Thesis (M.A.), 2008, 91 Pages
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, mainly, “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.
 Elizabeth Phillips, E.A. Poe: An American Imagination. Three Essays (Washington: National
University Publications KENNIKAT PRESS, 1979), p. 125.
 Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Alan Poe (Boston: Twayne Publisher, Inc., 1961), p. 17.
 Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), p. 256.  Ibid.
 Julian Symons, The Tell-Tale Heart. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. 240.  Ibid.
 Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Alan Poe, op. cit. , p. 36.
 Philip Van Doren Stern, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. XXXVII.
 Richard M. Fletcher, The Stylistic Development of Edgar Allan Poe (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), p. 20.
 Vincent Buranelli, Edgar Alan Poe, op. cit. , p. 32.
 E. Wilson in F. Lyra, Edgar Allan Poe, (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1973), p. 139.
 Poe as quoted by E. Phillips, E.A. Poe: An American Imagination. Three Essays, op. cit. , p.
 Philip Van Doren Stern, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, op. cit. , p. XXXVII.  Teresa Bałazy, Structural Patterns In Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction (Warszawa - Poznań: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1982), p. 14.
 Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” in A Good Man Is Hard To Find (New York: The Library of America, 1988), p. 182.
 Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O’Connor (Bloomington - London: Indiana University Press, 1970), p. 131.
 Teresa Bałazy, Structural Patterns In Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction, op. cit. , p. 9.  Ibid.  Ibid.
 Fitzgerald as quoted by J. Hendin, The World of Flannery O’Connor, op. cit. , p. 8.  Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O’Connor, op. cit. , p. 9.  Ibid, p. 12.  Ibid, p. 14.  Ibid, p. 41.  Ibid.
Poe’s and O’Connor’s Fascination with Deviant Behaviour
- Its Source and Reflection in Their Short Stories
Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional world inhabited by mentally disturbed, neurasthenic characters, cold-blooded, sadistic assassins or expiring heroines seems close to Flannery O’Connor’s gallery of freaks deformed in both body and spirit. Short stories written by both authors contain numerous portrayals of aberrant behaviour as well as frequent descriptions of pathological states. This fact may stimulate the reader’s interest in possible sources of the authors’ inspirations. In the view of the above, the analysis of Poe’s and O’Connor’s biographies might be crucial to comprehend their fascination with morbid aspects of human nature.
Literary critics, in their attempts to interpret written works, present contrasting views on the matter of a potential relationship between an author’s biography and his art. According to Historical-Biographical critics, e.g. Caroline Spurgeon, Van Wyck Brook or J. M. Murray, the political and sociological context of the writer’s times is essential to appreciate his works. The author’s background and some elements of his biography may shed light on his fiction and serve as a key to understanding themes, allusions and characters incorporated in the given work. Similarly, Psychoanalytic Criticism (based on the methods of reading employed by S. Freud and such theorists as, M. Bonaparte or L. Fiedler) does not ignore the influence of the author’s life on the interpretation of his art. Psychoanalytic critics claim that the creator’s own “childhood traumas, family life, sexual conflicts, fixations, and such will be traceable within the behaviour of the characters in the literary work.” According to this approach, it is generally assumed that all the
principal figures in a novel or a short story are projections of the author’s psyche.
On the other hand, New Criticism that appeared in response to Biographical Criticism was far from putting an emphasis on biographical and historical information. Cleanth Brooks, in his essay “The Formalist Critics,” admits that it is worth taking the biographical context into consideration as “such studies describe the process of composition.” However, he points out that
“such explorations […] should not be confused with an account of the work […] and the structure of the thing composed.” The representatives of New Criticism interpret literature through syntax,
theme, imagery or metaphor. According to William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, the
work’s analysis ought to be mainly limited to the information it includes. They claim that a text itself does not belong to the writer, its meaning is intrinsic and cannot be confused with the author’s intentions. Roland Barthes expresses a similar thought in the post-structuralist text “The Death of
the Author.” He notes that the reader is not capable of detecting the precise intentions of the author. R. Barthes is convinced that an interpretation based on biographical context “imposes a
limit on the text.” Michael Foucalt, who also addressed the subject of the author in critical
interpretation, presented the most radical approach “calling for abolishing the figure [of the author] altogether and for establishing a new and different way of dealing with literary texts.”
