Politeness in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction: Social Interaction, Language, and the Body.
Although the social context of Flannery O'Connor's fiction has been studied in some detail, especially the racial social context, relatively little O'Connor criticism has detailed the linguistic patterns of O'Connor's style and none thus far has thoroughly analyzed the linguistic patterns of politeness. (1) This neglect is quite surprising given the long history of politeness studies on authors as widely varied as Hemingway (Hardy, "Strategic Politeness"), Shakespeare (Magnusson), Ionesco (Simpson), and Dickens (Cecconi). My analysis of politeness in O'Connor's fiction makes the argument that there is a stylistics of politeness in the fiction: that is, that there are characteristic patterns representing politeness in O'Connor's fiction. In particular, politeness in O'Connor's fiction is intimately linked to O'Connor's concerns with the body, the grotesque, and the sacramental.
When asked in an interview how "Southern manners bear on the racial turmoil" of her time, O'Connor answered, "Manners are the next best thing to Christian charity" (qtd. in Magee 102), expressing at once a pessimism about Southern race relations, a faith in the power of manners that would today certainly seem misplaced, whether in the American South or any geographical region, and a keen awareness of the differences between charity and manners. As Jan Nordby Gretlund points out, "the demands of the social order in O'Connor's rural Georgia often prove more than a match for ethical standards and Christian ideas of neighborly love" ("Flannery O'Connor and Class" 123). Charity (love) would ideally create a cohesive society, regardless of race and class. In the absence of charity, the distancing formalisms of manners preserve a civil--if not a loving--society. In elaborating on the relationship between manners and charity, O'Connor expressed doubt in an abundance of "unadulterated Christian charity" in the South but also expressed "confidence that the manners of both races will show through in the long run" (qtd. in Magee 102). In spite of her clear belief in the ideals of Christian charity, O'Connor very much believed in the efficacy and necessity of formality: "Formality preserves that individual privacy which everybody needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing" (qtd. in Magee 104). And that formality is there to protect everyone, according to O'Connor:
When you have a code of manners based on charity, then when the charity fails--as it is going to do constantly--you've got those manners there to preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other. The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he's made out to be. He's a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy. (Magee 104; also qtd. in Day 137)
Given O'Connor's own privileging of religious issues in discussions of her fiction, it is not surprising that social manners have not been among the foremost issues that O'Connor critics have grappled with. D. Dean Shackelford, for example, argues that for O'Connor "earthly values, including those involving racial relations, were, in comparison to spiritual conviction, insignificant" (89). There are exceptions, such as Gretlund, whose analyses of O'Connor's sensitivity to both race and class concentrate their attention on "The Displaced Person" ("Flannery O'Connor and Class," "The Side of the Road"). And there is Ralph C. Wood's recognition of the role of manners in supplying" the constraints necessary for social intercourse" (The Christ-Haunted South 124). Wood's contrastive analysis of the early "Geranium" and the late rewrite "Judgement Day" foregrounds the manners of both Tanner and Coleman in the later story, manners that create both charity and friendship between two people who without those manners would be enemies, against the "fake manners" of the early story (The Christ-Haunted South 134-39). Barbara Wilkie Tedford argues that O'Connor criticism has too frequently focused on "theological implications" (27). Tedford instead concentrates on how O'Connor has the reader's prejudices and feelings of superiority in her sights as she exposes her racist and classist characters (27-28). Linda Rohrer Paige focuses on the ability of members of the lower classes in O'Connor's fiction to see spiritual truths, but there is no analysis of the interaction of the social classes in her essay. Broader social issues have been examined in O'Connor's fiction, for example Katherine Hemple Prown's analysis of gender politics and Jon Lance Bacon's analysis of Post-World War li consumerism. Robert Coles's book-length ethnographic study of the "social scene" of O'Connor's time and region both takes care to place her fiction into the everyday context in which most of it was written and quotes at length both blacks and whites who think and talk of manners with as much seriousness as they do religion (xix-xx, 60-61). But following O'Connor's lead, most critics have generally foregrounded race in their discussions of manners rather than manners itself (e.g., Armstrong; Zaidman, Whitt, and Vogel; Wood, "Racial Morals and Manners," "Flannery O'Connor on Race"; Fowler). As I suggest here, the examination of manners as they affect and are affected by issues of race and class is relatively limited in the body of O'Connor criticism.
When critics have paid close attention to manners, most of those analyses have either used manners to make generalizations about black/white relations and/ or Southern gentility (as in Matthew Day's analysis of both in O'Connor) or used politeness as a synonym for"meaninglessness and intellectual vacuity" (as in Dixie Lee Highsmith's analysis of"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Good Country People"). For instance, Day argues that the texture of manners in O'Connor's fiction is akin to the realism of William James. In particular, he sees that texture of realism revealed in both the propriety of O'Connor's matrons (for example, Ruby Turpin, who wears her good shoes to the doctor's office) and, most especially, in black/ white relations. It is in those racial relations that Day finds America's parallel to European class struggle: "So, rather than hearing only the echoes of a provincial class struggle in southern fiction, we should also expect to find a vocabulary of manners and social distinctions differentiating whites from blacks." In fact, Day sees these racial issues to be the primary attraction of O'Connor's writing: "More to the point, O'Connor's fiction has endured . . . largely because her writing is knotted with the grainy details of the Southern catalog of manners that regulates white-black relations" (136-38).
