Is the narrator's opinion of Emily in "A Rose for Emily" at all influenced by the place and time of the story?
There is no question that William Faulkner’s stories were heavily influenced by his Southern heritage; such influences are common among most authors, especially those from the post-Reconstruction South. And, Faulkner’s body of work, especially perhaps his most well-known novel, The Sound and the Fury, which takes place in the Mississippi of the author’s birth and tells the story of a once-prominent Southern family disintegrating under the strains of American’s evolving cultures and an increasingly dysfunctional social milieu, is deeply steeped in the now-antiquated customs and traditions that were once prevalent throughout that region. Contemporary perceptions of sexism and class distinctions certainly illuminate details of Faulkner’s writings that were treated as acceptable and normal elements of American writing and political discourse during the early-20th Century.
By the time Faulkner’s 1930 short story A Rose for Emily was published, those social and cultural transformations had begun, and his story’s protagonist, an aging Southern woman who had never married because her now-deceased father discouraged potential suitors for her hand, is but a badly degraded version of her former self, a deterioration of human tissue matched by the gradual decomposition of the home in which she lived. Faulkner describes the setting in which this woman, and much of the story, takes place:
“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 [the 1870s, that is], set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting it stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps – an eyesore among eyesores.”
Faulkner’s setting clearly emphasizes the physical and social decay that surrounds and personifies Emily’s existence. That she lives out her life in economic destitution and physical decay, isolated from the encroaching world and alone save for her African American servant, himself a symbol of a bygone era, reflects the age and culture in which the author was immersed. The notion of the pitiful spinster (“So, when she got to be thirty as was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated; even with insanity in the family she wouldn’t have turned down all of her chances if they had really materialized”) can be seen as representative of the author’s own male gender and of his exposure to a Southern aristocratic culture that was slowly disappearing. The portrait of Miss Emily could have been produced during any era, and in any culture; this is, after all, a culture that continues to produce misogynistic imagery on a regular basis, and the enormous commercial success of a horror film industry that delights in victimizing nubile young girls clearly indicates the continued market for such fare. The culture in which Faulkner was raised and in which he produced his best works, however, was very distinct and created many images that, by today’s standards, can easily be seen as sexist and morally obtuse. That Emily is discovered, after her death, to have kept the corpse of her sole opportunity for male companionship preserved on her bed, and that she lied beside it as lovers would – evident by the discovery of the “long strand of iron-grey hair” that searchers retrieved from the pillow beside the dead body – can certainly be seen as indicative of the time and place in which the story was written. And Faulkner’s gender can also be seen as influential in the portrait of Miss Emily he presents; this latter point, however, can apply to any number of eras and settings.
That the narrator or narrators ("we" is used) of "A Rose for Emily" are products of their environment is certainly evident throughout the narrative. In her essay, "The Narrator in a 'Rose for Emily,'" Ruth Sullivan contends,
...we cannot understand Emily Grierson until we have understood the narrator, for he is the medium of consciousness through whom she is filtered; and that...narrator is an emotional participant in Miss Emily's life, and therefore cannot be objective.
Further, Sullivan proposes that the narrator is the "medium of consciousness" through whom the reader perceives Miss Emily, When, for instance, Emily is described early in the narrative as "dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse," there are judgments made here by the narrator and the town prior to the discovery of Emily's secrets, indicating the perspective of his descriptions to come. He also describes Emily as "a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town." This statement points to the cultural influences upon the narrator: the respect for the old aristocracy of the South, the traditional concept that the upper class is of more importance and higher social position. Another example of the cultural attitude of the narrator is evinced in the reaction to Emily's dating Homer Barron, a common laborer and Northerner, too:
At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, "Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer." But there were still others...who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige.
The narrator notes when Emily's cousins from Alabama come and go. Then, Homer departs, and Emily is not seen except in a window. Again, the narrator forms a judgment,
...this was to be expected, too; as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die.
The narrator at times is also an emotional participant in the narrative. For example, it is with poignancy that the narrator recounts the confusion of time in the old men who attend her funeral, men who wear their old Confederate uniforms and believe that Miss Emily was a contemporary of theirs and they had danced with her. And, the recounting of the discovery of Emily and Homer's skeleton in the bedroom connotes a certain tragic quality as the narrator describes what once was Homer,
The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love had cuckolded him.