Type of Document Dissertation Author Conner, Katherine Marie URN etd-07112009-124443 Title The Widow Sunday Degree Doctor of Philosophy Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Robert Olen Butler Committee Chair Barry Faulk Committee Member Julianna Baggott Committee Member Suzanne Sinke Outside Committee Member Keywords
Date of Defense 2009-05-20 Availability unrestricted AbstractThe collected stories in the dissertation manuscript, The Widow Sunday, are set primarily in Mississippi, and present a south devoid of reference to contemporary culture. The south of The Widow Sunday is timeless, a microcosm where the surreal bleeds into the real, a place rife with the macabre and the taboo. The collection’s concern with morbidity will, perhaps, encourage readers to align it with the ‘southern gothic’ tradition, or as some critics define it, the “grotesque—‘the demented, the deformed, the queer’” (quoted in Donaldson 567). And yet, to call the stories in The Widow Sunday ‘southern gothic’ is to oversimplify a collection of fiction influenced by a diverse body of writers, from Emily Bronte to Toni Morrison to Flannery O’Connor, a collection concerned not only with atmosphere, but with obsession, and with the inexplicable lure of the macabre.
Too often do we categorize southern fiction as ‘southern gothic’ and too often do we ignore the basic differences between the fiction of, for example, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, or William Gay and Cormac McCarthy, each with its own particular agendas and obsessions—from the devout Catholicism of an O’Connor story to Gay’s interest in the “Gothic fairy tale” (as he calls his story, “The Paperhanger”). Labeling fiction ‘southern gothic’—or ‘realist’ or ‘postmodernist’ or anything else, for that matter—stamps it as “known” or “understood.” But the beauty of literary fiction is that its meanings, its use of language and setting and character, can never be fully known, can never be wholly understood.
And yet, critics and readers alike continue to categorize literature, perhaps because the need to understand, to figure out, is a part of our very nature. It is a need which the Gothic tradition itself has exploited for nearly three hundred years. The Gothic has always fed off our fear of the unknown—or, in other words, what we cannot categorize. Judith Halberstam, in her study Skin Shows, claims that the Gothic tradition has from its very beginning marked “a peculiarly modern preoccupation with boundaries and their collapse” (Halberstam 20). In her anthropological work Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas has further defined this blurring of boundaries as the ‘impure’ or “things that are interstitial, that cross the boundaries of the deep categories of a culture’s conceptual scheme” (Douglas cited in Carroll 55). We can further identify the ‘impure’ in objects or beings if “[they are] . . . categorically incomplete, or formless” (Carroll 55). Certainly the figure of the monster itself (a figure which appears in much of the Gothic fiction of the late Victorian period) embodies this concern with “boundaries and their collapse”. The monster is always a hybrid, a half-breed, a mongrel (Frankenstein’s creature remains, perhaps, the most classic example—both living and dead, animate and inanimate).
But this transgression, this crossing of lines, is not limited to the figure of the monster alone. It extends, in fact, to the setting, the place, and the very atmosphere in which the characters breathe. Prominent features of Gothic fiction are tumbled-down mansions, ruined castles, ominous woods, “marginal, hidden, or abandoned sites: graveyards, sewers, or old houses [. . .] environs outside of and unknown to ordinary social life” (Carroll 57). And if it is this, finally, that makes a work of fiction Gothic, then sure, we can call The Widow Sunday—and its fascination with deformities, its horned woman, its corpses, its abandoned houses and dank, deserted spaces—Gothic. We find in the book a fascination with transgression deeply rooted in the characters themselves, a fascination which theorist Julia Kristeva would call “the abject”—or, “that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules’ and which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’” (Kristeva quoted in Hutchings 36). For Kristeva, the abject “also offers a source of fascination and desire, seductively drawing our attention to the limits of our selfhood even as we seek to distance ourselves from that experience” (36). In The Widow Sunday, this combination of desire and disgust emerges over and over again. Nan, the main character in “Scraps,” is so inexplicably obsessed with the “impure” that she collects fingernail clippings and hair clippings, objects which, “insofar as they figure ambiguously in terms of categorical oppositions such as me/not me, inside/outside, and living/dead, serve as ready candidates for abhorrence as impure” (Hutchings 55). Milla, from the title story of the collection, finds that her very identity hinges on possessing the Widow Sunday’s amputated horn. Caroline, in “The Dancing Imps of Riverfest,” is so drawn to the unknown that she takes to rooting out secrets, and discovers more than she is prepared to confront.
It would seem, then, that The Widow Sunday—according to the above definition of the Gothic—has been strongly influenced by the genre. But what of the southern gothic in particular? How does this more recent sub-genre factor into a long-standing tradition of Gothic fiction, and what, finally, makes a work of fiction ‘southern gothic’ and not simply Gothic? Its setting? No. Truman Capote, often deemed a ‘southern gothic’ writer, set much of his work in New York City, while Cormac McCarthy, also sometimes aligned with the genre, sets his fiction prominently in the western United States. But both of these writers are originally from the south, so perhaps this is the key? A quick scan of such southern gothic anthologies as The Surreal South answers this question, since the authors included are from all areas of the United States. It would seem, then, that one can write about, be from, or currently live in the south to be classified as ‘southern gothic.’ With a definition as broad as this, one wonders what common ground readers may find in the body of work we call ‘southern gothic.” Some identify it in the “themes of terror, death, and social interaction” (“Southern Gothic” ii.) that much of this fiction portrays.
We have established, then, that for a work of fiction to be classified ‘southern gothic’ it must have, in some loose way, a connection with the south, and it must also include something of “terror” and morbidity and “social interaction.” All of this would seem to place The Widow Sunday neatly within the southern gothic genre. The stories are not only set in the south, but are written by an author who currently lives in the south and is also from the south. And many of the stories can be analyzed in terms of “terror, death, and social interaction”—most notably “Panther Crosses Hinds County”, in which the main character’s morbid interest in death is placed front and center, and “Belhaven” in which the main character finds herself incapable of any ‘normal’ interaction with her neighbor. But the above definition of the ‘southern gothic’ is so broad that we could, if we tried, connect hundreds of novels and stories to the genre, many of whose authors would recoil at such a connection. Eudora Welty is a notable example. As author Susan Donaldson puts it: “considering the stereotypes and the clichés associated with Southern Gothic [. . .] it’s quite understandable that Welty herself has often resisted being categorized as a writer of Southern Gothic. ‘They better not call me that!’ she abruptly told Alice Walker in an interview” (567).
Welty’s response is indicative of the problems with categorizing literature. Perhaps Welty knew that works of art should not, and often cannot, be categorized; they are too complex, too fraught with contradictions to dismiss as one genre or another. And the fact remains that all literature, from tales of courtly love in the Medieval period to the high realism of the Victorians to the modernists and postmodernists to the southern gothic, has been influenced by what has come before it. The Widow Sunday is no different. The Mississippi presented here is inspired, in part, by the obvious—Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county and Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, fictional southern landscapes layered atop real ones. But it is also inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Emily Brontë’s moors, Edith Wharton’s New York and even, to some extent, Jane Austen’s “little bit of ivory”. And yes, as we have seen, we can read The Widow Sunday as a product of the Gothic and/or the ‘southern gothic’. But better, I would argue, is to toss all categories aside and read it for what it is, a work of fiction intensely concerned with the fascination with morbidity that haunts human nature, a fascination that defies categorization because it remains, finally, universal.
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