Gender, Race and Resistance in the Southern Gothic

Meredith Miller

Meredith Miller

“By watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.” So says Scout, white tomboy narrator of Harper Lee’s 1963 novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Scout’s one role model for femininity is Calpurnia, her family’s African-American servant. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Lee pastiches a generic formula established more than a decade earlier by Carson McCullers and Truman Capote. Crucial ingredients in this recipe include Gothic effects, gender dissident white focalising characters, black women servants and the violence of Southern racism.

The film adaptation of Lee’s novel makes the struggle between Scout and Calpurnia over femininity even more explicit.

In a scene where Calpurnia urges Scout to be more ladylike, Scout responds angrily, “I do not want to be a girl.” This chapter explores the relationship between these three things — race, gender and the Gothic — especially as they work within mid-twentieth-century Southern American literature.

What use are Gothic effects in this body of work, and how can we think through their entanglement with narrative constructions of both race and femininity? The term which is under erasure in Scout’s protest is “white” as her “ladylike”-ness is clearly racialised as white, yet her only point of feminine identification is as a black woman.

Throughout this genre, constructions of race and gender both uphold and undo each other, revealing their complex interrelation through Gothic effects. An examination of these relationships must necessarily involve sorting through a number of issues, both generic and methodological.

“Southern Gothic” is a term widely used in popular discourse to describe a particular body of literature, but which critics are far more reluctant to employ. Both Carson McCullers and Truman Capote are more often referred to by critics as writers belonging to a “Southern Renaissance” which began with Faulkner.

Though the criticism must, and does, address the use of the uncanny and the grotesque in Southern writers of this period, the use of the term Gothic is always heavily qualified. The primary critical location of the Gothic in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, specifically for English studies, in Britain, is a structuring factor in terms of the genre.

There is a recurring argument that the Gothic is a particular response to historical trauma and that American writers simply do not have the long view of history necessary for “true” Gothic literature. As Teresa Goddu puts it: “The gothic’s connection to American history is difficult to identify precisely because of the national and critical myths that America and its literature have no history.”

In Gothic America (1997), Goddu examines the critical positioning of Edgar Allan Poe as a Southern writer. She demonstrates convincingly that the South and the generic term Gothic function as objections for an America whose racial violence belies the Enlightenment ideals on which it purported to found itself.

Locating the problem of race in the South and in the work of Southern writers allows the creation of American literature free from the haunting of slavery. The South, in its abjection, becomes an uncanny place, a location of Gothic effects.

The darkness in writers like Hawthorne and Melville, Goddu points out, then becomes a universalised darkness of the soul. Goddu builds heavily on the work of Toni Morrison, who first elucidated the relationship between this “existential” darkness and the construction of race in America.

The presence of the uncanny and the grotesque in the work of writers such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers (and William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee) has, by the mid-twentieth century, become an articulation of Southern-ness, a way of speaking back to America from inside a dissident Southern identity.

As a body, their work also makes it clear that racial categorisation, specifically the otherness of black Americans, is necessary to the Gothic structure of this identity. More recent criticism has focused on the dissident gender identities of writers of the post-war Southern Renaissance. Capote and McCullers articulate a dissent not only from the dominant ideal of the American individual but also from gendered ideals of Southern whiteness: in the Southern voice, they find layers of otherness.

What, then, is the relation between their use of the African-American other, their protest against Southern whiteness and their use of dissident gender identities? How is each of these mechanisms embedded in the others?

It is important to remember that late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Gothic drew heavily on the culture of slavery and the uncanny return of the colonial other to the centre of culture.

The young woman at the centre of the classic Gothic novel provided the focus for images of imprisonment, entrapment, and the struggle for release and self-determination. As Cynthia Wolff has put it, “her business was to experience difficulty, not to get out of it”.