Highsmith, on the other hand, narrowly restricts the meaning of politeness to cliches, however much those cliches might be part of politeness. Highsmith argues that a character's non-intentional use of banality, such as the frequent use of "a good man is hard to find" in the story by the same name, "points to the essence of the story" (100). The cliches in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and the frequent cliched speech of the "good country people" in the story by the same name, Highsmith argues, "can become stepping stones for the reader into the world of spiritual concerns" (107). Thus, Highsmith contends, "Language itself can be a key to sacramental vision" (96). For example, the grandmother's failure of voice just before she is murdered marks a breakdown in the cliches she lives by. Highsmith argues that the failure of the cliches leads to the grandmother's "gesture" of reaching out both physically and spiritually to The Misfit, a "gesture" that is "Christ-like... demonstrating recognition, kinship, love" (103). Carole K. Harris views the cliched talk between Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman in "Good Country People" differently: "Cliches allow these two women from different class backgrounds to establish an intimate friendship which, due to social decorum, might not otherwise take place, at least not comfortably" (59-60). In general, the critical judgment on the social and personal efficacy of politeness in O'Connor's work is usually ambiguous. For example, politeness is cliched, yet it allows the social classes to interact. However, some critics are unabashedly negative in their judgment of its efficacy. Josephine Hendin argues that the "politeness" of the many mothers in the collection Everything That Rises Must Converge makes their children "impotent" (99). Both Hendin (14) and Martha Stephens (28) comment on the politeness of The Misfit as he both orders and commits the murders of the grandmother's family. Hendin argues that "the silent and remote rage that erupts from" The Misfit's "politeness," the grandmother's "manners" and the murders themselves "suggests that neither Christian charity nor Southern politeness can contain all the darker human impulses" (14-15). Similarly, Timothy P. Caron implies that Julian's mother's manners in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" are simply inadequate cover for her "condescending racism." Caron argues that "her gentility, her 'manners,' are her greatest vice ..." (152). Thus, critical assessment of politeness is, at best, mixed. But this mixed assessment is understandable given the multifaceted interaction of politeness, race, class, the sacramental, and the grotesque.
Once one concentrates specifically on manners, or rather on what sociolinguists and discourse analysts refer to as "politeness," one sees that the effects of race and class on manners in O'Connor's fiction are themselves more complex than we might think looking back to the Civil Rights era through a foreshortening lens. Furthermore, politeness, race, and class are implicated in the two most thoroughly investigated thematic concerns of O'Connor's fiction: the sacramental and the grotesque. And they are implicated in ways that go beyond the equation of the polite with the cliched or the banal. This paper's exploration of the full manifestation and representation of manners (politeness) in O'Connor's fiction serves to deepen our understanding of the fundamental nature of that fiction, which is an extended narrative questioning of the relationships between the grotesque and the sacramental, especially as the grotesque is manifested in spiritually crippling isolation and the sacramental is manifested in connection--not only between the spiritual and the physical but also between humans themselves. This exploration of grotesque isolation not only treats cliche as a manifestation of insincere politeness--which is crucially not synonymous with politeness itself--but also addresses a wide range of O'Connor's fiction.
O'Connor's sacramental view of fiction, the sacred connection of the spiritual with the physical, is theologically opposed to grotesque isolation. In "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor makes the connection between the grotesque and isolation--what she calls "the freak" and "displacement"--when she writes "it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature" (Mystery and Manners 45). There are certainly physical grotesques of O'Connor's fiction: e.g., the missing limbs of Hulga Hopewell or Tom T. Shiftlet that figure their spiritual lameness. These and other grotesqueries in O'Connor's fiction come to mind when O'Connor writes that "the writer of grotesque fiction" is "looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye ..." (Mystery 42). But what is the spiritual disability of a Hulga Hopewell or a Tom T. Shiftlet except, at least in part, a personal failure to make the sacramental connection between the world and the spirit or the individual and others of God's creatures? O'Connor says the grandmother makes that connection in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" alter her entire family has been murdered by The Misfit's gang: "The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far" (Mystery 111-12). The grandmother's gesture of reaching out to comfort The Misfit as one of her "own children" is a "gesture," O'Connor argues, that is "on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it" (Mystery 111).
The connection between isolation and the absence of charity in O'Connor's fiction has been recognized by a select collection of critics. Paul W. Nisly believes that the isolation that is characteristic of American literature in general is especially foregrounded in O'Connor's characters. Wood argues that O'Connor "understood that, severed from charity, both morals and manners are without foundation" ("Racial Morals and Manners" 1080). Highsmith makes the same general point but specifically argues that "the separation of manners from the mystery which gives them meaning" is signalled metaphorically by cliche (96). On a more positive note, Wood argues elsewhere that manners "enable us to treat others with respect even when we don't like them" ("Flannery O'Connor on Race" 105). Susan Srigley makes explicit the connection between the grotesque and isolation:
To interpret the grotesque simply as a reflection of the worthlessness and ugliness of matter is to miss the moral dimension of O'Connor's understanding of what is grotesque. She saw the grotesque as implicitly revealing an ethical choice, because for her the grotesque is rooted in the desire for absolute human autonomy (represented by Hazel Motes in Wise Blood), for life lived independently of God. (5)
Also see my "Embedded Narration in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction and Letters" for an extended analysis of the manifestation of grotesque isolation in the sometimes disconnected embedded narratives in O'Connor's writing.
The remainder of this paper will argue that in O'Connor's fiction, the irresolvable tensions between "grotesque" autonomy and social communion are played out in stylistically repetitive ways at the levels of narrative irony, narrative representation of body language and body action, and conversational interaction among characters. Thus, my analysis synthesizes several threads of O'Connor criticism: issues surrounding politeness, sacramentalism, the grotesque, irony, class, race, and the body. That these threads may be interwoven in an explanatorily satisfactory way demonstrates the fundamental embodiedness of O'Connor's fictional themes in the mutually intersecting senses of the human body, the form and structure of the language of the text, and the form and structure of social interaction among her characters.
