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Works of fiction are composed in a multitude of different styles under a variety of distinct genres. As a form of literature that is developed using the imagination as a primary source, it can either take the shape of an extraordinary fantasy, or just feign the reality that surrounds us all. For authors Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O'Connor, fiction was a medium in which to bring reality to the reader through a series of fabricated events and distinctive characters. It was a way in which to illustrate the meaning and symbolism of a harsh reality into picture perfect narratives. Neither woman would disguise the fact that the world can be cold and detached, as well as almost absurdly stark and violent. Both authors were known for using the “grotesque” to illustrate their symbolism and give a distinctive meaning to their imagery. As prolific writers, their short stories (and even novels) routinely entwined typical elements of violence with the horror of human cruelty, as well as disfigurement and “freakish” mentalities. Although their writings did possess many other similarities, the authors' dissimilar beliefs and unique life experiences are reflected in their works. O'Connor remained a devout Catholic throughout her life, and she applied these principals as a primary underlying theme within her fiction. This non-didactic Christian view examined elements of faith that were apparent within her style and thematic writings. Oates, on the other hand, examined the personal and “naturalistic” way of life. However, one similarity that was displayed within every narrative constructed between them both was a willingness to bring out realism within the human condition. O'Connor wrote within the realm of her infirmity, describing many deficiencies and deviations from what is considered human perfection, or the ideal image of God. Oates, on the other hand, has said that she focused her fiction on “real people in real society.” Either way, neither woman believed that their fiction had strayed from reality in any way, no matter how “extreme” or extraordinary they transgressed what is physically and humanly possible. The authors force a moment of self realization into the reader through the perspective of their characters. They allow the reader to recognize some divine presence existing in the world, and in some way, if only for an instant, allow the reader to come to terms with moral responsibility, and permit them to reach within themselves to find concern for others other than themselves. These women's writing is not an escape from reality, ‘it is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system” (Oates).
One the various themes reflected throughout the writings of Oats and O'Connor, perhaps the most definitive and certainly one of the most discussed, it that of violence. O'Connor's narratives are so reliant on religion and the allusions used to express her principals, that it may appear that the objective becomes stifled or even blasphemous, like in the case of Wise Blood. The character of Haze Motes comes from a family where his grandfather was a church Revival preacher, and Haze himself seems to mimic a preacher himself when wearing a blue suit with a black hat. What makes this ironic is the fact that although Haze is told that he imitates the look of “a preacher,” in reality, he hates preachers. Later within the story he strives to achieve the “Church without Christ,” but it becomes clear that Christ's moral teachings and benevolent ideals, which are attributed to the Christian house of god, are absent as he wages an individual war against another preacher and his “prophet”, who dresses and behaves in a manner similar to him, and their Holy Church of Christ Without Christ. The violence that pervades her work push the reader into acknowledging human nature behaves within a certain duality. This theme suggests that human beings need to recognize their own violent natures and come to terms with the fact that nothing exists without an opposing counterpart. For example, good cannot exist without evil, and peace cannot exist without violence. With unremitting fervor, both with artistic and religious moral connotations, O'Connor relays that violence can be used sacrificially to restore order to a community or society, like that of God's sacrifice of his only son, on behalf of the human race being overcome by their own sins. O'Connor models this idea within “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The character Rufus never acts in a way that makes him “good.” He repeatedly admits that he is “evil,” but Sheppard refuses to believe him, reasoning that he can “reform” the boy by giving him a greater purpose in life. Sheppard means well in his attempts to prove to Rufus that there is good within him. As Sheppard yearns to reform a character of moral depravity, Rufus only sees the Bible as something “to hide behind”, and that it exists “for the people who are afraid to stand on their own two feet and figure out things for themselves.” This behavior finally ends Sheppard's compassion, bringing about a realization that his good and innocent son Norton deserved his love. However, Norton has been sacrificed (whether by accident or by his own accord) which correlates the sacrifice of purity for immorality. Through the characters Rufus and Haze, O'Connor crafts a façade of morality. Although both try to convey a strong moral fortitude, beneath their appearance there is only pride and self interest.
