In meeting Faulkner’s Emily Grierson of Jefferson, Mississippi, one is reminded of several inhabitants of another fictional town—Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the setting of his book by the same name. In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson introduces the word “grotesque” to characterize the individuals in the town whose lives have been determined by cruel chance or circumstance, turning them into obsessed, twisted versions of humanity. In a literary essay, “Sherwood Anderson’s Idea of the Grotesque,” critic David D. Anderson alludes to the grotesques of Winesburg as “spiritual cripples, deformed by their inability to distinguish between appearance and reality.” They are “turned in upon themselves, isolated, and alone." The grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio are human beings, the essay points out, who are “worthy of love, of compassion, and of understanding.”
Each of these descriptors captures the character of Emily Grierson, and just as Sherwood Anderson felt compassion for his grotesques, Faulkner evinces sympathy for Miss Emily, robbed of her life by her heritage as a Grierson. Through no fault of her own and despite her early efforts to live a normal life, Emily is isolated in Jefferson. An overbearing father runs off her suitors, consigning her to spinsterhood, and the town, developed as a character in Faulkner’s story, does not relate to her as a fellow human being. Miss Emily’s family name and social status as one of the “high and mighty Griersons” separate her from the ebb and flow of daily life in Jefferson. When her father dies, she clings to his presence in the Grierson family home until she is forced to give up his body, foreshadowing her subsequent obsession with Homer Baron’s corpse. Emily’s having pursued a scandalous romantic relationship with the socially unacceptable Yankee illustrates a desperate need to end her isolation and loneliness, as does her eventual murder of him and continuing possession of his body.
In murdering Homer and sleeping for years beside his decaying corpse, Miss Emily crosses the line between being a grotesque and being a madwoman, but her behavior originates in circumstances that thwart her development as a healthy, fulfilled individual. Like Anderson’s grotesques, Miss Emily struggles to live within the confines of her sad life. She is a twisted spirit whose suffering serves as a subtle subtext in Faulkner’s story.