In the Flannery O’Connor short story “Enoch and the Gorilla,” O’Connor examines the shadowy beast that lurks deep within all human souls. Enoch Emery, protagonist of the story, is an enigma to himself. Robbed of a childhood by a cruel father and made cynical by city life’s harsh realities, he has little upon which to base his self-image. His earliest memory is of a prank box of peanut brittle given to him by his father that broke off the ends of his two front teeth when he tried to eat it. The “NUTTY SURPRISE!”, as the box was labeled, seems an apt summary of Enoch’s life so far, one O’Connor describes as “full of so many happenings like that that it would seem he should have been more sensitive to his times of danger.” However, Enoch is “usually thinking of something else.” That “something” is Enoch’s nebulous dream of becoming powerful and earning respect, despite having been a “nobody” in the eyes of others his entire life. The conflict between dream and reality strain Enoch’s weak self-image to the breaking point and blind him to an evil presence in his soul. He has secretly fostered a horrible creature within himself that he will no longer be able to contain.
O’Connor uses symbolism to frame and illustrate Enoch’s psychic transformation from powerless victim to powerful aggressor. Enoch walks into a rainstorm wearing dark glasses and carrying a worn-out, borrowed umbrella. The dark glasses allow no one to see his soul, but they also distort his view of the world. The borrowed umbrella is Enoch’s buffer from the negative forces of the world, and it predictably fails him. Enoch unsuccessfully tries to fix it under a movie house marquee where a group of children has congregated. They are there to shake hands with Gonga, a make-believe gorilla, but cannot help but laugh at Enoch’s misfortunes with the umbrella. They also laugh at his teeth. Enoch has faced this type of humiliation before, but he examines it this time rather than run away. He “lower[s] his dark glasses” to view the life-sized poster of Gonga, the gorilla, and its bold text. Suddenly seeing his life without the dark glasses’ filter, he draws a parallel between the “NUTTY SURPRISE!” of his youth and the “Great Star! HERE IN PERSON!” When the gorilla arrives, he sees clearly and cynically that the “movie star” everyone endured the rain for is just a man wearing a gorilla suit. Enoch’s transformation begins as he sees the gorilla as his father, his humiliation, and every frustrated hope or dream packaged in a ridiculous costume.
O’Connor frequently explores the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in her stories, and in this story she uses the character of Enoch as a case study. Enoch senses a discrepancy between what he has known and what he now believes. His cynicism crystallizes into full-fledged antisocial behavior, as he quickly decides to insult the “successful ape.” This course of action is powerful yet nebulous, as Enoch believes it has come to his mind from “the hand of Providence.” The discrepancy between his long-held beliefs of self-inadequacy and the new-found emopwerment causes him psychological discomfort, and as his mind adjusts to the discrepancy, he cannot marshal his thought process effectively. O’Connor clearly shows this through the passage “Usually he didn’t have any trouble with this kind of composition but nothing came to him now. His brain,both parts, was completely empty. He couldn’t think even of the insulting phrases he used every day” (Emphasis added). Enoch’s insult goes awry, but O’Connor’s Catholic-based sensibility ensures that his malicious intent succeeds. The gorilla/man retorts with a surly “You go to hell.” Enoch, now in a sensitive and uncomfortable state, feels humiliated again and retreats to his room.
The room is O’Connor’s metaphor for the realm of private thoughts, the human inner world where profound insight lives. In the three sentences “He had only a vague idea what he wanted, but he was not a boy without ambition: he wanted to become something. He wanted to better his condition. He wanted, someday to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand,” O’Connor shows Enoch connecting his deepest hidden desire with the gorilla. This insight is doubly profound. By showing the thoughts in Enoch’s mind, O’Connor makes the human psychological connection of ambition to the hidden beast living within men.
The connection and its immediate effects are also shown in other ways. Externally, Enoch shreds and denudes the umbrella, transforming the failed shield into a weapon that would “distinguish him on the sidewalk.” Internally, O’Connor describes the crossing paths of Enoch’s fear and exhilaration as “…the sense that he was setting off to get some honor, but he was very nervous, as if he were afraid he might have to snatch it.” Enoch cannot intellectually process the ramifications of what is happening within him, as “all afternoon he fidgeted and fooled” in his room. O’Connor makes a statement about the insipid nature of evil, and its power to hijack reason through base instinct. Enoch resumes his life only after the change has anchored itself within him. When it does, at “seven o’clock” he remembers his usual way of doing things. “He never set out for anything without eating first,” is a natural thought for Enoch, and he heads for the Paris Diner.
