In this article, you’ll learn about Southern Gothic literature. First we’ll define Southern Gothic followed by brief overview of its origins. Once we establish understanding around these, then we’ll further explore main elements or characteristics of Southern Gothic Literature and famous writers of this bleak genre.
1. What is Southern Gothic?
Southern Gothic is a literary style that became popular in the 19th century as a subgenre of Gothicism. While relating to both the English and American Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic actually deals with the South’s grim and dark past, tensions and deviations.
The Southern Gothic writers borrowed the emotionally rich style of the Romantics and the gloomy, decaying themes of Gothicism and put them in the American South setting; thus developing a unique literary style. In addition, the genre also employs the stereotypical southern elements with the gruesome, supernatural Gothic elements.
Like Gothic literature, Southern Gothic also depends upon subjects like grotesque and macabre; however, in contrast, it doesn’t use them to create suspense or fear. Rather, it uses them to dissect social issues and highlight the cultural climate of the American South.
2. A Historical Perspective of the Genre
Southern Gothic literature became widely popular American literary genre during the 20th century.
It was the historical backdrop of the post-Civil War South that made it a perfect landscape for the writers to explore dark and brooding Gothic themes.
The Civil War was a grotesque experience for the people of the South. It remained in their memories for a very long time. That’s why Gothic literature of the South is replete with elements of that grotesqueness.
The writers of this genre highlighted the South’s history of slavery, racism, violence, and the fear of the outside world. Their main purpose was to expose the prevailing social issues and explore the question of moral integrity.
3. Significant Characteristics of Southern Gothic
The following are the most significant characteristics or main elements of Southern Gothic literature.
3.1 Freak and Grotesque Characters
The characters in Southern Gothic literature are mostly freakish, disabled, complex and even delusional. The grotesque and macabre is embodied in writings through the human characters who are spiritually and physically monstrous.
3.2 Dark Humor in Southern Gothic
Southern Gothic novels contains stories that combine both the humorous and the horrific elements to explain and expose the deep-seated social turmoil of South America.
3.3 Transgressive Desires
The characters , sometimes, transgress their conventionally passive role and forbidden boundaries to test the potentials of their identity and sexuality outside the law. Moreover, they find gratification in these transgressions.
3.4 Settings in Southern Gothic
The setting of most of the Southern Gothic novels is the South. The writers mostly set their stories either on a plantation or some old slave quarters. Some of their stories also take place in the broken-down small towns in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana or Georgia.
3.5 Ghosts or Supernatural Figures
The presence of supernatural elements in the writings of the South is not merely to create the atmosphere of fear and terror. However, the writers use the supernatural elements to highlight the social and cultural issues. Here, the reader crosses paths with the ghosts of slaves that reveal the dark past or hidden secrets of the region.
3.6 Violence and Crime
Violence and crime have been a big part of Southern society for a long time. The writers deal with a period in the South’s history where violence and crime were particularly prevalent.
3.7 Destitution, Death and Decay
A sense of moral and physical decay, especially decaying buildings and plantation homes, as well as the acknowledgement of death as another character is always there.
3.8 Oppression and Discrimination
The South was a society built on slavery and racial oppression. As a result, the political turmoil, class struggles, and deep-seated racial tensions and oppression are among the favored topics covered by southern authors.
3.9 Symbolism and Imagery
The South American Gothicism literature also abounds in imagery and symbolism. The abandoned plantation house isn’t merely there just to horrify. Rather, it represents the South’s fixation with history. Furthermore, the decaying home symbolizes the physical and moral decay of the people.
3.10 Imprisonment in Southern Gothic
In the Gothic literature of the South, the characters are often trapped or imprisoned by their own fears, society, or even stereotypes that leave them unable to grow.
3.11 Isolation and Marginalization
Southern Gothic grew out of the ‘Post War Reconstruction of the South’ which stripped the land of its resources and left the people isolated and marginalized. So, the theme of isolation and marginalization is another characteristic of the American literature of the South.
4. Famous Southern Gothic Writers
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) was the one who created Gothic tradition in America. Despite his Baltimore birthplace, he had a liking for the Southern United States, especially Richmond, Virginia. He grew up there and even called the city his ‘home’. Most of Poe’s famous poems and short stories, even though not displaying a recognizable South setting, contain all the elements that characterize Southern Gothic. So, it would not be wrong if we consider him an influencer of the Gothic genre in the South.
The Southern Gothic writers continued the tradition introduced by Poe in American literature. But instead of preoccupying themselves with the supernatural, they specifically focused on the people, culture and history of the American South. Moreover, they also illuminated the psychological, societal and physical threats in their writings.
Although Poe was a foundational figure in Southern Gothic, it was William Faulkner (1897–1962) who began writing a more specifically Southern form of American Gothic.
The setting of his novels is either Mississippi or the older southern towns and plantations. Most of Faulkner’s novels include Southern archetypes, examples, and patterns. He uses a stream of consciousness technique in his writings to show the sufferings of his characters. His novels contain themes of death, loneliness and grotesque.
Some other famous authors of this genre include Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964), Truman Capote (1924-1984), Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Harper Lee (1926 – 2016). Their writings explore the clashes between Old and New South, repressed racial tensions, and a sense of evil lurking in the society.
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