Goring the Reader: Flannery O'Connor's Subversive Treatment of Violence in "Greenleaf"

Chris Webb


Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Greenleaf” can be used to explore the affinity in her fiction between violence, grace, and epistemic clarity. To be clear, this means there is a direct relationship between the scapegoat mechanism and mimetic violence put forth by the critical work of Rene Girard and Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Robert Donahoo, editor of a recent collection of essays, Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism (2010), calls for her work to be used as a form of theory creation, not just theory criticism. This paper asserts that O’Connor does just that by using violence to defamiliarize the reader with an increasingly violent world. This is done through her treatment of the persecuted and grotesque Greenleaf family in “Greenleaf.” These persecuted characters create a dialogical narrative voice that stands in violent opposition to the authoritarian voice of the implied narrator. Ultimately, cultural violence encapsulates her characters in Michael Taussig’s death space—a textual space where singular cultural identities are jumbled, contained, and ultimately released as a regenerative effect on the community.

Ultimately, O’Connor shows the reader she is aware of the implications of communal violence in her work. She sets up a narrative dialogism as proposed in Gentry’s Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque. This begins with Mrs. Greenleaf acting as skandalon, stumbling block, to Mrs. May, who is inhibited by and yearning for the freedom and wild authority of Mrs. Greenleaf’s prayer healings, and the startling marriage of sacred and profane rituals and language. This causes a rupture for Mrs. May who vies against herself in an effort to imitate the desires of the Greenleaf family, which she simultaneously abhors for their grotesqueries and yearns for in their burgeoning social mobility. This enlargement of desire culminates in the deadly “accident” of Mrs. May’s goring, a typical moment of grace for an O’Connor character. Like the self-righteous and threatened Mrs. May, the reader is implicated of his inclination toward mimetic desire and the tendency to acquiesce with O’Connor’s constructed authoritarian implied narrator. This can be clearly seen in the generally sympathetic attitude many readers have toward Mrs. May. By producing large and startling figures such as the vulpine Mr. Greenleaf, the conflation of strange and familiar words and wives—E.T.’s and O.T.’s children who are bilingual, and the culturally transgressive scrub bull whom Mrs. May believes will consume her cultural signifiers, including her farm and her sons. O’Connor illuminates the violent background of the story and the heart of reader. She takes the advice proffered to the prophet Habakkuk: to write plain upon the hearts of her readers, so that they may use her defamiliarized forms of violence to extricate themselves from its grip. Those readers who ignore her are in danger of becoming victims of the scrub bull, who munches away at the world until there remains nothing but a solipsistic consciousness.

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