Flannery & the Southern Gothic

As an English graduate student at Georgia College, Flannery O’Connor immediately comes to mind when I think of Southern Gothic fiction. Flannery’s works are perhaps representative of the literary genre. I was first introduced to Flannery in an undergrad American Literature course where I read two of her most well-known short stories— “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “Good Country People.” The climactic ending of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” was brutal and thrilling. And who could forget Hulga and her stolen leg in “Good Country People”? I was intrigued by these stories, their settings, and the moral twists and turns they took me on.

In the same class, I also read other Southern Gothic stories like Eudora Welty’s “The Petrified Man,” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Each story possessed a morbid or violent ending that stuck in my mind. Sordid endings which employ mystery and terror are a defining feature of Southern Gothic fiction, which is characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents. Since I have begun my assistantship at Andalusia in August, I have often been asked what is Southern Gothic? Many guests who tour Andalusia are aware that Flannery was a Southern Gothic author but are not exactly sure what that means. The short answer is that Southern Gothic is a genre of literature that began in the early 19th century which takes Gothic themes of alienation and repression and sets them in the American South. The historical realities and tensions of the post-Civil War South made for the perfect landscape to explore dark and brooding Gothic themes.

Flannery belongs to a tradition of Southern Gothic literature that developed post-World War II and bridged the gap between older Southern Gothic authors, like William Faulkner, and more contemporary Southern Gothic authors, like Carson McCullers. The Southern Gothic genre has its roots in the American Gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe, whose works formulated what would become the distinguishing features of Southern Gothic literature.[1] These distinguishing features are freakishness, literal or figurative violence, and a distinct sense of place. Characters who are “freaks” or odd in some fashion populate the genre, like the disabled Hulga with her prosthetic leg. Other Gothic motifs include dark humor, social decay, a sense of alienation, and characters who display transgressive thoughts and desires.

The region is nearly the character itself in Southern Gothic literature. The Southern atmosphere and setting of Flannery’s stories are an indelible part of her writing. As Flannery expressed about Southern writers, “the things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality.”[2]

At its core, the Southern Gothic deals with the gray area between what is public and what is private. Like in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” where Flannery peels back the social veneer of Southern politeness and decency to expose the moral hypocrisy of the grandmother. In the grandmother’s final moments, she is forced to face the truth of how her actions have ironically led to her demise. Flannery wrote that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”[3] The grotesque grabs the reader’s attention and compels them to grapple with that truth.

[1] Thomas Ærvold Bjerre, “Southern Gothic Literature.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, June 28, 2017. https://oxfordre.com/literature/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-304.

[2] Brad Gooch, Flannery A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 14-15.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), 100. 

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