A Rose for Emily: a Critical View
Life of people in small towns of America of the early twentieth century revolved round each other. The affairs of the well to do aroused great curiosity among the common folk. People were bound by tradition and a perceptible caste system. It was no wonder that the whole populace of the small town was interested in a marriageable young woman, especially so if the woman and her sweetheart did not belong to the same social class. The class difference played an important part in the small towns of the American South , with the ordinary people being in awe of the so called upper classes. They felt so uneasy about having a confrontation with a member of the upper class that they were willing to ignore any slight. Life was not easy for the members of the upper class either, with their clinging to obsolete customs and traditions. It will be shown that Miss Emily Grierson in Faulkner “Rose for Emily” took advantage of her upper class upbringing at the same time becoming a victim to the same tradition of class difference. “A Rose for Emily” is a seminal work by William Faulkner in which he has portrayed the various characters in a small town in America. Set in the period between the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the story is steeped in tradition. This short story was the first of Faulkner stories to be published in a national publication, when it was published in the Forum in 1930. He narrates the story of Emily Grierson and her doomed love affair. Using a technique not much used in those days, Faulkner goes back and forward in time making the story very effective .Emily Grierson belonged to a wealthy upper class family which had lost all their money, but not their iron pride. Thinking her too good for the local young men, Emily father had never allowed her to anyone.” None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such.”(Faulkner) When the father dies, Emily refuses to accept his death. Soon after,Emily unsuitable suitor Homer Barron, who did not belong to her class arrives .He goes about with her in spite of the disapprobation of the towns’ people. The minister trying to advise Emily and the minister wife writing to Emily cousins about the unsuitable Homer Barron, the Yankee foreman are typical of the class distinction which was prevalent in those days. The cousins arrive, and Barron is seen no more except once. Emily buys arsenic ostensibly to kill some rats, which leads the townspeople to think that she will commit suicide. After that Emily shuts herself up in her house with the old negro servant to care for her. She adamantly refuses to pay taxes citing a long expired grant by a former mayor. In a macabre end to the story, after Emily death, the townspeople discover the skeleton of Homer Barron in the locked up bedroom upstairs, with a strand of ‘long gray hair’ in the pillow next to it.
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Faulkner has used the inherent class distinctions prevalent in the small towns of the American South to develop the story. He begins the story with Emily death.” And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august s where they lay in the cedarbemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.” (Faulkner) Only in death did the ‘august s’ and the anonymous soldiers come together. Emily was a tradition in herself for the town with not many other ‘august s’. Faulkner preoccupation with heredity is evident in his works. His characters are haunted by their traditions .He draws upon his observations in Oxford, a small town in the American South where he lived. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Oxford provided Faulkner with intimate access to a deeply conservative rural world, conscious of its past and remote from the urban –industrial mainstream”. (E.B.)We see the town of Jefferson portrayed by Faulkner has all the characteristics of a deeply conservative world. Emily goes on ignoring the notices to pay taxes, and the town civic body , which has changed, sends her a notice, which is ignored by Emily. When the office bearers go to talk to Emily, they are overawed by her manner. Everybody in the town is conscious of Emily family, an old and honored family of the town. Emily was considered to be” a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor-he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron– remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity”.(Faulkner)
In stead of the linear story telling technique, Faulkner uses a technique of going backwards and forwards in time with which he effectively builds up the interest of the reader. The frequent use of words like ‘when’ and ‘then’ refer to the time lapse between the incidents. After narrating the incident of the tax collectors, Faulkner jumps back thirty years to the incident of the smell. A few years after the death of Emily father, a smell emanates from her house which becomes too intolerable to her neighbors. They complain to the Mayor, an eighty year old man. The townspeople think the foul odor is because of the lax work of her negro servant and “they were not surprised when the smell developed. It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons”(Faulkner) This attitude of the townspeople clearly shows the respect and awe they had for Emily and her family , a respect generated by the difference in class. The judge himself does not want to tell Emily to clean up her house.” So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack stung from his shoulder.”(Faulkner) The men sprinkle lime all over the place during the night so that the smell goes away. “.So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell. “(Faulkner) These incidents show how Emily took advantage of her class and her .
Tradition plays an important part in “A Rose for Emily”. When Emily father dies, the women of the town call on her to offer condolences, fulfilling a traditional obligation. At the same time, Emily is not following the tradition by dressing in black.” Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face.”(Faulkner) In fact, Emily herself was a tradition, an institution. ”Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town,” (Faulkner) When Emily starts going out with Homer Barron, the conservative people of the town did not approve of it though they were glad that Emily at last “had an interest.” But there were others more tradition bound and class conscious, who said,” ‘Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.’”(Faulkner) Soon the people started whispering about the affair. “ She carried her head high enough-even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson;”(Faulkner) The author touches on Emily imperviousness, her dignity in the face of rumor and pity.
Faulkner characters are obsessed by family. His characters do everything to uphold the family tradition. According to Kinney, ”It is the family that defines them, haunts them and limits them”.(Kinney p.180) After the minister failed interview with Emily, the townspeople see her go out with Barron again , defiantly.” The next Sunday they again drove about the streets, and the following day the minister’s wife wrote to Miss Emily’s relations in Alabama.”(Faulkner)The family is summoned, and the cousins stay with Emily for a few days. The people did not like the cousins because” the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been.”(Faulkner)
Although his characters are set in the conservative milieu, Faulkner “fictional methods were however, reverse of conservative” (Encyclopedia Britannica)He builds up suspense and springs a surprise on us in the end. The scene in which Emily buys the arsenic and the earlier mention of the bad smell make the reader curious. The psychological torment that Emily must have gone through is evident when she buys the arsenic.. Here too, her iron dignity due to her class, is seen. She goes to the chemist and asks for the best poison he has and mentions arsenic. The chemist wants her to tell him what she needed it for, because the law required the fact. But
“Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he
looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up.”(Faulkner) Tradition, a family pride, and a sense of ‘nobless oblige’ makes Emily give up her happiness for the sake of false pride. She orders “ a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men’s clothing, including a nightshirt, and we said, “They are married”. (Faulkner)
The macabre denoument of the story leaves the reader with mixed feelings. Faulkner “explored , articulated and challenged the old verities of truth and of the heart.”(The Mississippi Writers Page” When the townspeople break open the door of the locked room upstairs in Emily house after her death, they find the skeleton of Homer Barron on the bed, among bridal finery, in an attitude of embrace.,” in long sleep that outlasts love”..The final touch is given by the author where , in the next pilloe, they find a long gray hair.
Emily Grierson thus became a victim of the very class difference which had helped her to maintain her dignity all along. The family traditions which haunted her take the toll of her happiness.
1. Faulkner, W.C. “A Rose for Emily” www.eng.fju.edu.tw/English_Literature/Rose/el-text-E-Rose.htm –
2. Kinney,A.F. “Faulkner Families” in A Companion to William Faulkner Ed. Richard C. Moreland. Blackwell Publications. 2007.The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vol 4. !5th edition. Chicago 2003.“The Mississippi Writers Page” http.//www.oiemiss.edu/mwp/dir/Faulkner_william/PAGE