Contemporary critics, such as V. Buranelli, H. Braddy and L. Enjolras do not definitely state that the autobiographical elements in the authors’ works do not exist. However, they remind the reader that fiction cannot be invariably treated literally. Comparably, F. Lyra, the author of the critical work “Edgar Allan Poe,” quotes N. Wilt who states that the atrocities and
abnormal states described by Poe should not be regarded as the reflection of the writer’s self. If the presence of enormities in a literary work indicated the author’s state of mind, the majority of the second half of the nineteenth century’s writers would have been on the verge of madness. Moreover, L. Enjolras does not openly negate the parallels between O’Connor’s life and art but emphasizes the use of “violent and shocking imagery” and distortion mainly as the artistic
devices the author of the “Revelation” consciously applied in her short stories.
J. Symons,’ E. Phillips,’ T. Bałazy’s and J. Hendin’s views remain in strong
contrast to the opinions mentioned above. The critics maintain that the American authors were incapable of divorcing their personal experiences and interests from their works. Symons introduces the reader to the psycho-analytical critical studies of which Poe was the object. According to this approach, Edgar Allan Poe’s writings can be interpreted as the sublimation of the subconscious fixations, caused by the traumatic experiences the author of “The Black Cat” suffered in his childhood. Likewise, J. Hendin defines O’Connor’s life experiences, namely, her formative
years in the South and the fact that she suffered from lupus, an incurable disease, as “the impulse to write.” The further analysis of the traces of Poe’s and O’Connor’s lives in their literary works
will be based on the theories advanced by the critics who perceive the direct relationship between the writers’ art and personal experiences.
Both Poe and O’Connor are classified as the writers of psychological insight. Edgar Allan Poe’s works illustrate such phenomena as inner conflict, mental cruelty and self-destruction. Flannery O’Connor’s characters are stigmatized with mental and physical deformity. They often experience and inflict psychological pain. This part of the thesis presents the manifestations of the writers’ interest in pathological psychology in their short stories. Next, the reader is acquainted with several biographical facts which may have influenced the authors’ fascination with mental sphere of human experiences.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories are structured around the nineteenth century popular psychology of Andrew Combe and Johann Christoph Spurzheim, according to which man
is formed of three elements - body, mind and spirit. In accordance with this theory, the elements compose “the one total ‘machine’ that is the complete human being; they also constitute absolutely distinct functions and even parts of the human organism […]” In the normal, healthy human
being there is a balance between body, mind and spirit. As a result, neither of these elements dominates. E. A. Poe implemented the main assumptions of Combe and Spurzheim’s theory to illustrate the separation of body, mind and soul and its consequences on the example of his characters’ mental disturbations. The lack of equilibrium between the elements in question and the resultant personality disorders are presented in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and in “William Wilson.” As Davidson maintains, “The Fall of the House of Usher” exemplifies the case where a disintegration of the physical and intellectual aspects takes place. Roderick Usher, the protagonist, creates “the outer protective shell” to preserve his private mind-dominated world. At the same
time, he ruins his physical side and, consequently, dies. In “William Wilson”, the main character is not driven towards death but conversely, does his outmost to survive and succeed in the world. To this end, Wilson attempts to deny and suppress his spirit. As a consequence, the elements of mind and body begin to dominate his existence. Although initially the protagonist’s sharpened intellect contributes to his success, the growing split between body, mind and spirit leads to Wilson’s final downfall.