2. "Grotesque" Politeness
It is in Wise Blood, O'Connor's first major work, where her view on the potential grotesqueness of isolation is made most evident through ironic mentions and use of politeness (Brown and Levinson; Watts). That view is that politeness (manners) can be essentially a manifestation of the grotesque, that is, in so far as it is a manifestation of isolation. In their tour through the city zoo, Hazel and Enoch gawk at the polite but isolated animals in their cages: "Two black bears sat in the first one, facing each other like two matrons having tea, their faces polite and self-absorbed" (O'Connor, Collected 53). It becomes clear in Enoch's interaction with animals at the zoo that he spends time there in order to boost his self-esteem, in obsessive behaviors designed to humiliate the animals. When he gets to what he thinks of as the "hyenas," Enoch "leaned closer and spit into the cage, hitting one of the wolves on the leg. It shuttled to the side, giving him a slanted evil look" (O'Connor, Collected 53). The narrator tells us, "Usually he stopped at every cage and made an obscene comment aloud to himself, but today the animals were only a form he had to get through" (O'Connor, Collected 53). In an episode that especially clearly represents his obsessive interaction with the non-human world Enoch is offended by a perceived social infraction from an ape: "At the last of the monkey cages, he stopped as if he couldn't help himself. 'Look at that ape,' he said, glaring. The animal had its back to him, gray except for a small pink seat. 'If I had a ass like that,' he said prudishly, 'I'd sit on it. I wouldn't be exposing it to all these people come to this park'" (O'Connor, Collected 53). The grotesque isolation of perverse manners is particularly evident in the figure and interactions of Enoch. He goes to the city pool for voyeuristic sexual satisfaction, but the narrator tells us that in order to watch the female swimmers and sunbathers, Enoch "crawled into the bushes out of a sense of propriety" (O'Connor, Collected 44-45). Enoch wants to make friends, especially with Hazel, but he is at the bottom of any social hierarchy, so low that he perceives that his competitors are the animals at the zoo, the moose in a picture in his room, and the gorilla advertising the new Gonga movie. Enoch "kept up a constant stream of inner comment, uncomplimentary to the moose, though when he said anything aloud, he was more guarded" (O'Connor, Collected 75). Enoch's ultimate social challenge, however, is the human in the ape costume advertising the new Gonga movie: "To his mind, an opportunity to insult a successful ape came from the hand of Providence" (O'Connor, Collected 100). Although the gorilla's hand is "warm and soft" and although his touch brings forth from Enoch all his unmet human need for social connection, the gorilla tells him to "go to hell" (O'Connor, Collected 100-102). Enoch's isolation and transformation to the bestial is completed when he attempts to turn himself into the popular Gonga only to have his first human contacts run terrified from his friendly advances (O'Connor, Collected 112).
The insults that Enoch both gives and receives in Wise Blood are only one example of the grotesqueness of social isolation in O'Connor. Just as grotesque is insincere polite attention to others. The most insincere characters in O'Connor's fiction--Hoover Shoats of Wise Blood and Meeks, the copper flue salesman of The Violent Bear It Away, and Tom T. Shiftlet of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"--are all very polite, and persuasive, men. As Highstreet argues, "Moral laxity in O'Connor's characters is represented.., never so clearly as in the use of religious cliche by essentially non-religious characters" (97). Shoats tells his audience that the most important reason to join his Holy Church of Christ Without Christ is to make sure that the "sweetness" inside them gets out to "win friends and make [them] loved" (O'Connor, Collected 87). Meeks claims that "love [is] the only policy that work[s] 95% of the time" (O'Connor, Collected 362). He asks after his customers' families, especially those in which there is serious illness, until the iii family member dies, and then he is able to remove that person from his list of people about whom to ask (O'Connor, Collected 362). And Tom T. Shiftlet, in his extended but largely ineffectual and unnecessary flattery of Lucynell Crater's corner of the countryside, tells Crater that "he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do" (O'Connor, Collected 175).
Although the previously mentioned cliches that Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell exchange do provide some connection between them, I do not believe that the two women have what Harris refers to as an "intimate friendship," not least because, as Harris says, they have a "relationship as employer/hired help" (59-60). There is very little genuine social grace among O'Connor's characters. That is not to say that there is none. In spite of the many empty cliches that Highstreet criticizes in "Good Country People," it is quite likely that Mrs. Hopewell does have the good manners that one normally associates with the word politeness. However, that doesn't mean that she doesn't suffer the consequences of her own manners. When she invites Manley Pointer to stay for dinner, she "was sorry the instant she heard herself say it" (O'Connor, Collected 271). During dinner with Manley, Hulga (Joy) ignores him the best she can: "He had addressed several remarks to her, which she had pretended not to hear. Mrs. Hopewell could not understand deliberate rudeness, although she lived with it, and she felt she had always to overflow with hospitality to make up for Joy's lack of courtesy" (O'Connor, Collected 272). Part of Mrs. Hopewell's courtesy is to encourage guests to talk about themselves. As the narrator says, Mrs. Hopewell "urged [Manley] to talk about himself and he did" (O'Connor, Collected 272). It takes her two hours to get him out the door after dinner, at which time Manley and Mrs. Hopewell exchange further politeness: "he stopped and wrung her hand and said that not on any of his trips had he met a lady as nice as her and he asked if he could come again. She had said she would always be happy to see him" (O'Connor, Collected 272). In all of O'Connor's fiction there is probably no better example of both the charity and insincerity of manners than the farewell between the well-meaning but justifiably impatient Mrs. Hopewell and the duplicitous Manley Pointer.
