William Faulkner Short Fiction Analysis
William Faulkner has been credited with having the imagination to see, before other serious writers saw, the tremendous potential for drama, pathos, and sophisticated humor in the history and people of the South. In using this material and, in the process, suggesting to others how it might be used, he has also been credited with sparking the Southern Renaissance of literary achievement that has produced much of the United States’ best literature in the twentieth century.
In chronicling the tragedy of southern history, he delineated a vision tempered by his historical perspective that has freed the region from the popular conception of its character as possessing a universal gentility and a pervasive aristocracy, and he portrayed realistically a population often idealized and caricatured in songs, movies, and pulp fiction. In undercutting the false idealizations, Faulkner often distorted the stereotypes and rendered them somewhat grotesque in the interest of bringing them to three-dimensional life; and he attempted to show in the political and social presumptions of the South the portent of its inevitable destruction—first through war and then through an insidious new social order based on commercial pragmatism and shortsighted lust for progress. In this sense, the New South is shown to have much in common with mainstream America.
Faulkner’s themes are often conveyed in an elaborate baroque style noted for its long, difficult sentences that challenge the reader to discern the speaker, the time, and even the subject of the narrative. Faulkner makes considerable use of stream-of-consciousness interior monologues, and his frequent meshings of time reinforce his conviction that the past and present are intricately interwoven in the human psyche.
“A Rose for Emily”
“A Rose for Emily,” frequently anthologized and analyzed, is probably Faulkner’s best-known story. Because of its elements of mystery, suspense, and the macabre, it has enjoyed a popular appeal. That Emily Grierson, an aging southern belle, murders the lover who spurned her and sleeps beside his decaying body for a number of years is only the most sensational aspect of the story. What is more interesting to the serious reader of Faulkner is the interplay between Emily Grierson and the two generations of townspeople who attempt to cope with her—one the old guard and the other a new generation with “modern ideas.”
The opening paragraphs of the story inform the reader that when Miss Emily died, the whole town turned out for her funeral. She was a “fallen monument a tradition, a duty and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” The townspeople, who are by the time of Emily’s death mostly of a generation younger than her own, have never been able to incorporate her into their community. For them, as well as for their fathers, she has stood as an embodiment of an older ideal of southern womanhood—even though in her later years she has grown obese, bloated, and pale as dough. The older generation, under the mayoralty of Colonel Sartoris (“who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron”), has relieved Miss Emily of her taxes and has sent its children to take her china-painting classes “in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sunday with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate.” The new generation, however, is not pleased with the accommodations its fathers made with Miss Emily; it tries to impose taxes upon her and it no longer sends its children to take her lessons. Miss Emily has been encouraged in her ways by the old guard, however; she refuses to pay the town’s taxes, telling the representatives of the new generation to “see Colonel Sartoris,” who has been dead for ten years. The town is unable to handle Emily; it labels her “insane” and likewise comes to see her as the ghost of a feminine ideal out of the past. She becomes a recluse, living alone in her house with her black servant; and in her claim to privilege and impunity, she stands as a reminder to the town of the values—and sins—of its fathers, which are visited upon the third generation.
It is tempting to think of Miss Emily as merely a decadent and perverse relic of the South’s antebellum past; indeed, this is how the story has often been read. Such a neat interpretation, however, would seem to be defeated by the time element in the story. Emily lives in a house spiraled and cupolaed in the architectural style of the 1870’s, on a once-elegant street that has been altered by industry and commercial development. Although the rickety town fathers of the Civil War era come to her funeral dressed in their dusty uniforms and even believe that she was of their own generation and that they had danced with her when she was a young woman, clearly Emily is not of that generation; she is of the postwar South. She has not lingered as a relic from a warped racist culture; she has instead been created by defeated members of that culture who have continued to yearn after a world they have lost, a world that might well have existed largely in their imaginations, but a concept so persistent that the newer generation, for all its modern ideas, is powerless to control it. The reader is told that the town had long thought of Emily and her dead father “as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the backflung front door.” It is clear that the newer generation of the twentieth century has adopted certain popular ideas about the old South. This “tableau” could serve as the dust jacket for any number of romantic novels set in the plantation days.
Thus, the two generations are complicit in ignoring the real Emily and creating and maintaining the myth of Emily as an exemplum of southern womanhood from a lost age, just as the town aldermen—“three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation”—have conspired to cover up Emily’s horrible crime. When the smell of the corpse of Emily’s decaying lover, Homer Barron, had become so strong that it could no longer be ignored by the town, the aldermen had scattered lime around Emily’s house secretly at night, although they knew she had recently purchased arsenic from the druggist and that Barron had disappeared; and when the smell went away, so did the town’s concern about the matter. The old guard cannot bear, and does not wish, to accept the grim essence of the dream it has spun; the new generation, under the influence of the old, grudgingly accepts its burden of the past, but then wrenches it into a romantic shape that obscures the “fat woman in black” (overindulgent, moribund) that is Emily Grierson.
The story, then, is a comment on the postbellum South, which inherited the monstrous code of values, glossed over by fine words about honor and glory, that characterized the slave era; that postbellum South learns to ignore the unsavory elements of its past by ignoring Emily the recluse and murderess and by valorizing the romantic “tableau.” This is, however, a complex matter. The new generation—a generation excluded from the nominal code of honor, valor, and decorum that the old Confederates believed to have sustained them and excluded from the benefits that were to be gained from the slave system of the “glorious” old South—sees the Griersons as “high and mighty,” as holding themselves “a little too high for what they really were.” The new generation, pragmatic and small-minded, for the most part, has inherited a landscape sullied by cotton gins and garages. Miss Emily Grierson, as a privileged person and as a reminder of what the older generation forfeited in its defeat, is a goad in the minds of the uncharitable newer generation, which, when she does not marry, is “vindicated.” When it hears the rumor that she has inherited nothing but the decaying house from her father, it is glad: “At last they could pity Miss Emily.” Miss Emily out of sight, destitute, “insane,” and deprived too of the lost legacy of the old South can be recreated as a fictional heroine in white, part of the backdrop against which the popularized hero, her father, stands with his horsewhip—a faceless silhouette, cruel and powerful, an “ancestor” who can be claimed by the dispossessed generation as its own.
The incestuous image of the father and daughter suggests the corrupt nature of the new South, which, along with the corrupt nature of the old South, is a favorite Faulknerian concern. Granted, the “tableau” on the face of it appears to be the cover of a romantic novel, and in that sense it seems to be merely a popular rendering of history; but it is the townspeople who arrange father and daughter in the lurid scene. It is the men of the new generation who black out the distinguishing features of Emily’s dead father in their creation of the tableau, leaving a dark masculine space (more, one would guess, in the shape of foreman Homer Barron than of Mr. Grierson) into which they can dream themselves, as masters of a glorious age, as potent heroes for whom the wispy heroine wanes in the background. The newer generation has the “modern ideas” bred of the necessity of surviving in the defeated, industrialized South; but in its attitudes toward Emily Grierson, it reveals the extent to which the old decadent values of the fathers have been passed along.
The narrator of the story, one of the townspeople himself, has proved unreliable. While it is true that Emily seems to be “a tradition, a duty, a care, an hereditary obligation,” a relic of the past miraculously...
(The entire section is 3985 words.)
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