William Faulkner is widely considered to be one of the great American authors of the twentieth century. Although his greatest works are identified with a particular region and time (Mississippi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), the themes he explores are universal. He was also an extremely accomplished writer in a technical sense. Novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! feature bold experimentation with shifts in time and narrative. Several of his short stories are favorites of anthologists, including ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ This strange story of love, obsession, and death is a favorite among both readers and critics. The narrator, speaking for the town of Jefferson in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, tells a series of stories about the town's reclusive spinster, Miss Emily Grierson. The stories build up to a gruesome revelation after Miss Emily's funeral. She apparently poisoned her lover Homer Barron, and kept his corpse in an attic bedroom for over forty years. It is a common critical cliché to say that a story ‘‘exists on many levels,’’ but in the case of ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ this is the truth. Critic Frank A. Littler, in an essay published in Notes on Mississippi Writers regarding the chronology of the story, writes that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ has been read variously as ‘‘… a Gothic horror tale, a study in abnormal psychology, an allegory of the relations between North and South, a meditation on the nature of time, and a tragedy with Emily as a sort of tragic heroine.’’ These various interpretations serve as a good starting point for discussion of the story.
The Gothic horror tale is a literary form dating back to 1764 with the first novel identified with the genre, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ontralto. Gothicism features an atmosphere of terror and dread: gloomy castles or mansions, sinister characters, and unexplained phenomena. Gothic novels and stories also often include unnatural combinations of sex and death. In a lecture to students documented by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner in Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958, Faulkner himself claimed that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is a ‘‘ghost story.’’ In fact, Faulkner is considered by many to be the progenitor of a sub-genre, the Southern gothic. The Southern gothic style combines the elements of classic Gothicism with particular Southern archetypes (the reclusive spinster, for example) and puts them in a Southern milieu. Faulkner's novels and stories about the South include dark, taboo subjects such as murder, suicide, and incest.
James M. Mellard, in The Faulkner Journal , argues that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is a ‘‘retrospective Gothic;’’ that is, the reader is unaware that the story is Gothic until the end when Homer Barron's corpse is discovered. He points out that the narrator's tone is almost whimsical. He also notes that because the narrator's flashbacks are not presented in an ordinary sequential order, readers who are truly unfamiliar with the story don't put all the pieces together until the end. However, a truly careful first reading should begin to reveal the Gothic elements early in the story. Emily is quickly established as a strange character when the aldermen enter her decrepit parlor in a futile attempt to collect her taxes. She is described as looking ‘‘… bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.’’ She insists that the aldermen discuss the tax situation with a man who has been dead for a decade. If she is not yet a sinister character, she is certainly...
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weird. In section two of the story, the unexplained smell coming from her house, the odd relationship she has with her father, and the suggestion that madness may run in her family by the reference to her ‘‘crazy’’ great-aunt, old lady Wyatt, are elements that, at the very least, hint at the Gothic nature of the story. Emily's purchase of arsenic should leave no doubt at that point that the story is leading to a Gothic conclusion.
It is Emily's awful deed that continues to captivate readers. Why would she do something so ghastly? How could she kill a man and bed his corpse? This line of questioning leads to a psychological examination of Emily's character. David Minter, in William Faulkner: His Life and Work, notes in several different passages the significant influence that Sigmund Freud the father of modern psychoanalysis, had on Faulkner's fiction. Freud theorized that repression, especially if it is sexual in nature, often results in psychological abnormality. In the story, Emily's overprotective, overbearing father denies her a normal relationship with the opposite sex by chasing away any potential mates. Because her father is the only man with whom she has had a close relationship, she denies his death and keeps his corpse in her house until she breaks down three days later when the doctors insist she let them take the body. Later in the story, the ladies of the town and her two female cousins from Alabama work to sabotage her relationship with Homer Barron. Of course, the narrator suggests that Homer himself may not exactly be enthusiastic about marrying Emily. However, it is left to the reader to imagine the exact circumstances leading to Homer's denouement. Finally, Emily takes the offensive by poisoning Homer so he can't abandon her. The discovery of a strand of her hair on the pillow next to the rotting corpse suggests that she slept with the cadaver or, even worse, had sex with it. Emily's repressive life therefore contributes to her (rather severe) psychological abnormality: necrophilia.