3. Factoring Politeness in O'Connor
An examination of a few of the scenes in O'Connor's fiction in which politeness is foregrounded allows us to tease out the social factors that are especially important in the determination of the use of politeness, whether genuine or not, in O'Connor's fiction. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," when Red Sammy's wife asks the "cute" June Star if she would like to come live with her, June Star replies, "No I certainly wouldn't.... I wouldn't live in a broken down place like this for a million bucks!" Politeness prevails, at least among the adults: "'Ain't she cute?' the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely" (O'Connor, Collected 141). Similarly, in "The Comforts of Home," when Thomas meets "Star Drake" (Sarah Ham) for the first time, he cannot contain his rudeness, at least at first: "he said, 'How do you do, Sarah,' in a tone of such loathing that he was shocked at the sound of it. He reddened, feeling it beneath him to show contempt for any creature so pathetic. He advanced into the room, determined at least on a decent politeness and sat down heavily in a straight chair" (O'Connor, Collected 579). Red Sammy's wife and Thomas use politeness in "decent" attempts to lessen the social strain of difficult interaction with difficult conversational partners. Their attempts are consistent with the concept of maintaining or creating social distance as a primary motivating force behind politeness (Brown and Levinson 74; Leech 126; Mey 70). As social distance increases, up to a point (see Wolfson), communicative politeness increases. As social distance decreases, communicative politeness correspondingly decreases (Brown and Levinson 80; Culpeper 354-55). In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," when the grandmother makes known her recognition of The Misfit and thus dooms her entire family, O'Connor writes, "Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children" (O'Connor, Collected 147). In "Greenleaf," after Mrs. May reminds her son Wesley that if she hadn't controlled Mr. Greenleaf, her sons, including Wesley, might "be milking cows every morning at four o'clock," Wesley treats his mother to a bit of intimate family manners: "Wesley pulled the paper back toward his plate and staring at her full in the face, he murmured, 'I wouldn't milk a cow to save your soul from hell'" (O'Connor, Collected 510; for analysis of social "face" in this passage, see Hardy, The Body 91-92). And, as Wood comments of "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Julian can 'love' the anonymous Negro whom he does not know, but not the mother whom he does know and who also knows him" ("Flannery O'Connor on Race" 102).
The other variable in O'Connor's fiction that is commonly important in the determination of who is polite to whom and how politeness is communicated is power, variously manifested as economic control or even frequently the ability to inspire fear (Brown and Levinson 77; Leech 126; Watts 213-16). In "A Circle in the Fire," Mrs. Cope realizes the powerless position that she is in with Powell and the other juveniles who invade her farm. In an argument with Powell about whether the boys can spend the night in her barn, she softens her assertion: "'I'm afraid you can't spend the night in there just the same,' she repeated as if she were talking politely to a gangster" (O'Connor, Collected 239). The epistemic "I'm afraid" hedges her assertion and the quasi-simile "as if" gives the reader a hint about Mrs. Cope's conciliatory tone. The kind of power that economic domination provides is indicated in Mrs. Cope's earlier tone with Culver, one of the black workers on her farm. When Culver tells her that he didn't go through a gate with a tractor because he would have had to raise the mower blade, the narrator reports on Mrs. Cope's barely suppressed rage and her direct order without the "redress" of politeness strategies (Brown and Levinson 69-70), the latter made socially possible by her power over Culver: "Her eyes, as she opened them, looked as if they would keep on enlarging until they turned her wrongsideout. 'Raise it,' she said and pointed across the road with the trowel" (O'Connor, Collected 233-34).
4. Indirection in Politeness
Indirection is one of the primary strategies for polite conversational interaction when one is in a relatively powerless position or when one is in a conversation with a relative stranger (that is, when there is great social distance between speakers). Such indirection is protective of both the speaker and the hearer (Brown and Levinson 211-13; Leech 39-40). What I see as polite indirection is close but not identical to the strategic indirection that Wood sees in the "Tomming" ("an abject acquiescence to the white man") of some of O'Connor's black characters ("Flannery O'Connor on Race" 105-07). Claire Kahane has a similar perspective on the "social mask" of "conciliatory" blacks (184-86). It is certainly the case that it is the black characters in O'Connor's fiction who have the most elaborate manners and use of indirectness as a politeness strategy, largely because they need them for protection against both the dangers of and the annoyances of interacting with the usually economically more powerful whites. The most brilliantly indirect statement in O'Connor's fiction is provided in "Greenleaf" by the unnamed "Negro" who is working on the Greenleaf farm when Mrs. May goes to tell the Greenleaf boys to come get their stray bull off her farm. The Greenleafs are away from the farm house. Mrs. May asks the worker a question:
"Can you remember a message?" she said, looking as if she thought this doubtful.
"I'll remember it if I don't forget it," he said with a touch of sullenness.
"Well, I'll write it down then," she said.
