Overview of “A Rose for Emily”
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 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....
(The entire section is 1819 words.)