As Davidson comments, such tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson” are “a summary of Poe’s ideas and method of investigating the self in disintegration.” The stories in question portray the psychic drama, the theme which frequently reverberates in E.A. Poe’s fiction. It cannot be denied that Poe’s protagonists’ sanity is determined by a balanced interaction between physical, mental and spiritual elements. It may seem that body, mind and soul are granted equal status. Nevertheless, a thorough analysis of the tales under discussion reveals a certain superiority of mental sphere over the worlds of flesh and spirit. Namely, mind is the only element that is capable of speculating on its own nature and condition. Edgar Allan Poe recurrently uses the narrator who acquaints the reader with a story plot by emphasizing his state of mental health, first. For instance, in “The Tell-Tale Heart” the narrator admits that a nervous disease sharpened his senses but at the same time he states “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing.” The reader may doubt whether such a character is reliable. Similarly, the narrator of
“The Black Cat” persuades the reader of his sanity and soberness - “[…] mad am I not - and very surely do I not dream.” On the other hand, the opening sentence of “The Pit and the Pendulum”
is a frank confession of the narrator’s malady - “I was sick - sick unto death with that long agony; and when […] I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.” Davidson points out that neither of the two remaining elements - body or soul may possess similar characteristics. In “Poe: A Critical Study” the reader learns that in Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional world, “the body functions only as brute, insensitive existence; the soul, with only rare moments of perception, has the power of penetrating far beyond the limits of this sensual existence; chiefly the soul sleeps or is moribund.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” presents the twins - Roderick and Madeline as well as the house in which they live. They both experience health problems and Roderick turns for assistance to his unnamed friend. When Roderick’s companion arrives, he is unable to help either the brother or the sister. Madeline dies soon and Roderick buries her in the tombs below the house. After this event, Madeline’s brother becomes uneasy and suffers from hysteria. Roderick confesses that he has heard strange sounds for several days and believes that they have buried Madeline alive. Suddenly the door opens and Roderick’s fears are confirmed. Madeline is standing there in her white robes, covered with blood. She collapses on Roderick and they both die. Shortly after their death, the house collapses, as well. The narrator is the only one who manages to leave the house safely. Roderick Usher’s mind-dominated existence and his alienation from physical reality are visible even in his facial expression. The protagonist’s companion focuses his attention on Roderick’s “cadaverousness of complexion […] lips somewhat thin and very pallid […] speaking in […] want of prominence, of a want of moral energy.” We read that these features “[…] made
up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten.” The main hero finds his physical side so
repugnant that he does his utmost to stay away from any corporeal reality. Lady Madeline, Roderick’s twin-sister, who represents sensual aspects, is buried alive in a place as remote as possible from her brother’s world of intellectual sensations. As neither of the elements (physical, mental or spiritual ones) may be hypertrophied at the expense of the other, Roderick’s retreat causes his annihilation.
While “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents the psychic drama of the individual with reference to a withdrawal into oneself, “William Wilson” concerns the issue of an external manifestation of the protagonist’s personality onto his environment. Wilson is a strong-minded character who struggles with his own conscience which is objectified in another man of the same name and looks. The protagonist encounters his alter ego at school and throughout the story he attempts to get away from it. Wherever he goes, his counterpart follows Wilson and thwarts him in all his plans. Finally, during carnival time in Rome, the protagonist manages to attack and kill the second Wilson. At the same time he murders his own conscience and ruins himself.
Unlike Usher, Wilson does not strive for leaving physical reality. The hero’s dominant feature is an exceptionally strong will resulting from a hereditary temper. William Wilson does not submit himself to any control and disregards social rules. The character functions in the world being guided by his mind only. At the beginning of the story, he exists in physical as well as mental and spiritual realities. Davidson portrays William Wilson’s expression of his total self in the following way “He [William Wilson] is early able to hear his conscience or spirit breathing and speaking to him; he even makes a nightly visit to that other side of himself in order to be certain that it exists.” However, since the only thing Wilson values is material success, he gradually
buries himself in his mind’s operations concentrating on such activities as cheating at cards. There are rare moments when the protagonist returns to realms of body and soul but eventually these spheres become atrophied.
It is worth mentioning that Wilson views the world as the externalization of his self. He is convinced that his environment may be transformed according to his will. The abandonment of the character’s spiritual sphere leads to a situation in which he does not recognize his conscience as a part of himself but as a separate being, a totally different person, whose name is also William Wilson. This part of himself which he incessantly attempts to suppress ultimately turns against him and causes the protagonist’s destruction. The hero, in his last effort to retaliate the second William Wilson, stabs his double to death and consequently, in this act of violence, he annihilates himself. The tale ends with Wilson hearing his conscience speaking:
You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also deaddead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist - and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.