Some readers have interpreted the story as an allegory of the relations between the North and the South. This is apparently because the character of Homer Barron is a Yankee and Emily kills him. However, it would be difficult to argue that Emily's motivation in dating Homer is to kill him because he is a Northerner. The most obvious explanation for her willingness to date a man outside of her social caste would be that she is simply a very lonely woman. A less obvious, but nonetheless reasonable, explanation for her relationship with Homer would be that is her way of rebelling against her dead father. During his lifetime, her father prevented her from having an ‘‘acceptable’’ suitor. Thus, she rebels by associating with a man her father would have considered a pariah: a Yankee day-laborer. There is really little to suggest that the story is an allegory of the Civil War other than the fact that a Yankee is killed by a Southerner. Faulkner himself, in his lecture on the story at the University of Virginia, denies such an interpretation. He said that he believed that a writer is ‘‘… too busy trying to create flesh-and-blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow to have time to be conscious of all the symbolism that he may put into what he does or what people may read into it.’’
One can more confidently argue that ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is a meditation on the nature of time. Although the story is only a few pages long, it covers approximately three-quarters of a century. Faulkner cleverly constructed the story to show the elusive nature of time and memory. Several critics have written papers in attempts to devise a chronology for the story. It would surely please Faulkner that few of these chronologies are consistent with each other. In ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ he is not concerned with actual dates. He is more interested in the conflict between time as a subjective experience and time as a force of physics. For example, in section five of the story, the narrator describes the very old men gathered at Emily's funeral. The old men, some who fought in the Civil War, mistakenly believe that Emily was a contemporary of theirs when in fact Emily was born sometime around the Civil War. The old men have confused ‘‘… time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years.’’ Here, Faulkner profoundly and poetically comments on the human need to deny the passage of time and the astounding capacity of the human mind to use memory in that ultimately futile denial. Emily, of course, has other methods of denying time.
Since the denial of time is futile, it is also tragic. This is one reason the story can be read as a tragedy. But every tragedy needs a hero or heroine. Can Emily actually be considered a tragic heroine? At first glance, this is a tough sell. Many readers quite reasonably believe that Emily is some kind of monster, regardless of what Freud might have said. However, as many critics have noted, Faulkner's title suggests that he may think otherwise. ‘‘In his fiction,’’ notes Minter in his biography of Faulkner, ‘‘he characteristically mingles compassion and judgement. Even his most terrible villains … he treats with considerable sympathy.’’ Emily is such an example. In fact, the narrator twice describes Emily as an idol. Although she commits a foul crime, Faulkner views Emily as a victim of her circumstance. Faulkner despised slavery and racism, but he admired much of the chivalry and honor of the old South. Emily is a product of that society and she clings desperately to it as when she refuses to give up her father's body. She also becomes a victim of her old society. The one time in her life that she dares to let the past become a ‘‘diminishing road,’’ that is, when she dates Homer, she is ridiculed, ostracized, shamed, and finally jilted. Her response is an effort to actually freeze time by poisoning Homer and keeping his corpse in her ghoulish boudoir.
Finally, it is a tribute to Faulkner's talent that this compact yet expansive story lends itself to so many interpretations. The discussion above briefly describes the most common interpretations made by readers and critics. However, there is a great deal of scholarship, entire volumes, written on ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ Several critics, including Isaac Rodman in The Faulkner Journal and Milinda Schwab in Studies in Short Fiction, have presented convincing arguments of the town's complicity in Homer's murder. Many critics have written interesting papers on literary allusions that they find in the story; alternately, many critics find allusions to ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ in contemporary literature. (An interesting paper might be written comparing and contrasting Faulkner's Emily with the character of Norman Bates, the schizophrenic, homicidal hotel-keeper/amateur taxidermist of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film, Psycho.) ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ remains a remarkable, provocative work regardless of the critical approach.
