Poe and Faulkner: How the Gothic and Southern Gothic Influenced Literature

Often criticized for its sensationalism, melodramatic qualities, and its play on the supernatural, the Gothic novel dominated English literature from its conception in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole to its ‘supposed’ demise in 1820. “The genre drew many of its intense images from the graveyard poets intermingling a landscape of vast dark forest with vegetation that bordered on excessive, concealed ruins with horrific rooms, monasteries and a forlorn character who excels at the melancholy” (Baldick, xx). Even though it has lost some of its popularity, the Gothic field sparked the influence of a subgenre with many of the same themes and unsettling elements. If the Gothic is a way to dig up the past, the Southern Gothic is a way to bring the social and cultural issues from the past to light. Much of the conflict in Southern Gothic is between what is valued and to be maintained as well as what is seen as normal and superior. Thus, race and gender plays a major role in these conflicts. In the following analysis, I will compare a variety of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a profound figure in the Gothic fiction world, to the single work by William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily (1940). My reasons behind choosing Faulkner in this analysis is because he is so directly associated with Southern Gothic fiction, and his works have affected and shaped the canon so severely. I chose his work, A Rose for Emily because the comparisons between this tale and the traditional Gothic elements are striking, and I believe the Gothic theme of unrequited love leading to the madness of a woman brings an inherent depth. Moreover, I find the way these themes function differently contrasts their individual implications of what the Gothic and Southern Gothic genres addressed in the times they reigned over the literature world.

All of Poe’s tales are in the first person narrative. “As tellers of their own tales, they also follow their Gothic models in recounting the past through a veil of illness, over-excitement, or memory, often creating in the reader a sense of uncertainty about the correct interpretation of events” (Silverman, 112). Unreliable, afflicted, and excited narrators encompass Poe’s tales of sensation, such as The Tell-Tale Heart, and Ligeia. Narrators shrouded in their own alternate realities of rage and forgetfulness often recap how the events of the past came to ruin, yet they leave the reader in a cloud of uncertainty. A major component of Southern gothic fiction are off-kilter characters, some more famous ones being John Singer in Carson McCullers’ The Heart is A Lonely Hunter and the grandmother and the misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. Both writers are Faulkner’s successors, who himself was known for his whimsical and often mentally ill protagonists. A Rose for Emily is no exception. The madness Emily endures is excavated by a mysterious first person plural who utilizes a universal “we” pronoun. With careful observation and omnipotent insight into details, the inside party knows the details of the label on the arsenic and also that Emily’s upstairs room contains a secret. The mystery of Emily’s madness is not misguided by her mental illness, as it would have been if Poe wrote the story. Instead, we are given the power of the narrator’s calculative details, and an outside view into her unhealthy relationship with her father, which lend to her undoing. Emily’s father constantly imposed himself between Emily and any suitor. “To use Freudian terminology, the father had prevented his daughter from transferring her libido to an outside object, thus intensifying her libidinal dependence upon him. Understandably, then, his death was an extremely traumatic event to her life, so traumatic that she could not consciously cope with it” (Scherting 399). “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (Faulkner, 325). Faulkner’s work is part of the larger project of Southern Gothic fiction which often deals with the plight of those who are traditionally ostracized by Southern culture. Emily’s story is told much through a voice of disapproval and judgment. “She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness” (Faulkner, 326) “We had begun to say ‘Poor Emily’” (326) “So the next day we all said ‘She will kill herself’; and we said it would be the best thing (327) “Some of the ladies began to say that [her affair with Homer] was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young children” (327). The use of the universal “we” allows Emily to be kept at a distance, and enables us to see her actions, which are chastised by her townsfolk, through a veil of forced judgment rather than empathy.

A Rose for Emily begins with the revelation of Emily’s death in the first line, and the second concerns itself with her house, which no one in the town had seen the inside of for over ten years. Emily herself is described as a “fallen monument” when she dies, and it is apparent that this description pertains to her home as well. Her house had once been the center of a prominent and bustling street in her town, but as time passed businesses and mills had taken over the homes, and her house is the only one left, “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores” (Faulkner, 322). Gothic fiction is characteristically concerned with old buildings as sites of human decay. “The Gothic castle or house is not just an old and sinister building; it is a house of degeneration, even of decomposition, its living space darkening and contracting into the dying space of the mortuary and the tomb” (Baldick, xx). Emily’s dust-covered house, enveloped in darkness, suggests that her relationship with the outside world, with reality, is hindered. And Emily herself is a relic, almost heroic in her stubborn, lonely denial of time and change, yet her archaic strengths doom her to decay as well. The obsession with the past being recreated, revived, or rediscovered also involves negative reaction to the Gothic past in itself, as we read in Poe’s Ligeia. Lady Rowena is imprisoned in a room with a great Gothic stained glass window where “The ceiling of a gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device” (Poe, 167). Here, Gothic and Druidic has become shorthand for a bizarre and disturbing reality, not the fantastical world we believed it was. Soon Emily disappears into her house for good, no longer wishing to concern herself with the progressing society around her. “Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away…. The front door closed upon the last one and remained closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them” (328). Emily and her home also channel the feeling of solitude and remoteness that the Gothic has conveyed with quiet, remote castles. Emily’s house is remote, the neighborhood around it obliterated over the years. Emily herself, with no friends, husband, and with only a few distant cousins, is in solitude herself. That she is the subject of town gossip only ostracizes her further. The remoteness we witness, therefore, involves not only the traditional remote dwelling but also the loneliness of our protagonist. Faulkner concerned himself with the cultural isolation Emily endures as a result of her spinsterhood, moving away from settings and imposing this infliction onto a character as a rather grim implication of the times in which she lived.