Not only Poe but also O’Connor depicted a human being as an entity composed of interacting elements. However, while the author of “William Wilson” considered the balance between body, mind and soul as an essential condition for mental and physical health, Flannery O’Connor concentrated on the incommensurability of her characters’ physical and spiritual life. Basically, what governs her protagonists’ existence is their inability to transcend their physical sphere. The author of “Good Country People” derived her ideas from the conception of Teilhard de Chardin. He believed that spirit and mind are physical quantities, functions of the living
organism that participate in the process of evolution. In his view, a tripartite nature of mind, body and soul does not exist. Instead, a human being constitutes an entity in which one may observe:
[…] a difference in the proportion of the physical, which he [Teilhard de Chardin] calls the “biosphere,” to the spiritual, which he calls “nousphere.” At point omega, the apex of human evolution, the nousphere and biosphere converge, blend, and enclose all life in an envelope of thought. In other words, at point omega, mind and body are fused and all human life is linked by an almost chemical bond existing between the atoms of spirit in each man. The universal envelope of thought Teilhard refers to is a kind of blanket woven from the atoms of spirit in each man, a living organism formed from particles springing from every human life.
It is worth mentioning that O’Connor does not employ the whole Teilhard’s conception in her writing. She ignores his intentions and mysticism, focusing mainly on the idea that soul is subject to physical processes. As her last collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), illustrates, neither physical nor mental or spiritual processes seem to evolve. Conversely, O’Connor’s world is more likely to stagnate or decline. For example, as Hendin observes, in “Revelation” the textbook Human Development read by Mary Grace, the Wellesley student, lands, rather appropriately, on the floor. The book fulfils an essential function in the story. The protagonist of “Revelation,” Mrs Turpin, a self-satisfied heroine who judges others according to their possessions, is given a chance to learn her moral lesson. When Mary Grace, unable to tolerate Mrs Turpin’s patronizing attitude and her superficial piety, throws a volume of Human Development at her, this is an outset of the heroine’s spiritual demise. The book serves as a device for making Mrs Turpin aware of her moral ugliness as well as her insignificance in society. Hendin points out that the protagonist, receiving a blow on the head, is “given a bruise as a sign of being marked by Human Development.” The heroine begins to feel hollow, “like a great empty drum
of flesh with a heart swinging back and forth in it.” Clearly, it is violence as well as biological
processes that exert an influence on the spiritual change of Flannery O’Connor’s characters. Having experienced a physical attack, Mrs Turpin discovers two different aspects of herself. Namely, her darker self is the “old wart hog,” Mary Grace named her whilst her ideal self-
image is a good Christian and a respectable lady, she no longer seems to be when she is lying on the floor in the doctor’s office after having been attacked by the Wellesley student. In O’Connor’s world of fiction, spiritual elements cannot blend in any complex form. An inner development is frequently inhibited as her protagonists release their spiritual energy in acts of violence. The author applied this assumption in her numerous short stories in which the human cruelty and destruction are evident. Thomas, the protagonist of “The Comforts of Home,” wastes his spiritual energy struggling against his mother he is unable to leave. In his hallucination, Thomas is convinced that the voice of his dead father encourages him to confront the woman. As a result, the character expresses his rage and shoots his mother by accident. What is equally important, the story explores the theme of child-hero versus dragon-mother. The gist of the adolescent conflict is
the following: everyone who grows up is forced to confront his parents. Therefore, growing up
does not boil down to achieving spiritual maturity and does not resemble Teilhard’s “evolutionary spiralling toward nousphere” but amounts to acute anguish of facing a parent who seems to be
a picture of absolute strength and righteousness. Hendin notes that such characters as Mary Grace in “Revelation,” Asbury Fox in “The Enduring Chill” and Thomas in “The Comforts of Home” are linked to their mothers (dragon-mothers) by the enormous physical dependence of frail, diseased or apprehensive children on their parents. Motherly love cripples these heroes to such an extent that they can neither reciprocate the feeling nor cut an abnormal tie and live on their own. In “The Comforts of Home” the agony of son-mother relationship is portrayed in the following way - when Thomas feels he has no alternative but to leave his mother’s household, we read that “he was like a man handed a knife and told to operate on himself if he wished to live.” On the other hand, the
protagonist of “The Enduring Chill” faces a dead end when he dares to resist his parent. Asbury attempts to disobey his mother’s farm rules according to which one cannot drink milk during milking the cows. The protagonist plies the plantation workers with unpasteurized milk and drinks it himself to encourage them to break the farm rules and annoy his mother. Consequently, Asbury develops a mysterious fever. Hendin suggests that the source of the protagonist’s disease is his attachment to his parent, and one may even hazard a guess that it is literally his mother’s milk that makes Asbury physically weak and impotent.