Source: Donald Akers, Overview of ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Akers is a freelance writer and editor.
In a recent article, Hal Blythe discusses the central role played by the narrator in William Faulkner's gothic masterpiece ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ Focusing on Miss Emily's bizarre affair and how it affronts the chivalric notions of the Old South, the narrator, according to Blythe, attempts to assuage the grief produced by Miss Emily's rejection of him by relating her story; telling her tale allows him to exact a measure of revenge. Faulkner's speaker, without doubt, serves as a pivotal player in this tale of grotesque love. Although Blythe grasps the significance of the narrator's place in the story, he bases his argument on a point that the story itself never makes completely clear. Blythe assumes that Faulkner's narrator is male. The possibility exists, however, that Faulkner intended his readers to view the tale-teller as being female.
Hints in the text suggest that Faulkner's speaker might be a woman. The narrative voice (the ‘‘we’’ in the story), a spokesperson for the town, appears very concerned with every detail of Emily's life. Faulkner provides us with an important clue concerning the gender of this narrator when he describes the townspeople's reaction to Emily's attachment to Homer Barron: ‘‘The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister … to call upon her.’’ Jefferson's male population seems apathetic regarding Emily's tryst; the men are not the least bit scandalized. The females in town (the ‘‘we’’ in the tale) are so concerned with Emily's eccentricities that they force their men to act; one very interested female in particular, the narrator, sees to it that Emily's story is not forgotten.
This coterie of Jefferson's ‘‘finer’’ ladies (represented by the narrator) seems highly offended by Emily's actions. This resentment might stem from two primary causes. First, the ladies (the phrase ‘‘the ladies’’ appears throughout the tale and might refer to the ‘‘proper’’ Southern belles living in town) find Miss Emily's pre-marital relationship immoral. Second, they resent Emily's seeing a Yankee man. In the eyes of these flowers of Southern femininity, Emily Grierson becomes a stain on the white gown of Southern womanhood.
Despite their bitterness toward Emily, the ladies of Jefferson feel some degree of sympathy for her. After her father's death, the ladies reminisce: ‘‘We remembered all the young men her father had driven away.…’’ Later, Homer Barron disappears, prompting this response: ‘‘Then we knew that this was to be expected too, as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and furious to die.’’ These intensely felt statements suggest how a woman might react to another woman's loneliness; the narrator seems to empathize with Miss Emily on a woman-to-woman basis. Faulkner himself sheds interesting light on this matter when he describes Miss Emily as a woman ‘‘that just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.’’ The women of Jefferson know that Emily, a fellow woman, possessed these feelings, and as women they feel as if some sort of biological bond links them to ‘‘the last Grierson.’’ Unlike the majority of the ladies in town, Miss Emily experienced neither the joys of marriage nor the fulfillment of child-bearing. If the ladies did not view Emily in a sympathetic way, would they have sent their daughters to her house for china-painting lessons?
Another possible reason exists for the speaker's sympathetic view of Emily. Our narrator knows (perhaps from the druggist) that Emily purchased poison, ostensibly to kill ‘‘rats.’’ One slang use of the term ‘‘rat’’ applies to a man who has cheated on his lover. Perhaps Faulkner's tale-teller suspects that Emily feared that Homer would not remain faithful to her. In order to ‘‘keep’’ Homer by her side, Emily poisoned him. The speaker might sympathize with Emily somewhat because she believes that Emily did what she could to retain Homer's companionship and insure that he would not give her up for another woman. Faulkner's female narrator does not approve of Miss Emily's methods, but she understands what prompted them: Emily's weariness of being alone.
An additional clue regarding the narrator appears toward the end of ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ when Faulkner's speaker emphasizes the first-person pronoun ‘‘they.’’ Previously, our narrator has used ‘‘we’’ to indicate the town's collective female element. After Miss Emily is buried, the tale-teller relates how the residents of Jefferson learned of the gruesome secret lying upstairs in the long-closed bedroom. She makes one point very clear: ‘‘They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it [my italics].’’ The ‘‘they’’ in this sentence are people strong enough to break down the door of this death chamber. Since most ladies in Jefferson would not be strong enough to force in a door, might not the reader assume that these initial intruders are men? The ladies follow the men into the room and make their ghastly discovery: ‘‘For a long while we [my italics] just stood there looking down at the profound and fleshless grin.’’
