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DOREEN FOWLER University of Kansas Death, Denial, and the Black Double: Reading Race in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction FLANNERY O’CONNOR ONCE SAID THAT “DEATH HAS ALWAYS BEEN brother to my imagination” (Mullins 35). Her words are a poignant reminder that death shadowed both her life and her art. As a child, she watched her father die of lupus; in 1950, at twenty-five, when she was writing her first novel, she was diagnosed with this same autoimmune disease; and she died a short fourteen years later at the age of thirty-nine. O’Connor lived and wrote with the threat of death always trailing her, and her fiction is littered with dead bodies. Critics have long recognized O’Connor’s preoccupation with death; for example, in an early study of O’Connor, Suzanne Morrow Paulson observes the prevalence of “death haunted” characters who seek to avoid “the fate we all share—mortality” (13, 14). I propose that these death-haunted characters are authorial avatars and that when O’Connor writes that “death [is the] brother to my imagination,” she means that a desire to deny death drives her art and that, denied, the fear of death returns in her fiction in the form of the double. In fact, O’Connor’s choice of the word “brother” for the connection between her imagination and death invokes doubling since a brother is often a literary figuration of the double. In O’Connor’s fiction, her death-haunted characters are invariably shadowed by a double, and this doubling has been thoughtfully analyzed by Frederick Asals, among other scholars. But Asals and others have failed to note that O’Connor’s preoccupation with death is often tied to race and that she seems to find people of color particularly serviceable as deathly doubles. O’Connor explicitly acknowledges this figurative use of a black presence not only in her own work but in the southern literary imagination generally. In an unpublished manuscript, she writes that “In Southern Literature the Negro, without losing his individuality, is a figure for our darker selves, our shadow side.”1 The “darker sel[f],” 1 This comment is quoted by Asals (86), who cites the source as an unpublished manuscript in the Flannery O’Connor Collection. 304 Doreen Fowler “the shadow side” is an unmistakable reference to Freud’s concept of the uncanny double, the alter ego or other self.2 “The uncanny” is the English translation for Freud’s German unheimlich; a better translation is “unhome-like,” i.e., that which is familiar and close to us which we have rejected, and only our rejection, signified by the prefix “un,” separates us. Freud also explains that “repression itself . . . produces substitute formations . . . indications of a return of the repressed” (Standard 14:154). One of these “substitute formations” is the double. In literature, the double is the representation of repressed fears, desires, or instincts come back to haunt us in the form of a rejected, estranged version of the self. In O’Connor’s formulation, death is denied and returns in the form of the black double. In interpreting O’Connor’s mysterious representations of whites’ “darker selves,” I turn to Toni Morrison, who, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, urges literary scholars to attend to white writers’ figurative use of African American people in forwarding their literary agendas. Morrison maintains that a whiteinvented Africanism is often used by white writers as “a trope” for the contemplation of “chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom” (7). While Morrisonnotesthatthese engagementswithAfricanismhavesometimes been used as a way of “organizing American coherence through a distancing [of] Africanism” (8), she emphasizes that she is as interested in identifyingthose moments “when [American] literature exploded and undermined” racism as those occasions when it was “complicit in the fabrication of racism” (16). In the early pages of Playing in the Dark, Morrison points specifically to Flannery O’Connor as a writer whose representations of an Africanist presence have not been decoded by scholars. In particular, Morrison insists that there is a “connection between God’s grace and Africanist ‘othering’” in O’Connor’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 303-325
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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