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Updated Up To 26/06/2018
Volume 9, Issue 1 (August 2011) : 111-29
The Politics of the Cliché
Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” and “The Displaced Person”
Carole K. Harris
Rubric A: Literature and Ethics
Rubric B: Women Writers

Abstract

 

Flannery O’Connor did not see herself as a political writer, and many critics perpetuate her self-image in their assessment of her work. She was, however, a keen observer of the politics of everyday conversation. By exploring the ritualized exchange of clichés between employer and hired help, particularly in “Revelation” (1964) and “The Displaced Person” (1954), this essay examines the ways in which O’Connor draws attention to the peculiar collective power of the cliché. The two stories demonstrate the politics of the cliché in her fiction, a phenomenon some critics overlook because they assume, as many of O’Connor’s characters do, that clichés are empty platitudes. “Revelation” dramatizes the politics of the cliché in a democratic setting, whereas “The Displaced Person” calls attention to the way in which clichés confirm and contest hierarchies of power in the master-servant relationship. In “Revelation,” the seemingly benign (and often hilarious) exchange of clichés between two key female characters serves to exclude a third party. The ritualization of their exchange, however, and the assumption that clichés are banal, mask this act of exclusion. “The Displaced Person” also stars two female characters who exchange clichés to exclude an outsider, and because clichés have the ability to echo unexpectedly across conversations, they function both inside and outside the women’s relationship. A variety of other speakers draw on a communal stock and recycle the same clichés. The regularities with which clichés and silences circulate in the conversations between the two key characters can thus be extrapolated to a network of other relationships within the story. Over time, a single act of exclusion on the part of two characters develops the potential to trigger escalating acts of aggression, verbal and physical. “The Displaced Person” suggests that clichés carry unexpected and potentially ever graver consequences in a collective context. “Revelation” and “The Displaced Person” enable O’Connor to explore issues of democracy in a new way; read in the context of each other, they highlight the political and ethical significance of clichés, in particular their relation to violence.


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