Study Guide

Southern Gothic Characteristics

  • Novel and Short Story

    Southern Gothic is most closely associated with prose fiction, as in novels and short stories. For one thing, Southern Gothic is partly inspired by Gothic literature, and most Gothic literature was also written as prose fiction.

    The most famous works of Southern Gothic literature are novels like William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, as well as short stories like Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" or Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

    As always, there's totally an important exception: Tennessee Williams. Williams was a playwright, and though a lot of his work deals with familiar Southern Gothic themes—decay, for instance, is a big one in his work—he mostly wrote, well, plays.

    Shmoops:

    William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury is one of the most famous (and awesome) novels in the Southern Gothic tradition. Explore why it made such a splash here.

    Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a classic Southern Gothic short story. It deals with a whole range of themes, from society and class to family. Check out these themes here.

  • Irony

    Irony is a word that gets thrown around a lot (we're looking at you, Alanis), but what does it actually mean? Well, in literature, it can mean a couple of things. First, there's what you could call an ironic use of language: that's when an author (or a character) says the opposite of what he or she means. It's like saying, "That fedora is totally hot," when what you really mean is, "That fedora is totally fugs."

    In literature, there's also what you could call an ironic turn of events. That's when the plot of a story takes the characters (and us readers) somewhere totally unexpected—in fact, the opposite of where you'd expect things to end up. That would be like if a story about a tea party with stuffed animals ended with a high-speed car chase and dramatic rooftop shoot-out.

    Southern Gothic literature is full of irony. This partly has to do with the history of the South. This was a region that had been extremely wealthy and powerful for much of its history, thanks to slavery, but the South's defeat in the Civil War meant that this once super-powerful and super-wealthy region found itself, well, permanently down in the dumps. Southern Gothic writers deal with the irony of Southern history by writing about characters and events whose lives are shaped by irony.

    Shmoops:

    Thomas Sutpen, in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, spends his whole life trying to prove that he's better than black people. The irony is that he ends up marrying a woman who is part black. Check out this character's story here.

    Big Daddy Pollitt in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to ignore his own mortality by acquiring huge amounts of wealth. In this quotation (Quote #6), Big Daddy wakes up to an ironic truth: he can't actually escape his mortality.

  • Macabre and Grotesque

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    Southern Gothic writers have a pretty kinky taste for the macabre and the grotesque. No, seriously: these folks are into things like incest, decomposing bodies, castration, and lot more.

    Are Southern Gothic writers just weird? What gives? Well, for one thing, Southern Gothic literature is partly inspired by Gothic literature, which is all about horror and spooky stuff. Secondly, Southern Gothic writers were writing about a defeated society: the South is the part of the country that lost the Civil War. The war itself was a pretty grotesque experience, and it lived on in people's memories for a very long time, so it's really no wonder that we see elements of that grotesqueness in the work of Southern Gothic writers.

    Shmoops:

    William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" ends with the discovery of a corpse in Ms. Emily's bedroom. Talk about grotesque. Here's an analysis of the ending.

    Mr. Guizac, one of the protagonists of Flannery O'Connor's story "The Displaced Person," dies in a pretty grotesque way. Have a look at this excerpt (Quote #5) depicting his death.

  • Social Issues

    Southern Gothic writers love, just love, commenting on social issues—social issues that pertain to Southern society, that is. Themes of honor, betrayal, integrity, and hypocrisy, among others, are central to Southern Gothic literature.

    Southern Gothic writers are interested in questions like: What are Southern values? What sort of hypocrisy underlies these values? What makes Southern cultural and social identity unique? The South, after all, was a society that had condoned slavery for hundreds of years. What kind of moral integrity does a society like that have? Southern Gothic writers explore the question of moral integrity, in particular, by exploring social issues in their work—from family, to race, to poverty.

    Shmoops:

    Social issues are a big theme in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Check out the way in which the story treats this theme here.

    Homosexuality was a taboo subject at the time that Tennessee Williams was writing, but he doesn't shy away from tackling this issue in his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Here are characters talking about, and dealing with, sex and sexuality in the play.

  • Violence

    Slavery is a pretty violent thing. Owning other people, forcing them to work, and having the power of life and death over them? It's pretty extreme. And that means that violence has been a big part of Southern society for a long time.

    So it's no surprise that there are a lot of depictions of violence in Southern Gothic literature. Sometimes this violence is about race, and sometimes it's not: the point is that the threat is always there. Southern Gothic writers, in fact, depict violence as part of the mentality, the culture, and the society of the South in general. So if you're squeamish about violence, you'd better get ready—there's lots and lots of it in Southern Gothic.

