Southern Gothic genre
Photo: Films for the Humanities and Sciences
When you cross the sweeping drama of romance with the macabre isolation of small town life—and then throw in a touch of Southern whimsy—you've cooked up a collection of American literature absolutely unique in time, place and sentiment. Southern gothic.
Southern Spunk
Southern gothic writers leverage the details of the American South—the lonely plantations, aging Southern belles, dusty downtowns, dilapidated slave quarters, Spanish moss and Southern charm—to bring life to their slice of history. Steeped in folklore, oral history, suspense and local color, southern gothic is first popularized by 19th-Century short story masters Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce. In the 1920s and 30s, William Faulkner makes the genre popular again with his heartbreaking views of life in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, depicted with stunning detail in books like The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner's towns burst with the rage of Civil War defeat and slave revolt. His characters cry the tears of a misbegotten people struggling to make sense of a world that has moved on without them. Family and personal traditions are replaced by strife and confusion. It all makes for powerful literature. After the depression, Faulkner is joined by a host of other talented writers, among them Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers.

Characters of Southern Gothic
One of the defining features of southern gothic is the cast of off-kilter characters, many of whom are "not right in the head." The genre is riddled with many broken bodies, and even more broken souls. When southern gothic authors examine the human condition, they see the potential to do harm. Morality is in question for many characters. A major theme for southern gothic writers hinges on innocence, and the innocent's place in the world—where they are often asked to act as redeemer. Faulkner's innocent is the mentally handicapped Benji from The Sound and the Fury; Carson McCullers the deaf-mute John Singer. But this is still a genre of love and loss. In the end, purity of heart rarely overpowers desperation. If society hangs in the balance of an idiot's mind or on the words of a deaf-mute, we are all in trouble.

The Ladies Have Their Say
Southern gothic did not discriminate, nurturing some of the most talented female writers of this century. Flannery O'Connor's stories, especially "A Good Man is Hard to Find," provide an unfettered look at moral ambiguity. Eudora Welty brings to life women powered by their desires on one hand, their obligations on the other in novels like The Optimist's Daughter and Delta Wedding. Carson McCullers, one of the most popular writers to ever bless the genre, tells the real story of people on the outside of society, and ultimately the longing to find connection in this world.

Learn about the genre magical realism and how it impacted Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Southern Gothic: Distinguishing Features
The main characters of southern gothic stories are often strangers in strange places, small towns in Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana or Georgia (as in the case of Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor's work) inhabited by the most compelling band of outsiders you ever thought possible.

Though Carson's third novel, The Ballad of the Sad Café is the most quintessentially southern gothic of all her works, there are several ways that The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter fits the mold. Carson said of the book in her original outline published in her unfinished autobiography Illumination and Night Glare, "This [work] takes on the theme of man's revolt against his own inner isolation and his urge to express himself as fully as possible."

What makes this genre tick and how did McCullers use it in her most famous novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter?

In most southern gothic stories, there is a pivotal character or someone close to them who is set apart from the world by a disability or odd way of seeing the world. You won't meet very many "normal" characters in the writings of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote or Carson McCullers—and this is by design. This fascination with the outsider is in many ways used to show readers not only the individuality of the southern culture, but also to connect each reader to their own unique "freakish" nature.

This is often both literal and figurative. While many southern gothic tales include an incident where a character is sent to jail or locked up, there are also several gothic characters that live in fate's prison without hope of parole.

Southern gothic writers covered a period in the South's history when violence was particularly prevalent. After the bloodshed of the Civil War, and the period of reconstruction that followed, racial tension and fear ran high in many small southern towns. This plays its part in many of the stories of this genre.

Sense of Place
It wouldn't be southern gothic if you didn't feel like you'd been thrust in the center of a dusty, peach-scented, lonely downtown where porch-bound widows rock gently on creaky rockers, rusty pick-up trucks drive by filled with grimy farmhands, the general store is run by the town drunk, and flies and mosquitoes circle glasses of ice-filled lemonade. The sense of place is strong—awash in calm, pregnant heat, lost dreams and wayward souls.  
Almost every person we meet in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter has very strange qualities and characteristics. What are some of the most obvious and subtle ways that these characters are unique and different?

  • Singer and Antonapoulos, who greet us at the beginning of the book, are both deaf and mute—a condition that was especially isolating in earlier decades of the 20th century.
  • Antonapoulos, who is idolized by Singer, is fretful, cross and eventually institutionalized for being insane.
  • Biff Brannon uses the death of his wife as a way to explore gender roles and embrace his feminine side.
  • Mick, the main female protagonist, is an extremely precocious girl who seems wise and mature beyond her years, she also suffers from the blight of poverty.
  • Jake Blount is a wayward worker who goes on terrific drinking binges that leave him completely incapacitated, or drinks like a fish and never gets drunk. Also, Jake's physical appearance is odd, "He's the type of fellow that kids laugh at and dogs bite."
  • Doctor Mady Copeland's son Willie has his feet cut off in jail, and will spend his life crippled.

