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Southern Gothic Literature: Definition, Characteristics & Authors

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  • 0:00 What Is Southern Gothic Lit?
  • 1:27 Characteristics of the Genre
  • 3:16 Southern Gothic Authors
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will begin with the definition of Southern Gothic literature. We will then discuss the history of the genre, its characteristics and some of the key authors.

What is Southern Gothic Literature?

Southern Gothic literature is a genre of Southern writing. The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.

Southern Gothic literature was inspired by early Gothic writing, a genre that was popular in 18th-century England. In Gothic literature, the authors wanted to expose the problems they saw in society. The authors wrote fiction, but included supernatural and romantic elements. They were often stories of hauntings, death, darkness and madness. Some of the more well-known examples of this genre are Frankenstein and Dracula.

While Gothic writing initially began in England, American Gothic literature began in the 19th century, with short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Nathaniel Hawthorne also writes with a sense of mystery, and his characters are very flawed. There are some supernatural elements to his writings and many questions about the society that they represent. Poe's short stories usually focus on death, but he tells the tale of death with a dark humor and a desire to expose the complexity of his characters and society.

Writers, such as William Faulkner, began writing a more specifically Southern form of American Gothic in the 1920s. However, the Southern Gothic genre reached its height in popularity in the 1940s-1960s.

Characteristics of the Genre

Although inspired by Gothic literature, Southern Gothic does not dwell on suspense and the supernatural. Rather, there is a dark humor in the stories. It follows the idea of exposing the problems of society, but does so by developing complex characters. The authors explored the behaviors of people (usually strange) and the social order of the South. Through their stories, the authors hoped to show that the social order was fragile, and the realities behind it were actually disturbing. The authors work to point out truths of Southern culture and its moral shortcomings. The themes of this genre are developed around these goals.

The stories of Southern Gothic are, of course, set in the South. They may take place on a plantation, old slave quarters or broken-down towns. There are many Southern elements in the stories, including dialect, habits and personalities. The history of the South is represented through the settings of the stories.

The characters are usually complex, and many of them are mentally unstable. Many of the characters are broken in spirit and struggling to find a place in society once again. The morality of characters is often questioned. Through their characters, the authors examine the harm that people can do to each other. There are also many characters that are seen as innocent, such as the mentally handicapped, and there is a struggle for their place in the world. Whether mentally unstable, dark or innocent, the characters try to make sense of the world around them and the society in which they live.

The plots of Southern Gothic stories can be disturbing and some do include supernatural elements. They often contain ironic events as a writing style. Many of the events contained in the stories are linked to racism, violence and poverty.

Southern Gothic Authors

In the 1920s, William Faulkner began writing Southern Gothic literature. His novels are set in Mississippi and often take place in older Southern towns and plantations. They contain many Southern archetypes, or examples or patterns, including roles in Southern society. The characters often are suffering and show this through Faulkner's stream of consciousness, where an author writes the characters thoughts as they would flow through one's mind. In addition, the stories are often grotesque and involve death and loneliness. For example, in his short story 'A Rose for Emily,' it is discovered that the lonely old woman who recently died had the corpse of an old lover in her bedroom.

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