Haunting imagery and earthy Southern speech, hallmarks of Southern gothic literature, suffuse the fiction of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with a primitive power. In “A Rose for Emily” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” two of American literature’s darkest parables merge shocking realism with characters and themes that transcend violence and decay, profoundly Southern legacies imparted by slavery and war. For Faulkner and O’Connor, violence and decay were core elements of the Southern experience, yet both stories exude a uniquely Southern sense of place, atmosphere and dark humor that bestows a kind of absolution on some of the genre’s most memorable characters.
Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is the setting for an allegorical story that speaks to the Southern aristocracy’s long, slow decay and, by extension, the cultural and moral demise of the old South itself. When a deputation from the town calls on Miss Emily to discuss her refusal to pay taxes, they enter a decayed world, walking “into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse - a close, dank smell” (Faulkner, 490). Once inside, the men are confronted by a relic of the old South’s nobility, a woman born into a world she expects will treat her with due deference. Her language is sparse yet regal, her message laconic and absolutely non-negotiable. “I have no taxes in Jefferson,” she coldly reminds the men. “Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the
city records and satisfy yourselves” (Faulkner, 490). Faulkner’s mastery of the complexity of Southern speech is in evidence here. Emily’s is the speech of the gentility, not the homely expressiveness of the common folk. She is peremptory, expecting her social inferiors to obey a time-honored code. Through Emily, Faulkner opens a window on an entombed past, one peopled by men and women who were accustomed to privilege and its attendant social advantages. This particular mise en scene could only truly play out in the South; the South that Faulkner interpreted as no one else has.
That lost, decayed world has warped Miss Emily’s sanity. She is convinced that the long-deceased Colonel Sartoris, the man who exempted her from paying taxes, is still alive. The centerpiece of Emily’s home is a crayon portrait of her autocratic, repressive father, which looms as a reminder of the man whose death she had refused to acknowledge, insisting for days that he was still alive. A deeper manifestation of her madness is the cause of the evil smell that pervades the town after Homer Barron’s disappearance. A timely interjection of black humor frames the absurdity of the scene. When told that something must be done about the smell coming from the Grierson house, Judge Stevens retorts, “Dammit, sir. Will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” (Faulkner 491).
The climax of “A Rose for Emily” surely stands as one of Faulkner’s most remarkable dramatic achievements, a singular marriage of horror and pathos. The discovery of Homer Barron’s rotted corpse in the shuttered, upstairs room is bizarrely offset by an incongruous tenderness: a single strand of iron gray hair resting in an indentation on the pillow next to the dead man. “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,
Horror and violence yield to grace in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to
Find.” O’Connor’s shallow, bourgeois vacationing family comes face to face with a violently symbolic form of justice. The grandmother, Bailey, June Star and the others speak in a colorful, populist dialect so often identified with Southern fiction. But their origins and speech cannot obscure the fact that this is the kind of vapid family one might expect to find anywhere. As such, O’Connor’s story is less dependent on its “Southernness” than is Faulkner’s.
The embodiment of a certain selfish moral vacuousness, the grandmother is quick to criticize but the last to critically examine her own lack of integrity and reflective candor. Manipulative, she pits her grandchildren against their father as she tries to wheedle her son into changing their plans and traveling to an interesting house she had once visited in Tennessee. “The children have been to Florida,” she says. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change…They never have been to east Tennessee” (O’Connor, 129). Almost from the beginning, one has the feeling that they all will pay a heavy price for the grandmother’s moral weakness and lack of character, a feeling enhanced by ominous foreshadowing. Significantly, “Toombsboro” is the last town they pass before their accident.
After their car flips off the road, the family is waylaid by an escaped convict known only as “The Misfit” and his accomplices. As Bailey is murdered in the woods, the grandmother comes to a kind of spiritual transformation at last, having heard the convict’s “confession.” “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would have known…if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now,” The Misfit rages in a confused,
childlike fury over not understanding the nature of Jesus, not knowing whether he actually resurrected the dead (O’Connor, 143). In a moment of perfect empathy, the grandmother reaches
out to him, literally and spiritually. “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor, 143).
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Faulkner Reader. New York: The Modern
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Three by Flannery O’Connor. New
York: Signet Classics. 1953.