The more we learn about these characters, the more we recognize that they do not fit the usual mold. Even the most normal in the bunch, who would probably be considered Doctor Copeland or Mick Kelly, have their very particular ways of looking at the world. By taking the uniqueness and putting it on the outside of each character, McCullers gives her readers a good window into her truth about people: that everyone, no matter how normal they may seem, is a freak on the inside.

Imprisonment | Violence | Sense of Place
In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, there are people who are actually in jail and others who feel as though their hearts are jailed by circumstance. No one feels free in this small town in Georgia, and even when some of the characters try to escape, it comes to no good.

Willie Copeland goes to jail—and is tortured when he gets there. Antonapoulos, whose friend Singer was willing to take care of him despite his fits of rage, is packed off to the insane asylum by his cousin and dies there. Mick is trapped in an unfortunate web of poverty and small town mores that makes her feel as though she has no way out. Bubber, who runs away because he fears he will be sent to jail for shooting Baby, is picked up on the highway and physically held in the car on the way back into town. Doctor Copeland is trapped in a culture that doesn't respect his values or his point of view, and a town that ultimately wants to keep everyone of his race imprisoned as their birthright. What is perhaps even more difficult to accept is that as each character's journey unfolds, they come closer to a state of imprisonment rather than moving further away from it. This is one of the most obvious dark sides of southern gothic—the sense of imprisonment and isolation never really abates.

As for Singer, the main character, the imprisonment takes place in his head. Trapped by his inability to communicate, he feels as though he has been "left in an alien land. Alone. He had opened his eyes and around him there was much he could not understand. He was bewildered." (p. 204) This feeling never leaves him, and grows more and more dire as his journey comes to fruition. And though none of the other main characters suffer from his disability, their lack of connection puts them in a prison not entirely different than Singer's own.

Freakishness | Violence | Sense of Place
For all of its quiet and loneliness, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is also a surprisingly violent book—and the violence sneaks up in ways you wouldn't expect. When we are introduced to Mick's favorite brother Bubber as a snot-nosed seven-year-old being pulled along in a wagon, you'd never imagine that later in the story he will shoot and maim Baby and then try to flee his hometown. The corruption of Bubber's innocence seems to come out of the blue.

Similarly, Singer's suicide crops up out of nowhere. While we know he's unhappy and lost, it doesn't seem possible that he will take his life swiftly with a pistol. This action is in stark relief of what we know about Singer, as well. Like Bubber, he is introduced and developed as a sympathetic and innocent character—one we grow to assume good things of.

Like many other towns in southern gothic stories, the setting of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter also has violent undertones. Much of the racial tension seems poised to erupt at any moment. Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland are generally angry men, and seem as though they could be on the verge of violence at every turn. After Singer's death, Doctor Copeland thinks, "During the past month the black, terrible feelings had arisen again to wrestle with his spirit." (p. 333)

In the end what is typical of this genre is what comes to pass. It is just the characters we don't expect to be wrapped up in violence—Bubber, Singer and Willie—who are, and that is part of its tragedy. Not even the most positive characters are safe from the violence that runs through these dusty southern towns like a raging river.

Freakishness | Imprisonment | Sense of Place  
Carson McCullers spends relatively little time in her first novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, setting the scene, yet her details are so vivid and her characterization so consistent that it becomes easy to imagine this town in the sweltering heat and "black sultry nights" (p. 13) of summer. One of the most vivid places is Biff Brannon's New York Café. "Outside the street lights had already been turned off, so that the light from the café made a sharp, yellow rectangle on the sidewalk. The street was deserted, but inside the café there were half a dozen customers drinking beer or Santa Lucia wine or whiskey." At several points throughout the book, Carson takes us back to the New York Café to keep us grounded where we are: in the Depression-era south, where society hunkers down over cups of coffee or beer to forget the hard truths of their lives.

Another very strong sense of place in the novel is Doctor Mady Copeland's house, which, because he is a doctor, serves as a place of gathering and also a place of extreme isolation and solitude. "Often at night the sharp jangle of the doorbell would rouse him from his silence, and in the front room he would find a patient with a broken bone or a razor wound." (p. 71) Despite his "grand electric lights," Doctor Copeland spends hours sitting in the dark—which clearly becomes a metaphor for the situation of his race. Even when there is light, they are still in the dark.

Lastly, there is the Kelly boarding house where Singer lives, with the bustle and noise that Mick Kelly is constantly trying to escape, "Mick did not want to go back into the rooms where the family stayed. And she did not want to talk to any of the boarders. No place was left but the street—and there the sun was too burning hot. She wandered aimlessly up and down the hall...." (p. 51) Even when it's quiet, the Kelly house overflows with so much energy that only the deaf-mute can hear himself think. In all these settings, Carson paints a picture of destitution, aimlessness, loneliness and hunger that serves, in the end, to transcend time and place. It is one of her gifts as a writer, and this book one of her greatest achievements.

Freakishness | Imprisonment | Violence  


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