Oates, on the other hand, refrains from religious reference and instead uses important social situations and standards as an allegory for one's moral choices within relevant modern times. Oates is very demanding of her audience, and often seems to be deliberately vague within many of the short fiction stories we have read in class. However, she does seem to mimic a lot of the same qualities of Flannery O'Connor, because her work covers similar subject matter and is greatly understood. In "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, Oates displays many of the same issues as those by O'Connor. Details such as teen culture of the time, the sibling rivalry, parent-child gap, and a familiar criminal case upon which the story is loosely based, enhance the reader's understanding of the plot. By the end of the story, violent forces emerge as the young 15-year-old Connie is lead away from her home by Arnold Friend, a seemingly dark character who is most often interpreted as a harbinger of death or Devil-like character. The reader is challenged to look at the fiction and the reality with a deeper understanding. Oates and O'Connor use this realism and psychological manipulation to artistically craft fiction that sits right outside our own concept of reality. According to O'Connor in The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, she states that “a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness.” Connie prides herself within her own teenage world as a flirt with that displays a know-it-all attitude. Connie has no real identity, but knows that somewhere inside her she is “pretty,” and that her looks and sexuality attract attention. As a teenage girl in a woman's body, Connie tests boundaries with her parents and seeks validation of her attractiveness from the boys at the local drive-in restaurant. Oates identifies Connie's worth as a person with physical beauty, which is quite different from the distorted or infirm bodies of O'Connor's work. However, this character's beauty is nothing more than a “curse of her own,” because it makes her fight with her family, who ultimately leave her alone and vulnerable within her own home. When Arnold Friend comes to her home, she mistakes him for a boy she has seen eyeing her at the restaurant. However, his clothing, physical appearance, and extent of their chat has nothing teenage about it. Arnold assumes the role of a young Casanova, described as “a boy with shaggy, black hair, in a convertible jalopy painted gold,” which Connie accepts as another suitor. But soon Arnold begins to change, and upon closer observation, it is into a man with painted eyelashes, his shaggy hair which looked like a wig, and his stuffed boots that “must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller”. These features led her believe he was not a teenager, but in fact, much older. Although there is no physical violence put upon the young girl, Arnold coerces Connie into submission by emotion alone. He feeds her vain and wavering ego so that he may bend her to his will. By the time he asks her, “What else is there for a girl like you but to be sweet and pretty and give in?,” she feels she can do nothing by comply. The reader is left to wonder if Connie is no longer confident, but powerless in the face of this dangerous individual who will most certainly lead her to ruin.
Unlike O'Connor, Oates thrives in versatility by exploring the different “imitations” of life that surround her. Her fantastical never goes beyond believable, weaving the ordinary with the extraordinary. In her own words, Oates has stated in Johnson's, Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction, that “if a story is well done there is no need to emphasize its meaning or its bewilderment before the fact of meaninglessness: the story is its meaning that is all. Any story of Chekhov's is its meaning. It is an experience, an emotional event, usually of great beauty and occasionally of great ugliness, but it is pure in itself, needing no interpretation” (page 7).
What makes Oates so fascinating is that she seems to make a case study of every character and scenario she writes about. Although physical violence was never displayed in “Where Are You Going,” her short story, “Upon the Sweeping Flood,” is quite different. As a look into human behavior and the survivalist mentality, Oates develops a plot in which three members of society are isolated because of a hurricane, and as the story progresses the reader is shown how they cope with their situation. As an Eden County Sheriff deputy, Walter Stuart becomes stranded on his way home from his father's farm, and he is joined by two teenage kids. As a man being described as having success in both his finances and in his life, Stuart seems to be in control of the situation, and the best person for these youngsters to have guiding them. At first Stuart is a normal and gentle man, but over the course of the storm Stuart's interaction with the violent, unfeeling, and crude girl and her “loony” brother start to have an adverse affect on him. As the story progresses, he begins to take on some of their characteristics. What makes the story so vivid is that she paints a realistic picture of how ugly human nature can be. During the course of the story, Stuart is put through a profoundly agonizing experience. He goes from asking them, “Do you need help?” to begging the rescue boat, “Save me!” He transitions from declaring, “I know what I'm doing!” to doing something totally uncontrollable. Stuart believed that he must act on the social obligation to “see if anybody needs help.” What seems like a representation of the “Good Samaritan” becomes a frightening example of the psychological change that can possibly happen to anybody. A transformation within his moral character moved Stuart to kill the boy and girl for whom he has risked his life for. By the end of the story, Stuart can no longer believe that “his mind was clear, sane circle of quiet… inside the chaos of the storm.” He knows that he has “lost what he was just the day before,” and that he has “turned now into a different person, a stranger even to himself.”
