This post was written in response to a prompt from a Black Literary Traditions course; felt it was worth posting here, too.
On March 20th, 2021, Black conservative author Candace Owens penned an opinion article on The Daily Wire, the headline of which reads: “Cardi B is a Symptom of a Sickness in Our Society.” The article was preceded by an eighteen-hour Twitter debate between the two women, sparked by Owens’ on-screen criticism of award-winning hip-hop artist Cardi B for a recent, sexually charged Grammy performance, and perpetuated by each woman’s oppositional views on paradigms of feminine presentation, respectability, and sexuality. “We are celebrating perversity in America,” Owens is quoted as saying, telling Cardi B she must “do better” (Nolan).
The dichotomy of views presented here are not dissimilar from those expressed between the Black “intellectuals” of the North and the Black “blues women” of the South in Hazel V. Carby’s “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” The essential core of the argument remains the same, where one party argues that objective displays of Black feminine sexuality perpetuates the long-established racial fetishization and exoticism of Black women by the white majority, and threatens to debase the community as a whole through “improper” representation. In speaking of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Carby explains that the cultural backlash to racial objectification of Black women within certain communities, namely those in closest proximity to the hegemony, manifested as an avoidance of sexuality altogether: “The response of Larsen’s heroine to such objectification is also the response of many black women writers: the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). The other party accepts sexuality as an integral and important part of the lived experience of Black women, and likewise seeks to distance feminine sexuality from patriarchal dominance and reclaim the idea as an aspect of feminine liberation. Carby writes: “Their [blues women’s] physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds, of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire” (20). It is not difficult to see the strong resonance between the lyrical attitudes and visual presentation of historic feminine blues singers and the feminine leaders of contemporary hip-hop.
“Respectability politics” is a term used to describe a long-standing strategy adopted by African American women “to reject white stereotypes by promoting morality while de-emphasizing sexuality” (Pitcan, et al.). This entails behaviors such as code-switching, self-censure, curating a neutral image, and avoiding behavior or relationships which could be perceived by the ruling class as “lowly.” While the conservative side of the historic argument may appear on its surface to hold some validity—and often, at times, does offer avenues of upward mobility to subordinated groups—there is a dangerous precedent set in playing the respectability politics game, the most obvious problem being that appealing to Western culture as the governing authority perpetuates Western culture as the governing authority. Likewise, merely politely ignoring, rather than directly challenging, the stereotypes of Black women which are rife within white, Western culture allows these stereotypes to continue to be validated by white supremacy, as the cultural narrative is then primarily controlled by the oppressing class. This is an important stance that the blues-singing women of the Harlem Renaissance recognized: “The women blues singers occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sexuality and sexuality out of the private and into the public sphere” (20). By leveraging their platform and refusing to adhere to the societal expectations of the governing authority, blues women allowed the narratives of large communities of Black women, specifically those further removed from the privileges of Western society, to be heard: “Many women heard the ‘we’ when Ida Cox said ‘I’,” explains Cardy (21). Hip-hop artists such as Cardi B, a single mother and former exotic dancer from a working-class background, likewise carry narratives and attitudes of feminine empowerment that do not pay heed to the arbitrary and racist constrictions of Western “propriety.”
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s easy to see that playing respectability game within an authority which economically and socially thrives on racism simply does not work. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is perceivably one of the most powerful Black women in American history; she is incredibly well-educated, articulate, economically viable, and has held one of the most highly respected positions in the United States government. This did not stop her from being openly criticized across mainstream media outlets for exposing her arms; for being too fit at times, and for also being too heavy at others; for being family-oriented; for not being “classy” enough; for wearing shorts; and even for placing her left elbow on a table (Kendall). These references don’t include the numerous hateful, stereotypical, and racially charged remarks regarding the former First Lady’s appearance and physical body by authoritative figures and prominent outlets (Kendall). If bourgeoisie oppressors cannot be bothered to buy into respectability politics even as Black individuals ascend to the very heights of the Western hierarchy, then what else could possibly compel them to? Nearly a hundred years ago, Bessie Smith recognized the futility of striving for approval, and her admonition in “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” still holds truth:
There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.