If her home is anything for Emily, it is her imprisonment. Stubborn in her ways, she barely leaves her home for almost a decade before she dies. Imprisonment is not new to the Gothic. The Pit and the Pendulum concerns itself with a man in prison wanting to escape. The Tell-Tale Heart involved imprisonment of the mind. In Ligeia, Lady Rowena is locked in a room. Madeline in The Fall of the House of Usher is buried in a catacomb alive, and Emily is imprisoned in the house by her father’s austerity. He fights off her potential suitors with a horse whip, and by the time he dies Emily is now too old to marry. “For the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration. Typically a Gothic tale will invoke the tyranny of the past (a family curse, the survival of archaic forms of despotism and of superstition) with such weight as to stifle the hopes of the present (the liberty of the heroine or hero) within the dead-end of physical incarceration (the dungeon, the locked room, or simply the confinements of a family house closing in upon itself).” (Baldick, xix). In this case, Emily’s father represents the tyranny of the past, Emily the hope for the present, and her physical incarceration as the dead end. Emily’s dead end is her inability to be independent because her father died when she was well past marrying age without allowing her to marry. In fact, the only legacy he left her was the house that shut her in. One can even see the physical confinement of Emily in a home as a notion to be considered; she is trapped in a domestic space. “The imprisoning house of Gothic fiction has from the very beginning been that of patriarchy, in both its earlier and its expanded feminist senses. While the existential fears of the Gothic may concern our inability to escape our decaying bodies, its historical fears derive from our inability finally to convince ourselves that we have really escaped from the tyrannies of the past” (Baldick, xxii). The home entombs two others as well more literally. Emily keeps the bodies of her father and her lover, Homer Barron, after they die. Emily’s preserving of her father’s body, and then Homer’s, speaks for her inability to live without a male presence. In both cases she attempts to impose her own notions of reality and time in the face of death. The story ends with the revelation of Homer’s body, which has been decomposing in the upstairs bedroom for forty years. “A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon that valance curtains of a faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished silver…” (Faulkner, 330). The last line reveals Emily’s “long strand of iron-gray hair” on the pillow next to Barron. Emily has been sleeping next to him up until her death. Faulkner addresses the patriarchal implications of the situation in a more developed way; it may be that the time in which he penned this story, we were becoming more concerned for how unfairly women were viewed by society. Faulkner’s views may not have been progressive, but the narrative seemed to empathize, even parody, the mental and physical confinement of women of the time. In addressing the theme of death in his narratives, Poe drew out with it the element of mourning that brought a depth and sensitivity to his works. A Rose for Emily seems to carry on this theme as well. Unable to deal with her dear father’s passing, Emily “told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” and finally “she broke down, and they buried her father quickly (Faulkner, 325). Figures that appear in Poe’s tales are reanimations, reincarnations, and reiterations of figures in characters’ earlier lives that had passed away. It is clear Poe had a preoccupation with the essential oneness of two individuals or of perceived opposites, namely in The Fall of the House of Usher, wherein a male twin buries his sister prematurely, only for her to come back from the tomb to fall on her brother, dying together. “In part this interest of Poe’s explains the reanimation or reappearance of lost loved ones in distinct but similar corporeal form. It also gives insight into Poe’s…perpetual, tenacious desire to reunite with the one whose passing is mourned” (Hutchisson, 52-53). In Poe’s short stories, Ligeia, Morella, and Berenice, the theme of reincarnation is addressed. In Ligeia, the narrator mourns the death of two of his wives, the second of which he attempts desperately to resuscitate. She dies, but then is reincarnated into his first wife. In Morella, the narrator’s dead wife reincarnates into their child, who then dies after her identity is revealed. “Poe’s main fictional preoccupation is an insistent questioning of the finality of death. Is it the end? Does one lose one’s identity in death? Death is either treated as an illusion or a mistake” (Hutchisson, 52). Emily keeps Homer in her bed, he has a “fleshless grin,” his body “lain in the attitude of an embrace,” (Faulkner, 330) gives the illusion that he is still living. We know that she has killed him with poison because she was too old to marry him, and so she preserves him under her care. She tried to do the same with her father’s body many years prior and was not successful, so it may be that Emily’s act of murder/marriage was due to an unresolved complex with her father’s death. The need for her father was transferred, after his death, to a male surrogate—Homer Barron. Those who attended Emily’s funeral saw the crayon portrait of her father on tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace, “musing profoundly” (Faulkner, 329) over her coffin. It is apparent her father’s presence is still just as profound. Emily’s act of mourning, of a sort of revival of a death and an inability to accept change, is the organic unity of the Gothic. Obsessions with the past, with the questions that surround death, and the inability to mend and push forward, are concerns Poe and Faulkner shared.

