Southern Gothic Literature
Southern Gothic Literature
The following entry discusses twentieth-century Southern Gothic literature.
Gothic literature—so called because many examples of the genre were set during the late-medieval, or Gothic, period—proliferated in England, Germany, and the United States during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Critics date its inception to 1764, when English statesman and writer Horace Walpoe published The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Set against the majestic backgrounds of mysterious castles and aging palaces, many nineteenth-century English gothic novels used such bleak landscapes to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense. In particular, gothic literature found a home with writers of the American South, who used the crumbling landscape of the antebellum era as the backdrop for their tales of fantasy and the grotesque. Major twentieth-century American authors often identified with this genre include Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and to a lesser extent, Eudora Welty.
Defined by Francis Russell Hart as “fiction evocative of a sublime and picturesque landscape … depict(ing) a world in ruins,” the gothic novel presents readers with an opportunity to vicariously experience horrifying realities. By creating worlds where tragedy and repressed behaviors come to the forefront, gothic writers explore the psychology of human existence on several unique levels, notes critic Elizabeth M. Kerr. Common elements of the gothic novel include explorations of the subconscious through dreams, a good versus evil polarity in the characters, and the use of setting and atmosphere to evoke a vivid emotional response in the reader. While English Gothicism closely paralleled the Romantic movement in literature, frequently focusing on issues of love, sexuality, and the place of reason in human existence, Southern Gothic fiction focuses largely on themes of terror, death, and social interaction.
Some commentators have argued that the adaptation of the gothic format was particularly suited to the American South because the plantation world of the antebellum period provided writers with an analogy to the medieval settings available to English gothic writers. The images of the plantation houses—representative of a quasi-feudal order in times of prosperity—contrasted with their eventual decay were evocative of the ruined castles of nineteenth-century Gothic romances, with both symbolically signalling the end of an era. However, Southern Gothic fiction also embodies an immediacy and poignancy that derives from the personal and community experiences of its authors. Kerr explains this intensity as, “the cult of the past in the South, as symbolized in its ruins, its preserved glories displayed in spring pilgrimages, its monuments and graveyards, owes less to cultural climate and imagination than to remembered history.” This emphasis on history is vital to Southern Gothic fiction, which not only draws on the stylistic characteristics of nineteenth-century gothic fiction, but also finds inspiration from novels of the American past. Certain scholars—such as Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)—have identified specifically national concerns apparent in Southern Gothic fiction, particularly the relationships between races and genders. Other academics have been dismissive towards twentieth-century Southern Gothic novels, referring to the movement as a sub-genre of serious fiction and criticizing the works for their sometimes formulaic and sentimental storylines.
Other Voices, Other Rooms (novel) 1948
A Tree of Night, and Other Stories (short stories) 1949
The Glass Harp (novel) 1951
A Rose for Emily (novel) 1924
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929
As I Lay Dying (novel) 1930
Light in August (novel) 1932
Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936
Love and Death in the American Novel (criticism) 1960
Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) 1937
The Orchard Keeper (novel) 1965
Outer Dark (novel) 1968
Child of God (novel) 1974
Suttree (novel) 1979
Wise Blood (novel) 1952
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short stories) 1955; also published as The Artificial Nigger and Other Tales, 1957
The Violent Bear It Away (novel) 1960
Everything that Rises Must Converge (short stories) 1965
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (prose) 1969
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (short stories) 1974
Set This House on Fire (novel) 1963
A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (short stories) 1941
The Wide Net and Other Stories (short stories) 1943
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Burns, Margie. “A Good Rose Is Hard to Find: Southern Gothic as Signs of Social Dislocation in Faulkner and O'Connor.” In Image and Ideology in Modern/Postmodern Discourse, edited by David B. Browning and Susan Bazargan, pp. 105-23. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Burns contends that Southern Gothic is a literary technique that both represents and hides the dehumanization of the South into perceived stereotypes. The critic analyzes works by Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner as examples of this technique.]
Between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment.