As always, thank you for reading.
Carby, Hazel V. “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Radical Amerika, 1987, retrieved from https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1142530423771460.pdf
Kendall, Mikki. “22 Times Michelle Obama Endured Rude, Racist, Sexist, or Plain Ridiculous Attacks.” Washington Post, November 2016, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/22-times-michelle-obama-endured-rude-racist-sexist-or-plain-dumb-attacks/
Nolan, Emma. “What Cardi B Said About Candace Owens as Spat Escalates to Legal Threats.” Newsweek, March 2021, retrieved from https://newsweek.com/what-cardi-b-said-about-candace-owens-spat-legal-threats-1576771
Pitcan, Mikaela, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd. “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 23, issue 3, May 2018, pp.163-79, retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/163/4962541
The following was a discussion post I put together for a Master’s lit course. The selected passage to be analyzed starts on page 85, from the paragraph beginning “Since about that time, war had been literally continuous” to the end of the chapter on page 91, which ends, “succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years” (page numbers from print edition).
Marx’s crisis theory asserts that the unsatisfiable demand for the generation of capital creates the very conditions which necessitate capitalism’s eventual collapse. Capitalism seeks to debase and disperse the power of labor—for example, through assembly lines or outsourcing—and as a result, wages fall. As a result of wage repression, corporate profits increase, roughly proportional to wage deflation. In order for these corporations to continue positive profit generation—now inflated by wage deflation—additional demand must be created in the market to sell more goods/services. However, the consumer pool purchasing these goods/services is generally the same pool of workers experiencing the effects of wage repression. The buying power of the market is thus reduced, and corporate profits cannot be elevated above the levels brought about by wage repression. As a result, labor is further dispersed and/or wages are further repressed to generate profits, and credit markets are inflated to compensate for a lack of discretionary income. Increased debt and decreased wages eventually generate a torrent of defaults, resulting in institutional and/or market collapse. In the United States, the housing market collapse and subsequent economic recession of 2008 serves as a material example of the contradictions outlined by Marx’s crisis theory.
Additionally, manufactured scarcity of employment, food, and housing are all common sociocultural stressors which result from the outlined contradictions created by capitalist modes of production. Despite necessitating these conditions through the governing economic structure, the Western sociocultural hegemony simultaneously exalts and values consumerism, material possession, and wealth accumulation as the highest markers of both social and moral valuation. These idealizations are necessary to continue compelling the consumer market to spend their wage in the consumer market, and thus satisfy the capitalist market’s singular interest of creating more capital. Capitalism demands the continued generation of massive capital wealth in a few hands while simultaneously and deliberately suppressing the purchasing power of the entire working class, thus demanding blood from stone.
In 1984, The Party relies on memory as a form of capital to justify its continued expansion and influence over the people, much the same way capitalism continuously demands the generation of monetary capital to justify expansion of production and consumerism. The concept of memory utilized as capital by the Party is demonstrated by the lengths exacted to see the Party’s narrative actualized: the literal and continuous altering and revising of historic fact and media account and the endless, cloying production and cultural emphasis of propaganda to be “bought” by the market. Take, for example, a Party slogan: “Who controls the past… controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 41). In capitalism, those who control the capital control the market; those who control the market control the perceived value of capital. Marx explains that when capitalism “defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e. it takes for granted what it is supposed to evolve” (718). Likewise, when the Party (inexplicitly) defines the relationship of memory to influence, it takes the interest of the Party to the be ultimate cause.