On the whole, Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories indicate that a disproportionate development of the three qualities (physical, mental and spiritual ones) prevents a human being from functioning properly. The protagonists of his tales are invariably doomed to destruction. Usher faces death attempting to alienate himself from the physical world. Comparably, Wilson must expire as he cannot cease to suppress his conscience, and consequently, his spirit. As already indicated, it is the mental realm that seems to govern these characters’ fates. The abnormality of this dominance is manifested in Ushers’ mental aberrations as well as in Wilson’s inclination to use his mind mainly in order to satisfy his egoistic whims, even at other individuals’ expense. On the other hand, Flannery O’Connor’s writing reveals that it is not the sphere of mind but the one of body which exerts an influence on human experience and hinders a spiritual progress. Consequently, such figures as Thomas and Ruby must perish but their death has a symbolic dimension. The protagonist of “The Comforts of Home,” having lost his mother who was his only support in the world, may only fall down. The act of falling down is implied at the end of the story in the image of Thomas and Sarah collapsing into each other’s arms. Hendin explains that their collapse may be due to the fact that they both depended on the old woman for life. It is uncertain whether Thomas has a chance to start his life anew. Presumably, he is like an embryo that cannot exist beyond his mother’s womb. As for Ruby Turpin, the heroine is likely to make a new start on condition that she redefines her moral principles. However, Ruby’s revival may be as hard as an acceptance of the knowledge she must confront while she experiences her revelation. The heroine learns that the lives of such virtuous characters as she and her spouse are worth as much as the lives of those whom she despises, namely, black farm helpers, negligent “white-trash” as well as “[…] freaks and
lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.” Only by accepting this bitter truth is
Ruby capable of experiencing her spiritual revival.
Each of the stories discussed above illustrates an abnormality of some kind. Roderick exemplifies pathological fears arising from an excess of mind over flesh. Asbury’s fate shows human body as a trap and a brake on individual progress. What these protagonists have in common is the depressing knowledge they discover about themselves. E.A. Poe’s and F. O’Connor’s focus on the dark sides of human nature and their exploration of the interior world may be based on similar grounds. The main factors which shaped the central themes of Poe’s and O’Connor’s writings are the authors’ struggles with their own illnesses, their domestic problems and tragedies, as well as their fascination with pathological psychology.
The author of “The Black Cat” was familiar with the phenomena that the psychology of his day was preoccupied with. He perceived and understood such concepts as masochism, sadism or death instinct although they were not yet defined at that time. Lyra perceives a certain analogy between Poe’s comment on the literary genius and the narrator’s of “Eleonora” statement on the nature of a mental disorder. Namely, Edgar Allan Poe was convinced that artistic talents stem from an excessive development of certain faculties that may amount to madness. F. Lyra claims that Poe’s reasons to fear insanity were fully justified. His siblings were stricken with psychogenic illnesses. Henry Poe died at a young age in the state of madness whilst Rosalie Poe was mentally retarded. The author’s letters indicate that he had split personality symptoms and suffered from emotional see-saw. D. Hamer and P. Copeland define the following symptoms as manic-depressive psychosis and state that the disease may account for Poe’s (as well as William Blake’s and Walt Whitman’s) bouts of depression alternating with periods of immense creativity and euphoria. The author of “Berenice” was competent at describing his protagonists’ morbid states, which V. Buranelli explains in the following way:
[…] his [Poe’s] verisimilitude was often not a matter of literary art by itself, but of literary art utilizing experience - and experience that he suffered in defiance of his will or intention. He felt a pathological depression of the spirit before Roderick Usher did.
