William Faulkner is widely considered to be one of the great American authors of the twentieth century. Although his greatest works are identified with a particular region and time (Mississippi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), the themes he explores are universal. He was also an extremely accomplished writer in a technical sense. Novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! feature bold experimentation with shifts in time and narrative. Several of his short stories are favorites of anthologists, including ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ This strange story of love, obsession, and death is a favorite among both readers and critics. The narrator, speaking for the town of Jefferson in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, tells a series of stories about the town's reclusive spinster, Miss Emily Grierson. The stories build up to a gruesome revelation after Miss Emily's funeral. She apparently poisoned her lover Homer Barron, and kept his corpse in an attic bedroom for over forty years. It is a common critical cliché to say that a story ‘‘exists on many levels,’’ but in the case of ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ this is the truth. Critic Frank A. Littler, in an essay published in Notes on Mississippi Writers regarding the chronology of the story, writes that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ has been read variously as ‘‘… a Gothic horror tale, a study in abnormal psychology, an allegory of the relations between North and South, a meditation on the nature of time, and a tragedy with Emily as a sort of tragic heroine.’’ These various interpretations serve as a good starting point for discussion of the story.
The Gothic horror tale is a literary form dating back to 1764 with the first novel identified with the genre, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ontralto. Gothicism features an atmosphere of terror and dread: gloomy castles or mansions, sinister characters, and unexplained phenomena. Gothic novels and stories also often include unnatural combinations of sex and death. In a lecture to students documented by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner in Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958, Faulkner himself claimed that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is a ‘‘ghost story.’’ In fact, Faulkner is considered by many to be the progenitor of a sub-genre, the Southern gothic. The Southern gothic style combines the elements of classic Gothicism with particular Southern archetypes (the reclusive spinster, for example) and puts them in a Southern milieu. Faulkner's novels and stories about the South include dark, taboo subjects such as murder, suicide, and incest.
James M. Mellard, in The Faulkner Journal, argues that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is a ‘‘retrospective Gothic;’’ that is, the reader is unaware that the story is Gothic until the end when Homer Barron's corpse is discovered. He points out that the narrator's tone is almost whimsical. He also notes that because the narrator's flashbacks are not presented in an ordinary sequential order, readers who are truly unfamiliar with the story don't put all the pieces together until the end. However, a truly careful first reading should begin to reveal the Gothic elements early in the story. Emily is quickly established as a strange character when the aldermen enter her decrepit parlor in a futile attempt to collect her taxes. She is described as looking ‘‘… bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.’’ She insists that the aldermen discuss the tax situation with a man who has been dead for a decade. If she is not yet a sinister character, she is certainly weird. In section two of the story, the unexplained smell coming from her house, the odd relationship she has with her father, and the suggestion that madness may run in her family by the reference to her ‘‘crazy’’ great-aunt, old lady Wyatt, are elements that, at the very least, hint at the Gothic nature of the story. Emily's purchase of arsenic should leave no doubt at that point that the story is leading to a Gothic conclusion.
It is Emily's awful deed that continues to captivate readers. Why would she do something so ghastly? How could she kill a man and bed his corpse? This line of questioning leads to a psychological examination of Emily's character....
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In a recent article, Hal Blythe discusses the central role played by the narrator in William Faulkner's gothic masterpiece ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ Focusing on Miss Emily's bizarre affair and how it affronts the chivalric notions of the Old South, the narrator, according to Blythe, attempts to assuage the grief produced by Miss Emily's rejection of him by relating her story; telling her tale allows him to exact a measure of revenge. Faulkner's speaker, without doubt, serves as a pivotal player in this tale of grotesque love. Although Blythe grasps the significance of the narrator's place in the story, he bases his argument on a point that the story itself never makes completely clear. Blythe assumes that Faulkner's narrator is male. The possibility exists, however, that Faulkner intended his readers to view the tale-teller as being female.
Hints in the text suggest that Faulkner's speaker might be a woman. The narrative voice (the ‘‘we’’ in the story), a spokesperson for the town, appears very concerned with every detail of Emily's life. Faulkner provides us with an important clue concerning the gender of this narrator when he describes the townspeople's reaction to Emily's attachment to Homer Barron: ‘‘The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister … to call upon her.’’ Jefferson's male population seems apathetic regarding Emily's tryst; the men are not the least bit scandalized. The females in town (the ‘‘we’’ in the tale) are so concerned with Emily's eccentricities that they force their men to act; one very interested female in particular, the narrator, sees to it that Emily's story is not forgotten.
