“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner Essay
“A Rose for Emily” is one of William Faulkner most anthologized and popular short stories. It is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, in the deep American south. The story is narrated in the background of the rapidly changing Southern society in the post Civil War period. Emily Grierson, a spinster, is the protagonist of the piece. The story is narrated from the point of view of an anonymous narrator who represents the community. “A Rose for Emily” can be interpreted in many ways: as a tragic love story which depicts Emily great love for Homer Barron, as a comment on life in the deep American South as it is increasingly absorbed into the national psyche, as a murder mystery in which the facts are never clearly explained, or as a psychological depiction of insanity in the heroine who murders her former lover. Whatever be the perspective adopted by the reader, the story grips the heart and the mind.
Emily Grierson emerges as one of the strongest female protagonists in American literature. The story revolves round her headstrong personality and she dominates the narrative from start to finish. She is the typical Southern belle, the repressed daughter, the jilted lover and the proud heroine all rolled into one. Even as a murderess, she excites the reader sympathy and admiration for the strength of her personality. She towers over every other character in “A Rose for Emily.” She is “the proud, unbending monument of the Old South who somehow triumphs over time and change, thereby evoking admiration conjoined with pity” (Nebeker, 3). Emily Grierson remains William Faulkner monument to the post Civil War South in her refusal to accept inevitable change, and her attitude of denial towards circumstances which run contrary to her wishes, which make her fall into murder and insanity.
Emily Grierson, as the embodiment of the American South after the Civil War, reflects Faulkner commonly known nostalgia and affection for the past glory of the American South in which he lived. “A Rose for Emily” is set in the fictional town of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which is widely acknowledged to be based on Oxford, the town in Mississippi Lafayette County where Faulkner spent his life from the age of four. A “comparison of the map of Yoknapatawpha County with that of Lafayette County reveals obvious parallels, even to the casual observer” (Aikin, 7). His love for his homeland shines through his narrative, and is personified by Miss Emily. As a mark of his respect for the South way of life and its past history, Faulkner consistently addresses his heroine as ‘Miss Emily.’ He makes her the “fallen monument” to the South (Faulkner, 9). Miss Emily house represents “the indomitableness of the decadent Southern aristocrat”, while the encroaching vulgar garages and factories “reveal the invasion of the aristocracy by the changing order” (Watkins, 510).
The author includes in Emily character the aristocratic pride which will not accept the least hint of charity and the dignity of “a real lady” (Faulkner, 11). She is Faulkner memorial to the old days. The old world chivalry of the South is seen in Judge Steven recourse to spreading lime around Miss Emily house secretly at night, rather than submit to the impoliteness of accusing “a lady to her face of smelling bad” (Faulkner, 10). Faulkner raises Emily above the common citizens of Jefferson, and enshrines her with the dignity of “an idol in a niche” (Faulkner, 11). At her funeral, as a mark of respect to this monument to the old South, the men come dressed “in their brushed Confederate uniforms” (Faulkner, 11). Miss Emily “has come to stand for a rose-the treasured memory of the old Confederate veterans” (Skinner, 42). Faulkner unequivocally equates Miss Emily with the old South, symbolically showing that the death of his heroine is the death of the old South. Emily is the embodiment of the Southern way of life, with its virtues and flaws. Faulkner makes Emily his tribute to the South.
Emily, Faulkner embodiment of the old South, characteristically refuses to accept the change which the new era brings. She holds fast to “the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson” (Faulkner, 12). Her steadfast adherence to the ways of the past constitutes “a refusal to submit to, or even to concede, the inevitability of change” (Skinner, 42). This leads her to adamantly persevere in the non-payment of her taxes. Tax notices, formal letters and requests from the mayor all fall on unheeding ears. Colonel Sartoris is a personification of the old-world chivalry of the old South. In contrast, the young Aldermen in the story represent the new rising middle-class, who prioritize commercial gain, and lack the characteristic honor and pride of the old Southern aristocrats. However, Miss Emily triumphs over these men of the new age. The deputation of Aldermen is intimid by her dignity and “rose when she entered” (Faulkner, 9). She blatantly rejects their authority and quells them with the repeated, categorical declaration, “I have no taxes in Jefferson” (Faulkner, 10). The town authorities are forced to concede defeat.
Time and again, Emily defies the changing times and continues to stand by tradition. She peremptorily demands arsenic from the druggist and refuses to accept the legitimacy of his claim that “the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for” (Faulkner, 12). Cowed by her fierce will, the druggist submits to her. Rather than concede to the changes brought about by the new age, Emily prefers to withdraw into her own world, which is caught in a time warp. The heavy furniture belongs to another era, and is covered by the dust of the past. Even the crayon portrait made by her of her father when she was a child remains undisturbed on its easel. Miss Emily herself continues to dress in the fashion of the age gone by. “The invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain” appears to emphasize that Miss Emily lives in another time from that which governs the present world (Faulkner, 8). She scorns the newly introduced free postal delivery and refuses “to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” (Faulkner, 12). She rises above her times.