In the selected passage, contradictions showcased in Winston’s internal narrative serve as micro representations of contradictions presented by Marx’s crisis theory of capitalist production and class structure. Capitalism’s contradictions “demand blood from a stone” by degrading the wealth of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding wealth from the oppressed class; this is achieved by creating debt, “notes” of owed wealth deliberately issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be repaid in full. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse. The Party expresses this same contradiction by degrading the memory of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding the actualization and adherence to a “remembered” narrative; this is achieved by creating information, “notes” of constructed and artificial reality that are issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be sustained in full. Winston demonstrates: “There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence… Sometimes, indeed, you could put your finger on a definite lie” (Orwell 42-3). The Party builds by perpetuating its current version of reality, but simultaneously bankrupts the oppressed population’s perception of reality by constantly demanding revision. Again, Winston: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… That was the ultimate subtlety” (Orwell 42). In this way, the Party likewise demands blood from stone. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse—some irreparable snag, like Winston’s known lie, can call into question the legitimacy of the entire structure.
Freud’s theory of personality presents a tripartite view of the self, three unique but interdependent systems which develop at various stages of life. The id is the earliest development of consciousness, representing biological or instinctual desires and demands. The id seeks to fulfill every demand immediately and has no perception of consequence, no awareness of reality or logic, and does not grow or change as a result of time or experience. When the demands of the id are satisfied, the self experiences pleasure; when these demands are delayed or ignored, the result is anxiety, tension, anger, or other forms of displeasure. The ego is the logical and reason-governed component of the personality. While the ego simultaneously seeks to fulfill the irrational and unrelenting demands of the id, it also works to avoid harm to the self, both literally and in terms of social harm or ostracization. The ego, however, does not govern morality; any action is good if it satisfies desire and avoids harm, any action is bad if one of these aspects fails. The ego is the sense of self-control, evaluating various methods of desire fulfillment and weighing those options against potential consequences based on known boundaries. The superego works as the conscience and informs the ego of the “ideal self,” or ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is a fantasized version of the self that drives the ego to operate beyond pleasure fulfillment and strive to work toward some greater goal or purpose.
Freud argues that the superego is largely informed by the parental figure(s). However, independent or separated from the parental units, humans are also necessarily informed by a governing culture. A child who was spanked by their parents might grow up to be an adult who does not spank their children, because the governing culture has influenced the moral paradigm of the superego. If a person shoplifts to obtain desire-fulfillment, the superego may inflict feelings of guilt or shame, if that person was raised in a culture which places value on corporate compensation. If that person was being initiated into a street gang, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might incite feelings of accomplishment or superiority in the superego. If that person was an anarchist, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might bring feelings of vindication and liberation in the superego. The superego’s morality is not inherent; it is a learned construct, based on the familiar values and taboos of the most influential authority to the consciousness at any given point in life.
In the selected passage, Winston’s internal narrative showcases contradictions between the superego, informed by the governing culture, and the ego, which strives to rationally fulfill the irrational, genetically encoded demands of the id. Winston, suffering from violent coughing fits, vigorously participates in the calisthenics program mandated by the Party. Despite being in physical distress—highly aversive from the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id and ego—Winston’s superego compels him to not only continue the action, but to feign enjoyment: “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper… with a violent lunge, [Winston] succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent” (Orwell 39, 43). Though this action seems innocuous on the surface, the greater implication is more sinister; the governing culture’s influence over the superego is strong enough to compel the self to override its most inherent instincts, such as pain avoidance, as a means of demonstrating fealty. The self is sustained and protected through learned physical and emotional boundaries, i.e. this action causes pain, and this action causes shame. These boundaries are created to keep the self alive and part of the social collective (thus, with a better chance of staying alive, and procreating). The Party’s ability to override these boundaries suggests the Party’s ability to compel the destruction of the self.
