The Gothic genre of literature is a fascinating one, ostensibly drawing upon the fears of its era (mostly Victorian England) to tell tales of the grotesque and the supernatural. These tales in particular often focus on unconventional protagonists, the role of gender in relationships, and the violence that comes from crime, isolation, and alienation. There are many subgenres of Gothic fiction, one of the most prominent being Southern Gothic – Gothic tales that take place entirely in the American South. While both genres enjoy similar styles and concerns, their overall themes and applications deal with anxieties specific to their period; while Gothic literature deals with the onset of technology and the social changes that were taking place in Victorian England, Southern Gothic stories often focus on the role of the community, and the frontier nature of the still-young nation of America. The similarities and differences of Gothic and Southern Gothic fiction will be explored through an exploration of the Gothic story “ Ligeia” by Edgar Allen Poe and the Southern Gothic tale “ A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.
Gothic literature is a particular kind of romantic fiction that started in the 1700s; by the 19th century and the Victorian era, it experienced a revival of sorts with the works of Edgar Allen Poe and others (like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). One central tenet of the Gothic literary work is its exploration of insanity; the characters often go through significant psychological trials, or deal with the past haunting them. In the case of Edgar Allen Poe’s “ Ligeia,” the main character is effectively haunted by his dead wife, who remains a presence in his life long after she passes. The main character of “ Ligeia” is an unnamed narrator who has a spotty memory of just how important Ligeia was to his life: “ I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligei” (Poe, 1838). Despite this loss of these specific memories, Ligeia nonetheless remains an indelible presence in the narrator’s life: “ the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive that they have been unnoticed and unknown” (Poe, 1838). The almost magical or spell-like effect that his wife has on him is almost supernatural in nature, as his obsession and infatuation with her colors the rest of his life, and his interactions with his other spouse Rowena. Rowena is treated increasingly as a strange reminder of Ligeia’s beauty, and her inadequacy as a wife allows the narrator to constantly project the idealized vision of Ligeia over her, which is perhaps what leads Rowena to her death and possession. It is in this respect that the narrator is deeply psychologically affected by matters relating to violence, death and the supernatural – all elements of Gothic literature.
Gothic literature is uniquely focused on love stories and the suspense of the supernatural; characters are often put in stressful situations involving the complexities of infatuation and love that bring about tension in the reader and encourage surprise. In “ Ligeia,” this occurs with the uncanny presence of Ligeia in various points of the narrator’s psyche – being described as having raven hair, marble hands, and ivory skin, she hardly seems human: “ Ligeia might almost as easily be an angel of undying love as a personified muse” (Carter 10). To that end, she represents a unique sense of darkness with her black hair, something that permeates the narrator’s life no matter what he does. Even as his second wife, Rowena, falls sick, she speaks of “ sounds, and of motions, in and about the chamber of the turret” (Por). This sense of creepy detail becomes the thing the story becomes preoccupied with. The narrator wishes to downplay these haunting worries, but they soon become true when Rowena dies, then begins to mysteriously come back to life. The atmosphere is a significant component of Gothic literature, with the narrator’s home being excessively Gothic in its architecture and decoration; the place is full of darkness, with gold tapestries and the like which frighten Rowena and inspire her imagination to dream up all manner of horrors. It is implied that Ligeia’s spirit has inhabited Rowena’s body, her blonde hair turning black: “ these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady –of the Lady Ligeia” (Poe, 1838). By the end of the story, it becomes an overt ghost story, a hallmark of Victorian Gothic literature, and perhaps one of its most recognizable facets.
One chief concern of Gothic literature is the mysterious nature of woman altogether; both Ligeia and Emily, in many respects, share this same feminine mystique that vexes the observers. Gothic women like Ligeia “ vibrate between being on the one hand overwhelmingly attractive and on the other horrifying and destructive; they resist the male narrators’ efforts to objectify or “ contain” them, and when the narrators insist upon doing so (figuratively killing them off), the result is horror and tragedy” (Carter 6). Thus, it is possible to read Ligeia’s resurrection as a resistance of the narrator’s male dominance over his wife – the fact that not even death can contain her is a defiance of his obsession with her, and a way to defy the perfect picture he has painted in his mind. This also serves as a final revenge on him for objectifying and worshipping her as an object; this action transforms her into something not so easily put in a box, which is the true horror that he experiences. Gothic literature like this often has the rights and perceptions of women as a primary subject.
Southern Gothic is extremely similar in tone to Victorian Gothic literature – the strangeness of isolation and memory often permeates these kinds of tales. Southern Gothic tales “ are stories not only of horror, but everywhere of time and place” (Stone 433). Because of the advent of industrialization during the Southern Gothic era, social structures were changing, leading to situations where it became easier to isolate oneself from others. As a result, Southern Gothic stories were very much concerned with people from the outside looking in at the people who were affected socially by this isolation. In the case of William Faulkner’s “ A Rose for Emily,” the subject is Emily Grierson, a lonely woman who lives on the outskirts of a small town and who is the subject of much discussion by the townspeople of Jackson. She is always an incredibly lonely figure, which leads the townspeople to look down on her, and which in turn makes her a bit of an eccentric. Much like Poe’s narrator in “ Ligeia,” Emily Grierson is obsessed with someone – a new man in town named Homer who actually pays attention to her. However, the narrator of Faulkner’s story is the townspeople, acting almost as a unit to collectively share and express gossip about her to the reader. This is one element that perhaps differentiates Victorian and Southern Gothic styles; while Victorian Gothic focuses on the inner torment of the individual being expressed to the audience, Southern Gothic sometimes allows for a greater sense of distance between the narrator and its subject. There is a much more communal concern in “ A Rose for Emily,” as it is about the perception of an entire town towards this isolated figure, rather than the isolated figure being haunted by another individual spirit.
