Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1400
Narrator: Never named, the narrator of the story is a member of the town and has known Miss Emily much of her life. Some critics have suggested that the narrator is the town itself.
Miss Emily Grierson: The protagonist of the story, Miss Emily, as she is known and referred to by everyone, is the town matriarch.
Colonel Sartoris: In 1894, Colonel Sartoris, who was then the mayor of the town, remitted Miss Emily’s taxes, for unknown reasons, “in perpetuity.”
Tobe: A Negro “manservant” of Miss Emily’s, Tobe is the only person who has entered Miss Emily’s house for years.
“A Rose for Emily” begins with the death of Miss Emily Grierson, respectfully referred to by the nameless narrator of the story, as well as by the people of Jefferson—the town in which the story takes place—as Miss Emily. The narrator of the story tells how the whole town attended Miss Emily’s funeral—the men, out of respect for a “fallen monument,” and the women “out of curiosity to see the inside of her house.” The narrator goes on to describe Miss Emily’s “big, squarish frame house that had once been white” but had become, by the time of her death, “an eyesore among eyesores.” In the years leading up to Miss Emily’s death, only Miss Emily’s Negro manservant, whom will be later identified as Tobe, had seen the inside of the house, which had once been considered one of the nicest houses situated on one of the most select streets in the town. Over the years, however, the house had grown into disrepair, and garages and cotton gins had been built up around the street, adding to its garishness.
Miss Emily had grown to become a town legend by the time of her death. In 1894, the then mayor Colonel Sartoris remitted Miss Emily’s taxes “in perpetuity” for reasons never made clear. But over time, as a new generation of civic leaders arose, the town began to question Miss Emily’s privileged status. After the new mayor was unsuccessful in collecting taxes from her through the mail, the Board of Alderman sent a deputation to her house to meet with her. Miss Emily, “a small, fat woman in black,” met them at the door, and she told them that she had no taxes in Jefferson. “Colonel Sartoris explained it to me,” she told the group in a voice that “was dry and cold.” When the deputation continued to press Miss Emily, she responded by saying in a matter-of-fact tone, “See Colonel Sartoris,” even though the Colonel had been dead almost ten years.
The first section of “A Rose for Emily” concludes with Miss Emily asking Tobe to “[s]how these gentlemen out.”
“A Rose for Emily” is one of William Faulkner’s masterpieces of short fiction and is considered one of the great short stories in American literature. Told from the point of view of a nameless narrator and a longtime member of Jefferson, the town in which the story takes place, “A Rose for Emily” opens with the death of Miss Emily Grierson and proceeds to tell the story of her life in the years leading up to her death.
Considered one of the great writers of the twentieth century, Faulkner left behind a large body of work that effectively told the story of the American South, from the years following the Civil War to the Depression of 1929. More particularly, most of his stories and novels were set in the fictional county of Mississippi called Yoknapatawpha County, of which the town of Jefferson was the county seat.
Many of Faulkner’s trademarks as a writer are evident in “A Rose for Emily.” In many of his works, for instance, Faulkner pulls his reader along by withholding important pieces of information, leaving a great deal of work to the reader. In the opening section to “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner provides only a few clues as to the time period of the story. The narrator mentions that in 1894 Colonel Sartoris, who was the mayor of Jefferson at the time, freed Miss Emily of all obligations to pay her taxes, “dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity”—an edict that the new generation of town leaders “with its more modern ideas” found unacceptable. The narrator also describes how garages with gasoline pumps and cotton gins had encroached upon Miss Emily’s property. But beyond these facts, Faulkner says nothing more as to the timing of the story.
The narrator also says nothing about the circumstances of Miss Emily’s death, saying only that in the years preceding her death, the Negro manservant Tobe was the only person known to have entered her house. Thus, the reader, like the townspeople of Jefferson, is left in the dark as to the background of Miss Emily and her death.
The themes that begin to emerge in the opening section of “A Rose for Emily” are very characteristic of Faulkner’s works. The themes of tradition and change, for instance, are very much evident in these first pages. Although very little of Miss Emily is described, it is clear that she represents an older and dying part of Jefferson and, indeed, of the South at this time. When she was alive, Miss Emily was considered “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation on the town,” but now that she is dead, she has joined “the representatives of those august names where they lay … among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.” The Civil War and its generation, which had so strongly defined the South that Faulkner is describing, are dying out, along with their traditions. This theme is further underscored by the narrator describing the reason for the men attending Miss Emily’s funeral out of “a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument.…”
Faulkner was also known for the ways in which he described class and racial divisions. Miss Emily is, or was once, clearly one of the more “aristocratic” members of the town; she lived on what was once the town’s most “select” streets among other “august” families. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader knows that Miss Emily had “an old manservant,” and in the third paragraph the narrator describes the former mayor Colonel Sartoris as the father of the edict that “no Negro woman should appear on the street without an apron.…” Further, the mere fact that Sartoris is referred to as “Colonel” and Emily as “Miss Emily” is indication of the importance of status and respect the town affords its (white) members.
Beyond merely describing the process of change taking place in his South, Faulkner also set out to make a statement about that change. Miss Emily, as representative of the “Old South” of the Confederacy, does not merely die out in order to be replaced by members of the “New South.” In the years preceding her death, Miss Emily is described as a decaying figure that is clinging to the past in a delusional way. Her house, which “had once been white,” is the only house left on the block and had become “an eyesore among eyesores,” and at the time of the visit by the deputation, Miss Emily is under that illusion that Colonel Sartoris is still alive. Even her physical attributes echo this sense of decay and decrepitude. When the deputation enters Miss Emily’s house, they are greeted by
a small fat women 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.
Miss Emily had effectively died long before her actual death. Her body, like her mind, is merely clinging to whatever it can in order to remain alive.
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