—Raymond Williams, The Country and the City
The topic of images of the South in the literature and media of the nation as a whole is rich in possibilities for cultural studies, for analysis of the processes of production, reception, and consumption of such images as they come to be formed and through which they are put to use. As anyone might recognize, cultural stereotypes about the American South are frequently projected as representations of objective reality; indeed, there exists an unanalytic habit, on the part both of the media and of canonical writers, to characterize the South through figural reification. In novels (both popular and canonical), in plays, film, and...
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SOURCE: Appel, Alfred, Jr. “The Grotesque and the Gothic.” In A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, pp. 73-103. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
[In the following essay, Appel distinguishes between grotesque and gothic elements in American fiction, using the works of Eudora Welty as examples of an author who successfully uses the grotesque to expound on themes of social and individual displacement while instilling a sense of compassion and hope in the reader.]
The grotesque and Gothic have always been major modes in American fiction and popular culture, from Brockden Brown to Paul Bowles, from frontier humor to W. C. Fields. Perhaps the grotesque is so persistent an American genre because of the peculiarly American belief that happiness is the norm of existence—a belief that is accompanied by an almost fanatical resistance to any suggestions to the contrary. It is not surprising that many American writers have felt the need to use the grotesque or Gothic, as though only through distortion and exaggeration could they begin to suggest the complexity of reality—and its tragicomic implications—to an audience thoroughly committed to the “optimistic.” As Flannery O'Connor said in The Living Novel (1957), “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The Gothic and the grotesque...
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SOURCE: Putzel, Max. “What Is Gothic about Absalom, Absalom!” Southern Literary Journal 4, no. 1 (fall 1971): 3-19.
[In the following essay, Putzel presents an overview of Absalom, Absalom! examining several gothic elements in the work as techniques used by Faulkner to create a vision of the American past that conveys decay and decline while also providing the reader with a sense of lost greatness.]
During the second World War, when he was just setting out to build Faulkner's reputation into the national monument it has since become, Malcolm Cowley placed Absalom, Absalom! “in the realm of Gothic romances, with Sutpen's Hundred taking the place of the haunted castle on the Rhine, with Colonel Sutpen as Faust and Charles Bon as Manfred.”1 By now one is aware of so many louder literary echoes, so many prototypes and conventions Faulker assimilated into his ambitious novel, that one hesitates to single out the Gothic vein once again. What if Leslie Fiedler does call it “the most gothic of Faulkner's books”? He has found a Goth hiding under the bed of practically every virgin in American literature, and I cannot agree with him that it is the Gothic form “that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers.”2
Rather I tend to share Cleanth Brooks's annoyance when he calls this Faulkner's greatest...
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SOURCE: Christophersen, Bill. “‘Jean-ah Poquelin’: Cable's Place in Southern Gothic.” South Dakota Review 20, no. 2 (summer 1982): 55-66.
[In the following essay, Christophersen praises Cable for the success with which he appropriates the English gothic tradition to an American landscape, noting that he grounds the grotesquery of his story in the realism of the socio-economic reality of his country.]
Ernest Stone, in his article entitled “Usher, Poquelin, Miss Emily: The Progress of Southern Gothic,”1 renders a previous comparison between Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Faulkner's “A Rose For Emily”2 suddenly meaningful by broadening it to include George W. Cable's story “Jean-ah Poquelin.” Faulkner's story, by virtue of its plot alone, resembles Cable's story much more than it does Poe's. Cable's story and Faulkner's are, in fact, suspiciously similar.3 Stone compares the two in detail, noting, finally, that both stories present
… a central conflict between a proud and doomed, but indomitable last representative of an important family of a bygone era of the South and the progress of an encroaching and usurping civilization. Both Emily Grierson and Jean Marie Poquelin perpetuate their pristine importance by immuring themselves in a massive, impregnable, outmoded house; and both successfully and...
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SOURCE: Schleifer, Ronald. “Rural Gothic: The Sublime Rhetoric of Flannery O'Connor.” In Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature, edited by David Moden, Scott P. Sanders, and Joanne B. Karpinski, pp. 175-86. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.
[In the following essay, Schliefer proposes that O'Connor effectively uses the backdrop of the rural South and combines it with elements of the supernatural to present a world of powerful possibilities in her fiction.]
