What is the Southern Gothic Movement in Literature?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

The Southern Gothic movement in literature brings the atmosphere and sensibilities of the Gothic, a genre originating in late 18th century England, to the American South. As early Gothic writers used the genre in part to criticize what they saw as the moral blindness of the medieval era, so Southern Gothic writers deal with their own past through Gothic tropes. This genre is unusual as a genre in that it is significantly limited to a certain geographical space. Many of the most notable American authors of the 20th century wrote in this tradition, and the genre can be seen in music and film as well.

William Faulkner was one of many writers to use Gothic tradition in Southern literature.
William Faulkner was one of many writers to use Gothic tradition in Southern literature.

Southern Gothic literature builds on the traditions of the larger Gothic genre, typically including supernatural elements, mental disease, and the grotesque. Much literature in this genre, however, eschews the supernatural and deals instead with disturbed personalities. It is known for its damaged and delusional characters, such as the heroines of Tennessee Williams' plays. Instead of perpetuating romanticized stereotypes of the Antebellum South, Southern Gothic literature often brings the stock characters of melodrama and Gothic novels to a Southern context in order to make a point about Southern mores.

Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960.
Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960.

Southern Gothic literature often deals with the plight of those who are ostracized or oppressed by traditional Southern culture - blacks, women, and gays, for example. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) deals with a clearly innocent black man who is convicted of rape and murdered simply because of his race. Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) reinvents the Southern belle as a pretentious, mentally unstable woman, and his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) portrays the favorite son of a Southern dynasty as a repressed homosexual whose alcoholism threatens his marriage. William Faulkner's frequently anthologized "A Rose for Emily" (1930) brings the recurrent Gothic theme of unrequited love leading to madness to a Southern town in which the disapproving residents narrate in a single voice. Other notable writers in the tradition include Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote.

The Southern Gothic movement brought the atmosphere and sensibilities of late 18th century England to the American South.
The Southern Gothic movement brought the atmosphere and sensibilities of late 18th century England to the American South.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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This article is very informative. Thank you! I will refer this site on my paper that I'm doing.


I'm doing a class project on this and its coming along fine. The Southern Gothic genre seems like it's going to be an interesting subject to learn about and read.


Does the novel Jane Eyre fall into this sphere of literature? I know it's a bit early compared to the rest of the movement, but could you classify it as something that perhaps might have inspired it?


Actually, I have to amend that, and strongly. "First" was way off the mark.

"Gone with the Wind" was the most phenomenally popular Southern novel of its generation, the generation that gave rise to Southern Gothic. It wasn't the first such novel to contain Gothicesque social commentary by a long shot. That would probably have been 1884's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Mea culpa.


@anon66788: That's a more accurate description of the movie than the book. It's not about one woman's love life. It's about one woman's life.

In fact, it expounds at length about the oppressive societal expectations of women, and the legendary character Rhett Butler explains to Scarlett, point blank, that she's been forced into a widowhood that he considers a worse fate than the Hindu tradition of suttee (a widow's suicide on her husband's funeral pyre).

Remember, Southern Gothic doesn't deal only with oppression of black people. Mitchell, in fact, shined a harsh light on many Southern traditions and used her great romantic hero to underscore them every chance she got, even as her heroine chaffed.

That said, it makes little (though some) other social commentary, and depicts many slaves as content and many slave owners as heroic. Mitchell allowed her readers to draw their own conclusions on most moral issues, which is about as counter to Southern Gothic as it gets, even if it does contain some of the primary prerequisites for the sub-genre.

Bear in mind that it was published the year (1936) after the phrase "Southern Gothic" was coined by Ellen Glasgow and before it truly caught on as an entity unto itself. Had it been written later, Mitchel might have been stronger in her criticisms of Southern culture.

At the very least, it was the first wildly popular novel that contained strong elements of Southern Gothic, even if the term does not strictly apply.


Mores refer to a society's norms, values and virtues. Therefore, southern mores are the norms, value and virtues of southern society.


What are Southern mores?


To Motherteresa - Nope because the novel avoids looking at the harsh realities of slavery and only focuses on one woman's love life. If it had been in true Southern Gothic fashion, it would have pointed out the slavery issue in some form.


Would Margaret Mitchel's Gone With the Wind fall in the same category?

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