Contradictions created within the self are also showcased through the Party’s manipulation of memory. If sociocultural boundaries endlessly shift and alter, the ego and superego lack appropriate and/or accessible input to comfortably navigate sociocultural expectations. Because boundaries are essential to the self’s imperatives of harm reduction and social affirmation, their lack fosters a sense of unease and tends to easily trigger fight-or-flight mechanisms. Winston perpetually exists in this state, though he fights against it: “Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away” (Orwell 43). Winston’s superego attempts to exert control over the immediate harm-reduction instincts of the ego because it is aware that the greater harm lies in the Party’s ability to make the self non-existent. The Party’s omnipotent reach and scope in rewriting sociocultural narratives, and thus memory, and thus reality, is to Winston, “more terrifying than mere torture and death” (Orwell 41). Winston’s superego contradicts imperatives of the id and ego to show fealty to the governing culture, but the self is still essentially acting in self-preservation, aware that dissonance from the moral paradigm of the superego necessitates death.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 615.
Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 718.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Court, 1949, pp 39-44, accessed via Google Books.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations… And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance—barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.from “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
A deconstructionist view argues that language is uncentered; we cannot perfectly convey the ideas in our heads because of the limits inherit to the signifier/signified relationship. For example, if I say “cat,” there is a distinct image (the signified) which comes as a result from reading or hearing the word “cat” (the signifier). However, the image which appears in your mind is not a perfect replication of the image which is in my mind. I could say, “a cat with black and white spots and a grey patch over one eye,” and the signified image in your head might be closer to what I am imagining, but there is inevitably some sort of failure, some room for interpretation. Where are the cat’s spots located? Does it have a few large spots, or many small ones? Is the grey patch representative of a discolored area of fur, or is the cat wearing an actual eyepatch? Another example could be our dictionaries. If you look up any given word, there are more words used to describe that word. If you look up those words, there will be more words to reference and point to the meaning of what is trying to be conveyed. Eventually, you’d just end up starting back at the original word you looked up. Derrida argues that language conveys ideas imperfectly, and thus fails every time we utilize it to express ourselves. As a result, absolute truths cannot be discovered in language or speech, because there is an inherent failure to communicate absolute truth from the moment that we start to express ourselves. If it sounds a bit nihilistic, well, it is.
When we look at fiction, we generally look to find meaning by examining the tensions/conflicts/oppositions of the narrative and the way these things are rectified (or not rectified) at the resolution. Often, these tensions are described in terms of binary oppositions: male/female, good/evil, white/black, culture/nature, speech/writing, with each precedent of these pairs having an implied or presumed hierarchal governance over the other, as a result of the dominance of Western-European cultural paradigms. The goal of the deconstructionist lens is to show that these elements are not actually in opposition or that tensions do not exist, not by reversing the hierarchal structure, but rather by neutralizing hierarchy entirely. This is often done by critiquing the sociocultural structures and beliefs that reinforce these binaries.
Examining the passage above in a deconstructionist lens, there are a number of oppositions suggested in the excerpt which could be examined: civilized/uncivilized, sane/insane, tamed/wild, pure/corrupt, moral/immoral, rationality/instinct, or the greater opposition which these all allude to, good/evil. Marlow listens to Kurtz grieve for his “immense plans,” and takes this as affirmation of Kurtz’s aspirations of aristocracy: “Your success in Europe is assured in any case” (Conrad). Within this context, Marlow assumes Kurtz’s “final burst of sincerity” is a mourning of the sacrifice of his career, engagement, and wealth for a strange, predatory reign over the indigenous people of the land (Conrad). Marlow believes the isolation of the wilderness has put Kurtz under a “spell,” having “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations” (Conrad). The implication is that Kurtz’s behavior in the jungle is entirely uncivilized, and, had Kurtz simply held steadfast to his supposedly civilized principles, he would not have been torn apart by regret and shame in his final hours, and may have lived a great deal longer.
However, Marlow’s assumptions present a number of problems. First, Marlow defines Kurtz’s sanity in the moment quite plainly: “I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear” (Conrad). Marlow weakens his own argument by portraying Kurtz as a rational, sane, and intelligible human; he is not, therefore, insane. Kurtz has enough cognizance to “struggle blindly” with an issue which is implied by Marlow as relating to his behavior in the wilderness, suggesting the presence of a moral paradigm. So, though he may have succumbed to immoral behavior, the suggestion is that Kurtz is a moral person, now weighed by the gravity of his decisions. This would likewise weaken the suggestion of the good/evil binary attached to Kurtz by proxy.
