Some of the most important issues to be addressed in today’s classrooms include racism and gender equity—but they’re also some of the most intimidating topics for teachers to tackle.
Luckily, Southern gothic literature deals with these ideas head on. This subgenre highlights the disparity between idealized notions of the antebellum South and the realities of slavery, racism, and patriarchy that existed throughout the era. In more contemporary terms, the genre addresses the contrast between the American Dream and the realities experienced by many people of color, women, and low-income Americans.
Southern gothic literature addresses these topics through relatively simple literary devices—characterization and setting. Characters give voice to the horrific, transgressive, irrational, or otherwise taboo impulses that exist within the American zeitgeist. These characteristics are often expressed plainly through dialogue or internal monologue, or externalized through physical abnormalities.
Similarly, setting also underscores American social dynamics. Southern gothic literature is most often set in the American South, featuring decaying plantations, towns that never recovered from the Civil War, and/or character’s who maintain their superiority while living in dilapidated circumstances.
For many students, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is their first introduction to the genre. Characters such as Boo Radley and Tom Robinson exemplify the way Southern Gothic literature externalizes a character’s internal and social conflicts. Similarly, Bob Ewell’s racist superiority, juxtaposed with his own downtrodden lifestyle, is a classic example of how the genre uses setting to develop social themes.
By studying how characterization and setting are deployed within Southern Gothic literature, teachers can guide and coach their students through a discussion as to how the traumas of US history impact the people living therein.
Let’s take a look at some other examples of Southern Gothic literature that you can use in your classroom today:
Twentieth Century Greats
Winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize, Faulkner is the writer most commonly associated with Southern Gothic literature. The majority of Faulkner’s ouvre is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the site of a Civil War loss and the home of a community reckoning with its traumatic past.
- The Sound and the Fury, 326 pages
- Absalom! Absalom!, 320 pages
- As I Lay Dying, 288 pages
- “A Rose for Emily”, 36 pages
Hurston was born in Alabama, raised in Florida, and moved to New York to be celebrated as a writer and anthropologist within the Harlem Renaissance. Her body of work, consisting of fiction, non-fiction, and theater, is known particularly for its wit and pathos.
O’Connor is the writer most commonly associated with the grotesque aspects of Southern Gothic writing. In her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor argues that Southern Gothic writing is freed from notions of civility and politeness that can limit literature’s ability to convey reality.
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, 190 pages
- “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, 25 pages
- Wise Blood, 256 pages
Born on a plantation in 1908, Wright is known for exchanging the supernatural aspects of Southern Gothic literature for the unflinching realities of life for African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
- Black Boy, 419 pages
- Native Son, 504 pages
- “Fire and Cloud”,
- “Long Black Song”
- “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”
Contemporary Writers to Watch
The first African American woman to ever accept a Nobel Prize, many consider Morrison to be the zenith of contemporary Southern Gothic writing. Known for being distinctive and musical, Morrison shies away from any use of language that attempts to obscure the reality of life in America.
- The Bluest Eye, 216 pages
- Beloved, 324 pages
- Song of Solomon, 337
- The Source of Self Regard, 354 pages
Born in Mississippi in 1977, Ward has already earned two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant, among many other prestigious accolades. Though her work is often categorized as Young Adult, it explores the bonds that exist within disenfranchised African American communities in the contemporary American South.