Gender Roles and Sexism in Southern Gothic Literature
Today, gender reveal parties are planned for expectant parents daily, where the sonographer writes down the gender of the fetus onto a piece of paper and place in an envelope, and the parents will in turn hand the envelope over to someone and place them in charge of coming up with a creative way to reveal the gender of their baby to not only the parents, but the attendants of the party as well. Even today, gender roles are still forced upon people, although that certainly does not mean that people refuse to confine themselves to those barriers daily. Much like today, there were people in the past who strived to break gender role barriers; while others may not have ever fit those barriers, to begin with; and then there are those individuals who see gender roles as black and white and believe that men must be manly, and women must be lady-like. It is easily notable that death is a common theme for both “A Rose for Emily”, written by William Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor; however, another thematic component that is present is gender roles or sexism; as one may call it. The utilization of sexism between Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is completely opposite. As one will come to notice, the grandmother in O’Connor’s short story is extremely particular in how a female is supposed to be a lady, for example; “Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” (O’Connor, 297) Emily Grierson, in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, is the complete opposite of what a lady would be considered by neglecting lady-like characteristics which can be noticed by the description of how her house “smelled of dust and disuse- a close, dank smell.” (Faulkner, 144) Each of these examples is just a few within each short story that depicts thematic components of sexism in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, and O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.
William Faulkner, according to Thomas Bjerre, “is widely considered the most important and influential writer working in the vein of the Southern Gothic” (Bjerre, 7), with several titles that he’s written. “A Rose for Emily” was written by Faulkner for The Forum paper in 1930 and is the story of Emily Rose Grierson, who lives in the fictional Mississippi town of Jefferson. The short story is full of thematic components. Grierson was raised by a very strict father, who; like most men in the south, was extremely dominant, one trait of sexism noted within the short story; and believed that no man would ever be good enough for his daughter, running away any man who showed any type of interest in Emily. “A Rose for Emily” is the epitome of several gender stereotypes of what a woman should be, especially when compared to other women of her time. Maria Scott contributed a generous analytical article to The Clockford Center detailing the various forms of thematic components of sexism; such as stereotyping, discrimination, and male domination. Scott’s analysis of the short story depicts stereotyping, by emphasizing that women are interested in materialistic things, such as the characteristics of Emily Rose’s house. (Scott) The depiction of this form of sexism is immediately noticed, without even having to read the full story as Faulkner describes the attendants of Emily Rose’s funeral and how “the women mostly out of curiosity to see inside her house”. (Faulkner, 143) Discrimination does tend to be a more generalized act; however; there is gender discrimination against men, and their ability to clean (Scott), more specifically, a kitchen; in the short story, suggesting that the servant, Tobe, must not have been cleaning properly. Another form of discrimination by sexism that can be noted in “A Rose for Emily” is how Emily’s love interest, Homer Barron, was not interested in Emily as anything more because he admitted that he was interested in men. (Faulkner, 148)
The people of Jefferson pitied Emily because she must be jealous, and as the short story comes to closing, that must be why Emily Grierson killed her love interest. Male domination is extremely noticeable in the short story as well. Rather than going to Miss Emily about the smell that her house put off, they took it upon themselves to do something about it by sprinkling lime around her house. (Faulkner, 146) This situation also goes to show that outsiders were not used to a woman having such a strong and persistent personality because, in that time, women were known to be more submissive and do what was expected of them. If one were to read “A Rose for Emily”, they would feel sorry for Emily because she is portrayed to be a lonely woman due to her father not thinking any man would ever be good enough… so much so that he sheltered her from the outside world denying Emily the opportunity to live a life where she would be able to meet someone. By the time her father passed, she was thirty years of age, but because her father denied her the opportunity to meet someone, the damage was done. People of Jefferson pitied Emily, and rather than finding the action of her denying that her father was dead and holding on to his rotting body; people felt that it was part of her mourning process; which differed from when years later she passed away, and the bones of her love interest were found in her bed, and they come to the realization that she had slept next to his corpse for many years prior to her passing.
Flannery O’Connor, author of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”; is one of the best-known practitioners of the Southern Grotesque, which although is similar to Southern Gothic; is notably different in that Southern Grotesque is described to have a much darker, twisted tone. (Bjerre, 24) As Miss Emily in “A Rose for Emily” takes on a very serious, sad tone, O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” takes on a slightly different tone, in that there is humor in the way that the story is depicted, and one can sense the comical tone of the story. Although comical, the story is anything but humorous in the end, with the death of the grandmother, her son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren, one only being a baby. Thematic components of sexism are immediately recognizable. The grandmother, who has no name in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” places herself to a much higher standard being that she was raised in a time when women should be extremely feminine, children were to always remain quiet, and that her opinions was always meant to be given; which is quite the contrast to the way that her son, Bailey; allows for his children to act.
The grandmother lives in the past, although things are clearly different for her at this later time in her life… even her grandchildren note how she would likely go on the trip with the family because she would not stay home and be “Queen” for a day. (O’Connor, 296) To better explain this sentiment, J. Stillwell Powers, author of “A Moment of Grace in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’”, explains how the grandmother seeks comfort by searching for signifiers that resemble the world that she knows, where goodness is still prevalent and is enough. Unfortunately, “the reader begins to understand it’s not goodness that has corroded, but more so the darkness instead of the comfortable signifiers that she’s used to, are preventing her from accepting her new reality, leaving her to suffer in her own despair. The grandmother finds comfort in constantly looking for and clinging to signifiers that reflect the world she desires, one in which goodness exists and can be defined along lines that allow her to fit into it. As the story progresses, however, the reader begins to understand it’s not goodness that has corroded, but the signifiers against which the grandmother has always defined goodness—bloodlines, southern manners, class and racial hierarchy, and gender roles, to name a few—leaving the grandmother struggling to reconcile a worldview that does not reflect reality, causing her to suffer. (J. Stillwell Powers)
As one continues to read “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, it is evident that women are portrayed as graceful, and even naïve. The grandmother, however; is careful to keep note of “The Misfit”, a convicted killer that escaped prison; and is quick to remind him when she finally recognizes who he is. Sexism is prevalent to this story in that it places emphasis on how strong-willed the men are, such as when the children are asking to go to the house that their grandmother is speaking of, as well as when Red Sam tells the woman to go fetch the family’s drinks. (O’Connor, 300) It can also be said that women are talkative, such as when the grandmother in O’Connor’s story continuously speaks of just having to pray, trying to convince the Misfit that he is good and does not have to do bad things, and attempting to plead with him so that he doesn’t kill her, or her family; while The Misfit refused to believe that he was anything other but a monstrous murderer, killing the grandmother as she begged him not to do so.
While both stories have many instances of gender role thematic components, they are both portrayed in very different ways. It is unfortunate that in the modern world as it is known, sexism still exists, which creates a whole new slew of problems for the society. Much like in the stories written by Faulkner and O’Connor; gender roles and sexism are still prevalent thematic components of society to this day; even if there is more freedom for people to live their lives in how they see fit to do so. There are still boxes that society will continuously attempt to place people into, which can potentially lead to turmoil in many ways. Reading “A Rose for Emily”, and “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, one can agree that both works of literature have very realistic ideals of what can happen when people are not able to freely be themselves because they believe they must be a certain type of way. In both stories, the women got lost in themselves—Emily Rose Grierson because she wasn’t allowed to be her true self due to her father secluding her, and the Grandmother from O’Connor’s story because she was still trying to live what was normal for her, in a world that was no longer suitable for her way of life.