(O'Connor, Collected 515)
Mrs. May's question, which in itself is offensive in its implication that it is uncertain whether the man can remember a message, is made even more insulting by her doubtful look. The man in turn delivers a stunningly effective tautology (X [remember it] if not not-X [don't forget it]), which like most tautologies can be understood to provide indirect meaning. That indirect meaning arises because tautologies violate what H. Paul Grice calls the "quantity maxim" of conversational interaction, which is specifically to give no more and no less information than is needed for the purposes of a cooperative conversation (309). Tautologies, such as "War is war," "Boys will be boys," and "I'll remember it if ! don't forget it," invite the hearer, or reader, to construct extra conversational meaning, what Grice calls "conversational implicatures" (310-11). The sullenness with which the man delivers his tautology makes it unambiguously clear that he is insulted by Mrs. May's question, even if the precise meaning of his tautology is not unambiguous. Mrs. May's response that she will write the message down is an indicator that she most likely doesn't understand the implicature of the man's tautology.
Indirection (generally, Brown and Levinson's "off-record strategy") is a politeness tool of enormous value in situations of social distance or other factors that make a conversational act difficult or dangerous to an individual's face (Brown and Levinson 74-78). One of the most socially awkward of settings in O'Connor's fiction--largely because of the class (social) differences represented there--is the physician's waiting room in "Revelation." This is the place where Ruby attempts to interact with the stranger Mary Grace, who is indeed a stranger in spite of Ruby's feeling that Mary Grace "was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life" (O'Connor, Collected 640). Their battle of wills is acted out largely through aggressive staring and verbal indirectness:
[Mary Grace's] eyes were fixed like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them.
Girl, Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently, I haven't done a thing to you! The girl might be confusing her with somebody else. There was no need to sit by and let herself be intimidated.
"You must be in college," she said boldly, looking directly at the girl. "I see you reading a book there." The girl continued to stare and pointedly did not answer.
Her mother blushed at this rudeness. "The lady asked you a question, Mary Grace," she said under her breath.
"I have ears," Mary Grace said. (O'Connor, Collected 642-43)
The value of indirection in polite interchange is demonstrated even in this rude interchange. The looks that Ruby and Mary Grace trade are unmistakably direct; however, Ruby's question is not a literal question. Her use of the modal hedge must m You must be m college indicates less than absolute knowledge of Mary Grace's matriculation. One way to ask an indirect question is to allude to ignorance of the information required (Gordon and Lakoff 102; referenced by Brown and Levinson 132). It is an indirect question, but nevertheless a question, thus explaining Mary Grace's "rudeness" in not saying anything, as her mother suggests.
5. The "Polite" Body
Because we usually think of politeness in terms of what we say, how we say it, and what we don't say, it is easy to forget that the body both affects and is affected by politeness strategies. That the body is object to the effects of politeness, or the lack of it, is evident immediately above in the reaction of her mother to Mary Grace's deliberate slight of Ruby ("Her mother blushed at this rudeness") (O'Connor, Collected 643) or earlier in Thomas's blushing at recognition of his own rudeness (O'Connor, Collected 579). That the body can both express politeness and hide embarrassment is evident in the reflexive body action of Red Sammy's wife in responding to June Star's rudeness: Ain't she cute?' the woman repeated, stretching
her mouth politely" (O'Connor, Collected 141). In a reminder that touch is perhaps the most obvious way to make human connections, the only physical gesture of social charity in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" occurs when the grandmother shows real concern for The Misfit at the end of the story: "She murmured, 'Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!' She reached out and touched him on the shoulder" (O'Connor, Collected 152). The grandmother is then immediately murdered for her sincere charity.
The importance of the eye in O'Connor's fiction has been widely recognized (Brown; Freeman; Maida; Meyer; Hardy, The Body; Sloan). Most discussions of the eye have concentrated on its symbolic function, whether epistemologically or sexually oriented. It is worth noting that the gaze of the eye can register politeness as well, in the sense of both recognition and protection both for those who are gazed at and those who gaze. A representative example occurs in "The Displaced Person" in the scene in which Astor and Sulk see the Shortleys leaving in early morning after discovering that Mrs. McIntyre was intending to fire Mr. Shortley: "They looked straight at the car and its occupants but even as the dim yellow headlights lit up their faces, they politely did not seem to see anything, or anyhow, to attach significance to what was there" (O'Connor, Collected 304).
Critics often recognize in O'Connor's fiction the sacramental and incarnational interpenetration of the human and the non-human worlds and the spiritual and the physical (e.g., Srigley; Lake; Hardy, The Body). The pattern is pervasive in O'Connor. In Section 2, 1 detailed this interaction as it occurs in Wise Blood. In "Good Country People," Hulga Hopewell "took care of[her wooden leg] as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away" (O'Connor, Collected 281). In fact, the non-human world is frequently personified in O'Connor, as, for instance, the sun is in The Violent Bear It Away: "The sun was directly overhead, apparently dead still, holding its breath, waiting out the noontime" (O'Connor, Collected 356). One of the subtler connections between politeness and the body is the physical act of glaring. A glare is an accusatory and rude act. In Wise Blood, a man who is defensive over Hazel's preaching glares at no one in particular: "'A wise guy,' the little thin man said, and glared as if someone were about to insult him" (O'Connor, Collected 58). In The Violent Bear It Away, Francis Tarwater, like Enoch Emery, has an antagonistic relationship with the physical world. When he vomits in the lake, "Tarwater said nothing, glaring with his red-lidded wet eyes at the water as if he were glad he had polluted it" (O'Connor, Collected 438). In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Bailey is consistently represented as having a foul demeanor. At Red Sam's, the grandmother "asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her" (O'Connor, Collected 141). And in "Good Country People," Hulga Hopewell is offended by Manley's probing questions about her artificial leg: "She turned an ugly red and glared at him and for an instant the boy looked abashed" (O'Connor, Collected 277). Now if humans can glare at one another and the physical world in O'Connor, the physical world often "glares" back when personified. And that glare is responsible at least in part for the perceived malevolence of O'Connor's world, as Christiane Beck has noted. She writes of the image of the sun as a "ball of glare" in The Violent Bear It Away that it "suggests the explosive sense of outrage which the eye can express" (143). Beck also argues that the "glaring white" of the sky in the beginning of"A Circle in the Fire" communicates "a note of hostility in the very disposition of the landscape ..." (138). These landscape images and others, Beck contends, "point to the apocalyptic strain" of O'Connor's fiction (136). That strain is pervasive in O'Connor's fiction, extending even to manufactured objects. In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes's "suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it" (O'Connor, Collected 3). Just before Hazel runs over Solace Layfield, the false prophet, Layfield is pictured as "squinting in the glare from Haze's lights" (O'Connor, Collected 113). In The Violent Bear It Away, the building in which the Carmodys hold their revival seems to "accuse" Rayber in his self-satisfied atheism: "Two blue and yellow windows glared at him in the darkness like the eyes of some Biblical beast" (O'Connor, Collected 407).
