The old platitudinous warning issued by those who later plead criminal insanity to murder charges – “If I can’t have you, nobody can” – lies at the heart of William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily. Once “a slender woman in white,” suggesting both physical attractiveness and virginal, Emily has since, especially since her father’s death, descended into a state of perpetual isolation, a spinster reduced to financial destitution and physical decay. When officials come to visit to discuss the taxes Emily owes, they are confronted by a markedly unattractive individual. As Faulkner describes his main character, Emily is now “a small fat woman” whose appearance is anything but pleasing to the eye:
“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.”
Her life of isolation, save for the African American servant, has left her bereft of social skills and a considerably degraded sense of reality. Her father’s death has deprived Emily of her sole connection to humanity, and she is lost without him. So attached to her father was Emily, that in the days following his demise, she refused to acknowledge his death, as described in this passage from Faulkner’s story:
“The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom. Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly.”
In addition to her father’s death, Emily had apparently once enjoyed the company of a potential suitor (“her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her—had deserted her”), but the fate of this once-upon-a-time boyfriend is unknown. What we do know, is that, before his death, Emily’s father had turned away any potential hope for Emily to marry in her youth, before her looks began to fade. Into this Southern context comes Homer Barron, “a Yankee – a big, dark, ready man with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face.” Homer works for the construction company hired by the town to repave sidewalks, and his relationship to Emily strikes much of the town as socially inappropriate given her genteel background and his northern, blue-collar occupation. Faulkner’s unidentified narrator, however, provides a clue that this relationship faces possibly insurmountable barriers beyond the cultural and socioeconomic differences present:
“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.”
That Homer professes to be a committed bachelor, combined with his disappearance and Emily’s total commitment to a self-imposed state of isolation (save for her Negro servant), lends Faulkner’s story a sense of foreboding that is confirmed following Emily’s death. She had purchased rat poison, and some of the townsfolk believed she intended to kill herself. Her continued survival, however, left the purpose for Emily’s purchase of the poison a mystery until, following her death, officials entered the closed-off portion of her home and discovered Homer’s lifeless body and the indentation on the pillow next to his head of another human head and “a long strand of iron-grey hair” – the tell-tale (reference to Poe intended) sign of Emily’s obsession with Homer and her apparent refusal to countenance his departure.
Emily has killed Homer because she can’t live without him, but he won’t stay voluntarily. Adopting the aforementioned adage that, “if I can’t have him, nobody can,” Emily has ensured that she, and she alone, will possess Homer. She lies with his corpse because it represents the husband or lover she never had but always craved.