Phillips makes the interesting remark that whether or not Poe’s readers accept the point that the author’s own fear of mental decay, which overcame him at times, due to his family history, is reflected in ”The Fall of the House of Usher,” they ought to remember that Poe had once suffered from melancholy and at least secondary alcoholism as long as four years before the
publication of the story. Although the writer had not experienced insanity symptoms until his wife, Virginia, died (that is, eight years after “The Fall of the House of Usher” had been written), it is essential to emphasize that Poe would not have described Usher’s illness so knowledgeably without solid reliance on the medical specialists of the period. Phillips states that there were at least three specific sources that Edgar Allan Poe could have consulted in order to understand his own history of drinking and mental illness. In “E.A. Poe: An American Imagination” there are references to medical texts by Benjamin Rush, Charles Caldwell and Isaac Ray. Phillips states that “The Black Cat” “must be related to, if not prompted by Poe’s biography in juxtaposition with his interest in the pathology of alcoholism.” The narrator of the story
describes a transformation he experienced under the influence of alcohol. The man who was once “noted for the docility and humanity of his disposition” becomes a sadistic and a cold-blooded
murderer. The protagonist’s victims are the cat he was always fond of, as well as his meek wife. Phillips notes that Poe’s unhappy family life - Virginia’s fatal illness, his perpetual financial problems as well as his mental disorders and drinking in connection with his sensitiveness are reflected in “The Black Cat.” As the story develops, the reader learns that the main character is gradually taking delight in maltreating his mild and patient wife as well as mutilating his favourite pet, Pluto, a beautiful black cat. Then, not only the animal but also the woman is killed in a brutal way. Phillips quotes Ray who describes the effects of alcoholism on human mind. Ray states that in case of a person who abuses alcohol,
the original delicacy and acuteness of the moral perceptions are invariably blunted; the relations of neighbor, citizen, father, spouse, have lost their accustomed place in his [an alcoholic’s] thoughts; and the finer emotions, which will occasionally be felt by the least cultivated minds, have entirely deserted his nature.
Furthermore, Ray points out that an intoxicated person is inclined to imagine that they insulted someone or were insulted, and as a result, such a person selects someone to be the object of their abuse. Phillips advances a theory that the killing of the narrator’s pet might have been suggested by a case on which Ray reports in his study of “moral mania.” Ray gives an example of a man who was extremely impulsive and easy to infuriate. For instance, if “a dog, a horse, or any other animal offended him, he instantly put it to death.”
The story in question takes an interesting turn after the black cat’s killing. Namely, the main character encounters another cat which resembles Pluto to a great extent. Whereas the narrator’s spouse immediately takes a liking to the animal, the narrator experiences a “feeling of disgust and annoyance [towards the cat] which rises into the bitterness of hatred.” Eventually, he feels an “absolute dread of the beast.” Moreover, the protagonist admits that “[…] the terror and horror
with which the animal inspired me [him,] had been heightened by one of the merest chimaeras it would be possible to conceive.” Finally, the chimera gradually takes the image of a gallows that the character sees on the breast of the cat. It is worth mentioning that the protagonist executed his first pet by hanging it from a tree. As Phillips writes “the man was unable to shake off the torments of the hallucination […]” As a result, he feels as if he abominated all the mankind and murders
his wife in cold blood. When the character attempts to annihilate the animal and the woman endeavours to dissuade him from this act, the protagonist, “goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal,” kills his wife with an axe. In Phillips’ opinion, the conception for the
story is consistent with Ray’s description of consequences of alcoholism. The psychiatrist states that a drink problem frequently results in delirium tremens and cites the case of an alcohol abuser who murdered his wife in a barbarous way and “declared he was not sorry for what he had done.”
It is disputable whether such tales as “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” portray Poe’s own combat with his mental disorders or just the author’s acquaintance with medical theories on psychopathology. In any event, Poe’s letters reveal that the author was conscious of his mental disturbances and presumably was unable to divorce his personal experiences from his works. Comparably, Flannery O’Connor struggled with the disease which left a distinctive mark on
her fiction. However, her illness was not of mental origin. Lupus, the disease of blood vessels, caused the death of O’Connor’s father and struck her at the age of twenty-five. Lupus attacked her legs, so the writer’s mother’s constant care and assistance was required. O’Connor was forced to spend a considerable part of her life in seclusion. T. Bałazy summarizes the situation in the following way:
Although apparently uneventful, these years abounded in a continuous struggle with physical weakness, out of which the hours devoted to writing had to be pitilessly wrestled. It is in the strain of these years that we should search for the painful intensity that her characters always experience.
