Fighting For The Mind The Grotesque In Clytie

Fighting for Our Mind:
The Grotesque in “Clytie”

The representation of mental ideas through a medium of communication is the fundamental challenge facing artists. On a rudimentary level, conceptualization in literature is a balancing act – the writer on one side and the reader on the other. This involves the somewhat nebulous processes of creation of meaning on the part of the writer and translation of this meaning by the reader. Flannery O’Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” written in 1960, is a reactionary essay to the democratization of literature, and attempts to elevate the role of the writer in the creation of meaning. The writer is seen as a literary “prophet”, a “realist of distances” (O’Connor, 818), because he takes upon himself the task of explicitly illuminating that which most other texts merely imply, and thus the scales of meaning are tipped almost entirely in favor of the writer. Writers of grotesque fiction are thus those that go the greatest distance in bringing to the surface the intricate nuances of our existence by conjuring up characters (and situations) whose traditional physicality and/or personality is maimed and contorted under the burden of ideas trying to be elicited by the writer. It is as if the characters are the materialization of traditionally intangible concepts and notions. In traversing this distance, a necessary sacrifice is made of the intermediary subject matter that lies between the essential concrete needed to create the basic familiar outline and the deeper reality that is being highlighted. In part, it is simply a stylistic sacrifice that prevents the dilution of the deeper reality, where the absence of the familiar accentuates the presence of the extreme. Like a wormhole that bends space and connects two points without having to traverse the distance between them, so the writer of the grotesque is “looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye.” (O’Connor, 816) This method of grotesque writing is evident in Eudora Welty’s “Clytie”, where the recurring, distorted motif of faces bridges the basic notion of human face with a deeper notion of a structural disconnect of the human individual from himself. This idea is paralleled by O’Connor, who believes that the figure of the freak in Southern fiction is a symbol of our essential displacement, and this is echoed within “Clytie”.

This absence of subject matter plays a crucial role in the construction of meaning within “Clytie”. Welty toys with the reader’s expectations by using the basic familiar silhouette to draw a place that is seemingly familiar only to take the reader to an entirely different world, where concepts of which we seldom think twice are made central, while social conflicts we deem highly complex are barely given a fleeting mention. Yet “Clytie” is not a work of pure fantasy, and it speaks of reality, albeit redefined, and it is this very redefinition of reality which forms the central purpose of the story, and further, perhaps the entire genre of grotesque literature. Released from the constricting determinism of the social sciences (O’Connor, 814) Welty is free of the “momentary convictions” (820) of her, or any singular, generation, and is able to challenge the universal and timeless form that breeds these convictions. This critical approach to the social sciences is echoed within “Clytie” through the character of Gerald. The questions “how can a man live in the house with women?”, and “Where do you keep your men? Do you have to bring them home?” (Welty, 88, 90) asked by a drunk man sound entirely absurd within the context of “Clytie”, highlighting that gender and sexuality are mere cultural constructs, and therefore become silences within this grotesque story. Welty’s choice to highlight Gerald as a drunkard signifies a wider commentary on the shortsightedness and lack of clarity that such an approach creates, and therefore through the omission of these aspects, Welty creates an entirely different agenda, one that explores a character’s “inner coherence” rather than “coherence to a social framework” (O’Connor, 815). O’Connor’s point that “Strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left” (815) is the core literary method used by Welty, because fundamentally, the grotesque does not attempt to explore “manners and customs” (O’Connor, 815), but the forces of human consciousness that engender the former.

Eudora Welty examines the nature of the individual through an exploration of the mind-body dichotomy. Seemingly, evolution has sparked uniquely within us the correct physical elements that enable our minds to exist in a time and space infinitely larger, where material constructs are only a fraction of the overall awareness, with our consciousness stretching far beyond the immediacy of the physical. Welty questions and challenges this definition of ourselves as entities that tether on the interface between the physical and the spiritual through a subversion of the relationship between the two. One way she achieves this is by drawing parallels between humans and animals. From the very first paragraph, the scene is set via birds:

“a hen and her sting of yellow chickens ran in great alarm across the road…birds flew down into it immediately, sitting out little pockets in which to take baths. The bird dogs got up from the doorways of the stores, shook themselves down to the tail, and went to lie inside.” (Welty, 81)

This is followed by “the few people standing with long shadows on the level road moved over into the post office” (81) highlighting the contrast. It is the animals whose reaction to the rain is described with detail – the animals are humanized through the way they show alarm and initiative, while humans seem secondary in importance – mere ‘shadows’ of beings. Animal similes are directly used when describing Clytie, as she “sticks out her elbows like hen wings” (82) and “crouches eagerly, rather like a squirrel” (88) The animal-like behavior is further emphasized by the constant reference to the act of feeding and being fed – “Clytie always ate rapidly…she bit the meat savagely…and gnawed the little chicken bone until it was naked and clean” (87) where a ritual that could be associated with culture and sophistication is reduced to an act of survival, both for the feeding and the feeder, with both sisters squabbling over the right to feed their sickly father – “I want to feed him” said Octavia. “You fed him last time” said Clytie”, as if this act of sustaining a life that is all but physically dead – “he was paralyzed, blind, and able only to call out unintelligible sounds” – is something worthwhile. Ironically, his only freedom as a being is in being neglected (84) – in essence being left to die – but then “Octavia began to feed him”. (84), and took this freedom away. Clytie is unable to read his face “for how he feels. He looked as though he were really far away” (84), highlighting the increasing disconnect between his body and his mind, with the latter becoming a victim of the physical necessities of an empty shell that is the human body.