The reader is left with a very important question: why would a lady desire to repeat Miss Emily's story? The narrator's ‘‘dual vision’’ (as Blythe calls it) provides a clue. As a woman offended by Emily's actions, the speaker relates this tale of necrophilia in an attempt to vindicate Southern womanhood. She wants her listeners to understand that Emily was not representative of the typical ‘‘Southern Lady.’’ Perhaps familiar with Caroline Bascomb Compson, Joanna Burden, and Rosa Coldfield, other infamous females living in the Jefferson vicinity, the narrator wants to convey to her audience that virtuous women (such as herself?) do still live in Jefferson. On the other hand, the speaker's sympathy for Emily, a woman lost in her own particularly lonely world, also prompts her to recall the tragic events of Emily's sterile life. As a woman, the tale-teller allows her heart to go out to ‘‘poor Emily.’’
Viewing the narrator of ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ as a woman allows the reader to enjoy Faulkner's tale from a unique perspective. Indeed, such an interpretation offers an interesting alternative reading that emphasizes the important role women play in the fiction of Oxford, Mississippi's Nobel laureate.
Source: Michael L. Burduck, ‘‘Another View of Faulkner’s Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily,’’’ in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. VIII, 1990, pp. 209-11.
Nearly everyone familiar with the writings of William Faulkner is aware of the fracturings of time so common in his work. Many of his major characters spend much of their fictional lives trying to piece together their experiences and lives, to put them in some kind of chronological or existential order. Few of them succeed; and when they do, as is perhaps the case with Quentin Compson (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!) they most often find that to make sense of their lives is to create the necessity for self-destruction. But, most often, Faulkner's characters are like Charles Bon of Absalom, Absalom! who, when he leaves for college, is only on the periphery of an area of knowledge about himself and his world. Bon is described as ‘‘almost touching the answer lurking, just beyond his reach, inextricable, jumbled, and unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into a pattern which would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the meaning of his whole life.’’
But if Faulkner's characters are often at a loss with respect to the movements of their existences through time, his critics cannot be. Indeed, such detailings of temporal chronology, together with structural elaborations, provide some of the most lucid and meaningful understandings of Faulkner's fiction. Almost all of Faulkner's stories and novels can be better appreciated and more accurately understood and interpreted through a detailing of the interrelationships of time and structure. In Faulkner's world theme exists as the hyphen in the compound temporal-structure. Not the least of such cases is ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’
‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is divided into five sections, the first and last section having to do with the present, the now of the narration, with the three middle sections detailing the past. The story begins and ends with the death of Miss Emily Grierson; the three middle sections move through Miss Emily's life from a time soon after her father's death and shortly after her beau Homer Barron, ‘‘had deserted her,’’ to the time of her death.
Late in the fourth section of the story, Faulkner writes of Miss Emily, ‘‘Thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.’’ On first reading, this series of adjectives appears to be only another catalogue so familiar in Faulkner. Often it seems that Faulkner simply lists such a series of adjectives as if to say, ‘‘Take your choice of these, I don't care.’’ Not so in this instance. Rather, it would seem that Faulkner uses these five adjectives to describe Miss Emily with some care and for a specific purpose. It could be argued that they are intended to refer to the successive sections of the story, each becoming as it were a sort of metaphorical characterization of the differing states through which the townspeople of Jefferson (and the readers) pass in their evaluation of Miss Emily. Correlating the two present sections with the adjectives that fall to them, we see Miss Emily as the paradox she has become in death, ‘‘dear’’ and ‘‘perverse,’’ while before her death she was ‘‘inescapable, impervious, tranquil.’’ Thus, during her life, the enigma of Miss Emily's personality, which kept her seemingly immortal, impenetrable, and almost inevitably inescapable, has been clarified and crystalized by her death. A woman who, alive, ‘‘had been a tradition, a duty, and a care,’’ and thus ‘‘dear’’ in several senses of that word, is revealed, in death, to have been what for years she had been suspected of being, ‘‘perverse.’’
