Southern Gothic Fiction in United States: The Historical Context of William Faulkners A Rose for Emily
By Jennifer Reinbold
The Gothic genre originated in England in the late 18th century as a tool to criticize the moral blindness of the medieval era. It became synonymous with barbaric, grotesque, primitive, wild. Usually set in mysterious castles or eerie religious places, stories included ghosts, omens, supernatural occurrences, chivalry, corruption amongst the hierarchy, deranged behaviours etc. The backdrop of crumbling castles represented the decaying system of beliefs that were held at the time, as well as the personal morals, even sanity, of an individual. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is an example.
The complex social and political
climate of the South around this time reinforces Southern Gothic
as a unique and specific classification in literature. In the
Antebellum years, roughly 1830 to 1860, the North and South were
deviating on key points, notably slavery. The Southern economy
was largely dependant on slave labour before the war. During the
1850s, the South exported more than $100 million worth of cotton
per year, this equalled to half of all US exports. Tobacco, wheat
and sugar cane were also valuable cash crops. By the 1860s, it
was one of the wealthiest regions in the world. The division of
ideas of the North and South eventually lead to the formation of
the Confederation in 1861.The Civil war and the Reconstruction
afterwards further added to the turmoil. Carpet-baggers from the
North looking to take advantage of this economic chaos increased
the suspicion and distrust of Northerners.
Family, religion, honour, manliness were important to all men, rich and poor alike. Southern culture had been and remains generally more socially conservative than that of the rest of the country. Religion was important to both whites and blacks, for slightly different reasons. Slaves need the solace and strength to deal with their hardships. Whites twisted it to uphold their beliefs, claiming that since Jesus never said it was wrong, slavery was okay.
The literature produced in
the South was dictated by the market. For a time, most
Northerners expected tales of ¨the faithful ex-slave, the
chivalrous planter-soldier, the sweet and refined southern Lady,
and the generous Union soldier , all seen in the magic of
moonlight with the odor of roses and magnolia in the
air.¨(Hubbell, 1954) Historical romances and idyllic tales of
heroism were very much in demand. Whatever the trend, Southern
writers had to adjust accordingly in order to get their work
published on a large scale. The big publishing houses were
located in New England, and the bigger portion of the buying
public was located Northward. The best way for writer to become
popular was to be entertaining without being offensive to the
North. This sometimes fostered enormous differences between real
life and what the paying public wanted to read. Although there
were writers who did focus on the harsh realities of the South,
they were, for the most part, not as widely published and read by
the general population. Black writers were also disregarded in
this manner. Although they did enjoy a certain amount of success,
they catered to a much smaller and specific audience.
The 1920's brought about a Southern Renaissance. Now, themes such as slavery, racial matters, history, identity, culture, etc, that had been otherwise ignored or glossed over were being openly addressed. Both Southern writers and outsiders alike criticized and defended Southern culture. William Faulkner is considered to be part of this Renaissance movement. He is also noted for using an emerging trend , a stream of consciousness technique to his work, as seen in As I Lay Dying.
In A Rose For Emily, we can see the story of the South as a parallel to the story of Emily Grierson. Her house, once beautiful and magnificent, is slowly becoming decrepit, now out of place in this modern world. She herself was once slender and young, and now she is heavier and unattractive. This alludes to the Old South fading away. Even the image of her hair serves as a image of the South's death grip on their way of life that eventually led to the Civil War. ¨Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man.¨(p.487).
There are passages that use images of light and dark to convey the notion that the South is antiquated ( dark) in comparison to the outside world ( a new light shining in ). ¨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 (...) when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray¨.(p.483-484)
Her reluctance to let go of the past, ( as we see with her father's death), and to accept change mirrors the sentiment of the South in general. With the passing of time, new generations slowly take over the town. Emily shows contempt for these folks and refuses to deal with them.
Faulkner expertly uses all of the main elements of Southern Gothic genre to tell the tale of the South as he sees it, through the guise of a short story about a mysterious old lady with a dark secret. Emily Grierson wonderfully encapsulates a prominent aspect of the Southern mystique.
Hubbell, J.B. The South in American Literature 1607-1900
Duke University Press, 1954
Ed. Pickering, J.H. (2004) Fiction 100 Prentice Hall, 2004