Although these authors seem to walk the line between what we can perceive as an ordinary story with an extraordinary twist or element, these extreme qualities also bring forth a more honest engagement with reality. The accessible component of it masks a full sense of their work. Although we are disturbed by the violence that erupts from the ordinary, the function still serves a higher purpose in giving us a kind of moral lesson or understanding of our own human nature. O'Connor's use of the “grotesque” reflected her life as a Roman Catholic in the Protestant South. Her work detailed the traditional Southern regional settings, while also integrating the Gothic style of the 20th century. The bizarre and often dreary visions of American life can be found as characteristics within her work. Apart from writing about “freaks,” O'Connor's goes beyond a distortion of reality, and at times even escapes from it. She notes that “In nineteenth-century American writing, there was a good deal of grotesque literature which came from the frontier and was supposed to be funny; but our present grotesque characters, comic though they may be, are at least not primarily so. They seem to carry an invisible burden; their fanaticism is a reproach, not merely an eccentricity…In the novelist's case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up” (The Grotesque in Southern Fiction).
In the story “Parker's Back,” O'Connor illustrates a man who has become restless within his own life, and finds solace in filling the front of his body with tattoos. Parker's search for a way to achieve the “Garden-of-Eden” style of beauty is nothing extreme, but throughout the events of the story we see that O.E. Parker becomes detached from his own reality in order to spiritually change through physical change. Parker's obsession with body art and his marriage to a plain-looking, self-righteous woman who was “forever sniffing up sin,” makes Parker both an average man and a mystery. Covering his chest, arms, hands, and belly with tattooed art, Parker becomes incessantly concerned with what he can see in the mirror. However, when he has the face of the Byzantine Jesus tattooed upon his back, Parker is left with the consequences of displeasing his wife and having no understanding of feeling complete, or enlightened. Parker becomes an example of a Christian prophet, and is forced to carry a message to an impervious audience; his wife. He feels responsible for finding God, yet he does not “[go] and [get] religion.” He becomes impulsive and arrogant by performing an act that is almost the same as idolatry. To Parker, the image of God would make his wife happy because “she can't say she don't like the looks of God.” However, she “holds a narrow conception of Divinity,” by saying that “God don't look like that! … He don't look… He's a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She then severs the relationship between Parker and herself (O'Connor, p.529). Sarah Ruth perceives him more as she would the “freak” at the circus, making Parker feel lost and further from the Lord.
Oates, on the other hand, brings realism to her audience through a keen interpretation of the contemporary. Her work has dealt with everything from psychology and philosophy to boxing. In her article entitled, On Boxing, Oates describes boxing as “at its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life---- life's beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage---that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.” Oates exposes her own sense of wonder about the mystery of human character and personality within her work, “Golden Gloves.” This is a tale of a man who must overcome his failings in order to become a different sort of man; Not a fighter, but a father. Born premature and with “deformed feet: the tiny arches twisted, the toes turned inward like fleshy claws” (504), the main character makes it to the Golden Gloves competition that he had known one day “he would be up there in the ring, one day in the lights, rows of people watching” (506). Oates never falters from making the protagonist relatable. As he overcomes his handicap, he is abruptly stripped of the one thing that truly makes him happy, his “career of promise (512)” as an amateur boxer. Placed in a position where his wife, Annemarie, is fighting her own personal battles with conceiving a child and keeping it through multiple miscarriages. This becomes a situation of duality, where each have failed but can either remain trying or give up altogether. The main character begins to reflect a personality often seen in O'Connor's work by detaching himself from the reality of the situation. Although he has given up something he loved because of defeat, his wife refuses to give up after suffering a “miscarriage that took place in the fifth month of the first pregnancy” (513). Oates recalls that during a bout, “we are deeply moved by the body's communion with itself by way of another's intransigent flesh. The body's dialogue with its shadow self--- or Death” (On Boxing). The main character can either chose to “man up” and fight the new battle that his wife has refused to fail at, or he can chose to take it as a personal defeat. This is an important characteristic of the realism and naturalistic symbolism that defines these authors. It is the physical quest for perfection and the mental quest for understanding which can only be understood by the character. The reader cannot make excuses or try and reframe the mindset that is already there. The mentality of the character is steadfast within their realm and makes their experiences extraordinary as well as believable.
What brings Flannery and Joyce Carol Oates together is not only their creative narrative styles, but also the way that they manipulate their style and form. The structure of their writings delivers the full meaning of what they wish to express to the reader. Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" has many of the same ideas present that O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," has, because it is rife with mindless violence. Both Oates and O'Connor emphasize the reality and presence of evil. However, in O'Connor's case, the imminence of evil transforms visible reality into mere illusion. For Oates, naiveté is dangerous.