    Shmoops:

    In Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, men are depicted as violent and aggressive. Check out how masculinity and violence come together in the play.

    In Flannery O'Connor's short story "The Displaced Person," Mr. Guizac comes to work on a farm in the southern U.S. after fleeing Europe and WWII. He ends up being killed in a gruesome way by the other bigoted protagonists in the story. Here's the excerpt (Quote #5).

  • Southern Setting

    We can't talk about Southern Gothic without talking about the landscape of the South. Plantations, wilderness, small dusty towns, grand old houses—these aren't just nice little decorative touches; they're essential to the Southern Gothic genre.

    Southern Gothic writers are obsessed with Southern landscapes and Southern settings because the identity of the South is largely derived from the land. Land, after all, is central to Southern history: during the period of slavery, the wealth of the South came mostly from the cultivation of the land, particularly from the cotton fields. Often, the beauty of the land stands in stark (and ironic) contrast to the violence happening on it and because of it.

    Shmoops:

    The Southern landscape is brought to life in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Here are some quotations reflecting just how important this setting is in the novel.

    The setting of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Delve into an analysis of this Southern setting here.

  • Decay

    Lots of stuff is falling apart in Southern Gothic literature: people are falling apart; houses are falling apart; towns are falling apart; morals are falling apart. This is decay and decomposition city, folks.

    Decay's such a big theme in Southern Gothic literature because the South was, after all, on the losing side in the Civil War, and this loss permanently changed the Southern way of life. The end of slavery meant the end of the Southern economy, and that led to a sense that the whole culture and society of the South was falling apart.

    So the theme of decay and decomposition is prominent partly because Southern Gothic writers were writing at a time when the South was in decline. But Southern Gothic writers also often reflect on how the South's history of slavery and racial oppression itself led to moral and social corruption: the South brought these problems on itself, they seem to say.

    Shmoops:

    The house that Ms. Emily lives in in William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" is already falling apart at the beginning of the story. Check out how the narrator describes this decay here (Quote #1).

    Blanche, the heroine of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, is an alcoholic who is falling apart. In these quotations from the play, we see how she's unraveled by alcohol.

  • Outsiders

    If you're reading Southern Gothic literature, chances are pretty good you're reading about outsiders. Many, if not most, of the heroes and heroines of these works are people who are outside the norm on some way—sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, and sometimes in terms of race or class.

    These outcasts are often the characters who drive the plot forward in Southern Gothic lit. One reason Southern Gothic authors like to write about outsider characters is that outsiders reflect, in a different ways, the identity of the South: the South itself was a renegade society, especially after its defeat in the War. If you were a writer, then seeing all that grotesque decay around you would probably make you feel like an outsider in your own society, too.

    Shmoops:

    Benjy Compson, one of the protagonists in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, is one of the most famous "outsider" figures in Southern Gothic literature. Find an analysis of his character here.

    John Singer, the mute protagonist of Carson McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is another "outsider" character. Check out how his consciousness frames the whole narrative here.

  • Civil War

    So, we've mentioned the Civil War a few—okay, a gazillion times already. Don't blame us: it's because that war is really freaking important in Southern history, and in Southern Gothic literature. Southern Gothic writers were doing their thing in the aftermath of the Civil War (it was a long aftermath), and its shadow is always looming over their work. Faulkner, in particular, is totally obsessed.

    The point is that the Civil War came to define Southern identity. This was a huge, huge loss for the South—at least for the people there who weren't slaves, that is.

    Shmoops:

    Take a look at how Mr. Compson, in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, comments on how everybody came out a loser in the Civil War (Quote #1).

    A character in Carson McCullers's The Heart is Lonely Hunter reflects on her great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War (Quote #5).

  • Slavery and Race

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    The South was a society built on slavery and racial oppression. Before the Civil War, the South's economy, its social values, even its geography were determined by slavery and racial oppression.

    You can't really talk about the South without talking about that history, and Southern Gothic writers are no exception. These writers are all about asking tough questions: How did slavery and race affect the values of Southern society? In what ways did its history of racial oppression corrupt the South? How did the legacy of slavery continue to haunt the South even after the Civil War?

    Shmoops:

    Sutpen, a cruel slave-owner in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! pits his black slaves against one another in this quotation (Quote #2) from the novel.

    Colonel Sartoris in William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is a pretty racist dude. In fact, he's in charge of making up edicts and laws that demean African Americans—as we can see in this excerpt from the story (Quote #2).

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