The metaphorical equation of women with slaves informed both feminism and imaginative fiction of the period. The undefined threat which haunted the Gothic heroine often took the form of the cultural other, whether of Catholic Europe or the colonies. Her entrapment was the sign of her femininity, both as its positive expression in passivity and as the substance of her enlightened individual struggle against the constraints of culture. Gayatri Spivak has argued, in her reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847), that the presence of the colonial threat in the form of abject femininity is crucial to the articulation of the white feminist heroine of the nineteenth-century female Gothic novel.

A move made by some more recent work on Southern Gothic shifts white central characters back into a position of otherness, as seekers of liberatory representation. Critics such as William White Tyson Pugh, Clare Whatling and Rachel Adams identify the description of white Southern Gothic characters as “freakish” with their queerness, their refusal to conform to norms of sexuality and gender.

“I surmise”, says Pugh, “[that earlier, more hostile critics] indictment of the characters are based on the characters’ location in a Gothic setting and the heterosexist labelling of both sexual-orientation difference and gender cross-over as grotesque.”

One interesting characteristic of this criticism is that it does not seem to take up the work of writers such as Jean Toomer or Richard Wright as Gothic. The argument might be usefully reformed into a question. Two questions, really. First, why do a particular group of white Southern writers at mid-century place sexually dissident characters together with Gothic elements? Second, what is the relationship between these sexually dissident white focalising characters and the stories they tell us about the racism which pervades Southern culture?

What is the relation between gender dissidence, racism and Gothic structures?

Such an analysis must raise questions of methodology. What is the most accurate or useful way to contextualise the operations of the uncanny and the grotesque and their relationship to the social and historical upheaval we associate with moments of Gothic resurgence in the history of the novel?

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in ‘The Coherence of Gothic Conventions’ (1980), argues that a psychological model of the Gothic “is one in which superficial layers of convention and prohibition, called ‘the rational,’ conceal and repress a deep central well of primal material, ‘the irrational,’ which is the locus of the individual self, which could or should pass to the outside.”

Within this model, as Sedgwick points out, the self is located in the “true depths” and the Gothic thus becomes, through psychoanalytic discourse, explicable through an identitarian model of the self-seeking emancipation.

Sedgwick is not arguing for a dismissal of this model, but rather asserting that “the major gothic conventions are coherent in terms that do not depend on that psychological model, though they can sometimes be deepened by it”.

She reads the spatial metaphors of the Gothic in terms of isolation and entrapment (being “massively blocked off”) still very much focused on the self, though she does move on to complicate this.

The psychological model, with its focus on the individual self, allows for a critique in terms of gender, and, following Fanon, of race through gender. Thus, the psychological critique can provide an extension to wider structures of social power, yet it sometimes limits or distracts from the wider structure by universalising the psychological self.

Attempted cultural materialist critiques which place Gothic texts within these wider structures of power still fall back on something like a psychological model when explaining how these power relationships are displayed through uncanny and horrific effects in Gothic fiction.

Thus, from a range of critical perspectives, monstrously racialised and gendered characters represent “others” in a psychological sense, projections of the inner self-articulated through wider discursive structures of otherness. Hence, for example, the many discussions of Gothic doubles as split halves of the self.

I would like to follow Sedgwick in a way, and to extend her most basic premise to twentieth-century American Gothic. That is to say that these conventions are coherent in a way that may include, but does not depend on, a psychological model to explain them.

I would argue that twentieth-century Southern American writers draw on the Gothic tradition because it is a facility for expressing the relationship between structures of masculine and feminine sexuality and structures of race and culture.

This is specifically a relationship between the individual self (expressed through identity) and the social/culture machine expressed as structures of race, class, gender and sexuality. Gothic effects, in their dependence on both Enlightenment notions of the essential inner self and wider discourses of identity-based power (as race and gender, for example), are the perfect structures for this expression.

The Gothic remains powerful not because we can theorise it as a relation between self and historical trauma, but because it is, in itself, the perfect method for the articulation of this relationship.

The Gothic mode articulates what Raymond Williams might call the possible consciousness of these connections and in this sense the Gothic mode is already theoretical.

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