Emily Grierson

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Extended Character Analysis

Emily Grierson, an aged Southern belle, was the last surviving member of an aristocratic family living in the antebellum South. Emily’s father kept her cloistered for much of her youth. After the death of her father, she was left penniless and alone, an outsider with no friends and no marriage prospects. Emily was alternately pitied and scorned by the people of Jefferson. She ultimately failed to overcome her isolated upbringing and became the town eccentric. Emily had a brief romance with a Northern day worker named Homer Barron. After their relationship ended in his apparent abandonment of her, she secluded herself entirely.

At the end of the story, after Emily’s death, her house is investigated. What appears to have been an open secret among the townspeople is revealed: Homer’s decaying body had been kept in a bed in Emily’s house for nearly forty years.

Emily Grierson was a remnant of the traditional Southern social stratification that was phased out in the wake of the Civil War. Much of Emily’s isolation could be blamed on her aristocratic status. Her status made her an object of both reverence and resentment in the eyes of the people of Jefferson. Her father raised her in isolation and chased away potential suitors because he did not believe anyone was good enough for his daughter. The townspeople were also scandalized when Emily began a courtship with Homer Barron. Homer was a lowly Northern laborer who would traditionally have been considered well beneath Emily’s station. In order to thwart the match, the Baptist minister’s wife contacted Emily’s relatives in Alabama. They arrived soon thereafter and seemingly drive Homer away.

However, Emily’s demands for special treatment also maintained the barriers between her and the people of Jefferson. By refusing to pay taxes and refusing to let the town put a mailbox on her house, Emily clung to the past and the traditional values it represented. The townspeople, many of whom were just as traditional as Emily, enabled this behavior. Men of the Old South, like Colonel Sartoris and Judge Stevens, declined to chastise Emily for her obstinance out of respect for her station.

“A Rose for Emily” can also be read as an allegory in which Emily symbolizes the decay of the Old South and its traditions and Mr. Grierson and Emily together represent the last of the aristocracy in Jefferson. However, after the Civil War, the South was forced to modernize and accommodate intrusions on its traditions. Emily, a fading Southern belle, was symbolically unable to integrate into the rapidly changing Jefferson. She instead withered in isolation. As the story progresses, she transforms from a slim, youthful figure into a “bloated,” corpse-like one. Emily’s changing physique provides a vivid metaphor for the fate of Southern traditions. Homer Barron, who was loud, robust, and youthful, represents the intrusion of the victorious North in the postwar years. By killing Homer, Emily symbolically rejected the intrusion of the North into the Old South. Her attachment to his decaying corpse symbolizes her desire to maintain the rapidly fading traditions of the Old South. She killed him in an effort to halt time and prevent the tides of change from sweeping away the ruined past to which she clung.

The question of whether to view Emily as a tragic figure or an unhinged murderer is up for interpretation. In the former reading, Emily was a product of her upbringing. She was an isolated, lonely figure whose social status prevented her from working or forming social bonds. When Homer Barron arrived from the North, Emily likely saw in him as a potential kindred spirit, a fellow outcast. However, Homer was charismatic and funny, better able to fit in than Emily, despite the initial prejudice he faced on account of being a Northerner. Furthermore, he described himself as “not a marrying man.”

The narrator mentions that Emily’s great-aunt, old lady Wyatt, went “crazy.” This indicates that mental instability runs in the Grierson family. Emily’s cloistered childhood and inability to accept her father’s death indicate a stunting of her emotional development. This emotional stunting left her unable to distinguish life from death. By this reading, Emily was desperate to keep the only man who was ever allowed to get close to her. So, she decided to poison Homer as a means of keeping him around when it became clear that he planned to leave. That she positioned the body “in the attitude of an embrace” suggests a combination of loneliness, desperation, and a degree of disconnection from reality resulting from mental instability. Unable to discern between the living and the dead, Emily developed the same attachment to Homer’s corpse that she had with Homer when he was alive.

Yet, for all of the tragedy of Emily’s life, she was still a murderer. She deliberately sought out the druggist and requested the “best” rat poison he had with the intention of using it to kill Homer. This indicates a degree of premeditation incompatible with true innocence. By this reading, Emily’s motive may have been revenge for Homer’s apparent rejection of her. Unable to accept being spurned, especially by a man beneath her in social class, she turned to murder.

The truth of Emily’s character is likely a blend of tragedy, anger, and mental instability. Rather than either absolving or condemning Emily, William Faulkner approaches her story neutrally. This neutrality suggests that Emily is too complex a character to cast a definitive judgement against. On an allegorical level, Emily’s complexity suggests the complexity of the Old South. Though Emily’s death comes as a relief to the town, it is also a tragedy. Similarly, though cultural progress demands that the South modernize, the loss of the old traditions is inevitably tinged with nostalgia for some.

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Homer Barron