How is this story a Southern gothic tale?

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This story can be identified as a text within the Southern Gothic tradition as a result of the story's mood, the characterization of Miss Emily Grierson, and the setting. Faulkner establishes an ominous mood by beginning with Emily's death and the secrecy surrounding the details of her life. The descriptions of her decaying home and the awkward juxtaposition of the old gentility with the new technologies and fashions is also disconcerting and off-putting.

Further, the implied revelation that Emily purchased rat poison to murder her lover, Homer Barron, so that he could not abandon her as her father did, helps to make her a rather grotesque character. She is distorted, physically and morally, as the narrators say,

Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.

Her body is described as lots of things other than a living, healthy body, and there is something repugnant not only in her appearance, but also in her decisions. She refuses to accept her father's death, telling others that he is well, only allowing the authorities to remove his body after several days. She clearly has some deep-seated illness and insecurities about being alone.

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The Southern Gothic movement of American literature is marked by many features found in William Faulkner's writing in general and in "A Rose for Emily" in particular. The American South's embrace of patriarchy and slavery and the consequent social and economic collapse after the Civil War provide ample material to develop literature imbued with themes of alienation, distorted, delusional thinking, and characters drawn as grotesque.

Emily Grierson is an anachronism; her stubborn refusal to let go of her family's long-held attitudes of superiority mires her in denial and maroons her in a once-grand mansion. Her alienation is inevitable as she refuses to change with the times; refusing to pay her taxes, being served by an African American man, and dressing in clothes from an earlier era are all outward manifestations of her delusional thinking. The grandeur of the antebellum South is irrevocably gone, but Emily Grierson chooses not to revise the way she thinks and values. Her home becomes a tomb for dead ideas, and more literally, for Homer Barron, when she sees that he is a threat to her reputation as a Southern lady.

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“A Rose for Emily” is an iconic example of Southern Gothic literature, a subgenre of Gothic literature that developed in twentieth-century American fiction. Like Gothic literature in general, Faulkner’s story contains elements of mystery and horror, and the narrative is permeated with other Gothic elements, as well—ruin, decay, darkness, insanity, and hereditary curses. Gothic stock characters—the tyrant, the villain, and the madwoman—are found among the people in Jefferson, the small Mississippi town that serves as the setting. Faulkner weaves these Gothic elements seamlessly into an examination of Southern society and the post-Civil War culture of the South, the distinguishing characteristic of Southern Gothic fiction.

Through Faulkner’s narrator, who knows personally the history of Jefferson and the events of Emily Grierson’s life and death, the town itself becomes a character in the story, a collection of citizens imprisoned by Southern heritage, Southern social dynamics, and a singular point of view. Through the town’s obsession with Emily Grierson and her behavior, the weight of the past is revealed. The citizens of Jefferson live the shadow of the past, their attitudes and actions controlled by what once was but is no more, except in memory. The nineteenth-century Grierson house, once grand, now stands in “stubborn and coquettish decay” among cotton wagons, garages, and gasoline pumps, “an eyesore among eyesores”; the names of Jefferson’s august families are found in the town’s cemetery, “among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.” The narrator’s description of Jefferson, its history, and its citizens establishes the culture and the atmosphere that make the events in the story and its macabre conclusion plausible.

The tyrant in Faulkner’s Southern Gothic is, of course, Emily’s selfish, domineering father, who destroys any possibility that she could marry and leave him. Homer Baron seems to be the villain of the piece, an itinerant Yankee who publicly pursues a romantic relationship with Miss Emily in a shocking disregard for her reputation and who apparently has no intentions of marrying her—or not. Homer’s intentions are never clarified, but Emily’s murdering him suggests that marriage was not a part of Homer's plans for the future. In the shocking conclusion of the story, Miss Emily is revealed as a woman driven mad, perhaps by the circumstances of her life or perhaps by inheriting the insanity that curses the Griersons. In any event, Emily Grierson is insane, the mystery of her behavior and the depth of her madness evident in the horror that lies behind the locked bedroom door in her house.

As the story unfolds, the mystery unfolds slowly, as Faulkner moves the reader backward and forward in time. In retrospect, clues throughout the story, when pieced together in chronological order, suggest Homer Baron’s fate, but the ultimate manifestation of Miss Emily’s insanity, revealed in the story’s final sentence, is not anticipated. Throughout the narrative Faulkner sustains the atmosphere of a Gothic mystery in scenes etched in darkness. Visitors to the Grierson house are admitted to “a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow.” One evening at dusk, Homer is observed entering Miss Emily’s house, never to be seen again. Men slink about in the shadows in Miss Emily’s yard late one night, spreading lime to eradicate a terrible smell, and a light suddenly appears in a solitary darkened window, illuminating her silent, motionless form. The mysterious room in the “region above stairs that no one had seen in forty years” is permeated with dust, “[a] thin acrid pall as of the tomb.” The story is dark, both literally and figuratively.

Beginning with Miss Emily’s funeral and ending with Homer Baron’s decayed corpse in her bed, “A Rose for Emily” develops the primary motif found in many Gothic tales: death. In Faulkner’s hands, the motif is inextricably related to the past that continued to inform the culture of the South as he knew it. “The past,” he once wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The truth of his perception is evident throughout the story, making “A Rose for Emily” a classic Southern Gothic tale.

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