All literature involves conflict of some kind. Without conflict, there is not much of a story. There are four types of conflict. Most works will involve more than one. In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner employs all four. The types of conflict are:
- Man* v. Man
- Man v. Nature
- Man v. Society
- Man v. Self.
*Note: “Man” refers to both men and women.
1. Man v. Man
There are two primary man v. man conflicts in the story.
Emily v. Her Father
Emily’s father deliberately keep his daughter single by chasing away all her suitors:
None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. So when she got to be thirty and 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 (II.25).
Emily v. Homer
There are both class and social conflicts between Emily and Homer. Emily is of Southern aristocracy, while Homer is a day laborer. Emily is desperate for marriage, while Homer is not ready to settle down.
So the next day we all said, “She will kill herself”; and we said it would be the best thing. When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “She will persuade him yet,” because Homer himself had remarked—he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club—that he was not a marrying man (IV.43).
2. Man v. Society
When an individual’s values and needs conflict with society’s values and needs, conflict results. There are three types of “man v. society” conflicts in “A Rose for Emily.”
Emily v. Aldermen
When Emily’s father was alive, he paid the property taxes on their home; he arranged for his friend, Colonel Sartoris, to continue paying the taxes after his passing on behalf of his daughter. After the colonel’s death, the younger generation was no longer interested in maintaining their “hereditary obligation.” For her part, Emily feels no sense of duty to pay the taxes herself.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff's office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment (I.4).
Emily vs. Public Acceptability
There are two areas of Emily’s private life encroaching on the public, and the public finds her choices unacceptable.
The first is her outings with Homer. The town views her suitor as beneath her:
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, older people, who said that even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige—without calling it noblesse oblige. They just said, “Poor Emily. Her kinsfolk should come to her.” She had some kin in Alabama; but years ago her father had fallen out with them over the estate of old lady Wyatt, the crazy woman, and there was no communication between the two families. They had not even been represented at the funeral (III.31).
The second is the smell that begins wafting from her home and becomes increasingly intolerable:
The next day he received two more complaints, one from a man who came in diffident deprecation. “We really must do something about it, Judge. I'd be the last one in the world to bother Miss Emily, but we’ve got to do something.” That night the Board of Aldermen met--three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t . . .”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily's lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings (II.21-24).
3. Man v. Nature
At the turn of the twentieth century, an unmarried woman past the age of thirty had very few chances of ever finding a husband. Aging is not helping Emily's prospects, and whatever beauty she may have had is fading fast. Here is a description of her appearance when the aldermen pay her a visit:
They rose when she entered—a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. 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 (I.6).
4. Man v. Himself
For Emily, the entire story is one large internal conflict. She has suitors and seems interested, but her father chases them away. She must experience some conflict when she dates Homer, a man well beneath her social station. The most obvious conflict she has is whether to let the man with whom she has fallen in love go or keep him with her. Forever.
The man himself lay in the bed.
For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. 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. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.