The most fatal blow to Marlow’s observations, however, is the colonizers’ occupation of the continent. Marlow critiques Kurtz actions in the jungle: his baseless governance over the indigenous people; his tactics of manipulation and influence; the exploitation and oppression of an unsuspecting and vulnerable population; the leveraging of resources and power to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow existing hierarchies, and so on. As a result, Marlow brands Kurtz as insane, irrational, uncivilized, and/or evil. However, every single one of these actions is reflected in the very trade which affords Kurtz his resources: his wealth, his connections, his status, his career, his fiancé, and so on. These are the things which Marlow believes Kurtz laments in the throes of death. They are the things which sparked Marlow’s interest in Kurtz. They are the very source of power which arguably compelled Kurtz to his current predicament. They are also composed of the Western European sociocultural signifiers that suggest Kurtz was once a successful and therefore good person, and would have continued to be, had he kept to that path.
However, had Kurtz kept to his accepted path, he nonetheless would have participated in all the same activities for which he is demonized, even without his pretentious and violent “reign” over the indigenous people. The looting and aggressive colonization of the African continent for the enrichment of the European economy constituted a baseless governance over indigenous people, exploitation and manipulation of a vulnerable population, the leveraging of resources to intimidate, enact violence, and overthrow, and so on. Kurtz is merely deemed evil, insane, or uncivilized because he did not participate in these activities in a way which held to the expectations of the sponsoring organization. Therefore, Marlow’s implied qualification of Kurtz as evil, insane, or uncivilized does not hold up; the performative manner of these exact same actions is all that concerns the civilized group. The civil, sane, or good population participates in the exact same behavior as Kurtz; the behavior is merely hidden behind a corporate umbrella.
I chose to examine this passage through a deconstructionist lens for a few reasons. First, Marxist theory is heavily criticized for its lack of intersectionality; the oppositions examined through this view are generally only bourgeoisie/proletariat, ruling class/working class, or oppressor/oppressed. Though this could provide some compelling insights into the power dynamics of the narrative, I felt that this piece would be more effective with both a wider and a more cynical lens. There are obvious, problematic views in this novel, particularly in terms of racial oppression, and the Marxist view generally disregards race in favor for class. Marlow and Kurtz are arguably of similar class distinction, making the Marxist lens somewhat less compelling for this piece. I favored the deconstructionist lens for its ability to critically examine and take apart the implied hierarchal structures or binary oppositions of this piece, specifically because those structures are inherently problematic.
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Project Gutenberg, 2018, retrieved from https://gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
Through literary theory, art is given an opportunity to take on new meaning. Literary theory challenges the critic to shed personal biases and presuppositions—a deliberate and artistic practice of cultural relativism—while critically examining “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world” through lenses that encourage profound interpretation, impart meaning, inform context, and expand worldviews (Bertens 5). Viewing the same work through alternate forms of literary theory can shed light on the values, patterns, structures, beliefs, and assumptions of any given viewpoint (Bertens 1-2). Rather than taking a piece of art at face value, literary theory encourages the interpreter to ask meaningful questions which uncover historical, social, or cultural context; to search for underlying themes and elements which refer to intentions or motivations in creating the work, whether unconscious or deliberate; and examine structures and elements in the form of the work, lending deeper understanding to what makes a piece of writing “literary”.
Literary theory and literary criticism are two different beasts, though on the surface, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Literary criticism focuses on the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literary works, generally with a focus on thematic elements, narrative, and characterization. Literary theory urges the critic move beyond the basic building blocks of writing and instead consider and interpret the nature, definition, and parameters of literature; the sociopolitical, economical, and cultural influences that inform a work; and the concrete form and structure of literary texts (Bertens 2-3). Where criticism often places the most emphasis on discovering meaning, much of literary theory dismisses meaning as ultimately arbitrary, and instead focuses on context. The nature of this context varies depending on what discipline of literary theory is emphasized by the interpreter. It is also pertinent to note that, like meaning, much of literary theory can also be considered as subjective to the interpreter.
