Southern Gothic Literature
Week 3 Lecture: Plot, William Faulkner and Southern Gothic Literature
Plot: William Faulkner and Southern Gothic Literature
William Faulkner (1897-1962), like many of the authors we will read this quarter, is a well-respected writer. His stories are complex, deeply embedded in the South and its traditions. Reading Faulkner is a challenge to the reader: we must pay close attention to all the information presented in the story and wait until the conclusion before attempting to make sense of it all. Literary critic Portia Weiskel explains that Faulkner uses “multiple narrators, stories within stories, and events reflected upon at several different moments” to show that “truth cannot be seen from a single viewpoint” (Weiskel).
We associate Faulkner’s work with both literature of the South (the Southern United States) as well as Gothic literature. For this reason, Faulkner’s style is understood as “Southern Gothic.”
Faulkner is an American author from the state of Mississippi. His family lost much of its financial and social status after the Civil War (Myers 51). This biographical detail is echoed in his short story, “A Rose for Emily” that makes up our reading for this week. Miss Emily, like Faulkner’s family, is from the Old South. She fits into a familial and societal tradition that many of us, especially those of us unfamiliar with the Southern United States, might have trouble recognizing and appreciating. This is the South of segregation, of social status based on family name, tradition deeply steeped in cultural heritage—a South that is conflicted, feeling both pride and shame for its heritage.
Faulkner’s story is about the intersection of such tradition and modernity. The author writes that the townsfolk attend Miss Emily’s funeral more out of “respectful attention for a fallen monument” and “curiosity” rather than because of any admiration for or acknowledgement of the social status that her family once maintained (Myers 52). Faulkner explained that for him, good literature was about the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself” (Myers 51). This story is filled with that conflict—in the townsfolk, in Miss Emily, in the town, in their history.
To understand what Southern Gothic literature is about, we need only to analyze the vocabulary used to create the term: “Southern” and “Gothic.” Southern literature is place-specific; it deals with culture, communities, issues, history, and the literal and symbolic space of the South. Southern literature often incorporates writing that reflects the language and customs of Southerners. Much of Faulkner’s writing takes place within the invented space of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi.
Setting is therefore tremendously influential in William Faulkner’s writing. In “A Rose for Miss Emily,” we see how the place in which a story is written (the setting) can influence the events of the story itself (the plot). In “A Rose for Miss Emily,” the tendency of a specific society to keep secrets and maintain appearances allows Faulkner to construct a story filled with subtle foreshadowing and a shocking dénouement.
Gothic literature is a style of writing developed in the 18th century in Europe. Gothic stories are often about a literal and figurative darkness. Similar to Literature of the South, setting is central to the ideas and themes of the story. Setting becomes a way for the author to reinforce, highlight, and echo the messages of the story. Two familiar and key texts of Gothic literature are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1810), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). What do you know about these stories? Who are the key characters? Where do the stories take place? What is the general plot?
In both Shelly’s and Stoker’s stories, the main characters battle against a kind of monster. Both Dracula and Frankenstein embody a literal and emotional darkness: they attack at night, both are “undead,” and neither have much emotional attachment to the human race. The plot of most gothic literature details how the protagonist fights against a monstrous antagonist. Death, darkness, the undead, ghosts, haunting secrets, and physical and/or mental ruins are just some of the elements of gothic fiction.
When reading Faulkner’s story, note which gothic elements are included, and how these elements create and drive the events of the story. Where does the story take place? What darkness (actual or imaginative) exists in this story? Does anything haunt the characters?
Myer, Michael. Literature to Go. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2014. Print.
Gordon, Debra. “Faulkner, William.” In Bloom, Harold, ed. William Faulkner, Bloom’s BioCritiques. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2002. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. “Southern gothic.” Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web
Weiskel, Portia Williams. “On the Writings of William Faulkner.” In Bloom, Harold, ed. William Faulkner, Bloom’s BioCritiques. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2002. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web.