6. Race and Class
In this section I try to integrate observations made in earlier sections about grotesque isolation, social distance, power, indirectness, and the body in an attempt to determine the social value of politeness to both blacks and whites as well as the poor and the middle class characters in O'Connor's fiction. Although it isn't stated in O'Connor's phrase "manners [that] preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other" (Magee 104), those manners are, of course, used across social classes as well. In other words, privacy is important to people, both white and black races, and all classes. In O'Connor's fiction, politeness manifests itself primarily in managing class interactions among whites and racial interactions between blacks and whites. These interactions may have their characteristic tendencies--with whites generally having more power over blacks and whites generally fighting among themselves over social distance--but the race and class divides are far from absolute, and the challenges to those divides in fact give O'Connor's fiction a social complexity that is often neglected in O'Connor criticism (but see Day's analysis).
In spite of this social complexity, there is precious little strategic politeness among blacks in O'Connor's two novels and two short story collections (excluding the odd "Wildcat" of the M.A. thesis). Memorable but isolated examples include Sulk's angry response to Mrs. Shortley's warning in "The Displaced Person" that the displaced people were to take the place of the black worker and Astor's reaction to that angry response: "Big Belly act like she know everything" Astor tells Sulk, "Never mind.., your place too low for anybody to dispute with you for it" (O'Connor, Collected 297). Another rare socially strategic interaction occurs in "The Enduring Chill" when Randall tells Morgan to shut up, after Morgan tells Asbury what he takes when he has a cold. Randall "growl[s]," "He don't take what you take" (O'Connor, Collected 570). In both of these cases, black characters chastise other black characters for presuming to intrude on the social space of white characters.
O'Connor's fiction most frequently represents the brooding interior thoughts of her characters on politeness in the relationships of the white landowners to the poor whites who are hired to work on the landowners' farms. In one of her most incisive accounts of the intricacies of class and politeness, O'Connor briefly explores the relationship between Hulga Hopewell (daughter of the landowner) and Mrs. Freeman (wife to the hired farmhand on the Hopewell farm) in "Good Country People." The narrator tells us that Hulga thought that she "could not stand Mrs. Freeman for she had found that it was not possible to be rude to her." Any kind of "direct attack, a positive leer, blatant ugliness to her face--these never touched her" (O'Connor, Collected 266). The point is, of course, that this Ph.D., this educated woman, is beneath Mrs. Freeman's contempt--almost. Mrs. Freeman's assertion of social proximity comes in the form of using Hulga Hopewell's self-invented name, Hulga. When Freeman uses the name, "the big spectacled Joy-Hulga would scowl and redden as if her privacy had been intruded upon" (O'Connor, Collected 266). In "The Displaced Person," the relationship between Mrs. McIntyre and Mrs. Shortley is telling of the same sensitivity to social distance between landowners and their hired white workers. Rural whites of both middle and working classes generate a great deal of social friction in O'Connor's stories. When Mrs. Shortley indicates that the Guizacs' daughter has been hinting that they might have to move in order to make more money, McIntyre says of Mr. Guizac, "He's worth raising.... He saves me money" (O'Connor, Collected 295). Shortley takes offense on her husband's behalf at the probably unintentional underlying meaning: "This was as much as to say that Chancey had never saved her money" (O'Connor, Collected 295). And when McIntyre asks whether Mr. Shortley is "feeling better today," the narrator reports, "Mrs. Shortley thought it was about time she was asking that question" (O'Connor, Collected 295). McIntyre is really only interested in whether Chancey is back to work, as she makes clear in saying that if he is "over-exhausted ... then he must have a second job on the side" (O'Connor, Collected 295). Again, the narrator presents us with Mrs. Shortley's defensive and wounded feelings: "The fact was that Mr. Shortley did have a second job on the side and that, in a free country, this was none of Mrs. McIntyre's business" (O'Connor, Collected 295). In one conversation in which Mrs. McIntyre praises Mr. Guizac as her savior, Mrs. Shortley reacts with an attempt at indirect criticism:
"I would suspicion salvation got from the devil," she said in a slow detached way.
"Now what do you mean by that?" Mrs. McIntyre asked, looking at her sharply.
Mrs. Shortley wagged her head but would not say anything else. The fact was she had nothing else to say for this intuition had only at that instant come to her.