Flannery O’Connor remains a highly respected American writer, particularly within the short story genre. Her work, typically categorized in the “Southern Gothic” style, often features grotesque characters, graphic violence, and dark humor; her writing deals predominantly in themes regarding religious salvation and societal alienation. In this paper, I intend to explore one of O’Connor’s most famous works, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story concerning the violent death of a vacationing family by the hands of a motely crew of social outcasts. Through the lens of Marxist criticism, I intend to explore how both the protagonist (a middle-class grandmother) and the antagonist (an exiled hillbilly) of the narrative are both merely facets within the gem of O’Connor’s total worldview. The grandmother’s salvation at the time of her death is often regarded as the most significant point of the narrative; through the Marxist view, I will argue that O’Connor’s Misfit can be viewed as the most influential character of the story.
The school of thought known today as Marxism began in the mid-19th century, to the credit of German artist, writer, and philosopher Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, his colleague, Frederic Engels. Marxism came about in reaction to the oppressive and autocratic social and economic standards that dominated Germany’s landscape during the Industrial Revolution (Bramann). Political activism was often regarded as a criminal endeavor; despite the risks, after receiving his doctorate, Marx “dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines” (Bramann). Both Marx and Engels—who first introduced Marx to the ideals of socialism and communism—became influential figures within a massive, international labor movement (Bramann). Marx played a significant role in the Revolution of 1848 as a newspaper editor; in the wake of the revolution’s defeat by the ruling monarchists, Marx fled Germany. He spent his remaining years in London, dedicating his life’s work to the study of economy, art, literature, nature, and science (Bramann).
In the simplest terms, the tenets of Marxist criticism rely on the premise that our social being influences our social consciousness. That is to say, the dominant hegemony—the economic structure and subsequent social hierarchy—of any given historical period aggressively shapes an individual’s personal worldviews (Eagleton 2). Additionally, residual and emergent hegemonies also play a role in social consciousness during periods of radical social change, which Marx argues are necessary for the evolution of society. The “economic base” of any given society consists of the means of production (tools in various forms), commodities, technological innovations, the ways we organize (such as the manager/subordinate relationship), and the proletariat/bourgeoisie dynamic (Eagleton 2). The “ideological superstructure” includes what Marxists would broadly refer to as our “consciousness,” meaning law, education, religion, art, literature, media—the elements which comprise culture (Eagleton 2). Marxism argues that the base largely informs the superstructure—our culture is defined by our market—though the relationship can certainly be regarded as reciprocal in some respects.
This explanation in no way exhausts the vast scope of Marxist philosophy. For the purpose of this critique, there is one particular tenant of Marxism that must be examined in further detail: Marx’s Theory of Alienation. In a precapitalistic society, the laboring class held some measure of autonomy: they made/forged/grew their own products, dictated their working conditions, set their own hours, bartered and sold directly, and so on (Bramann). Under capitalist rule, workers are alienated from their labor, with little or no influence over the means, process, product, and relations of production (Bramann). Ultimately, Marx argues, this separation from work fosters separation from our entire lives, as more and more of what the laboring class does is dictated by forces other than our own will. Put succinctly, the depersonalization of mass production works to estrange humans from their instinctively creative and productive nature. The Marxist view necessitates the abolishment of capitalism in order for society to actualize human autonomy.
In order to understand how Marx’s concept of alienation applies to O’Connor’s work, the historical context of O’Connor’s life must be examined. After all, it is the overarching economical constructs which, Marx argues, directly influence our culture, including literary work. O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, at a time of massive industrial change in America. Soldiers returned en masse to the labor force at the end of World War II; economic growth soared; mass production boomed; suburbs sprawled; populations grew; television became the dominant media force in American households (Beckman). Religious devotion, as well, saw an unprecedented rise in the post-war era. Amongst the burgeoning suburbs, highways, and shopping centers, couples were married, babies were christened, and religious—namely Christian—worship became an unquestioned standard of middle-class life (Beckman).
