What are the social limitations, expectations, and criticisms of the "Old South" for Emily?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The world of the "Old South" in which Miss Emily Grierson lives is, in a word, distorted.  It is irrelevant to the modern world of the town; like the antiquated mansion, the life of Miss Emily has become oppressive for her as all around her decays and assumes the realm of the grotesque in its resistance to change. In short, she does, indeed, become the "fallen monument" as referred to by the narrators.

Having lived under the patriarchal guard of her father, Emily's suitors have been driven away as they have not been considered proper. Left with no one else, then, Emily is subjugated to her father and to his antiquated world. The townspeople refer to them as "a tableau":

Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a straddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door.

After her father dies, Emily is transformed from this portrait of a young woman into a "bloated" woman in black who wears a long chain with the watch buried in her waist--as though Time, too, is buried--and who leans upon "an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head," another relic of the Old South.  With a dry voice, Miss Emily tells the Aldermen  that she has no taxes just as she told the men thirty years ago. Her sweetheart of nearly two years leaves her, and she becomes reclusive, locked into the past and a mentally distorted, lonely spinster.  The townspeople remark, "She was sick for a long time."

Ironically, while the townspeople find Miss Emily as an "obligation upon the town," they are displeased that she has decided to be seen riding on Sundays with a common laborer and a Yankee at that.

"Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer."

But in her desperation, Miss Emily forsakes tradition and forgets noblesse oblige, the obligations of her station in life. This disparateness between her role as the relic of the aristocratic Old South and her having a coarse and common suitor displeases her relatives, whom Emily vanquishes as she did the Alderman. But, after bizarre things begin to happen: she recluses herself, only staring out a window, growing greyer and greyer, stopping her china painting lessons. "The front door closed upon the last one for good."

Thus, Emily passes from generation to generation--"dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse." One day the "Negro servant," who did not have to remain as such, let in the townspeople and then walked away without a word. For forty years a room has been closed; when the door is broken, there is a "thin, acrid pall as of the tomb" that lingers in the air of a room set as a bridal room with rose-colored drapes and lamps. But, all is dusty and decayed and the discovery of a cadaver on the bed is made. 

A prisoner herself of the Old South, Emily holds her last suitor captive. And, on the pillow next to him lies one of her steel-grey hairs, the sign of her perversion in the "patient and biding dust."

Read the study guide:
A Rose for Emily

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question