In the literature of every country or culture, there exist many different genres and styles. As one of the most diverse nations in the world, the United States of America is known for its culturally rich literature that can be subdivided into a variety of fields and streams. Not all of them are well-known and commonly discussed, but the vast majority of them are interesting to explore and study. The focus of this paper is Southern literature that is also known as the literature of the American South. While it seems that the name of this style in literature is very telling of what it represents, the phenomenon of Southern literature is deep and fascinating just like the community from which it originates.
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Southern literature is focused on the exploration of unique stories and characters of the American South, as well as its different cultures, social groups, worldviews, and ways of communication (“Southern Literature”). Some of the most common themes that can be found in Southern literature are dedicated to the dominant religion practiced in this region – Christianity, the ethnic communities that inhabit it, class division of the Southern society that defined the development of its population, and the importance of community, unity, togetherness, and familial ties.
In this paper, Southern literature will be discussed using such stories as At the Cadian Ball by Kate Chopin, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. These works will be studied in regard to the ways they portray the American South, the stories they tell, the characters they depict, and the themes they cover in order to provide a deeper understanding of what Southern Literature represents.
Familial Ties and the Meaning of Community in Southern Literature
Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor is one of the best examples demonstrating the importance of the theme of family in Southern literature. This story is focused on a group of women living together (the family of farm owners – the Freemans, and the family of workers – the Hopewells). They belong to two different classes and have very dissimilar stories; however, they are united as a community. The title of the story contains the concept mentioned several times throughout its contents; the phrase “good country people” is used to refer to people of simple background who are “not trash”.
In comparison to the stories that take place in the earlier history of the American South and describe the socioeconomic division into lower, middle, and upper classes, Good Country People depicts relatively modern times with a division into upper, working class, and the lost intelligence class that is represented by Hulga. The latter protagonist stands apart from the rest of her community – she does not work, has no intention to marry, she is a person with disabilities, lives with her mother at the age of 32 due to her poor health, has a PhD, and is known for a bitter and resentful attitude towards others. Her mother noticed that “every year she grew less like other people and more like herself” (O’Connor, Good Country People 3). This quote demonstrates how important it was for her to be a part of the society, making her see her daughter’s deliberate self-isolation as a tragedy.
Another illustration of the meaning of family and community in Southern literature is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers where each of the protagonists suffers from severe loneliness and seeks for connections with other people. In this story, families are depicted as flawed and fragile; they fall apart leaving individuals all alone facing the merciless world. In that way, Singer, a mute man, loses his only friend with the same disability (who was like family to Singer) due to his mental illness and thus becomes isolated since he no longer has a group to belong to and a community sharing his unique challenges and speaking his language.
Over the course of the story, Singer is befriended by four very different individuals with whom he never finds the connection but who develop a strong attachment to the mute man. Each and every one of the protagonists in the story can be described the way Blount, a socialist and a drunk, described himself – “a stranger in a strange land” (McCullers 21). Even though, compared to Singer, all of them have social lives, they are just as lonely and they become even lonelier as Singer decides to take his own life.
In that way, one can see that community and family play very significant roles in the works of Southern literature; however, families and groups of people are depicted as very diverse and often torn apart by internal conflicts.
Christianity is the dominant religion in the American South. In addition, it is one of the most important aspects in Southern Americans’ lives. As an author of strong religious faith, Flannery O’Connor was known to place religion in the center of her stories as one of the main themes. This is very noticeable in Good Country People where Hulga, a doctor of philosophy and an atheist clashes with her religious mother and with the Bible salesman Manley Pointer.
The woman is proud of believing in nothing and deems herself as smarter than the simple young man; however, in reality, he turns out to be an even more cynical atheist and a scammer posing as a believer in order to cover his true identity and intentions. He leaves Hulga taking her wooden leg with him and saying: “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” (O’Connor, Good Country People 9).
In A Good Man is Hard to Find, the theme of religion that does not seem to appear at the beginning of the story, becomes central by its end as the story of a family trip to Florida turns into a car accident and a homicide as the protagonists face a group of escaped convicts led by the Misfit – a man whose presence somewhere in the area had been worrying the grandmother of the family ever since the beginning of the story.
As the members of her family are, one by one, led into the woods and shot by The Misfit’s fellows, she remains to talk with the leader attempting to convince him that he is a good person and that to realize this he should start praying and turn to God. The responses of the convict make it clear that he is beyond salvation: “I call myself The Misfit… because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment” (O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find 30); the man sees no meaning in life and no reason to stop committing crimes of all kinds; in fact, he sees no difference between taking people’s lives and stealing their properties. The grandmother’s desperate attempts to save her own life by turning a criminal to Jesus fail as The Misfit shoots her for touching his shoulder in an effort of showing kindness.
Here, religion is what makes the grandmother stand out from the rest of her family and what juxtaposes her to the criminals. The grandmother is portrayed as a rather proper and naïve person, a dreamer, an optimist, and a romantic focusing on the good sides of the world. Unable to help her family and herself, she clings to the only good thing that is left – her faith.
In the selection of works chosen for this paper, At the Cadian Ball by Kate Chopin is, perhaps, the best illustration of the class division that used to characterize the Southern society. This story describes a number of internal relationship dynamics between men and women coming from upper and lower classes. Quite a typical couple of love triangles is eventually resolved based on the class belongingness of the people involved; however, one may say that Alsee, the man who rides off into the night to attend a ball looking for an affair, has changed his mind after Clarisse, the woman in love with him, had followed him to stop him from engaging in a meaningless relationship and to tell him about her feelings. Ever since that moment of truth he saw that “the one, only, great reality in the world was Clarisse standing before him” (Chopin 7). However, in reality, the relationship between Alsee and Clarisse was made possible mainly due to their upper-class background which they did not share with Calixta, the woman Alcee came to meet at the ball. Eventually, as Alsee left with Clarisse, Calixta had to settle for a man of her social circle – Bobinot.
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Class division is also a theme in the two stories by O’Connor as she juxtaposes the working class of “good country people” to the farm owners and the wealthy family of the grandmother – to the impoverished African American population of the South and the criminals from poor lower class families.
The stories discussed in this paper are rather diverse and portray different times, people, and situations. However, all of them describe the communities, people, and culture of the American South. As a result, some of the themes and concepts can be seen in all of them regardless of the people and circumstances described.
The South of the USA has a rich history that is deeply imprinted in the culture and worldviews of its people. Also as the time passed, one could see the change in the main themes in the Southern literature – the works depicting older times focus on the class division of the society and the effects this phenomenon had on people’s lives and relationships (such as in At the Cadian Ball), and the stories describing modern life explore racial tension, the issues of the freedom of faith, and community ties (such as in A Good Man is Hard to Find and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) (“What Is Southern Literature”). It is fascinating, how well the literature reflects the diverse turns the social dynamics took in the Southern society that resulted in a multitude of consequences affecting people’s lives.
Chopin, Kate. “At the Cadian Ball.” English Caddy, n.d.
McCullers, Carson. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Penguin, 2000.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. HBJ book, n.d.
—-. “Good Country People.” Ayers, n.d.
“Southern Literature.” Know Southern History, n.d.
“What Is Southern Literature.” Ol’ Curiosities Book Shoppe. 2015.