Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Cynical and Caricaturing, at times Dehumanizing…or is it Humanizing?
Many readers are struck by the apparent cynicism of O'Connor's writing. As a narrator, she rarely seems sympathetic to the characters of her story. On the contrary, she seems more interested in bringing out their worst, exposing their superficialities, and then making the reader laugh at them. Sometimes she accomplishes this by being disarmingly upfront, as with many of the grandmother's little manipulations:
She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. "There was a secret panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were… (45)
More striking, though, the narrator often describes the characters in as caricatures – as if they were exaggerated, laughable, and rather grotesque cartoons. The grandmother, for example:
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break. (133)
Although that makes us laugh, it also troubles us a bit. In that passage, for example, the grandmother has just lost all her family members, and is (at least we think) in a moment of incredible despair. The reader should sympathize with her at this moment. Yet she's described as a turkey, in a way that makes her seem gross and funny to the reader, more like a cartoon image than a human being. Does that "dehumanize" her? Does O'Connor show human beings at their comically exaggerated worst, in a way that makes it impossible to feel sorry for them?
A lot of people think so, and for that reason Flannery O'Connor's writing has been called "grotesque" (source: Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, p. 40). By "grotesque," critics mean the people in O'Connor's stories are ugly, gross cartoon figures, rather than real human beings possessing good qualities with which we can sympathize.
But O'Connor did not agree with that label, and thought it reflected a northern bias against the South. She felt that she was being realistic. In O'Connor's opinion, if we're honest with ourselves, the world we live in and the people in it often are like caricatures, and much harder to sympathize with than the people we read about in books. To keep ourselves sane and humble, we can laugh at them (provided we recognize we're just as laughable as everyone else is). But ultimately, the real task is to sympathize regardless (source: Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, p. 40). So the author's point is, even if the grandmother looks an awful lot like an old turkey at her most desperate moment, we should still sympathize with her. Instead of looking at her work as grotesque, O'Connor herself called her work honest "Catholic realism."