There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don't have to go anywhere to look for manners … We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in speech.
In A Portrait of the Artist, that most ungothic of literary works, Stephen Dedalus explains to his friend Lynch that although Aristotle had not defined pity and terror in the Poetics, he, Stephen, had:
Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human...
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Criticism: Structure And Technique In Southern Gothic Literature
SOURCE: Snow, Ollye Tine. “The Functional Gothic of Flannery O'Connor.” Southwest Review 50, no. 3 (summer 1965): 286-99.
[In the following essay, Snow discusses O'Connor's use of eighteenth-century gothic devices to convey the idea that humans can overcome adversity only if they obey Divine authority.]
With the recent posthumous publication of Flannery O'Connor's collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge,1 readers are impressed again with the “terrible swift sword” that cuts away at man's sin. Again in these stories as in her other collection and in her two novels, the grotesqueries of man's defiant, sometimes stupid disobedience of God carry the theme. These grotesqueries very obviously, sometimes ironically, function on the basis of biblical prototypes and images—for example, the prophecy in “Parker's Back” of Obadiah E. Parker meets as bitter and as stubborn resistance as was Edom's enmity to Israel; the Holy Ghost's descending as a dove, or in the case of “The Enduring Chill,” as a “fierce bird,” shows explicit awareness of a Divine Being; Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” destroys herself through building up a wrong image in her mind of the bull (“silvered in the moonlight” at one time), just as Aaron sinned by trying to make an image of Jehovah in the Egyptian form of the golden calf.
But besides the biblical...
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SOURCE: Perry, J. Douglas, Jr. “Gothic as Vortex: The Form of Horror in Capote, Faulkner, and Styron.” In The Critical Response to Truman Capote, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir and John C. Waldmeir, pp. 179-91. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, originally published in Modern Fiction Studies in 1973, Perry proposes that in addition to the commonality of theme and images, American gothic fiction also uses traditional structures and techniques to create a concentric series of events, drawing the reader into an intense interaction between human communities that exist inside and outside the novel.]
An examination of Capote, Faulkner, and Styron reveals that modern American gothic is not only a matter of theme or image, as Irving Malin suggests,1 but of narrative form as well, that certain basic modes of rendering are traditional to gothic, and that in structure, as in theme and image, writers like Capote, Faulkner, and Styron parallel Melville and Poe, and ultimately such gothicists as “Monk” Lewis and Mary Shelley.
A convenient rule of thumb for modern American gothic might be that its structures are analogous to its images and themes. If one considers gothic to be made up of the interaction of theme, image, and structure, Malin has covered two of the three areas. He identifies the three images of American gothic as the room, the voyage,...
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SOURCE: Donaldson, Susan V. “Making a Spectacle: Welty, Faulkner, and Southern Gothic.”1Mississippi Quarterly 50, no. 4 (fall 1997): 567-83.
[In the following essay, Donaldson compares the portraits of women created by Faulkner and Welty, noting that while Faulkner's narratives reverberate with the effort to impose cultural ideas of femininity on his Southern characters, Welty's narratives present women that break out of the narrow confines of their worlds, “a carnival of gothic and grotesque heroines” who resist placement in traditional roles and themes.]
By the time Eudora Welty published A Curtain of Green and Other Stories in 1941, the term “Southern Gothic” had become something very like a synonym—or a cliche—for modern Southern literature. Louise Bogan even titled her review of Welty's collection “The Gothic South.”2 Other reviewers of A Curtain of Green tended to use the catch-all category of Southern Gothic interchangeably with the grotesque—or in the words of the reviewer for Time Magazine, “the demented, the deformed, the queer” (quoted in Peterman, p. 107). No doubt these reviewers were reassured in their easy reference to the term Southern Gothic by Carson McCullers's remarks in her 1941 essay, “The Russian Realists and Southern Literature,” in which she declared that Southern writers shared with nineteenth-century...