Miss Emily lives in denial of the circumstances which run contrary to her wishes. In dealing with the town authorities, she persists in telling them to “See Colonel Sartoris” (Faulkner, 10). She does not accept the fact that the Colonel has died over ten years ago. When her father dies, Miss Emily loses the only emotional bond of her life. She goes into denial over his demise. When the town ladies come to pay their condolence calls, she meets “them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead” (Faulkner, 11). Her relationship with her father itself is based on the denial of his true nature. Emily blind to the faults of the selfish man who, “clutching a horsewhip,” chases away her suitors and keeps her as his housekeeper. She clings to the man who is responsible for her solitude.
Emily relationship with Homer is again characterized by her denial of anything which goes against her inclination. Her yearning to find love, and a family, blind her eyes to Homer true personality. She denies the obvious fact, which is evident to the town at large, that he “was not a marrying man” (Faulkner, 12). Miss Emily disregards the difference in social standing which will definitely impact on their relationship. The town is confident that “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner, 11). However, Emily is even willing to deny the conventions of class, to which she has hitherto adhered so strictly, in order to love and be loved. As the evidence mounts that Homer is not interested in making her his wife, Emily continues to live in denial over the state of their courtship. She orders a silver toilet set and clothing for Homer, and somehow ensures that he returns to her home. Emily cannot accept the truth of Homer repudiation of her love. Her denial of this leads to her inability to let go of him. Emily murders Homer Barron rather than accept the role of the jilted lover.
Emily refusal to acknowledge the changes of the new age, coupled with her attitude of denial towards the significant developments in her life, lead to her ultimate insanity. Emily refuses to accept that changing times man a change in the conventions of the old world. Homer Barron courtship presents the last opportunity for Miss Emily to fulfill the normal aspirations of a young woman and find a life of domestic happiness. She is willing to ignore social conventions and sacrifice her pride as one of “the high and mighty Griersons” in order to find love (Faulkner, 10). She proudly ignores the town criticism of her public Sunday jaunts with her suitor. Going against the laws of her social class and background, Emily is ready to accept Homer as her lover, if not as a husband. Homer rejection of her courtship is the final straw which breaks the camel back – she is pushed over the brink of sanity. She denies her position as a jilted lover. She contrives to lure Homer home and poisons him with arsenic.
In an incontrovertible sign of Emily madness, the bedroom is “furnished as for a bridal” and Homer remains lies upon the bed (Faulkner, 14). Emily goes on to live for forty years with this gruesome scene locked away in an upstairs bedroom. She “no longer went out at all” and remains shut up with only the silent negro servant allowed into the house (Faulkner, 9). Even when Miss Emily degenerates into unequivocal insanity, Faulkner retains his sympathy for his protagonist, and attempts to justify her condition as a matter of inherited family genetic weakness, by stating that “old lady Wyatt, her great-aunt, had gone completely crazy at last” (Faulkner, 11). As Miss Emily descends to murder and insanity, she embodies the fall of the world of the deep South and the passing of the age to which she belongs.
William Faulkner makes Miss Emily his monument to the old South. His narrative is built round this towering protagonist who embodies the culture and tradition of the deep South in the post Civil War era. She is the defender of the last frontier against the encroaching changes which threaten to transform the old-world chivalry, dignity and aristocratic pride of the South. Miss Emily stubbornly holds on to past conventions and, by the sheer force of her indomitable will and confidence in her social position, forces the entire town of Jefferson to leave her to her own world. However, the very characteristics which make her this indestructible monument to the past also carry the seeds of her downfall.
Emily refusal to accept the inevitable changes of time slowly cuts her off from the reality of the world in which she lives. As she becomes increasingly isolated from the real world, she succumbs to insanity. Her denial of actual circumstances, and her determination to hold fast to her contrived reality, conspires to make her a murderess. She now contravenes the strictures of the very world she represents: the old-world conventions do not approve of her love for a Yankee who is low in the social hierarchy and her willingness to accept him as her lover. Above all, the society of the past, or the present, cannot condone murder. Miss Emily is now unequivocally fallen from her pedestal. However, Faulkner continues to treat her with all the respect and sympathy he feels she deserves. Her fall from grace is concealed from the reader until after her death. The people of Jefferson discover her status as a mad woman and a murderess only after “Miss Emily was decently in the ground,” and beyond the reach of the law of the new world which she adamantly refused to acknowledge throughout her life (Faulkner, 14), Faulkner lets his heroine retain her monumental character until the end of his narrative and ensures that the reader sympathy remains with this representative of a world gone by.
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5. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.utulsa.edu/stable/1346461, Skinner, John L. “A Rose for Emily”: Against Interpretation.” The Journal of Narrative Technique. Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1985), pp. 42-51.
6. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.utulsa.edu/stable/30225110Watkins, Floyd C. “The Structure of “A Rose for Emily.” Modern Language Notes. Vol. 69, No.7 (Nov. 1954), pp. 508-510.