This is usually not quite the case with O’Connor’s work. Rather than simply attempting to exit the grotesque or immediately return to normalcy in their attempts to work things out, O’Connor will have her character thrust themselves further into the grotesque, embracing it, and searching for a solution in it. It is not that O’Connor’s characters are antagonistic or are not seeking escape from their given predicament; it is that their attempts to tackle the problems usually take them deeper into darkness. In O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood, the novel’s protagonist Hazel Motes, angry and with something to prove, arrives in the city of Taulkinham and builds his anti-religious ministry “The Church of Christ Without Christ” in response to a blind street preacher and his daughter that he encounters. Hazel is maddened by and completely fixated on the preacher and his daughter, and soon learns that the preacher is blind by his own doing after having poured quicklime in his eyes at a revival to demonstrate how detached he was to the secular world and its draws. Hazel learns soon thereafter however that the preacher is not blind and that his ministry is a scam. This fuels Hazel’s anti-religious convictions and he continues on preaching his secular message. Yet through the entirety of his time in Taulkinham, Hazel only encounters people who offer various trials, such as a prostitute who belittles him and destroys his hat, a con artist who steals his ministry, and a police officer who destroys his car for the fun of it. This is all not to mention the manic teenager who continually bombards Hazel with a mummified dwarf from a museum after misunderstanding Hazel’s message and feeling that the “Church of Christ Without Christ” needs a prophetic effigy. Hazel’s primary desire is to spread his message, and his time in the city has plagued him with darkness and trials. The clear option for most people wanting to spread a message would be to simply move on and preach elsewhere. Hazel even mentions the importance of being able to escape in one of his sermons “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it” (O’Connor). But despite the clear choice to escape and focus on somewhere else, this is not the choice that Hazel makes. In a fulfillment of what the street preacher couldn’t do, Hazel blinds himself with quicklime. Hazel does not even use this as a testament to his message however, and he ends up living the next couple of months as an ascetic, walking with rocks in his shoes and wrapped in barbed wire. Hazel’s solution to his problem was completely absurd, and reading about his blinding and self-torturing lifestyle is disturbing to the reader. Not only is the idea of Hazel punishing himself in such a way upsetting on a physical level, it serves as a perversion of Christianity. As Jesus suffered on the cross to save those who would join his church, Hazel blinds and tortures himself for his own anti-religious convictions. Rather than utilizing any effective preaching methods, Hazel thrusts himself irrevocably deeper into his own grotesque situation. We see the same thing happening with the characters from the other stories; in A Good Man Is Hard To Find, clearly the best choice is to not say much to a band of murderers, but The Grandmother reverts back to her identity as a proper lady and socialite who wants to work her way out of the situation with politeness, only to get her and her family killed. O’Connor accomplishes the same means of shocking her audience as her gothic predecessors did. In fact, adverse reactions to her first novel Wise Blood were so bad in her hometown of Milledgeville that she nearly earned herself a bad reputation. In Brad Gooch’s biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, he gathers the accounts of reactions of the local people who had set out to read it. “Reaction among the ladies who lunch in Milledgeville was just as disapproving. Upon reading the description of Mrs. Watts, lounging in her place of business - ‘the friendliest bed in town’- Flannery’s first college writing instructor, Katherine Scott, threw the novel across the room… Some townspeople later claimed that they circulated Wise Blood in brown paper bags, and one upright citizen boasted that she burned her copy in her backyard” (Gooch 208).
Just as Horace Walpole was able to do when he combined the old and new romantic style in The Castle of Otranto, the work that started it all, Flannery O’Connor is successful in combining multiple elements herself. Through her inversion and spin on the tried and true gothic tropes of her predecessors, as well as the colloquial familiarity and personal touch she adds with the Southern element of her stories, she successfully merges Gothic and Southern literature. Had O’Connor simply introduced the two we may have ended up with some decent stories that were mildly unsettling. But it is O’Connor’s ability to invert and exaggerate those Gothic elements coupled with Southern material that gives us a result that is as shocking and challenging as her work is.