Southern dependence and getting free: daddy, maids, Jesus, and survival in the fiction of Ellen Gilchrist.

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Bennett, Gwynne
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Middle Tennessee State University
Steeped in the old southern traditions, the post-WWII up-scale South simmers in the unspoken rules of racial prejudice, a Christ-haunted faith, powerful and powerless parenting, and the desperate search for self-worth. Using humor, often dark, and ironic wit Ellen Gilchrist cunningly describes and critiques this society in her fiction. Shades of Faulkner appear in the dysfunctional families, of O'Connor in her use of shock and dark humor, and of Welty in the well-developed characters whom readers feel they know or have known. But the personal thumbprint Gilchrist places on her fiction is unique; Gilchrist has found an almost whimsical way to satirize these old southern "rules," putting them under a comedic microscope as she lures her readers into a realization that many, particularly those which are imprinted on the subconscious, are not only ridiculous but also are often devastating to those who live under them. Gilchrist's characters reveal the truth about those served and those who serve, an obtrusive yet invasive God, parental love gone awry, and the emptiness of a life without purpose. Her fiction focuses on the patriarch as the heart of the dysfunctional family, and the matriarch's relationship with the black maid as the stage for a particularly southern form of polite racism. Her characters reflect a selfish relationship with God as they struggle to find comfort and to survive in this crazy, messed-up world. The characters who do survive and prevail do so because they find a way to create value and meaning in their otherwise vacuous lives, a discovery shared with their creator, Ellen Gilchrist.
Major Professor: Larry G. Mapp.