O’Connor was an only child, born into a prominent and devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. Writing was still considered an unorthodox profession for a woman in that time; O’Connor’s university scholarship and post-graduation acceptance into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a testament to her talent in this regard (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor’s father died from complications of lupus when O’Connor was thirteen, and after being awarded an MFA from University of Iowa, O’Connor’s inheritance of the same disease saw her life relocated to a small farm in Milledgeville, Georgia (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor lived modestly, continuing to write as she raised peafowl with her mother—and occasionally travelling to lecture or speak at seminars—until her untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor never married, nor had children, which were particularly stark social deviations for a young woman in the throes of the post-war baby boom.
Small farming was one of the few industries that saw massive decline in the post-war economic boom. As the middle-class grew and demand for food production exponentially increased, corporations began aggressively shaping agricultural consolidation throughout the United States, leaving family farmers to either be bought out or try their best to compete against the overwhelming forces of cheap, mass-produced livestock and crops (University of Groningen, 2012). This consolidation left many farmers displaced from an industry which traditionally was passed down through generations; perhaps O’Connor perceived herself as alienated to some extent from her true “creative” self because of the economic demands of her “laboring” self, brought about by the loss of the typically-breadwinning patriarchal family figure. This is one of many possible demonstrations of Marx’ alienation at work, similar to the social and economic alienation so often featured in O’Connor’s writing, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. An alternate viewpoint might be that O’Connor’s return to the farmstead was instead a fulfillment of human autonomy; through separation from the ruling class, O’Connor had gained complete freedom to dictate the means, conditions, relations, and products of her labor, both in her writing and in her farming.
O’Connor’s educational success and literary accolades could not counteract the economic depression she and her mother were pigeonholed into after her father’s death; it is likely their small peafowl farm struggled to some extent, like most others, under the corporation monopolization of farming practices. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that O’Connor expressed some measure of her social displacement through her writing: a prestigious, devout, and yet socially rebellious woman, riddled with talent and illness alike; a woman who came from a once-prominent family and who had achieved a high level of education, eventually reduced to a bed-ridden, working-class farm life (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In a Marxist examination of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characterization of both the grandmother and the Misfit would suggest two conflicting and alternating worldviews that O’Connor attempted to reconcile through her craft.
O’Connor remained pious throughout the entirety of her life, her personal journals often concerning themselves obsessively with channeling her Catholic religion through her writing (O’Connor). Marx famously argued that religion was merely another man-made ideology—“ideology” specifically in the Marxist sense, encompassing all the various elements which inform our culture—dictated by the hegemonic forces of any given society, meant only to impart a false sense of purpose and moral sanction in an increasingly purposeless regime: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx). It is obvious from O’Connor’s journals that she felt endlessly compelled to bring her faith to the forefront of her life’s work, which suggests, at some level, there existed an internal struggle against her religion. I believe this struggle is documented in the character of the Misfit, as well as in the other violent, grotesque, cynical, and faithless characters featured in her body of work.
The character of the grandmother deals predominantly with issues of social affirmation, wealth, and status; these would suggest concerns of the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. For example, the grandmother disparages the casual dress of her son’s wife, opting to clad herself in stately attire for a long road trip to Florida: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor). Even at the thought of her own fragile mortality, the grandmother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances of social hierarchy. Though putting forth all the surface appeal of a “good Christian woman,” the grandmother is generally selfish, vapid, and petulant in her actions and dialogue; she lies, panders, and has little regard for anyone but herself (Leonard 52). Even as her entire family is systemically murdered before her, the grandmother continues to plea with the Misfit only for her own life: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (O’Connor). O’Connor’s subversive criticism of American religious culture through the grandmother character suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with the generally shallow religious discipline of the middle-class; perhaps, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the content of her personal journals, it also suggests a dissatisfaction in the depth of her own faith: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are” (O’Connor).