But indeed even in the first section of the story there are numerous hints at the final portrait of the Miss Emily of section five. The men go to her funeral ‘‘through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument.’’ Her house is ‘‘an eyesore among eyesores,’’ it symbolizing Miss Emily herself in its ‘‘coquettish decay’’; inside there is a ‘‘tarnished gilt easel’’; Miss Emily has an ‘‘ebony cane with a tarnished gold head’’; and she herself looks ‘‘bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water.’’
Section two details the inescapable smell which surrounded Miss Emily's house after the disappearance of her suitor, Homer Barron. Section three recounts Miss Emily's romance with Homer Barron and the imperviousness of her position even after the townspeople feel pity for her (four times in this section—and once in section four—she is referred to as ‘‘poor Emily’’). ‘‘She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than even the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness.’’ And section four moves from the time Miss Emily bought the arsenic, through the departure, return, and final disappearance of Homer, to the time of her death.
Miss Emily, who had been idle most of her life, is looked upon as an idol by the people of Jefferson. The word ‘‘idol’’ occurs twice in the story: when the men are sprinkling lime around her house a window is lighted ‘‘and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol’’; and in later years, on and off at intervals, ‘‘we would see her in one of the downstairs windows—she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house—like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which.’’ Miss Emily is indeed a kind of living avatar (she doesn't believe in death and refuses to admit that her father is dead until the townspeople ‘‘were about to resort to law and force’’) of the past of Jefferson. In the first section of the story she is described as a ‘‘fallen monument.’’ Often she is referred to as a kind of deity, or at least as a representative, if not of the religious at least the political and social hierarchy of Jefferson: ‘‘the high and mighty Griersons.’’ ‘‘When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene.’’ And at death, catching up the earlier detail of ‘‘submerged in motionless water,’’ Miss Emily is described as if she were in some sacred vault, ‘‘She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray head propped on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.’’ ‘‘They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath amass of flowers.’’ The townspeople ‘‘waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground’’ before they opened the upstairs room. The room and the corpse are described as if they are the accouterments of an ancient tomb.
The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust. A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man's toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured.... The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
Thus, with respect to the relationships of time and structure in ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ Faulkner seems to be saying that although Miss Emily resists the passage of time, resists change, time ultimately fixes her in a rather perverse manner. In terms of life and existence, Miss Emily's past and her passages through and within time are ‘‘inescapable’’; her struggles against time are of no avail. Time moves forward tranquilly, imperviously, and inescapably. Miss Emily is seen in the story, first and last, as she is in death. The struggle for existence and meaning in the now of every present is commendable, but to have too high a regard for the dearness of one's own life is ultimately to deny the possibility for its realization. To covet life too highly, thereby attempting to stop time, to freeze the flux of life, is to make of something ‘‘dear’’ a perversity.
Source: William V. Davis, “Another Flower for Faulkner's Bouquet: Theme and Structure in ‘A Rose for Emily,’’’ in Notes on Mississippi Writers, Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall, 1974, pp. 34-8.
The first clues to meaning in a short story usually arise from a detection of the principal contrasts which an author sets up. The most common, perhaps, are contrasts of character, but when characters are contrasted there is usually also a resultant contrast in terms of action. Since action reflects a moral or ethical state, contrasting action points to a contrast in ideological perspectives and hence toward the theme.
The principal contrast in William Faulkner's short story ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is between past time and present time: the past as represented in Emily herself, in Colonel Sartoris, in the old Negro servant, and in the Board of Aldermen who accepted the Colonel's attitude toward Emily and rescinded her taxes; the present is depicted through the unnamed narrator and is represented in the new Board of Aldermen, in Homer Barron (the representative or Yankee attitudes toward the Griersons and through them toward the entire South), and in what is called ‘‘the next generation with its more modern ideas.’’