It seems that O’Connor’s isolation, caused by her state of health, encouraged the writer’s exploration of dark corners of human interior. In her stories, the author touches such themes as human weakness, sinfulness, evil as an inherent element of human nature, as well as inevitability of suffering and violence in an earthly life. In O’Connor’s fictional world, a painful quest is essential for achieving moral responsibility, spiritual sensitivity and comprehension of good and evil. Laurence Enjolras points out that even O’Connor’s youngest characters are endowed with a consciousness of evil. In the essay entitled A Memoir of Mary Ann (1961) O’Connor states that “stories of pious children tend to be false.” Moreover, she reminds the reader that “the writer whose vocation is fiction sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life, and not to the reader - not to the reader’s taste, not to the reader’s happiness, not even to the reader’s morals.” That is why, the picture of a child in O’Connor’s fiction is devoid of embellishments. The author rejects the idyllic world of fictional tales which “shines with the image of little girls and boys as sweet models of graciousness and kindness.” Instead, the reader is acquainted with an unpleasant group of sullen, ill-tempered, selfish and wicked children. They are forced to function in a world where evil prevails and are affected by its mystery. As Enjolras notes, Flannery O’Connor’s intention is to emphasize that the recognition of a character’s own evil and perversion is the first step toward discovering truth about oneself. It is worth mentioning that in O’Connor’s stories, children are frequently presented as secondary characters but their role is to contribute to
the main hero’s maturation. For instance, in “A Circle in the Fire” the three urchins - Powell, and his two friends, Garfield Smith and W.T. Harper, arrive from the city at Mrs Cope’s farm and gradually fill the whole place with their undesired presence until, in their final act of irresponsibility, the boys set fire to the owner’s precious woods. As early as from their first appearance, there is something ominous about these children. As the story develops, the protagonist grows more and more alarmed, especially when Powell and his companions vanish out of sight and Mrs Cope’s farm workers inform the heroine about the boys’ malevolent and mischievous actions. Virtuous as Mrs Cope seems, her vision of life is limited and only such a predicament as the destruction of her woods may shake up her narrow world. The three urchins fulfil a relevant function in the story. Not only do they precipitate the main heroine’s downfall but also represent an intuition Mrs Cope lacks. Powell and his companions search for a better world because they do not accept the frustration in which they are doomed to exist. That is why the boys strive for staying at Mrs Cope’s farm they consider as a lost Eden. Powell, who remembers the carefree days he spent at this place in his early childhood, describes his heavenly world to his friends who also cannot shake off the ideal image of the farm. We read that Powell “[s]aid it was everything there […] Said he had the best time of his entire life right here on this here place. Talks about it all the time […] He said when he died he wanted to come here!” Since the boys cannot
fully enjoy their paradise, they destroy the place so that they do not have to think of it anymore. Enjolras observes that “this act of destruction which aims at annihilating an obsessing but unattainable heaven symbolically represents the inability of human beings to understand God’s will and to wait until the time He appoints.” It seems plausible that Flannery O’Connor, who was
acutely aware of the nature of her illness and felt closeness of death, searched for comfort in the Christian faith. She also encouraged her readers to look into their hearts and souls. To this end, O’Connor employed such figures as Powell and his companions. Although the characters’ behaviour seems to be appalling and the events depicted in the story may horrify, the readers are offered a chance to recognize an inconvenient truth about themselves and reflect on their own system of values.
It is worth mentioning that O’Connor’s characters’ inner depravity is frequently the reflection of their physical distortion. The American writer’s protagonists are rarely the pictures of health. As L. Enjolras notices, “Flannery O’Connor seems to revel in gruesome afflictions.” Wooden legs, orthopedic shoes, maimed bodies, glass eyes, missing forearms - all these defects serve to reveal her characters’ gloomy nature. Enjolras states that O’Connor’s focus on the physical deformity stems from her fascination with the macabre and quotes her ironical remark on the return from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France: “I had the best looking crutches in Europe.” Flannery O’Connor’s short stories present a peculiar gallery peopled with the disabled. Joy-Hulga, the protagonist of “Good Country People” lost her leg in an accident. Mr Shiftlet, the character of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” has only one arm whilst his wife Lucynell is deaf. Similarly, the doctor’s waiting room in “Revelation” may serve as an example of Flannery O’Connor’s fictional society where everyone suffers from deficiencies of some kind:
It contains Mrs Turpin and her husband [with an ulcer on his leg], small farm owners, the Wellesley girl, who may have learned to be ugly up North, her affable mother, a dirty child, his white-trash mother, his grandmother in a gunny-sack dress, and an old man who seems to be dead.
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