Stains of Grace: Women Writers and the Grotesque Body Politic After Modernism, 1939-1995

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Stains of Grace: Women Writers and the Grotesque Body Politic After Modernism, 1939-1995 is a political and theological reconsideration of the grotesque in mid-twentieth century British, Irish and American literature. For the writers of my study --Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Flannery O'Connor, Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark - the grotesque acts a spiritual rupture within political incarnation, or the process by which citizenry transforms from a collection of individuals into a sovereign body politic. I argue that the `spirit made flesh' becomes a grotesque process once it deviates into monstrous, excessive, and mysterious forms of grace. Subsequently, the grotesque impedes the politicization of a knowable God (or "God's will") in crises of civil violence. When `God's will' is invoked in the service civil violence, grace, rather than washing away the sins of humanity, becomes an indelible stain or physical mark upon the divided body politic. In O'Connor's case, the grotesque intervenes, often in violent and shocking ways, against the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Jim Crow South; for her contemporary Elizabeth Bowen, these civil crises span from the Anglo-Irish War of Independence and Civil War (1919-23) up to the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the latter half of the twentieth century, which she addresses in one of her final works, a bizarre Nativity Play performed in Derry in December, 1970. For Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, the grotesque illuminates the civil cracks underlying the rise of the welfare state in Britain, even as the state expanded services across its rigid class system following "the People's war." The unwieldy spiritual and material forms of the grotesque disrupt the impossibly uniform expectations of national bodies. For instance, Spark's grotesque figures, such as the Anglo-Catholic `gargoyle' Georgina Hogg in her first novel The Comforters (1957), concern the excessive female body as a challenge to austerity Britain's policies on rationing and a communal mind-set of `getting on' in the postwar period.

In regions such as the southern U.S., Ireland and the `shrinking' island of mid-century Britain, the grotesque has traditionally been viewed as a minor ornament within the `haunted' or `gothic' frameworks of these culturally peripheral settings. I argue that the theological resonances of the grotesque suggest an urgent, biopolitical response to crises of civil violence, rather than a ghostly echo of such traumas. The postwar period between high modernism and postmodernism (which I date roughly from 1945-1965) is still a troublesome period for critics; the traditional reading suggests that mid-century fiction retreated from the experimental flourishes of avant-garde modernism to perform a bland form of Victorian realism. Yet, the mid-century grotesque suggests that a spiritual irritation remains embedded within literature that is neither `experimental' nor `realist.' The grotesque occupies, as O'Connor writes in her theory on the phenomenon, a `gap or skip' in reality itself. To read from within this `gap' is to read the grotesque as a critical rupture between postwar political collectivity and divine mystery.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Guinn Batten

Committee Members

Ellen Crowell, Dillon Johnston, Linda Nicholson, Anca Parvulescu, Vincent Sherry


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7736NVS

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