Atmosphere is defined in the Dictionary of World Literature as ‘‘The particular world in which the events of a story or a play occur: time, place, conditions, and the attendant mood.’’ When, as in ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ the world depicted is a confusion between the past and the present, the atmosphere is one of distortion—of unreality. This unreal world results from the suspension of a natural time order. Normality consists in a decorous progression of the human being from birth, through youth, to age and finally death. Preciosity in children is as monstrous as idiocy in the adult, because both are unnatural. Monstrosity, however, is a sentimental subject for fiction unless it is the result of human action—the result of a willful attempt to circumvent time. When such circumvention produces acts of violence, as in ‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ the atmosphere becomes one of horror.
Horror, however, represents only the extreme form of maladjusted nature. It is not produced in ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ until the final act of violence has been disclosed. All that has gone before has prepared us by producing a general tone of mystery, foreboding, decay, etc., so that we may say the entire series of events that have gone before are ‘‘in key’’—that is, they are depicted in a mood in which the final violence does not appear too shocking or horrible. We are inclined to say, ‘‘In such an atmosphere, anything may happen.’’ Foreshadowing is often accomplished through atmosphere, and in this case the atmosphere prepares us for Emily's unnatural act at the end of the story. Actually, such preparation begins in the very first sentence:
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 to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.
Emily is portrayed as ‘‘a fallen monument,’’ a monument for reasons which we shall examine later, fallen because she has shown herself susceptible to death (and decay) after all. In the mention of death, we are conditioned (as the psychologist says) for the more specific concern with it later on. The second paragraph depicts the essential ugliness of the contrast: the description of Miss Emily's house ‘‘lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.’’ (A juxtaposition of past and present.) We recognize this scene as an emblematic presentation of Miss Emily herself, suggested as it is through the words ‘‘stubborn and coquettish.’’ The tone—and the contrast—is preserved in a description of the note which Miss Emily sent to the mayor, ‘‘a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink,’’ and in the description of the interior of the house when the deputation from the Board of Aldermen visit her: ‘‘They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell.’’ In the next paragraph a description of Emily discloses her similarity to the house: ‘‘She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.’’
Emily had not always looked like this. When she was young and part of the world with which she was contemporary, she was, we are told, ‘‘a slender figure in white,’’ as contrasted with her father, who is described as ‘‘a spraddled silhouette.’’ In the picture of Emily and her father together, framed by the door, she frail and apparently hungering to participate in the life of her time, we have a reversal of the contrast which has already been presented and which is to be developed later. Even after her father's death, Emily is not monstrous, but rather looked like a girl ‘‘with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows—sort of tragic and serene.’’ The suggestion is that she had already begun her entrance into that nether-world (a world which is depicted later as ‘‘rose-tinted’’), but that she might even yet have been saved, had Homer Barron been another kind of man.
By the time the deputation from the new, progressive Board of Aldermen wait upon her concerning her delinquent taxes, however, she has completely retreated into her world of the past. There is no communication possible between her and them:
Her voice was dry and cold. ‘‘I have no taxes in Jefferson. Colonel Sartoris explained it to me. Perhaps one of you can gain access to the city records and satisfy yourselves.’’
‘‘But we have. We are the city authorities, Miss Emily. Didn't you get a notice from the sheriff, signed by him?’’
‘‘I received a paper, yes,’’ Miss Emily said. ‘‘Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff.... I have no taxes in Jefferson.’’
‘‘But there is nothing on the books to show that, you see. We must go by the—’’
‘‘See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.’’
‘‘But Miss Emily—’’
‘‘See Colonel Sartoris.’’ [Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.] ‘‘I have no taxes in Jefferson. Tobe!’’ The Negro appeared. ‘‘Show these gentlemen out.’’
Just as Emily refused to acknowledge the death of her father, she now refuses to recognize the death of Colonel Sartoris. He had given his word, and according to the traditional view, ‘‘his word’’ knew no death. It is the Past pitted against the Present—the Past with its social decorum, the Present with everything set down in ‘‘the books.’’ Emily dwells in the Past, always a world of unreality to us of the Present. Here are the facts which set the tone of the story and which create the atmosphere of unreality which surrounds it.
