The Southern Literary Journal 36.1 (2003) 46-57
Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor have all acknowledged in one way or another the ugliness that saturates their fictional worlds, an ugliness that is so frequently embodied—literally—in their female characters. In this essay, I concentrate on those texts which are most readily recognized as grotesque—Welty's A Curtain of Green, McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café, and O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find —in order to reinvigorate an understanding of a peculiarly southern form of ugliness. Concentrating on female grotesques, I want to suggest that these freakish women that so loudly dominate these stories engage in a politics of dissent. And this occurs on two levels. Firstly, the raucous women in Welty's, McCullers', and O'Connor's fiction challenge idealised and, needless to say, oppressive visions of white southern womanhood—the southern lady and the southern belle—that have dominated southern gender regimes from the antebellum period right up to the present. Secondly, the contorted and fragmented bodies that fill these writers' stories at the same time own up to a tragic history in which they have partaken, even if in silence. Such a history not only revolves around burdensome models of femininity, but also slavery and its tragic legacy and a literally fatal regional patriotism, and it becomes marked on the bodies of Welty's, McCullers', and O'Connor's women, just as the spidery scars on Seth's back write over and over the violent history of slavery and racism in Toni Morrison's Beloved.
First we must ponder why it is the female body in particular that has become a contested site of southern history and politics. Anne Goodwyn Jones stresses the importance of the female body in southern culture:
the body of the privileged white woman was revered as a marble statue, a Grecian urn, a human body that by nature resembled the finest productions of masculine art. As such, it needed protection from vandals. . . . [F]or white men, this image implied the purity of blood and thus of white patriarchal lineage: white supremacy a [sic] well as the male line of succession and inheritance were guaranteed by her chastity and desirelessness. . . . Dividing women into categories—black and white, lady and woman—was one way to maintain a sense of control. . . . The white woman's fragility further guaranteed her distance from earthy interests and gave the man an opportunity to construct his own manhood in protecting her.
Jones' account is insightful. While the southern white woman's value was invested in her body, she was at the same time dis-embodied: "her fragility further guaranteed her distance from earthy interests." Her position is thus a tortured one, torn between image and reality. Elsewhere, Jones includes two accounts from the first decades of the twentieth century that further attest to the foregrounding of women's bodies in southern culture. One clergyman warned of the dangers of the antithesis of the southern lady and belle, that is, a new northern style of woman, who had developed "bigger hands, bigger feet, higher cheek bones, lanker limbs, flatter chests, hook noses, lips thin and tight." Here, movement away from the feminine ideal transforms a female body into an androgynous, sterile one, the type of ugly body we frequently encounter in Welty's, McCullers' and O'Connor's fiction. Another observer remarked that "the rapidity with which [white southern] women have aged in the past, their invalidism, mental breakdown and early death have been in part because of the strain of concealing irritation that was not permitted self-expression." Once more, the painful experience of southern womanhood is lived on and marks the body.
Historians now generally acknowledge that the ideal of southern womanhood has always been bound up with the south's particular relationship to race. Even as recently as the Civil Rights Movement, conservatives appealed to this ideal in order to resist changes to the insidious system of Jim Crow. White southern women have long played a vexed role in issues of race, and African American narratives can shed sharp light on their role, for example, in the...