Southern Gothic Literature Criticism: Overviews And General Studies - Essay

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 television, in periodicals, and in advertisements, versions of the same stereotypes recur, with a persistence both of form and of effect which suggests their organization by utility if not by intent. I would argue that these stereotypes both corroborate a deep-lying perception in the general consciousness, and solace an even deeper-lying doubt; without essential validity, they nevertheless fall into place with comforting neatness, to reaffirm the inferiority of the Other into which the American South has been transformed in the national consciousness. An enhanced critical consciousness, however, would perceive the political consequences of the ideological differences constituted by the various elements of the “Southern” image.

In general, the stereotypical perception of the South is organized around, literally, two classes of image: antebellum/magnolia/GWTW mythology, and cotton row/tobacco road/Baby Doll grotesquerie.1 These two stereotypes embody what have been called the two greatest bourgeois perceptions of threat, the dichotomized but connected fears of a decaying “aristocracy” on one hand, and of a rebellious, primitive, “earthy” peasantry on the other.2 The seeming triviality of these stereotypes, rather than serving to invalidate them, disguises their genuine utility—and destructiveness—in American culture. In my view, what is most illuminating about this polarized image is not the spurious distinction between its two terms but the underlying common denominators which provide the basis for the polarized image and sustain it. In this polarized construction, which is obviously a class construction and just as obviously a projection from the “central,” missing term of the self-identified “middle class,” the two categories correspond to two classes—upper and lower—a version of aristocracy and a version of peasantry. Furthermore, the two classes have, in these representations, three identifying characteristics in common: both are white (ironically), static, and unproductive. The gentleman of sorts lives in privileged idleness, and the redneck inhabits a Lower Slobbovia of equal idleness (although characterized as laziness rather than privilege). Both imagistic strata—the magnolia crowd and the tobacco-juice crowd—are primarily static—stuck—in the boonies, in ignorance, in prejudice, etc., with degenerate histories miring them down; neither group is “going anywhere,” except to proceed further downward in some melodrama of degeneracy. In the typically polarized picture of the Deep South, in short, there are virtually no figures of upward mobility, no successful or productive efforts either of individual or of collectivity—there is in this regard only a glaring void waiting to be filled by the faster-moving observer from whose perspective the picture is generated. Such a perspective fulfills the formulation of Pierre Bourdieu, that for the spectator even an observed activity becomes an object; the South as spectacle/object, whose people all apparently sit still, presents an intensification of the phenomenon.

Hence the chief point of the characterization is surely to assert a contrast to the non-South nation, where all the action is; the characterization of static versus mobile, stagnation versus dynamism, corroborates a self-legitimating view of the haute bourgeois as the ideal mean, a mediating principle between the too-high and the too-low to work, industrious as well as industrial—with the latter as evidence of the former. It is the vision of the Connecticut Yankee, Hank the Boss, without the ironic awareness of a Clemens behind it. The putative absence of productivity (symbolized by an absence of mobility), in other words, gives the image its social and economic usefulness—and a fairly complex and multivalent usefulness at that—in the historical actuality which surrounds the image. Indeed, the usefulness of the image, far more than any mimetic relation to social reality, has kept it alive; and its uses have been social and economic, beyond the scope of this essay to cover.

The typical discourse on the South as object at least partly resembles colonial production, a nativist discourse dictated by essentially colonialist interests, but it is also more broadly constitutive of ideological differences along class lines.3 Just as the trivialized stereotypes of Southern Women intensify a polarization projected onto women in general (good/sexually innocent versus bad/sexually experienced), so the sharply polarized image of two social strata in the South intensifies—crudely—its dichotomous inversion: the wish, projected from the missing term, the middle class, to lampoon or to obliterate an awareness of genuine class difference.

In other words, the view of the South self-identified as the “national” or “American” view is basically a colonial romance, with the rest of the nation identified with the forces of light and the South with the forces of darkness. And this romance shares a salient characteristic of virtually all post-Romantic romance: in it, the polarization of social highs and lows in actuality metamorphoses into a polarization of psychological highs and lows as the source of conflict in the literary representations and other representations. Thus the haute bourgeois middle term is, of course, even more thoroughly obscured. The image of dark loci which map the terrain of the South in the popular imagination (and in the scholarly imagination) directly serves the ideology which produced it.