Such contrasts are used over and over again: the difference between the attitude of Judge Stevens (who is over eighty years old) and the attitude of the young man who comes to him about the ‘‘smell’’ at Emily's place. For the young man (who is a member of the ‘‘rising generation’’) it is easy. For him, Miss Emily's world has ceased to exist. The city's health regulations are on the books, ‘‘Dammit, sir,’’ Judge Stevens replied, ‘‘will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?’’ Emily had given in to social pressure when she allowed them to bury her father, but she triumphed over society in the matter of the smell. She had won already when she bought the poison, refusing to comply with the requirements of the law, because for her they did not exist.
Such incidents seem, however, mere preparation for the final, more important contrast between Emily and Homer Barron. Emily is the town's aristocrat; Homer is a day laborer. Homer is an active man dealing with machinery and workmen—a man's man. He is a Yankee—a Northerner. Emily is a ‘‘monument’’ of Southern gentility. As such she is common property of the town, but in a special way—as an ideal of past values. Here the author seems to be commenting upon the complex relationship between the Southerner and his past and between the Southerner of the present and the Yankee from the North. She is unreal to her compatriots, yet she impresses them with her station, even at a time when they considered her fallen: ‘‘as if [her dignity] had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness.’’ It appeared for a time that Homer had won her over, as though the demands of reality as depicted in him (earthiness) had triumphed over her withdrawal and seclusion. This is the conflict that is not resolved until the final scene. We can imagine, however, what the outcome might have been had Homer Barron, who was not a marrying man, succeeded, in the town's eyes, in seducing her (violating her world) and then deserted her. The view of Emily as a monument would have been destroyed. Emily might have become the object of continued gossip, but she would have become susceptible to the town's pity—therefore, human. Emily's world, however, continues to be the Past (in its extreme form it is death), and when she is threatened with desertion and disgrace, she not only takes refuge in that world, but she also takes Homer with her, in the only manner possible.
It is important too, to realize that during the period of Emily's courtship, the town became Emily's allies in a contest between Emily and her Grierson cousins, ‘‘because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been.’’ The cousins were protecting the general proprieties against which the town (and the times) was in gradual rebellion. Just as each succeeding generation rebels against its elders, so the town took sides with Emily against her relations. Had Homer Barron been the proper kind of man, it is implied, Miss Emily might have escaped both horns of the dilemma (her cousins' traditionalism and Homer's immorality) and become an accepted and respected member of the community. The town's attitude toward the Grierson cousins represents the usual ambiguous attitude of man toward the past: a mixture of veneration and rebelliousness. The unfaithfulness of Homer represents the final act in the drama of Emily's struggle to escape from the past. From the moment that she realizes that he will desert her, tradition becomes magnified out of all proportion to life and death, and she conducts herself as though Homer really had been faithful—as though this view represented reality.
Miss Emily's position in regard to the specific problem of time is suggested in the scene where the old soldiers appear at her funeral. There are, we are told, two views of time: (1) the world of the present, viewing time as a mechanical progression in which the past is a diminishing road, never to be encountered again; (2) the world of tradition, viewing the past as a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from (us) now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years. The first is the view of Homer Barron and the modern generation in Jefferson. The second is the view of the older members of the Board of Aldermen and of the confederate soldiers. Emily holds the second view, except that for her there is no bottleneck dividing her from the meadow of the past.
Emily's small room above stairs has become that timeless meadow. In it, the living Emily and the dead Homer have remained together as though not even death could separate them. It is the monstrousness of this view which creates the final atmosphere of horror, and the scene is intensified by the portrayal of the unchanged objects which have surrounded Homer in life. Here he lay in the roseate atmosphere of Emily's death-in-life: ‘‘What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.’’ The symbols of Homer's life of action have become mute and silent. Contrariwise, Emily's world, though it had been inviolate while she was alive, has been invaded after her death—the whole gruesome and unlovely tale unfolded.
