What figurative language is used in William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily "?

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docholl1's profile pic

Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The first step in discussing Faulkner's use of figurative language is to define it, so, for our purposes we will consider figurative language to be the intentional departure from the literal, denotative (dictionary) meaning of words or the normal order of words in order to suggest additional meanings.  Figurative language relies, for the most part on, on rhetorical devices (known as tropes) like metaphor (comparison of two things) and simile (same comparison of two things, but using the words like or as); metonymy (a figure of speech that replaces the name of one thing with the name of something else closely associated with it); synecdoche (using a part of something to refer to the whole); and personification (animals, abstract ideas, or inanimate things are referred to as if they are human).  There are several other types of figurative language, but these are the most common in fiction.

Faulkner's writing style is rich in figurative language, and one of the most interesting examples occurs in the story's first paragraph:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity. . . .

Faulkner's uses a metaphor when he refers to Miss Emily as a "fallen monument," comparing a (formerly) living being with an inanimate object (the monument).  The value of the metaphor here is that it gives us a clear picture of how the townspeople viewed Emily--not just as a human being, perhaps not even as a human being, but as a symbol of a time that has passed away.  The use of "fallen" creates a clever ambiguity of meaning: is Emily "fallen" because she has died, or is there another reason for being "fallen"?

This paragraph also introduces us to the town-as-narrator of the story and, as the story progresses, the town becomes personified as a character in the story, a character that interacts with Miss Emily and even attempts to alter the path of her life.  For example, the representatives of the town attempt to force Emily to pay taxes, but she believes that her taxes were permanently remitted by Colonel Sartoris decades ago.  When the town fails to convince her, Faulkner tells us that "[s]o she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers. . . ."  The language here, again, is figurative--using the metaphor of combat--"horse and foot"--to describe how Emily defeats the town's representatives.

Faulkner uses personification, a very common type of figurative language, in such an understated way that the power of his language may remain unnoticed by readers who are not reading for details.  For example, in the second paragraph, Faulkner notes that

. . . Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery. . . . 

With the phrase in the cedar-bemused cemetery Faulkner has skillfully created a cemetery that has the attributes of a human being.  To be bemused is to be bewildered or confused, a human condition not usually applicable to a cemetery, but, in the world of Jefferson where the town is a character and Miss Emily a monument, a bewildered cemetery seems a natural part of this bizarre story.  Although we do not know why a cemetery should be bemused by cedars, we sense, perhaps uneasily, that many things in Jefferson are somehow suspended between life and death.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Just to add to the previous excellent response:

Section I

Another example of Emily Grierson in metaphoric terms,

Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, 

Also in the first section, there is imagery and alliteration (repetition of initial /s/) as the dust "rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sunray. This is followed by a simile as Miss Emily is described as looking bloated, "like a body long submerged in motionless water." 

Section II

Simile: Miss Emily sits in the window with the light behind her and "her upright torso motionless as that of an idol." 

Simile: "We had long thought of them [her father and Emily] as a tableau"

Metaphor: "...and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will." "that which had robbed her" is a metaphor for the patriarchal system in which Emily grew up as her father dismissed any suitors. She continues to act as she did in her youth.

Section III

Metphor: "noblesse oblige" = the behavior of a Southern lady

Simile: When Emily goes to the druggist, she looks at him, "her face like a strained flag."

Section IV

Alliteration (the repetition of the initial consonant /g/:  As she ages Miss Emily grows heavier and her hair grays, but "During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray...."

Simile: "Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man."

Metaphor: "Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town...."

Section V

Metaphor and personification: "...to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead a huge meadow which no [personification] winter ever quite touches 

Personification: "...upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust."

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