In O'Connor's “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the use of the grandmother as the perspective in which the story is told is remarkably effective because it allows the reader into a character's point of view; especially one who's personality and actions result in the final scene of the story where everyone is killed. Even though she complains that she would rather go to Tennessee than Florida for vacation, she packs herself and her cat into the car with her son and his family. She comically foreshadows the pains that she takes to dress properly in a dress and hat, so that if she were found dead on the highway, everyone would recognize her as a lady. After their car crash, although no one is hurt, they are left stranded on the side of the road. As a driver makes his way towards the stranded family, the grandmother views the man and sees that “his face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was." As soon as he starts to speak, however, she recognizes him as the infamous Misfit. The man known as the Misfit has a disconnection with society, just as Arnold Friend had. Although the grandmother tries to convince the man that he is “not a bit common,” she does not have any effect on him, just as Friend was never going to let the young Connie out of his sight. As Connie begins to understand that she will never see her home again, the grandmother begins to realize this as well, and for once, becomes speechless as the story states “she opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out.” In the end, both women are taken away along with their idea and perception of what makes them themselves. Connie was stripped of her sexual identity (or thought thereof), and the grandmother, who is described at the end of the story by her murderer as “a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” was robbed of her voice and her pride. What makes O'Connor different from Oates in this perspective is that the religious overtones interact with the story, but do not have any effect on it. As the grandmother pleads with the Misfit, by telling him that Jesus holds to path to righteousness, the Misfit only skews this idea by saying that “Jesus thown everything off balance.” Oates does not say who Arnold Friend is, but we can infer that he is some sort of demonic presence, though without that idea we can still see Arnold Friend as an evil entity that is given a human form. The plot and the presentation work together in a way that everything discussed within the narrative is relevant and straightforward. However, the presentation can go in many different ways, especially within the final moments of each story. Will the main character live now that we know that there is a negative ill wisher involved? Will the boxer fight a new bout with this wife, or will he give up? Will Parker's wife come to terms with the body art he has opted to put on himself? It becomes clear that the symbols displayed throughout the plot become essential points that engage the reader and convey moral and important lessons from a realistic point of view.
Finally, there is the epistolary Oates story of “The Cousins.” Within this story we encounter two women who rely entirely on letters to establish whether they indeed share a familial bond that has been compromised because the boat that that carried young Freyda Morgenstern was turned around by the U.S. Immigration at New York Harbor. As their postal relationship progresses, Freyda and Rebecca begin to exhibit qualities that are common between the two until they finally meet at a spiritual crossroads and completely change personalities. As Rebecca remains adamant that they are long lost cousins, Freyda, who goes by “FM” for most of their initial writings, seems apathetic to the amount of energy that Rebecca had put towards their reunion. Freyda states in a letter that “There are numerous ‘Morgensterns” surviving. Perhaps some of these are your cousins, too. You might seek them out if you are lonely” (47). As Freyda “[Hardens] her heart against [her] ‘American Cousin'” (47), the reader begins to see that it requires the events of Rebecca's illness to have a significant impact upon her. One of the most dramatic elements of the plot revolves around Rebecca's own presentation. At first she seems almost pushy and is called “tenacious,” yet by the end she has taken on a new personae and appearance that she describes as a “gaunt-skull woman with [a] buzz cut. The heavy dark glasses covering half my face. Others in my condition wear gaudy turbans or gleaming wigs. Their faces are bravely made up…. I don't mind my baldie head in warm weather & among strangers, for their eyes look through me as if I am invisible” (58). Rebecca stops writing for awhile at which time Fredya, who now goes by “Freyda” and then “F” in her final letter, has structured an important plot within the presentation of letters. Although Freyda has endured pain and suffering through the Holocaust, Rebecca now suffers within her own body. Freyda starts to become a person, while Rebecca loses her perspective of it. This enhances their work drastically, because we see this change, we understand this change, but we are not fully given the knowledge of it, we just infer through our own personal understanding.
Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates are important literary contributors of the 20th Century because they understand the human condition in the most uncomfortable of ways. They explore who we are and what we have the potential to be. The fantastical is but a variance of our own perception of reality. According to Oates, the means of expression within fiction may be “naturalistic, realistic, surreal, or parodistic” (Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction, p.7). O'Connor and Oates breathe life in many of the same ways, yet O'Connor strives to make her fiction sit within the realm of infirmity and distortion, while Oates goes beyond one's own body and displays relationships along with the human aspect involved outside of Christ.