Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to the literary tradition of the Southern Gothic, a genre that became prominent in the twentieth century and furthers the Gothic tradition of exploring the macabre violence lurking beneath the apparently tranquil surface of reality. As in Gothic novels, the Southern Gothic genre derives tension from the suppression of dark urges, secrets, and past violence, which threaten to erupt over the course of the novel. These elements are apparent in the works of Southern Gothic writers William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. While the genre was on the wane by the second half of the twentieth century, writers have continued to employ its conventions through today. The works of contemporary writers including Dorothy Allison, Barry Hannah, and Cormac McCarthy all have attributes of Southern Gothic novels. Positioning Mockingbird within the Southern Gothic context helps us understand the novel as part of a dynamic literary tradition and adds depth to its representation of small-town culture and racism.
The Gothic genre emerged in Europe in the late eighteenth century and remained popular through the nineteenth century and beyond. Gothic novels such as Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights incorporate the supernatural, dark themes, and remote settings with severe weather to explore repressed or buried secrets that continue to inform the present. Southern Gothic novels are also often dark and violent, also reference the supernatural, and also can be characterized by unresolved conflict between the hidden and the revealed. In the Southern Gothic, the action is transported from castles or windswept moors to the rural South, and the conflict is between the racism and violence of the region’s past and present day. All of these characteristics are on display in To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is set in rural Alabama, and is populated with monstrous characters such as Mrs. Dubose and the ghost-like Boo Radley. The trial of Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell’s climactic attack on Scout and Jem represent the struggle between the region’s suppressed racist, violent history and a more genteel, “surface” image of the South.
One of the best-known proponents of the Southern Gothic was William Faulkner, whose novels As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are considered prime examples of the genre. His books take place in a fictional county in Mississippi and feature characters grappling with the racial and economic anxieties of the post-Civil War South. “Haunted” houses and characters, taboo themes such as incest, and suppressed racism and violence feature prominently in his novels and stories. The author’s famous quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” characterizes the inability of the characters in his books, and in Southern Gothic writing in general, to move beyond the sins of their forefathers. Flannery O’Connor, a short-story writer, also wrote many Southern Gothic works renowned for their cynical outlook; their exaggerated characters (also called “grotesques”); and their complex treatment of race in the segregated south. Shocking acts of violence remind the reader that dark and mysterious drives lurk beneath the surface of small-town life.
While To Kill a Mockingbird has many similarities with these other Southern Gothic works, it also differs from them in tone and its use of humor. Perhaps most notably, it has a “family friendly” tone, whereas Faulkner and O’Connor’s works are more adult in both language and subject matter. This difference likely results not only from an innate difference in each author’s style but also from the fact that Mockingbird is narrated from the perspective of a young girl. Scout does not understand many of the more adult topics that are mentioned in front of her, and as a result she does not dwell on sex, violence, or evil to the degree other Southern Gothic authors do. The humor in Mockingbird is also gentler than in many Southern Gothic works. Passages like Scout asking her family to “pass the damn ham” are cute and charming, while the humor in the works of Faulkner and O’Connor is darker, and often at the expense of the characters. In general, Lee treats her characters with sympathy and dignity, with the exception being the Ewell family, who are “grotesque” characters more typical of the genre.
On the whole, Mockingbird is more optimistic than many works that characterize the Southern Gothic. While O’Connor’s stories often end in murder or hopelessness, and Faulkner’s writing features topics such as rape, murder, incest, and necrophilia, Mockingbird ends with the triumph of good (Boo Radley and the Finches) over evil (Bob Ewell). The violence of the past, so crucial to the Southern Gothic genre in general, is tempered by the possibility of characters reconciling with history and learning from past sins. Lee’s characters are driven not only by repressed drives and secret torments, but also (in some cases) a genuine desire to do good and enact societal change. Secrets, long-suppressed, lose their power to haunt when revealed in the light of day, as when Boo finally emerges from his house and lets his neighbors look at him. The final words of the book, “most people are (nice) when you finally see them,” evokes hope of a more enlightened, less prejudiced future.