Explain the character Emily in "A Rose For Emily" by William Faulkner.  

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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 “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner takes place in Mississippi.  The story spans the seventy-four years of the main character’s life [before, during and after the Civil War].

Faulkner uses two unusual elements in the story: a fractured time frame and a first person narrator who seems to know almost everything about the main character.  The intrigue and twists and turns in the story keep the reader on guard to know what will happen next since the rising and falling action are not in the right sequence, and the story ends with the climax. 

It is usual for a murderer to be a the protagonist in the story; however, Miss Emily Grierson is the protagonist and an “Old South” southern belle.  Her father kept her from finding happiness with a man because he would not allow her to have a boyfriend. Emily was very much alone while she was with her father.  He controlled her completely until his death and even from the grave. Her life had been so separated from the rest of the town that she never had friends throughout the rest of her life.

Emily could also qualify as an antagonist particularly for Homer Barron. Homer was a self-described homosexual.  But her desire for love and companionship drove her to murder him. She knew her intentions when she bought the arsenic poison. Her deepest feelings and hidden longings were lying in the upstairs bed. The town really knew that she was a killer and could hardly wait to search through her house after her death.

The story begins and ends with the funeral of Emily.  This is the frame that Faulkner used for the story.  He describes how the town feels about her:

When  Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: themen through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument. Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town…

In her life, Emily makes foolish mistakes.  By the time that she is thirty, she has already murdered.  At forty, she is well on the way to dying alone in her almost deserted house.  Tragedy strikes Emily in every aspect of her life.

No one really knows her, not even the narrator. Faulkner describes Emily as impermeable.  What facts does the reader learn about Emily from the story:  

  • dominated by her father
  • Is an only child
  • pursues her sexual desires with Homer
  • lives a lonely, loveless, isolated life
  • had artistic ability
  • buys arsenic and several men’s items
  • has a smell around her house
  • pitied by everyone
  • kept a dead body in her upstairs bedroom

Emily had never been a happy person. Faulkner repeats the words “poor Emily” four times on one page of the story. There is no rose in the story that is given to Emily.  Faulkner told an interviewer what he meant by the title:

“A Rose for Emily” was an allegorical title.  Its meaning was that here was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy, and nothing could be done about it; and I pitied her, and this was a salute…to a woman you would hand a rose.

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