(O'Connor, Collected 294)
The quick reaction that Mrs. McIntyre shows to her white farm worker's indirect meaning contrasts starkly with Mrs. May's oblivious response to the black farm worker's tautologic violation of the Grician Quantity maxim, demonstrating that racial distance is greater than class separation, or is so at least in O'Connor's "The Displaced Person."
To generalize from Astor's observation about Sulk's place, we can say that rural blacks and whites in O'Connor's fiction are usually too far apart socially for there to be serious social concern about interpersonal meaning. In particular, the power that most whites have over most blacks in O'Connor's fiction maintains the greatest social separation. One of the scenes most revealing of the general lack of sincere social interaction among whites and blacks in O'Connor's fiction is the comically exaggerated response from the black farm workers to Ruby Turpin's report of Mary Grace's attack on her:
There was an astounded silence. "Where she at?" the youngest woman cried in a piercing voice.
"Lemme see her. I'll kill her!" "I'll kill her with you!" the other one cried.
"She b'long in the sylum," the old woman said emphatically. "You the sweetest white lady I know."
"She pretty too," the other two said. "Stout as she can be and sweet. Jesus satisfied with her!" "Deed he is," the old woman declared.
Idiots! Mrs. Turpin growled to herself. (O'Connor, Collected 650)
More than silence itself, the workers' ludicrously exaggerated response demonstrates the gulf that divides white farm owners and black farm workers. Day (141) also notes the "elaborate manners" and "protection" on "the black side of the color line" in this episode. As 1 have argued elsewhere, the appearance of this passage as a summary coda to Ruby's narrative demonstrates that "redemption is not a social gift" and that "isolation may be a sign of the grotesque in O'Connor, but social connection itself, especially when it is false.., is not a guarantor of redemption" ("Embedded Narration" 148-49).
As I pointed out earlier, the relationship between blacks and whites has understandably attracted a great deal of critical attention. In "The Enduring Chill," the faux-intellectual and faux-liberal Asbury briefly works on his mother's dairy farm in an attempt "to see how they [the black workers] really felt about their condition" because he was "writing a play about the Negro" (O'Connor, Collected 558). The trouble is that he has a very hard time talking with them. Matthew Day focuses attention on this passage: "When they [Morgan and Randall] said anything to him [Asbury], it was as if they were speaking to an invisible body located to the right or left of where he actually was..." (O'Connor, Collected 558). Day comments, "With an economy of expression that the genre of the short story demands, O'Connor reveals a world where black men receive death sentences simply for looking white men in the eyes. She has, to invoke James's formula, discerned the awful legacy of slavery and gothic complexity of southern culture in the pattern of this isolated exchange" (137). It may be the case that O'Connor is evoking the reality and the undeniable and horrifying threat of racial violence in the South. However, there is more going on here, as one sees in examining Day's excerpt in its complete context, including the entire sentence from which it is excerpted: "They didn't talk.... When they said anything to him, it was as if they were speaking to an invisible body located to the right or left of where he actually was, and after two days working side by side with them, he felt he had not established rapport" (O'Connor, Collected 558). Morgan and Randall are avoiding eye contact with Asbury in part, in O'Connor's words, not only for their "own protection" but also for their "own privacy," as is clear in further interactions with Asbury. When Asbury defiantly lights a cigarette in his mother's dairy, Randall certainly has no difficulty looking at Asbury, "The Negro had stopped what he was doing and watched him. He waited until Asbury had taken two draws and then he said, 'she don't 'low no smoking in here'" (O'Connor, Collected 558). Then, two days later, Asbury makes the fateful, ill-considered move of offering unpasteurized milk to Randall and Morgan, another defiant act for which Morgan has no problem staring directly at him and then challenging him: "Morgan stared at him; then his face took on a decided look of cunning. 'I ain't seen you drink none of it yourself,'
he said" (O'Connor, Collected 559).
Thus, both Randall and Morgan invoke Asbury's mother's power in their defiance, going so far as to watch and stare at Asbury. The physical act of looking is for O'Connor an act of power, as is evident in the following exchange in "The Displaced Person" between Mrs. McIntryre and Astor, the oldest black worker on the McIntyre farm. He has been on the farm even longer than Mrs. McIntyre, having known and worked for "the Judge," Mrs. McIntyre's late husband. Astor "thought this gave him title" (O'Connor, Collected 308). Astor, who clearly knows of Mr.
Guizac's plan to marry his cousin off to Sulk, either can't or won't bring himself to tell Mrs. McIntyre of the plan:
"We seen them come and we seen them go," he said as if this were a refrain. "But we ain't never had one before," he said, bending himself up until he faced her, "like what we got now." He was cinnamon-colored with eyes that were so blurred with age that they seemed to be hung behind cobwebs.
She gave him an intense stare and held it until, lowering his hands on the hoe, he bent down again and dragged a pile of shavings alongside the wheelbarrow.
(O'Connor, Collected 306)
Astor acquiesces to Mrs. McIntyre's power here, but this is no more than is typically to be expected with employers and employees. After several indirect hints from Astor that Mr. Guizac is up to something strange because in Poland "[t]hey got different ways of doing," Mrs. McIntyre commands him to be direct: "What are you saying?" (O'Connor, Collected 307).
