In his short story "A Rose for Emily," how does William Faulkner employ symbolism to add depth or sophistication to the story's meaning/theme?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In his story “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner continually uses symbolism to add depth and meaning to the story’s plot and themes.  A good example occurs in the story’s very second paragraph, which describes Miss Emily’s home:

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street.

The fact that Miss Emily’s home is “big” symbolizes the wealth and social prominence her family once enjoyed in the community. The fact that it had “once been white” symbolizes how the power and prominence of her family have faded. Miss Emily herself, of course, has also faded; she has grown old and lost whatever youthful beauty she once possessed. The style of the house is old-fashioned, symbolizing how Miss Emily herself had become a kind of relic before her death. The house had once been on a “select street,” symbolizing that time has since moved on, both for the neighborhood and for Miss Emily herself.

Another example of Faulkner’s use of symbolism occurs near the end of the second section of the story:

When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way, people were glad.

The death of Miss Emily’s father symbolizes the death of the social prominence of herself and her family. The phrase “got about” symbolizes the rumors that pervade this town and this story. The reference to “the people” symbolizes the important role of the local populace in this tale, and indeed this entire sentence symbolizes a chief theme of the entire work: Miss Emily’s relationship with her community.

One final example of symbolism in “A Rose for Emily” appears in the final sentence of the story:

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

The “indentation of a head” on the pillow symbolizes the death of Miss Emily. She is now gone forever, just as her head is now gone forever from her pillow.  (Just as the head, however, has left a distinct literal impression, she has left a distinct figurative impression, not only on the townspeople but on us as readers.) The reference to “dust” reinforces the symbolism of death. Finally, the reference to the “iron-gray hair” symbolizes the advance of years in general, the specific loss of Miss Emily’s youth, and the strength of personality she had long demonstrated (a reference to “silken gray hair” would not have had the same effect at all).

 

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