Like the narrator in “ Ligeia,” Emily finds or becomes something monstrous once she is set apart too much from others; having taken a liking to Homer, the townspeople learn that Emily has effectively kept him hostage in her home, killing him to make him stay in the house. The narrators and reader learn this only too late, as Emily’s funeral leads several people to go to Emily’s house, where they find Homer dead – a strange picture of obsessive love and a desperate need for companionship. Because she was merely tolerated in the town, she took Homer’s life in order to ‘ play house’ with him, making Emily just as much of a tragic figure as a monstrous one: “ The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him” (Faulkner, 1970) While her actions are abhorrent, the motivations behind them are understandable, at least from a reader’s perspective; the townspeople drove her away from any semblance of human kindness, so she held on too tightly to the first person who gave her any.
Emily and Ligeia have a lot in common as Gothic subjects; they are both topics of incredible mystique and eccentricity. The narrator of Poe’s story does not fully understand Ligeia, other than her basic qualities that makes her so attractive to him, hence why he cannot remember much of her past or their history together. Meanwhile, “ A Rose for Emily” begins with Emily’s funeral, which is attended by “ the whole town” (Faulkner, 1970). What immediately sets her apart is that the funeral is not attended by loved ones or family, but by curious onlookers who are intrigued by what little look they are able to get of Emily herself. There is a definite distance between observer and observed; much of Poe’s narrator’s observation comes after Ligeia’s death, and the townspeople simply speculate on Emily’s character based on brief interactions and what little they spy on her actual interactions with the townspeople. This section of the story goes by quickly, as people record and comment on her occasional forays into town, acting extremely secretive and shifty, lying to the druggist about the reasons for needing arsenic, etc. Because the townspeople have to fill in so many of the blanks on their own, the reader is left in the same position as those who observe Emily. The result of this in both instances is the Gothic sense of mystery that pervades its subject, which opens the tale up for all manner of macabre dealings.
Isolation is yet another recurring theme of both works; while Gothic literature like “ Ligeia” views it from the inside, “ A Rose for Emily” views it from the outside. In Poe’s story, when Ligeia dies, the grief-stricken narrator purchases an English abbey and renovates it in order to live in isolation with his new wife, ” the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine” (Poe, 1838). As a result of this isolation, the reader gets a glimpse of the narrator’s own selfish world, which revolves around him and him alone – all he has in the world is his large, empty abbey, his loveless marriage with Rowena, and the memories of Ligeia to haunt him. In the case of “ A Rose for Emily,” Emily herself is the person who lives in isolation, choosing not to interact with people. When she is asked as a young woman to pay taxes to the town, she stubbornly explains that “ I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me” (Faulkner, 1970). She does not wish to engage in the taxation of society, and therefore she removes herself from society altogether. In this Southern Gothic story, the reader only glimpses at Emily’s life through the curious and judgmental people of the town. In this way, Faulkner uses the Gothic format to cast a light on the communities that were forming in the American South – small communities which relied on gossip and pushed for conformity, lest they be pushed out of the town. Emily’s eventual fate is painted somewhat as the town’s fault; if they had not been so negative and distancing toward her, perhaps she would not have gone to such lengths to do what she did. Southern Gothic tales like these showcased the warped nature of the rural town, making them the real terrors rather than ghosts or haunting spirits of any kind.
In conclusion, looking at Gothic and Southern Gothic literature such as “ Ligeia” and “ A Rose for Emily,” respectively, many similarities and differences between the two genres can be found. Gothic, in all its forms, deals primarily with overt themes of isolation, desperation, love and the past, as its characters are haunted by the ideals or past perfections they wish to hold onto. The narrator of Poe’s story is uniquely infatuated with the mysterious first wife that captured his heart, while the townspeople of Faulkner’s story focus on the curious recluse, who in turn is obsessed with the idea of having a man to love (who does not judge her the way the others do). Southern Gothic is much more concerned with using the Gothic trappings of suspense and horror to evaluate the developing character of American Southern culture, while Gothic literature focuses quite a bit on the stiffness and alienation prevalent in Victorian British life. Gothic stories are much more focused directly on the supernatural and suspense elements, whereas Southern Gothic is concerned more with social issues. Understanding the differences in what these two genres emphasize is key to gleaning the fascinations of both Victorian and Southern American culture during the times in which these works were written and published.
Carter, C. (2003). Not a Woman”: The Murdered Muse in “ Ligeia. Poe Studies/Dark
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Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1970. Print.
Poe, Edward Allen. Ligeia. The American Museum, 1838. Print.
Stone, Edward. ” Usher, Poquelin, and Miss Emily: The Progress of Southern Gothic.” The
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