It is power, not race (however much race may correlate with power), that determines whether one can dominate the other through a look, as is demonstrated in "Everything That Rises Must Converge." There, as Shackelford points out, the businessman whom Julian attempts to befriend in his patronizing way, "is characterized less stereotypically than the Blacks in many of O'Connor's stories ..." (83). Part of that less stereotypical characterization is the power that the man exhibits in expressing annoyance with Julian's silly and pointless request for matches. Julian doesn't have any cigarettes and smoking is prohibited on the bus: "The Negro lowered the paper and gave him an annoyed look. He took the matches and raised the paper again" (O'Connor, Collected 493). Another black character who refuses to tolerate the insults of immature whites is the maid in "The Lame Shall Enter First": "'Well look at Aunt Jemima,' he [Rufus] said. The girl paused and trained an insolent gaze on them. They might have been dust on the floor" (O'Connor, Collected 605). And it is not the case that the power of looking is limited to signifying relations between blacks and whites. Focalizing through Mrs. May in "Greenleaf," the narrator tells us that Mr. Greenleaf "walked on the perimeter of some invisible circle and if you wanted to look him in the face, you had to move and get in front of him" (O'Connor, Collected 502-03; see Hardy, The Body 91-92, on the word "face").
A later conversation between Mrs. May and the young black worker on the Greenleaf farm reveals just how isolated and protective both sides of the race/power divide are in O'Connor's fiction. Mrs. May asks the man which of the Greenleaf brothers is "boss":
"They never quarls" the boy said. "They like one man in two skins."
"Hmp. I expect you just never heard them quarrel"
"Nor nobody else heard them neither" he said, looking away as if this insolence were addressed to some one else.
"Well," she said, "I haven't put up with their father for fifteen years not to know a few things about Greenleafs."
The Negro looked at her suddenly with a gleam of recognition. "Is you my policy man's mother?" he asked.
"I don't know who your policy man is," she said sharply.
(O'Connor, Collected 516)
When the black worker tells Mrs. May that no one has heard the Greenleaf boys quarrel, his looking away signals that he recognizes that his assertion is a direct contradiction of Mrs. May's indirect implication that the boys do indeed fight. Thus, as is common with O'Connor's black workers, the man here signals deference and acknowledges differential power in looking away from Mrs. May. But there are two kinds of looking, one that indicates power and one that indicates solidarity. Note that when he realizes that Mrs. May is probably his "policy man's mother" he looks at Mrs. May "with a gleam of recognition" (O'Connor, Collected 516). This recognition and looking, and the bid for solidarity they imply, are repugnant to Mrs. May for many reasons, including that, as the story has demonstrated earlier, she is ashamed of Scofield's being a "policy man" to the local blacks (O'Connor, Collected 504). Thus, O'Connor's blacks frequently protect themselves from the intrusion of white power, while the whites protect themselves from the social intrusion of the blacks.
O'Connor's fictional use of politeness represents not only the complex issues involving white-black and class relations but also the profound failure of manners and politeness to create human connections in both rural and urban settings. Ultimately, there simply is no safe social place in O'Connor's fiction, at least in part because society is not where O'Connor saw or sought salvation in the first place. As Shackelford writes of O'Connor's fiction, "Without [spiritual] salvation, social values are meaningless" (89). Ruby Turpin still imagines distinct classes and races of people on the stairway to heaven.
O'Connor's fictional world is one in which most people are isolated both emotionally and spiritually. However, that alienation is different for blacks and whites and it is different for individuals within either races. Power and social distance, as many theorists of politeness have argued, seem to be primary variables that determine politeness strategies. The blacks in O'Connor's fiction are, unfortunately, constrained by differences in power, and the attempts on the part of whites to bridge that power gap--as in Asbury's case--simply reiterate that power differential. The powerful whites are preoccupied with keeping their social distance from both blacks and poorer whites. Ultimately, most politeness in O'Connor is grotesque in that it usually leads to the reinforcement of the debilitating isolation that most of her characters ironically share. The cliches of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Good Country People" that Highsmith rightfully condemns as empty (as well as those of Hoover Shoats, Meeks, and Tom T. Shiftlet and others) demonstrate the failure of language in its communal function (Highstreet 99). Enoch's attempts to place himself above the beasts he feels superior to only reinforce that he belongs among the beasts. Mrs. Hopewell's polite attempts to compensate for Hulga's rudeness lead to regret at her own graciousness. Thomas places himself on the rack in order to live up to his own ideals of politeness in his interactions with the sociopath Star Drake. Asbury fails miserably in his attempt to connect with the black workers on his mother's farm. Julian makes a fool of himself trying to befriend the black man on the bus. Wesley brutalizes his mother for her kindness. O'Connor's characters glare at a world that seems to glare back. In the harsh light of such a brutal world, formality indeed gives everyone a measure of protection. However, that protection comes at the cost of an isolation that is at once grotesque but also strangely comforting in a fictional world severely deficient in genuine Christian charity.
This article has made the argument that a stylistic analysis of politeness in O'Connor's fiction reinforces a number of important themes in that fiction, especially the relationship between isolation and the grotesque and sacramentalism and spiritual connection. The article has intentionally not attempted an exhaustive close reading of any one particular O'Connor story. Rather, it has shown, as is the goal of a great deal of stylistic work, that a particular stylistic trait (here, the exploration of social politeness) is pervasive in and integral to an author's work as a whole.
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Donald E. Hardy
University of Nevada, Reno
(1) Walter Spitz uses Brown and Levinson's politeness strategies in an analysis of the conversational interaction of the grandmother and The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," in part as an examination of The Misfit's use of negative politeness to maintain socially isolated "distance from his interlocutor" (16). Spitz's unpublished essay is an example of the relatively early use of Brown and Levinson's politeness model to catalogue and analyze strategies of politeness interaction in a single fictional work, as is my "Strategic Politeness in Hemingway's 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.'" Although my "Politeness in Flannery O'Connor's Fiction" is broadly consistent with Spitz's essay, my arguments were developed independently.
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