The use of relics and ruins are thought to be preserved as an act of remembrance, and Poe originated many specific features of his tales from this Gothic tradition. The use of ruins, like in The Fall of the House of Usher, draw upon the Gothic’s intriguing, odd taste for the dramatic, ruined towers and abbeys, the “…odd excrescences in the landscape that told of a fictional past, an imagined history and the sense of a quite fake continuity with the land they were built upon. A ruin is a momento mori, a reminder of the vanity of human ambitions, the fragility of human powers, and the transience and mutability of things. Like tombstones, they allow us to both sympathize with the poor, superseded past to which they bear witness, and to imagine our own demise…” (Bloom, 26). At the story’s end, the house of Usher cracks in two and sinks into the tarn, a symbol of the stark reality of the fake continuity of the present. Poe employs the Gothic formula to construct a kind of jeremiad about the “vanity of human ambitions and the frailty of human powers.” Emily acts much in the same way; she stashes the bodies of loved ones to keep on the fake continuity of the present. “As a rose is proof that love once flourished, as looking at and holding that preserved rose are ways to revive precious memories, so is Homer Barron to become such a token for Miss Emily. Reality and symbol are gothically confused. She keeps him tucked away in a seldom used, rose colored room which at times can be opened to allow the memories of her love to wipe away her loneliness” (Elizabeth, 40). We take flowers to graves of loved ones as an act of remembrance, and the title of Faulkner’s story is a sort of remembrance of Emily as well, of the past she tried so desperately to cling to, but which now holds no material presence in the world. Emily dies with no heir and with no one to leave her home to, thus it is implied that her legacy stops here. Even her servant who had stayed with her throughout her life “walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again” (Faulkner, 329). Homer will finally be laid to rest. The decrepit home will be torn down into a new building or mill like the homes around hers were. It’s not the dramatic sinking of the house that we witness in Usher, but the idea is much the same: the dwellings which bear the family’s legacy are destroyed when the final member dies. Faulkner seems to carry the torch for what Poe had declared a century prior. History is an illusion, a story we fabricated to bring logic to what we do not understand, and therefore it enables in continuity. Moreover, there is an uneasiness with remembrance because it causes so much concern; it contrives visions of our own inconsistency, that we will die one day as well and fear we will one day be forgotten.

Poe is arguably one of the most prominent and influential figures of the Gothic genre. It is nearly impossible to discuss the gothic genre without at least a brief dedication to his works. The surface of Gothic fiction—gloomy interiors and decaying exteriors, reincarnated lovers, premature burials and bodily decay—are found throughout much of Poe’s work. However, owing to these characteristic inclusions, it is arguable that the most fundamental fixation with practitioners of Gothic fiction is that of the past, a theme which played closely to Poe’s heart. Gothicism created a mood for Poe’s works, which primarily included his philosophical speculations on death and reality. William Faulkner utilized the Gothic mood much in the same way, but unlike Poe, his fundamental fixation was a universal primary concern in the Southern Gothic genre: the historical and cultural past that creates much of the action and tension in its works. If the Gothic gave Poe the mood and the power to voice his own concerns, it aided Faulkner in much the same way. Moving beyond Poe, however, Faulkner gave us a way to address our society on a cultural level. Our attitude towards Emily allows us to reassess our assumptions about gender roles and hold up a mirror to our own personal experiences. On a cerebral level, this gives us a better way to decode the society in which we live and form new opinions. On a more active level, this also allows us to realize our unfair and damaging history, and gives us the tools and the education to break through.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

‘Bloom, Clive. Gothic histories: the taste for terror, 1764 to the present. London; New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Elizabeth, Carney Kurtz. Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’ The Explicator 44, no. 2 (Winter 1986): page 40.

Print. Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pages 322-330. Print.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Ligeia. The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. Pages 159-173. Print.

Scherting, Jack. Emily Grierson’s Oepipus Complex: Motif, Motive, and Meaning in Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.’ Studies in Short Fiction 17, number 4 (Fall 1980): pages 398-400. Print.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.

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