Southern Gothic: A Traumatic Haunting

Posted by Ann Bradley on February 05, 2016 in Ann Bradley, Blog tagged with , , , ,

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Gothic literature in all of its permutations connects with the anxieties of the time, reflecting fears in the form of haunting. Southern Gothic is no exception. Just as traditional Gothic texts point out hypocrisies of religious systems or the like, American Gothic novels note the injustices of the region in which they are set. “The old antebellum South was nothing but myth, and its narrative of a supposedly halcyon past concealed all manner of social, familial and of course racial denials and suppressions […] Southern Gothic set to work by exposing their abuses and silences” (Walsh 20).  Certainly, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) demonstrate this tendency of Southern Gothic. Many before me have noted Morrison’s reluctance to be likened to the largely white-male collection of Southern Gothic authors, famously saying, “I am not like Faulkner” (McKay Morrison 426). Nonetheless, her similarities to writers like Faulkner are just as striking as the differences.

The preoccupation with history in both Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved conjure a striking world in which the dead are more present than the living. Both novels speak of legacy, of history that is passed on, and the ambiguity of the present. These elements place the texts firmly in the Gothic sphere. “American Gothic, like Gothic more generally, is haunted by history. Instead of fleeing reality, Gothic registers its culture’s anxieties and social problems” (Goddu 63). But while Faulkner seeks to describe the South as a whole, using the slave experience as a method through which to point out the fallacy of the system which constructs the Southern identity, Morrison’s novel details the very real trauma of black slave women in the South. This difference could account for the conclusions of the respective novels, the hope present in Morrison’s text that is absent from Faulkner’s.

Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved both begin with haunted houses, and thus with history. Beloved immediately introduces the notion of the dead child who inhabits 124 with her living family members. In Absalom, Quentin is sent to listen to Rosa Coldfield’s story, and in her home are the ghosts whose story she tells. The past is literally haunting these individuals. The ghosts are alive and the living are equated with the dead. Quentin is described as, “having to listen to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost, but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South same as she was—” (Faulkner 9). Quentin will be a ghost simply because he has inherited this story, this Southern trauma of slavery and oppression, just as Denver has the potential to be doomed by her mother’s suffering. “If you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again […] So, Denver, you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you” (Morrison 44). Similarly, Quentin says, “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples” (261).

Christine Berthin posits that the “hauntings” of Gothic novels are inherited (9). There is a distinct link between the haunting in Absalom and Beloved, and the trauma that is present. When the haunting is not dealt with it becomes transgenerational. When trauma is ignored, it can come in flashbacks, disturbing in their accuracy (Caruth 152). Haunting and trauma are even more acutely connected. Trauma may be likewise inherited, and future generations become a “phantom carrier” of that terror of the past that is not even their own (Berthin 9).  In this way, the past cannot die with Sethe or Rosa, but Denver and Quentin have to carry it too. Preoccupations with “rememory” ensure that past horrors will come back because they have not been properly dealt with.

Both novels attempt to express truths which are not easily articulated. “The Gothic becomes the mode through which to speak what often remains unspeakable within the American national narrative—the crime of slavery” (Goddu 63). The novels describe (and do not describe) unmet desires, a void present in Southern society and its inhabitants. Even when Beloved returns to her, Sethe finds that the more she tries to explain the reason for murdering her baby girl, the less resolution she achieves. The multiple confused narratives and half formed realities in Absalom are proof of a truth that resists telling. The reason that the characters find the stories of their lives so difficult to communicate is the trauma which pervades them. Trauma theory fits particularly well into the Gothic realm because it is paradoxical, like the genre itself. A traumatic event may come back with full force in the form of nightmarish flashbacks, but it also was never fully placed into consciousness. The sufferer resisted the memory of the trauma and therefore experiences it too acutely, and not at all. “The flashback or traumatic reenactment conveys, that is, both the truth of an event and the truth of its incomprehensibility” (Caruth 153). The sins of the South, of Sutpen, the murder of Charles Bon, Sethe’s terrible deed, Paul D’s awful past, all of these stories are fragmented, resisted and incommunicable because they have been repressed, or never fully assimilated into memory to begin with. They are just as incomprehensible for those who have suffered them as for the reader.

Just as trauma recurs despite the coping mechanism of latency, in the Gothic, and particularly in Faulkner and Morrison’s novels, trauma manifests as physical haunting. Beloved and Charles Bon are representations of the sins of the mother or father respectively and the wrongdoing of the South, but they are also placeholders for the loss and longing of the region (Novak 211). Their appearances force the characters to deal with the horror of the past and confront the void left in their lives. The inexpressible sadness that defies the conventions of language takes actual human form. Memories may be repressed, but neither character nor reader can ignore the ghosts made living. My next post will discuss the specific ghosts haunting those in Absalom, Absalom! and Beloved and the differences they bring to light in the texts.

References

Berthin, Christine. Gothic Hauntings: Melancholy Crypts and Textual Ghosts. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience.” Introduction. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! London: Vintage, 1995. Print.

Goddu, Teresa. “American Gothic.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Ed. Emma McEvoy, Catherine Spooner. London: Routledge, 2007. 63-72. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage Classic, 2007. Print.

Morrison, Toni, and Nellie McKay. “An Interview with Toni Morrison”. Contemporary Literature 24.4 (1983): 413–429. Web.

Novak, Phillip. “Signifying Silences: Morrison’s Soundings in the Faulknerian Void.”Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-envisioned. Ed. Carol A. Kolmerten, Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1997. 199-216. Print.

N.d. Southern Gothic Writing Genre. Web. 5 Feb. 2016. <https://ravenseniors.wikispaces.com/AP+7.Southern+Gothic+Writing+Genre>.

Walsh, Christopher J. ““Dark Legacy”: Gothic Ruptures in Southern Literature.” Ed. Jay   Ellis. Critical Insights: Southern Gothic Literature. Ipswich: Salem Press, 2013. 19-34. Print.

 

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