The extraordinary degree to which the young Faulkner managed to compress into this, his first published story, many of the elements that came to be characteristic of his fiction is the effect of his unusual use of the first-person point of view and his control of the motifs that flow from it.
By confining himself to the pronoun “we,” the narrator gives the reader the impression that the whole town is bearing witness to the behavior of a heroine, about whom they have ambivalent attitudes, ambiguously expressed. The ambiguity derives in part from the community’s lack of access to facts, stimulating the narrator to draw on his own and the communal imagination to fill out the picture, creating a collage of images. The narration gives the impression of coming out of a communal consciousness, creating the effect of a peculiar omniscience. An entire novel could be developed from the material compressed into this short story.
Is the narrator telling the story in the southern oral tradition or is he or she writing it? To ask basic questions about this unusual collective mode of narration—who, what, where, when, and why—is to stir up many possibilities. The oral mode seems most appropriate, but the style, consisting of such phrases as “diffident deprecation,” suggests the written mode.
A pattern of motifs that interact, contrasting with or paralleling one another, sometimes symbolically, sometimes ironically, flows naturally from the reservoir of communal elements in the narrator’s saturated consciousness as he tells the story: the funeral, the cemetery, the garages, cars, cotton gins, taxes, the law, the market basket and other elements of black existence, the house, its front and back doors, its cellar and upper rooms, the window where Emily sits, the idol image that becomes a fallen monument, images that evoke the Civil War, images of gold, of decay, the color yellow, dust, shadows, corpses and bodies like corpses, the smells, the breaking down of doors, the poison, and the images of hair.
To lend greater impact to the surprise ending and to achieve greater artistic unity and intensity of effect, Faulkner uses other devices: foreshadowing, reversal, and repetition. Most of the motifs, spaced effectively throughout, are repeated at least three times, enabling the reader to respond at any given point to all the elements simultaneously.
Imitators of the surprise-ending device, made famous in modern times by O. Henry, have given that device a bad name by using it mechanically to provoke a superficial thrill. In raising the surprise-ending device to the level of complex art, Faulkner achieves a double impact: “The man himself lay on the bed” is shock enough, justified by what has gone before, but “the long strand of iron-gray hair,” the charged image that ends the story, shocks the reader into a sudden, intuitive reexperiencing and reappraisal of the stream of images, bringing order and meaning to the pattern of motifs.