In "A Rose for Emily" what specific symbolism does William Faulkner use to show Emily's struggle with her changing society?Symbolism seems difficult for me to pick out especially when it needs to...

In "A Rose for Emily" what specific symbolism does William Faulkner use to show Emily's struggle with her changing society?

Symbolism seems difficult for me to pick out especially when it needs to point to a specific issue.  Any guidance would be most helpful to me!

Expert Answers
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "A Rose for Emily," Faulkner symbolizes both Emily's and the South's decay through her house and, later, the smell coming from within (Homer's body).  By the way, neither Emily nor her society change in the story: all are static, old, and decaying.

Her home is described in the second paragraph thusly:

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. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps--an eyesore among eyesores.

The house had been a once-glorious mansion, just as Emily and the South had been paragons of aristocracy before the Civil War.  But, Reconstruction was not kind to the South, neither was the death of Emily's father and her marriage to Homer Baron (an archetype of a Northern carpetbagger).  As such, the white house, on the outside, has become "an eyesore among eyesores."  Physical decay always implies moral decay.  As such, the house is a pathetic fallacy (an external representation of an internal condition).

The house is symbolic because it had once been a flurry of activity: China painting and guests.  But, after Emily's father died (and she tried to sleep with his body too), the house has been closed off from the public, like Emily.  She has maintained her saintly status based on manners and myth--since no one (except her servant) has set foot inside the house in years, let alone upstairs.  The house and Emily are such cornerstones of the Southern town that she's exempt from paying taxes.

The irony is, of course, that the inside of the house is even worse: the revered Miss Emily not only married a gay Northerner, but she murdered him with poison and slept with his decaying corpse for years.  Connected to the house is the smell of Homer's body:

It smelled of dust and disuse--a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture.

These are all understatements, by the way.  It smelled like death, but none of the townspeople would dare say it because of Miss Emily's revered status in the community.  Instead, they placed lime around the perimeter to cover it up.  What gentlemanly manners!

After her death, though, the grotesque sight of her necrophilia is revealed, symbolizing a unholy alliance between the Old South and the New North and, more importantly, between the Old South's attempt to maintain its old, out-dated and illegitimate culture.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a great question! Symbolism can be hard at times to pick out but it is worth persevering and trying to read fiction focussing on this fascinating topic. For me, the most powerful bit of symbolism that is used to describe Miss Emily and her failure to move with the times is actually in the first section of this great tale. Note how she is described by the Aldermen who come to try and persuade her that she needs to start paying taxes:

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.

Note how the simile here establishes Miss Emily as a washed-up corpse from some long-ago time. This is of course symbolises the way that she does still live in a time long ago which has long been surpassed by more modern ways of thinking. Times have moved on, but Miss Emily for whatever reason has not moved with them and remains a kind of relic of an earlier age, but one that has become stagnant.

Read the study guide:
A Rose for Emily

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