Flannery O'Connor's Stories

Optimism and Decay in the Southern Gothic: Faulker and O'Connor College

In a certain Nobel Prize acceptance speech delivered in Stockholm in 1950, William Faulkner famously declines to accept the end of man. Elaborating, Faulkner goes on to promise that “man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” This faith, he insists, has its roots in the human soul, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance,” and Faulkner’s speech rings to a triumphant close in a lilting paean of polysyndentous optimism, affirming man by calling upon “the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

This, from the author who – perhaps more than any other – epitomized the southern Gothic genre, is surprising. The champion of a literary tradition unapologetically characterized by decay and disintegration seems, in his fiction, fairly willing to accept the end of man. This conflict between hope and despair, endurance and decay, forms one of the most fundamental tensions in American modernism. Faced with the absurdity of a post-war world, American literature – its writers and its characters – pushes forward into the realist tradition that became a hallmark of literary modernism. However, these modernist attempts to cope with an absurd reality...

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