Sometimes in the morning, on our terrace surrounded by plants and bees and butterflies, I look at our sleeping cat, Volver, and feel as if I am in a tableau vivant.
Frida Kahlo lived in a tableau vivant of her own. After seeing her paintings for the first time, Andre Breton said Frida was one of them, a surrealist. However, Frida did not agree. She said she was a Mexican artist relying on Mexican imagery and all Breton had to do was go to Mexico to understand why. Aztec artifacts, Day of the Dead folk art, and Catholic Church iconography, for example, offered imagery that not even the most hard-core surrealist artist could surpass.
But way before surrealism, there was the Gothic style both in architecture (ex. Notre Dame with its buttresses and gargoyles) and literature. As for literature, many academics say that the first gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) that introduced gothic characteristics: eerie architecture falling in ruins, an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty, the presence of the supernatural, and a woman in difficulty because of some tyrannical man.
Women, with less social mobility, enjoyed the sensationalism gothic literature offered. It helped get them out of the house, so to speak. Plus all the stories of vulnerable women being exploited by men was something that they could easily relate to. So attracted to this genre, women writers eventually took it over and began redefining the female sensibility according to how they themselves experienced social and economic upheaval. Present day scholars often refer to this as Gothic feminism.
But literary trends come and go and eventually the interest in Gothic literature dissipated until it was rediscovered by the American south. The post-Civil War south offered many of the grotesque elements found in Gothic novels—decadence, questions of moral integrity, distorted personalities, oppression and discrimination.
One well-known Southern Gothic writer was Flannery O’Connor. Before reading Flannery, it’s best to understand two things about her. The first is that she suffered from lupus and knew she would die young. The second (maybe somehow dependent upon the first) was that, devout to her religion, she considered herself not just a writer but a Catholic writer.
Last night an intense dream woke me up. I thought maybe reading a bit would help get me back in the mood for sleeping. So I grabbed Flannery’s Complete Short Stories and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The story, published in 1953, is described by Flannery herself as “the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida [from Georgia], gets wiped out by an escaped convict who calls himself the Misfit”. Although not exactly the best example of literature conducive towards a good night’s sleep, once finished it did give me something to think about.
The main character is the grandmother. She is some kind of post-bellum, expired southern belle who expresses her “superior” morality by constantly criticizing others. While driving towards Florida, the grandmother is sitting in the back seat with two of her grandchildren and her cat, Pitty Sing, secretly stashed in a basket. The grandmother (as she is always referred to) nags her son Bailey to take a dirt road so she can see a plantation she visited when she was young and pretty. To shut his mother up, Bailey takes the road. But slowly the grandmother realizes she’s made a mistake and they are not going in the right direction. Embarrassed and afraid of how her son will react, the grandmother makes an abrupt move that sends Pitty Sing out of its basket and onto the shoulders of Bailey. Bailey, startled, loses control of the car. The car flips and falls into a ditch.
No one is severely injured and they all scramble out of the car. In a few minutes they see a hearse-like car driving down a hill towards them. The car arrives where they are and three men with expressionless gazes get out. All three are armed. While Bailey is trying to explain the predicament they’re in, the grandmother stares at the driver. Gradually she recognizes him from a newspaper article. He’s an escaped convict known as Misfit. But instead of keeping the information to herself, she blurts out “You’re the Misfit! I recognized you at once.” To which Misfit replies: “It would have been better for you if you hadn’t recognized me at all.” Finally realizing the mistake she’d made, the grandmother starts crying. And as Misfit’s companions start taking the other family members towards the woods to kill them, the grandmother is left alone with Misfit.
Finally Flannery has arrived where she wanted to go to from the start—a moral duel between grandmother and Misfit. The grandmother thus far has been portrayed as someone who is selfish, someone who is constantly orbiting around herself. But now, with a gun pointed in her face, everything changes. She begs for human compassion, something she herself has never offered to others. Seeing Misfit’s twisted face, she cries out to him “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children” then touches him on the shoulder. Misfit responds by shooting her three times in the chest.
Faced with death, the grandmother seeks God’s mercy. And, in doing so, Flannery seems to say that the grandmother redeems herself. But not having Flannery’s same creed, I often find her stories somewhat difficult to relate to.
Sometimes, instead of seeking God’s mercy, maybe we should try seeking our own.
Related: Elements of the Gothic Novel by Robert Harris pdf + Scream Queens: The Women Who Pioneered Gothic Literature + The Grotesque Stories Behind the Famous Gargoyles of Notre Dame Cathedral + Victorian Gothic by Jack Clark + THE FEMALE GOTHIC + Southern Gothic | Definition, History, Characteristics & Famous Writers