The disunity of body and mind is further developed through the recurring references to household objects such as doors, windows, curtain, thimble and dishes. This is indicative of the importance given to them by Clytie, almost as if she is defined by the physical objects around her, and she floats from object to object in search of a sense of her own centrality. This emphasis on physical objects is most striking when Clytie relegates human faces to the same level of generality and abstraction as them. “Relinquishing the bowl, she looked down at the pointed face on the pillow” (Welty, 84). Clytie is too caught up in decomposing the face to its singular components “was it possible to comprehend the eyes and the whole mouth…?” (90) instead of looking at it as an organic whole. It becomes increasingly evident as the story progresses along that Clytie is trying to understand others in order to understand herself, “it was the face she was looking for” (90). In her search, she is creating herself from the outside in, from the physical to the spiritual, as opposed to knowing herself first and giving value to material objects later. This concept of intrusion of the external into the internal personal space, “the prying from without” (84) is further exemplified by Octavia’s fear of any outside presence, human or otherwise, inside the terrain of her house. Clytie exists within this vacuum of meaning, and uses human faces as the interface between body and mind in order to give meaning to herself. The emptiness she sees in other’s faces confuses her, until “too late, she recognizes”(90) her own face in the water. The answer to her quest is brutally revealed in water, the force of nature which she shielded herself from (82), but now embraced. Paralleling her sick father, Clytie’s life is the central tragedy, while her death is the very act of redemption O’Connor refers to “there is something in us, as story-tellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” (O’Connor, 820). The redemptive act is a uniting of the two central motifs – water and face –and Clytie returns to “the kind, featureless depth” (Welty, 90) of the water to which she feels such an intense affinity with, a fluidity between human and his physical environment.

Clytie becomes the quintessential freakish character in the discrepancies that she combines within herself (O’Connor, 816), in this case being between a static animalistic physicality and a dynamic spiritual awareness. O’Connor argues that only as “a figure for our essential displacement does [the freak] attain some depth in literature” (817), and this echoes the religious motifs that can be traced throughout Clytie. The reference to “devil” and “hell” (Welty, 82, 85) serves as a constant reminder of the torment that awaits, or perhaps to bring closer our Earthly existence with the eternal torment the more disconnected a human becomes from itself. The curtain that Octavia is adamant should be shut parallels the curtain described in the Bible, which tears with the death of Christ, and with it tears the divide between us and God (Luke:23). Welty’s emphasis on curtains always being shut by the will of Octavia has a sense of choice about it, as if we are the ones that chose to keep ourselves disconnected from the divine. Alternatively, if the shut curtain is combined with the explicit intertextualization to the Greek myth of Clytie – where a woman turns into a flower – it becomes evident that the world that Welty creates within “Clytie” is one where the ultimate sacrifice never took place. This could be seen as another example of the grotesque method of unifying the familiar with the foreign, almost redefining meaning and reality through the objects we have come to associate with other concrete meanings.

In reading Eudora Welty’s “Clytie” through the analytical lens of Flannery O’Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, The combining of discrepancies in Clytie is a literary method that serves to illuminate the discrepancy between our physicality and spirituality, which O’Connor would argue holds irrevocable moral implication about our eternal displacement from the divine, from the spiritual harmony that was Eden, a place where humans, flora and fauna lived in complete accord. Instead, our existence is characterized by the confines of our bodies, which fundamentally removes the distance between ourselves and animals, and we are haunted by what could have been. Eudora Welty unites this idea in a coherent whole that can be summarized by the following passage:

“The mysterious smile of the old man who sold peanuts by the church gate returned to her; his face seemed for a moment to rest upon the iron door of the stove, set into the lion’s mane. Other people said Mr. Tom Bate’s Boy, as he called himself, stared away with a face as clean-blank as a watermelon seed, but to Clytie, who observed grains of sand in his eyes and in his old yellow lashes, he might have come out of a desert, like an Egyptian” (83)

Clytie is a visionary who sees us for what we really are – beings who are forever Christ-haunted as we stand by the gate of what could have been, defined by little more than animals and plants are but who in our own folly embellish our existence with questions of gender, sexuality and culture. Welty is “a Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that ream which is the concern of prophets and poets” (818) – she strips the aforementioned societal ‘problems’ with their shallow solutions to expose the fundamental dilemma of the human race – how to live with ourselves with the knowledge of what could have been.

Sources Used:

O’Connor, Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, Stories and Occasional Prose; 1960

Welty, Eudora. “Clytie”, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1941

Gospel Communications International, http://www.biblegateway.com/; 1995-2008

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