Nowhere is the ideology-constitutive character of this image more apparent than in the literary mode known as “southern gothic.”4 In this essay on the southern gothic—a term in widespread use, but one which almost nobody attempts to scrutinize—I consider two famous short stories by William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and argue that the southern gothic is a literary technique which both enacts and conceals the dehumanization of response to the South, by representing it as a dehumanization of response in the South.5 Needless to say, imaginative literature has played only one part in the construction of the South as an ideological Other for the nation as a whole. “Serious” imaginative literature has played an even smaller part; but the staggering blatancy with which these two works pursue their part in the construction justifies their analysis in postmodern critical practice.


Even the most casual survey of the literary mode called “southern gothic” would turn up Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily” (1924) and O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1954) as premier examples. “A Rose for Emily” presents Emily through languorous, external flashbacks which leave her own consciousness opaque but gradually reveal that she poisoned her jilting lover and cohabited for decades with his corpse. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a worthless, déclassé southern family goes on a vacation, has a car wreck, and is thrown into the hands of a homicidal maniac (also southern) who kills everyone. The narrative presents the family's slaughter, moreover, as the result chiefly of its own idiocy and venality. Both short stories achieve their full horror through intense comedy, a black humor which largely accounts for the place of “southern” relative to “gothic”; if it happened anywhere else, it wouldn't be as funny. I contend that these narratives show how the consistent techniques of southern gothic mark the sites of social dislocations—phenomena conventionally regarded as nonliterary. In simplest terms, the gothic operates as a distancing: it mystifies the matter presented, removing it into an atmosphere detached from social actuality and engineering a response alienated and unsympathetic. This mystification has had consequences both within and outside the literature.

In the narratives discussed here, the most significant movements are concealment and entrapment. “A Rose for Emily” begins,

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house.


This single, wonderfully economical sentence immediately sets up the demarcation between a crypto-military context for men and a setting of house interiors for women, which is sustained throughout the narrative. It also establishes a progression—death, morbidity, a monument, and concealment behind a wall or facade—typical of southern gothic, in which the luridness of the terms distracts attention away from their true relationship. Here, the outside-inside demarcation becomes perversely conflated—a “monument,” which both blazons and conceals what it contains.6 Any awareness stimulated by the hint of very real violence, however, is displaced—trivialized—into typically “gothic” suspense and a (feminine) morbid curiosity.

Repeatedly the narrative describes/erects some wall or facade which simultaneously blazons and conceals. In one stunning example, the generation previous to Miss Emily's produced the “edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron” (489); I shall discuss this below. Similarly, the women whisper about Emily's sexual activities “behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon” (495). The facades thus erected ornament both persons and places with a dissolutely baroque prose; the Grierson house itself is

a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, … lifting up its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.


Obviously, the old house is identified with Miss Emily (and perhaps with femaleness in general);7 the phrases “heavily lightsome” and “coquettish decay,” among others, anthropomorphize it, turning it into an old “eyesore” like Emily herself and suggesting a threatening, veiled sexuality in both edifices.

In a rich, curious paradox of combined limpidity and occlusion, each such verbal flourish throughout the story signals a social dislocation, an injustice. Examples abound:

And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.


Here the nostalgic, antiquarian intrigue—“cedar-bemused” itself—obscures the deaths of nameless, ordinary soldiers. Other examples concerning Emily herself arise frequently; at an early point, Emily writes:

a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment.


The successful mystification of the town—a successful mystification, in more than one sense—allows Emily to escape, seriatim, from both death and taxes:

So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell.


