A Rose for Emily Historical and Social Context
by William Faulkner

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The South after the Civil War

The Reconstruction after the Civil War had a profound and humbling effect on Southern society. The South’s outdated plantation economy, based so long upon slave labor, was devastated by emancipation. Northern opportunists, known as ‘‘carpet-baggers,’’ came in droves to take advantage of the economic chaos. Some Southern aristocrats found themselves working the land alongside tenant farmers and former slaves. Faulkner came from a family that once owned a plantation. The history of his family and of the South in general inspired Faulkner’s imagination.

The short stories and novels Faulkner wrote about Yoknapatawpha County combine to create an epic, mythical history of this era. David Minter, in his biography William Faulkner: His Life and Work, notes that as a teenager, Faulkner was known for being observational to the point of oddness: ‘‘Sometimes he joined the old men of Oxford on the town square … there he sat or stood motionless, quiet, as though held fast by some inner scene or some inner sense of himself.’’ It was in this manner that Faulkner soaked up the legends of his region. He heard Civil War stories from the old veterans, hunting stories from his father, stories of his great-grandfather’s heroic exploits from his grandfather, and fables about the animals in the forest told by Mammy Caroline Barr, an ex-slave who watched over him when he was a small boy. The stories he heard, along with his experiences in Oxford during his own lifetime, greatly inform the scope of his work.

‘‘A Rose for Emily,’’ in a few pages, covers approximately three-quarters of a century. The birth of Emily Grierson takes place sometime around the Civil War. Her death takes place sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s—that is, sometime around the year Faulkner wrote the story. Because Faulkner came from a family with an aristocratic bearing and associated with other similar families, he was familiar with the arrogance of characters like the Griersons. Some of these people continued to behave as if they were still privileged plantation owners although their wealth was gone. However, Faulkner spent much of his time observing ordinary townspeople as well, and this is why he was able to capture the voice of the common people of Jefferson in the character of the narrator.

The narrator in ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ notes a change in the character of his town when Jefferson’s Board of Aldermen attempts to collect Emily’s taxes. Originally, the town was governed by men of the old South like Colonel Sartoris and Judge Stevens. Men like this operated under a code of chivalry that was extremely protective of white women. Thus, Colonel Sartoris is unable to allow the town to tax a poor spinster, and Judge Stevens is unable to confront Emily about the smell coming from her house. As each generation passes the torch, however, the newer generations are further and further away from the antiquated social mores of their forebears. The men who try to collect Emily’s taxes don’t operate under the same code of conduct as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. Emily is not a ‘‘damsel in distress’’ to these men; she is a nuisance, a hindrance to progress. Faulkner was very interested in this conflict between nineteenth and twentieth-century Southern society. The old Southern families of his novels, such as the...

(The entire section is 843 words.)