This coterie of Jefferson's ‘‘finer’’ ladies (represented by the narrator) seems highly offended by Emily's actions. This resentment might stem from two primary causes. First, the ladies (the phrase ‘‘the ladies’’ appears throughout the tale and might refer to the ‘‘proper’’ Southern belles living in town) find Miss Emily's pre-marital relationship immoral. Second, they resent Emily's seeing a Yankee man. In the eyes of these flowers of Southern femininity, Emily Grierson becomes a stain on the white gown of Southern womanhood.
Despite their bitterness toward Emily, the ladies of Jefferson feel some degree of sympathy for her. After her father's death, the ladies reminisce: ‘‘We remembered all the young men her father had driven away.…’’ Later, Homer Barron disappears, prompting this response: ‘‘Then we knew that this was to be expected...
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Nearly everyone familiar with the writings of William Faulkner is aware of the fracturings of time so common in his work. Many of his major characters spend much of their fictional lives trying to piece together their experiences and lives, to put them in some kind of chronological or existential order. Few of them succeed; and when they do, as is perhaps the case with Quentin Compson (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!) they most often find that to make sense of their lives is to create the necessity for self-destruction. But, most often, Faulkner's characters are like Charles Bon of Absalom, Absalom! who, when he leaves for college, is only on the periphery of an area of knowledge about himself and his world. Bon is described as ‘‘almost touching the answer lurking, just beyond his reach, inextricable, jumbled, and unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into a pattern which would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the meaning of his whole life.’’
But if Faulkner's characters are often at a loss with respect to the movements of their existences through time, his critics cannot be. Indeed, such detailings of temporal chronology, together with structural elaborations, provide some of the most lucid and meaningful understandings of Faulkner's fiction. Almost all of Faulkner's stories and novels can be better appreciated and more accurately understood and interpreted through a detailing of the interrelationships of time and structure. In Faulkner's world theme exists as the hyphen in the compound temporal-structure. Not the least of such cases is ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’
‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is divided into five sections, the first and last section having to do with the present, the now of the narration, with the three middle sections detailing the past. The story begins and ends with the death of Miss Emily Grierson; the three middle sections move through Miss Emily's life from a time soon after her father's death and shortly after her beau Homer Barron, ‘‘had deserted her,’’ to the time of her death.
Late in the fourth section of the story, Faulkner writes of Miss Emily, ‘‘Thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.’’ On first reading, this series of adjectives appears to be only another catalogue so familiar in Faulkner. Often it seems that Faulkner simply lists such a series of adjectives as if to say, ‘‘Take your choice of these, I don't care.’’ Not so in this instance. Rather, it would seem that Faulkner uses these five adjectives to describe Miss Emily with some care and for a specific purpose. It could be argued that they are intended to refer to the successive sections of the story, each becoming as it were a sort of metaphorical characterization of the differing states through which the townspeople of Jefferson (and the readers) pass in their evaluation of Miss Emily. Correlating the two present sections with the adjectives that fall to them, we see Miss Emily as the paradox she has become in death, ‘‘dear’’ and ‘‘perverse,’’ while before her death she was ‘‘inescapable, impervious, tranquil.’’ Thus, during her life, the enigma of Miss Emily's personality, which kept her seemingly immortal, impenetrable, and almost inevitably inescapable, has been clarified and crystalized by her death. A woman who, alive, ‘‘had been a tradition, a duty, and a care,’’ and thus ‘‘dear’’ in several senses of that word, is revealed, in death, to have been what for...
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The first clues to meaning in a short story usually arise from a detection of the principal contrasts which an author sets up. The most common, perhaps, are contrasts of character, but when characters are contrasted there is usually also a resultant contrast in terms of action. Since action reflects a moral or ethical state, contrasting action points to a contrast in ideological perspectives and hence toward the theme.
The principal contrast in William Faulkner's short story ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is between past time and present time: the past as represented in Emily herself, in Colonel Sartoris, in the old Negro servant, and in the Board of Aldermen who accepted the Colonel's attitude toward Emily and rescinded...
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