Considering the contributions of William Faulkner, and Erskine Caldwell, what are three key aspects/influences of the “Southern Gothic School”?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Southern Gothic literature follows many of the tenets of Gothic literature, but vary in some ways. Here are three:

1.  Incidents are firmly planted in Realism. While traditional Gothic literature is concerned often with supernatural occurrences and mysterious secrets, Southern Gothic finds its bizarre happenings in social settings.  For instance, William Faulkners novel As I Lay Dying relies on the strange dying wish of  Addie Bundren to be buried miles from her home in a family plot. The narrative revolves around the bizarre efforts of the family to carry her casket by wagon. Likewise, Erskine Caldwell wrote of the wretched state of the undernourished and ignorant sharecroppers and small farmers in the rural Georgia in Tobacco Road. Thus, for the writers of Southern Gothic, the preternatural comes from the real, decayed settings and family trees, not the spiritual realm.

2.  Southern Gothic makes use of the Grotesque

Prevalent in Southern Gothic are "off-kilter" characters who are often mentally diminished or deranged.  In Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, one of the narrators is Benji, a man with the mind of a five-year-old. His short story "A Rose for Emily" has as its main character a psychotic woman who dwells in a decadent past, indulging in necrophilia. Similarly, Erskine characters are degenerate spiritually and physically. Jeeter Lester insists upon living in poverty because he is on the land that he once grew tobacco; he clings obstinately and ignorantly to the defunct feudal system of the Old South as he starves. Lacking any hypocrisy, but skewered in his thinking, Jeeter clings to his belief that God will provide for him. He plans every year to plow the land and plant seed if he can just somehow acquire some money. 

Although these characters are grotesque, there is yet a poignancy conveyed in their depictions proving in Faulkner's case the truth of his statement, "I love the South, I hate the South." They also are instruments of the writers used to reveal universal truths.

3. Southern Gothic defines its characters by their social or racial class and their relationship with the land. 

Because of their poverty, violence, racism, mental incapacities, these characters, so firmly tied to the South and its old traditions effect examination of the human experience and universal truths. Often Faulkner and Caldwell both examine an individual's struggle with society, revealing unpleasant aspects of this society as well as an insight into the dark regions of the human psyche.  Emily of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" "cling[s] to that which had robbed her." The Lesters of Tobacco Road are, as one critic writes, are too debased and spiritually debilitated to gain the sympathy of readers, yet there is enough vulnerability in their having been forsaken as sharecroppers that they ignite "the social conscience."