But while Faulkner's submerged joke on death and taxes gives some structure to the story, it also trivializes the fundamental conflict between Emily and the men—“horse and foot”—of the town. In repetitive detail, Emily is incessantly associated with the past, with the Civil War, with the burdens of history devoid of any understanding of history. Always, the odor of history is mystified, through her, either decayed into a stink or misperceived as the aura of nostalgia.8 And this diffuse mystification has a highly specific use; it transforms “history” into an intimidation serving the interests of a privileged class.

A deputation waited upon her, knocked at the door through which no visitor had passed since she ceased giving chinapainting lessons eight or ten years earlier. They were admitted by the Old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray. On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily's father.


In such an atmosphere of more than adequate oppressiveness, it is hardly surprising that the men should fail in their mission to exact money from Miss Emily, or that they should be vanquished by the single, cryptic utterance: “‘See Colonel Sartoris.’ (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years)” (491).

Since some vague concept of “history” is often associated with outmoded ornamentation—forgetting the spareness or angularity of any artistic styles before the “modern”—the same mystification which works on Faulkner's characters has often worked on his readers. It is easy, reading Faulkner's gothic labyrinthine prose, to get lost in the style. The tremendous artistic achievement represented by this phenomenon has invited more than its share of critical commentary in strictly literary terms; Warren and Wellek might say that the outer form of the narrative corresponds to its inner form (140, 241); metacriticism would emphasize the self-reflexivity which connects plot and style. What I wish to emphasize, however, is how the narrative both blazons and conceals its mystification of history, outside the story and in it; these are lush imaginary gardens with real structures of privilege in them.

Like an X-marks-the-spot, each high-Victorian decaying narrative curlicue instances a form (literally) of concealment, partly because the ornateness of the language distances the reader, but partly because the action presented is Byzantine:

Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily's father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris' generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.


What might be called “gothic finance” here instances Emily's exemption from paying taxes—a privilege of her class; simultaneously, however, it also marks her inability to understand or to control her business affairs, the limitation of her sex. Emily's life includes no option of financial self-sufficiency; hence the fate worse than death when Homer Barron disappoints her and, earlier, the sense of betrayal when her father died and “it got about that the house was all that was left to her” (489). Even the rather detached narrator makes the betrayal explicit:

We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.


The decorative flourish, which is a neat synecdoche, signals Emily's economic limitation in that she tries to earn an income by giving lessons in chinapainting.

The preeminent flourish in the narrative, however (aside from its title), occurs at the ending, in the lavish descriptive decay of the room which contains the corpse:

A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valence curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man's toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monograph was obscured.


Fulfilling previous images which identified the house with Emily, the rose-colored curtains and rose-shaded lights (these are the only roses in the story, unless one counts “they rose when she entered”) create a stereotypically “Freudian” image of female enclosure. The dusty vulva, the “bridal” chamber—like Marvell's “fine and private place” the tomb's savage travesty of the womb (or the travesty of the latter on the former, in more misogynistic perspective)—reveals the bitter turning to dust of all the camp swampiness and swampy campness of Faulkner's other ever-prevalent allusions to feminine loci of forsythia/magnolia/genitalia. “Rose, thou art sick. …” The symbolically enclosed rose or hortus conclusus turned to desert rounds off the period of the story; as the title says, it is the story; and the story as an ironic rose, presented with a bow and a flourish to Emily, both advertises and dissimulates what it does to Emily Grierson and to all the other Emilys, egregiously pretending not to do exactly what it does: “‘Dammit, sir,’ Judge Stevens said, ‘will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?’” (492).

With humorous, self-disclosing hypocrisy, the fondly superficial narrator presents Emily's image: “thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse” (499). The word “inescapable” provides the operative hint on Emily's status; at her death—which begins the story—the narrator says, “alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (489).

In simplest terms, Emily resembles a curse—a war debt imposed by the Civil War on the surviving South, sphinx-like creature into whose house people go and either don't escape or barely escape, the labor pursuing original sin. A selective gyneolatry projected around her image suggests the quasi-theological:

a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.


When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene.


She fitted up a studio … where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris' contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sundays with a twenty-five cent piece for the collection plate.



(The entire section is 8567 words.)