The grandmother’s supposed salvation comes moments before she is shot dead by the Misfit; after a moment of religious doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) the grandmother is possessed by the spirit of Christ (O’Connor). In a stereotypically Catholic “moment of grace,” she recognizes the Misfit as simply another child of her god, and thus by her possession, a child of her own: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor). The grandmother attempts to usher the fervor of her faith—perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively—upon the Misfit, who “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor). O’Connor spent much of her time defending this violent end to critics and readers alike, arguing that the murder of the grandmother was necessary to her spiritual realization: “The devil accomplishes a great deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective” (Leonard 52). The grandmother’s last pious exclamations and her contented post-mortem expression both offer religious affirmation and reinforcement of hegemonically-dictated roles: she finds joy in death in the recognition of her “child,” affirming her matriarchal status; she achieves deliverance from the mortal realm by the hands of a male (the Misfit) into the hands of a male (God), affirming patriarchal positions of power.
In stark contrast to the character of the grandmother, the Misfit is not in any way concerned with appearances or adherence to social norms, starting with deviations as minor as appearing to the family without a shirt on, ending with the mass-murder of the group under little to no pretense (O’Connor). Where the grandmother has wholly conceded herself to the dominant hegemony of 1950s America, the Misfit lives beyond it: working when, where, and how he pleases; living as a nomad; rejecting religion for his own moral code; learning independently; collaborating only with those he chooses; and yes, even murdering, the starkest of social deviations. The grandmother, in comparison, adheres to appearances; places upmost value on wealth and status; clings to superficial religious ideals without explicitly practicing them; and is hopelessly self-centered (Leonard 52-3). The Misfit recognizes the grandmother’s supposed spiritual awakening for what it is: “only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (Marx). The Misfit vehemently rejects the grandmother’s imposed salvation upon him, recognizing that her personal ideals only materialized in the ultimately selfish moment of her demise: “’She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (O’Connor).
The alienation of the Misfit in the
narrative is different than alienation in the Marxist sense; however, I argue
that O’Connor’s own (Marxist) alienation from her true “creative” self—through
labor, through patriarchal rule, through illness—spurs the need to endlessly
negotiate these barriers in the body of her work. I also argue that, through a
Marxist lens, it is the Misfit who serves as the grotesque antihero of the
narrative; a man who has achieved as much human autonomy as can be afforded
under a ruling capitalist regime. The grandmother and her family have bowed
under the weight of the dominant hegemony, and the end result is death; the
protagonist is ultimately afforded nothing more than her precious “opium,”
while the Misfit continues on with life as he sees fit. In a microscopic
example of the societal cycle Marx predicts, the governing class is overthrown
by the revolutionists. The Misfit holds no false preconceptions about the man
he is, and makes little in the way of moral judgments for what he does; he
allows himself simply to exist, and to exist in ultimate freedom, living closer
to Marx’s ideal of “true self” than any other character of the narrative. O’Connor’s
endless flirtation with the binaries of faithlessness/salvation,
inclusion/alienation, and domination/subordination could all be considered as
reflections of an internal struggle against her “true” self and the imposed
societal standards and structures of post-war, capitalist America.
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Bramann, Jorn K. Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Nightsun Books, 2009, retrieved from faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm
Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Taylor & Francis Group, 2014, ProQuest Ebook Central, retrieved from ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/snhu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180126
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Flannery O’Connor”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2019, retrieved from britannica.com/biography/Flannery-OConnor
Leonard, Douglas N. “Experiencing Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’”. Interpretations, 1983, retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/23241513?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. 1953, retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html
O’Connor, Flannery. “My Dear God”. New Yorker, 2013, retrieved from newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/16/my-dear-god
Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, retrieved from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm, accessed 11 February 2019. University of Groningen. “The Post-War Economy: 1945-1960”. GMW, 2012, retrieved from let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/postwar-america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.