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William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" has as one of its themes the decline of the Old South with its gentility and unspoken code of chivalry against the New South and its increasing degeneration. The change in the South is reflected first in the description of Emily's house:
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies...set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood.
Even Emily herself reflects the degeneration. When the aldermen come to call upon her, the house has "a dank smell." Emily looks like a dead person who has drowned:
...a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt...Her skeleton was small and spare...She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of a pallid hue. .. Her voice was dry and cold.
Yet with dignity, her watch buried in her dress, symbolizing her inadmission of time, Emily refuses the aldermen and insists that Colonel Sartoris has taken care of the taxes. In addition, after her father's death, Emily hardly goes out, ill for a long time. The townsfolk think that her "kinfolk" should visit her as was done in the Old South. They also think that Emily's cousins should talk with her about the man she is seeing. They mention "noblesse oblige," employing a word that connotes the suggestion of upper class. However, Emily's new boyfriend, from the North, knows nothing of such antiquated behavior. Instead, he takes Emily for rides shamelessly throughout the town, displaying the loss of gentility to Emily. Still, when Homer leaves and the townspeople see her at the window, they remark about the vestiges of her old life in which her father had felt that no man was good enough for his daughter:
Then we knew that this was to be expected too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.
Because of her overbearing father, whose picture remains upon the wall, Emily cannot shed the vestiges of the Old South, and does, indeed, resist change. With the old Negroe as her servant who attends her, she gives china painting lessons, but the children of her students do not come for such lessons. Emily has become an anachronism. Her front door remains closed as she stops time:
Thus, she passed from generation to generation--dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.
No longer able to live in the world into which she was born, Emily stops time, too, for her lover. When the old men come to her funeral, they reflect this conflict with time:
...some in their brushed Confederate uniforms--...talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.
In Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," an unnamed narrator is a townsman of Jefferson, Mississippi, who has for some years watched Emily Grierson with considerable interest but also respectful distance. He openly describes his perspective as average; he always uses we in the story, never I. His tone and manner are informed but detached, and surprisingly cool given the horrific conclusion. He mixes his own observations with town gossip to provide a seeming reliable view of Jefferson’s opinion of Miss Emily.
While the narrator notes and reports many things about Miss Emily’s history and personality, he is not the man to analyze or ponder their significance. The careful reader, however, soon understands several important factors affecting her. Miss Emily’s father has somehow kept her down—dominating her life and driving away suitors. She also has difficulty accepting loss or change. She will not, for example, initially admit that her father has died or let the doctors or minister dispose of the body. Miss Emily seems starved for affection and emotionally desperate enough to risk censure from the town when she takes Homer Barron as her lover. At the end the reader also sees her determination in killing Barron, though her motives are open to question. Did she want to exact revenge for his apparent refusal to marry her? Or did she want to keep him with her forever?
Emily’s refusal to recognize change is suggested in the symbol of her invisible watch (paragraph 7), with its hint that she lives according to a private, secret time of her own. Her house seems an extension of her person in its “stubborn and cuettish decay” (2). Now it stands amid gasoline pumps, refusing, like its owner, to be part of a new era. The story contains many such images of stasis: when Emily confronts the aldermen, she looks bloated, “like a body long submerged in motionless water”—a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the discovery of Homer’s long-guarded dust.
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