Gothic Literature: A Comparison of Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner

Categories: Gothic

Horror and romance, two captivating genres, have consistently elicited powerful responses from entertainment enthusiasts. Fans of both genres revel in the intense emotions they provoke, including fear, excitement, oppression, humiliation, darkness, gloominess, and suspense. These emotions are not confined to the realms of movies and music; they also find expression in literature, particularly in what is known as gothic literature. Gothic literature is characterized by elements of horror and romance, creating a unique blend of both genres (Dunn, 2010).

Origins of Gothic Literature

The roots of gothic literature, also referred to as gothic fiction, can be traced back to the 1700s when Horace Walpole penned the first novel of its kind, "The Castle of Otranto" (Dunn, 2010).

As the 1800s dawned, this distinct style of writing became increasingly evident in American literature. In this essay, we will explore and compare the imagery and writing styles of three prominent authors: Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. Although they share a similar stylistic approach, each author brings their unique perspective to the genre.

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One common thread in their works is the theme of social abjection, which has a profound impact on the central characters.

Effects of Social Abjection

Social abjection, a recurring theme in gothic fiction, has detrimental effects on the characters who find themselves victimized by the twisted imaginations of the authors. This form of ostracism often leads to a myriad of negative consequences for the unfortunate characters. Additionally, gothic fiction has spawned several sub-genres, including modern detective fiction and southern gothic (DiYanni, 2007).

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Edgar Allan Poe, renowned for his contributions to gothic fiction, ironically began his literary career as a writer of detective fiction. In fact, he is often credited as the creator of detective fiction. However, his detective stories differed from traditional ones, as they focused less on solving crimes and more on the gruesome details of the crimes themselves. Consequently, themes of suspense and terror were paramount in his earlier works, captivating readers and leaving them in awe. His writings delved into psychological studies of guilt, obsession, and compulsion (DiYanni, 2007, pg 133).

Despite his initial foray into detective fiction, Poe's later works embraced darker themes, characterized by an atmosphere of gloom, suspense, and terror even more pronounced than his detective tales. His stories began to transcend genres and became integral to the gothic fiction tradition. The narrators in his stories grapple with various psychological issues, ranging from depression to borderline insanity.

In "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe's most famous poem, the narrator grapples with the gradual erosion of his sanity. In addition to the aforementioned literary elements, Poe's writing style also incorporates themes of death, confusion, inner turmoil, and shocking and grotesque imagery. These recurring motifs are believed to be reflective of Poe's personal struggles and psychological state, which found expression in his literary creations.

Flannery O'Connor: Southern Gothic Influences

Flannery O'Connor, deeply rooted in the American South, drew inspiration from her southern heritage, storytelling traditions, and strict Roman Catholic upbringing. Her contributions to southern gothic literature are marked by a distinctive narrative style that combines humor with tragic elements, often centered around the main characters.

Typically, O'Connor's stories feature a comic protagonist whose initial self-righteousness or unwarranted sense of certainty leads to ironic and tragic outcomes (DiYanni, 2007, pg 186). Her personal experiences, including a diagnosis of lupus later in life, informed her portrayal of pain, struggle, and hard work in her character development.

One of her notable short stories, "Good Country People," introduces readers to Joy, a character whose life is far from joyful. Joy's painful childhood experiences have shaped her into a bitter and angry adult, shielded by her pursuit of education. Her physical disability, the result of a childhood accident, fuels her anger, and she uses it as a source of pain and resentment. Joy goes to the extent of changing her name to Hulga as a manifestation of her emotional barriers. The story unfolds as a "bible" salesman deceives Hulga, exploiting her vulnerabilities. He ultimately steals her artificial leg, leaving her stunned and speechless. O'Connor's stories exemplify the southern gothic tradition, marked by violence, grotesque elements, darkness, and perversion.

William Faulkner: A Southern Gothic Influence

William Faulkner, another prominent figure in southern gothic literature, drew inspiration from the same southern roots that influenced Flannery O'Connor. Born in Mississippi in 1897, Faulkner's writing is characterized by intricate narratives and a profound exploration of the complexities of the human condition.

Faulkner's work often revolves around the American South, particularly the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a place rich in history, traditions, and social complexities. His novels and short stories delve deep into the intricacies of Southern society, examining issues of race, class, and the legacy of the past. One of his most acclaimed works, "The Sound and the Fury," is a prime example of Faulkner's ability to unravel the intricate threads of Southern life.

In his exploration of the South, Faulkner frequently portrays characters who are haunted by their family's history, burdened by the weight of tradition, and grappling with personal demons. His characters often confront themes of decay, decline, and the disintegration of once-proud Southern families.

One of Faulkner's distinctive narrative techniques is the use of multiple perspectives and nonlinear storytelling. He employs a stream-of-consciousness style that allows readers to delve into the minds of his characters, gaining insight into their inner thoughts and motivations. This narrative approach creates a sense of complexity and psychological depth in his works.

Faulkner's writing also explores the darker aspects of human nature, including violence, obsession, and the destructive power of secrets. His characters are flawed, often morally ambiguous, and grapple with inner conflicts that mirror the external turmoil of the South during the post-Civil War era.

As a key figure in southern gothic literature, Faulkner's influence on the genre is undeniable. His ability to capture the essence of the South, its contradictions, and its enduring legacy has left an indelible mark on American literature. Through his works, readers are confronted with the haunting and mesmerizing landscapes of the American South, where the past is never truly past, and the ghosts of history continue to shape the present.

Overall, William Faulkner's contributions to southern gothic literature are characterized by his intricate narratives, exploration of complex themes, and profound understanding of the human condition. His works continue to be celebrated for their rich


In conclusion, gothic literature is a genre that combines elements of horror and romance, eliciting intense emotional responses from readers. Authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner have made significant contributions to this genre, each infusing their unique style and perspective into their works.

While the themes and motifs in their writings may vary, a common thread running through their narratives is the theme of social abjection and its impact on the central characters. These characters often grapple with psychological turmoil, isolation, and tragic outcomes, creating a rich tapestry of southern gothic literature.

As we delve into the depths of gothic fiction, we gain insights into the human psyche, the complexities of human relationships, and the darker aspects of the human experience. Through the lens of these talented authors, we are invited to explore the shadows and uncover the hidden truths that lurk within the human soul.

Updated: Nov 06, 2023
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Gothic Literature: A Comparison of Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. (2016, Nov 21). Retrieved from

Gothic Literature: A Comparison of Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner essay
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