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Criticism: Themes In Southern Gothic Literature
SOURCE: Kahane, Claire. “The Maternal Legacy: The Grotesque Tradition in Flannery O'Connor's Female Gothic.” In The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor, pp. 242-56. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Kahane writes that O'Connor's female characters, using the techniques of gothic fiction, profoundly articulate their sense of helplessness within and revolt against established cultural order.]
Gothic fiction has received a good deal of critical attention in the last decade, and much of it from psychoanalytic critics, who find its easy display of fantasy in the service of fear congenial to their analyses. For the most part, these critics employ oedipal interpretive paradigms to account for the affective power of the Gothic genre. Concentrating primarily on the incestuous desires of male protagonists, they typically interpret Gothic fiction “in the light of male psychology,” as at least two unabashedly admit. “The Gothic genre,” write Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss, “depicts in varying degress of explicitness the passions of the oedipal child.”1
While it may be true that the incestuous overtones in the relations between brother and sister, father and daughter, exerted the force of a forbidden and unacknowledged fantasy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for a post-Freudian audience, this oedipal reading seems a very partial...
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SOURCE: Curren, Erik D. “Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God?: Hurston's Use of Religious Experience and Gothic Horror.” African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 17-25.
[In the following essay, Curren proposes that Hurston uses gothic devices in Their Eyes Were Watching God to effectively convey the politics of the master-slave relationship, while also ratifying the vitality and nurturing nature of African religious practice.]
The title of a literary work may be leading or misleading, but it is often a good place to start an analysis. When title words or phrases are repeated inside the text, connecting them to the specific place where they appear seems to offer the promise of a key for decoding the meaning of the whole work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a suggestive but perplexing title for Hurston's Bildungsroman of a woman's self-discovery through a quest for meaningful community. Dolan Hubbard attempts to illuminate the title by relating it to the place where its words appear in the body of Hurston's text, and analyzing it within the context of sermons and religious language. It is placed in the text just when Janie and the other folk bean pickers are beginning to realize the awesome power of the storm on the Everglades, and how weak they are when faced with God's power. Hubbard finds that the title words signal a religious transcendence of white oppression:...
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SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “Haunted by Jim Crow: Gothic Fictions by Hawthorne and Faulkner.” In American Gothic: New Inventions in a National Narrative, edited by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, pp. 129-42. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Martin examines the themes of gender and race in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, and notes that the issues raised in the novel are mirrored in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! However, Faulkner's novel, while dealing with many of the same issues, presents a more complicated picture of the world, replacing Hawthorne's happy ending with a vision that is ultimately nightmarish.]
In his now somewhat outdated but still influential formulation, Harold Bloom argues for an agonistic relationship between the “strong poet” and his predecessors. The task for the belated writer is simultaneously to express admiration and filiation and to mark off difference. The model does not allow for collaboration and simple indebtedness, presumably the characteristic only of weak poets. More importantly, the model assumes the centrality of the heroic individual author without allowing for a larger cultural process of self-creation and citation.
I want to examine two well-known and important American gothic texts, to suggest the ways in which the later text, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! rewrites the earlier...
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Baumbach, Jonathan. “The Acid of God's Grace: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor.” In The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, pp. 87-100. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Reading of Wise Blood as a representative work by Flannery O'Connor that explores themes of human life and redemption in the context of the author's rigid religious beliefs.
Heller, Terry. “Mirrored World's and the Gothic in Faulkner's Sanctuary.” Mississippi Quarterly 42, no. 3 (summer 1989): 247-59.
Analyzes the use of mirrors in William Faulkner's Sanctuary, theorizing that they are used as a device to reflect opposing characters and viewpoints.
Kahane, Claire. “Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity.” Centennial Review 24, no. 1 (winter 1980): 43-64.
Explains Gothic fiction in the context of feminist and psychoanalytical critical interpretation, using several 18th- and 19th-century texts for illustration.
Kerr, Elizabeth M. “From Otranto to Yoknapatawpha: Faulkner's Gothic Heritage.” In William Faulkner's Gothic Domain, pp. 3-28. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1979.
Recounts the evolution of gothic fiction during the Romantic and Victorian eras in England and its impact on the...
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