O’Connor’s description of the Paris Diner as a tunnel is no coincidence. Enoch figuratively “tunnels” through life, taking a shortcut through the mountain of life experiences to become a different man than he was earlier that day. His dealings with the people in the diner differ from the earlier interaction with the “gorilla.” When Enoch places his dinner order, the waitress responds with her version of the gorilla’s “You go to hell,” but Enoch does not shrink this time. Instead, the beast directs his actions. He pokes the laconic waitress with his umbrella-weapon when she ignores him, and fearlessly asks a man at the counter for a section of his newspaper.
O’Connor notes “…a certain transformation in [Enoch’s] countenance…a look of awakening,” directing the reader to look inside of Enoch while she describes the differences in his outward actions. Enoch knows he is different now, but is unaware that the beast controls him. O’Connor underscores the insipid nature of evil and its power to manipulate. Enoch feels himself “surge with kindness and courage and strength” which reinforces a belief that this new path is the way to get “what he wants.”
O’Connor wrote earlier that Enoch wanted “to see a line of people waiting to shake his hand”; however, he does not want to be a “Great Star!” like Gonga. He really wants to command respect and love. The beast, having overruled his good intentions for change, begins to color his perceptions. As Enoch reads the newspaper’s movie listings advertising Gonga’s appearances, the gorilla changes from an outward symbol to Enoch of what he wants into one of all that he loathes. Enoch envies the gorilla for seeming to have what he wants, and despises him for being nothing more than a man in a costume. Frustration and jealousy finally overcome him, and Enoch’s inner gorilla roars to life, marked by Enoch’s telling the waitress “You may not see me again – the way I am” as he leaves for the Victory Theatre.
O’Connor expertly wields grammar and word choice to set the scene of final transformation. Readers get a television-like view of Enoch making his way through the city, as O’Connor gradually accelerates the text’s pace and incorporate subtle, jungle-like imagery: “He left. It was a pleasant damp evening. The puddles on the sidewalk shone and the store windows were steamy and bright with junk.” Enoch is a gorilla on the hunt: hiding, watching, and suddenly darting into the truck to await Gonga, his quarry. “Certain thumping noises” mark the point of no return for Enoch’s former self. O’Connor describes the scene as a pale and quiet night, and does not directly state that Enoch kills anyone, instead using a metaphor: “…complaint from a hoot owl.” The “pale and quiet” night represents the absence of Enoch’s true self, and the hooting of the owl, known as a portent of death in Native American culture, leaves little doubt as to what Enoch has done. Enoch removes his clothes and uses the ex-umbrella to dig a hole and bury them, and O’Connor presses the event into double duty. His old persona is also dead, but he does not realize it. O’Connor emphasizes this psychosis by referring to Enoch not as “he,” but as “it” and describing the scene of donning the gorilla suit: “a heavier, shaggier figure replaced his…it pulled the dark head over the other.” The beast continues its evil manipulation, reinforcing a positive feeling in Enoch. His anger, hatred, and self-loathing are gone. He feels the power denied him for a lifetime and savors it voraciously, practicing Gonga’s trademark growls and handshakes. O’Connor writes, “No gorilla anywhere…was happier than he.” Enoch’s elation is short-lived, however.
O’Connor chooses to show Enoch’s “moment of grace,” when the first people he comes across as the gorilla do not line up to shake his hand. They run away in fear, leaving Enoch stunned and alone once more. He/it realizes the gravity of the situation and the reality of his/its condition. In classic O’Connor style, the story ends, and the reader is left to wonder what Enoch is thinking, sitting on a rock overlooking the “uneven skyline of the city.”
O’Connor’s study of Enoch’s frightening transformation from timid young man to savage beast reaches deeply within the reader’s own perception of reality. Virtually everyone has heard of senseless murders committed by persons “no one ever expected” in the “real world.,” An example is the famed “BTK” killer, who was known as an upstanding citizen to his neighbors, but brutally murdered several people over the course of many years. “Why do people do that?” or more precisely “How could someone do that?” are the questions O’Connor does not answer as much as she provokes readers to think about what the answers might be. O’Connor’s possible motive for exploring the “inner beast” that lives within man is to not to explain the motives behind murder, but rather inspire readers to ask whether they could be capable of insane, violent rage, and whether they believe “temporary insanity” really exists.