In its simplest sense, the story says that death conquers all. But what is death? Upon one level, death is the past, tradition, whatever is opposite to the present. In the specific setting of this story, it is the past of the South in which the retrospective survivors of the War deny changing customs and the passage of time. Homer Barron, the Yankee, lived in the present, ready to take his pleasure and depart, apparently unwilling to consider the possibility of defeat, either by tradition (the Griersons) or by time (death) itself. In a sense, Emily conquered time, but only briefly and by retreating into her rose-tinted world of the past, a world in which death was denied at the same time that it is shown to have existed. Such retreat, the story implies, is hopeless, since everyone (even Emily) is finally subjected to death and the invasion of his world by the clamorous and curious inhabitants of the world of the present.
In these terms, it might seem that the story is a comment upon tradition and upon those people who live in a dream world of the past. But is it not also a comment upon the present? There is some justification for Emily's actions. She is a tragic—and heroic—figure. In the first place, she has been frustrated by her father, prevented from participating in the life of her contemporaries. When she attempts to achieve freedom, she is betrayed by a man who represents the new morality, threatened by disclosure and humiliation. The grounds of the tragedy is depicted in the scene already referred to between Emily and the deputation from the Board of Aldermen: for the new generation, the word of Colonel Sartoris meant nothing. This was a new age, a different time; the present was not bound by the promises of the past. For Emily, however, the word of the Colonel was everything. The tax notice was but a scrap of paper.
Atmosphere, we might say, is nothing but the fictional reflection of man's attitude toward the state of the universe. The atmosphere of classic tragedy inveighed against the ethical dislocation of the Grecian world merely by portraying such dislocation and depicting man's tragic efforts to conform both to the will of the gods and to the demands of his own contemporary society. Such dislocation in the modern world is likely to be seen mirrored in the natural universe, with problems of death and time representing that flaw in the golden bowl of eighteenth and nineteenth-century natural philosophy which is the inheritance of our times. Perhaps our specific dilemma is the conflict of the pragmatic present against the set mores of the past. Homer Barron was an unheroic figure who put too much dependence upon his self-centered and rootless philosophy, a belief which suggested that he could take whatever he wanted without considering any obligation to the past (tradition) or to the future (death). Emily's resistance is heroic. Her tragic flaw is the conventional pride: she undertook to regulate the natural time-universe. She acted as though death did not exist, as though she could retain her unfaithful lover by poisoning him and holding his physical self prisoner in a world which had all of the appearances of reality except that most necessary of all things—life.
The extraction of a statement of theme from so complex a subject matter is dangerous and never wholly satisfactory. The subject, as we have seen, is concerned not alone with man's relationship to death, but with his relationship as it refers to all the facets of social intercourse. The theme is not one directed at presenting an attitude of Southerner to Yankee, or Yankee to Southerner, as has been hinted at in so many discussions of William Faulkner. The Southern Problem is one of the objective facts with which the theme is concerned, but the theme itself transcends it. Wallace Stevens is certainly right when he says that a theme may be emotive as well as intellectual and logical, and it is this recognition which explains why the extraction of a logical statement of theme is so delicate and dangerous an operation: the story is its theme as the life of the body is the body.
Nevertheless, in so far as a theme represents the meaning of a story, it can be observed in logical terms; indeed, these are the only terms in which it can be observed for those who, at a first or even a repeated reading, fail to recognize the implications of the total story. The logical statement, in other words, may be a clue to the total, emotive content. In these terms, ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ would seem to be saying that man must come to terms both with the past and the present; for to ignore the first is to be guilty of a foolish innocence, to ignore the second is to become monstrous and inhuman, above all to betray an excessive pride (such as Emily Grierson's) before the humbling fact of death. The total story says what has been said in so much successful literature, that man's plight is tragic, but that there is heroism in an attempt to rise above it.
Source: Ray B. West, Jr., ‘‘Atmosphere and Theme in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily,’’’ in William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Linda Welshimer Wagner, Michigan State University Press, 1973, pp. 192-98.