Commentary

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Last Updated on June 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

The extraordinary degree to which the young Faulkner managed to compress into this, his first published story, many of the elements that came to be characteristic of his fiction is the effect of his unusual use of the first-person point of view and his control of the motifs that flow from it.

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By confining himself to the pronoun “we,” the narrator gives the reader the impression that the whole town is bearing witness to the behavior of a heroine, about whom they have ambivalent attitudes, ambiguously expressed. The ambiguity derives in part from the community’s lack of access to facts, stimulating the narrator to draw on his own and the communal imagination to fill out the picture, creating a collage of images. The narration gives the impression of coming out of a communal consciousness, creating the effect of a peculiar omniscience. An entire novel could be developed from the material compressed into this short story.

Is the narrator telling the story in the southern oral tradition or is he or she writing it? To ask basic questions about this unusual collective mode of narration—who, what, where, when, and why—is to stir up many possibilities. The oral mode seems most appropriate, but the style, consisting of such phrases as “diffident deprecation,” suggests the written mode.

A pattern of motifs that interact, contrasting with or paralleling one another, sometimes symbolically, sometimes ironically, flows naturally from the reservoir of communal elements in the narrator’s saturated consciousness as he tells the story: the funeral, the cemetery, the garages, cars, cotton gins, taxes, the law, the market basket and other elements of black existence, the house, its front and back doors, its cellar and upper rooms, the window where Emily sits, the idol image that becomes a fallen monument, images that evoke the Civil War, images of gold, of decay, the color yellow, dust, shadows, corpses and bodies like corpses, the smells, the breaking down of doors, the poison, and the images of hair.

To lend greater impact to the surprise ending and to achieve greater artistic unity and intensity of effect, Faulkner uses other devices: foreshadowing, reversal, and repetition. Most of the motifs, spaced effectively throughout, are repeated at least three times, enabling the reader to respond at any given point to all the elements simultaneously.

Imitators of the surprise-ending device, made famous in modern times by O. Henry, have given that device a bad name by using it mechanically to provoke a superficial thrill. In raising the surprise-ending device to the level of complex art, Faulkner achieves a double impact: “The man himself lay on the bed” is shock enough, justified by what has gone before, but “the long strand of iron-gray hair,” the charged image that ends the story, shocks the reader into a sudden, intuitive reexperiencing and reappraisal of the stream of images, bringing order and meaning to the pattern of motifs.

A Rose for Emily

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

Miss Emily met Homer Baron, a foreman with a construction company, when her hometown was first getting paved streets. Her father had already died but, not before driving away her eligible suitors. As rumors circulate about her possible marriage to a Yankee, Homer leaves town abruptly. During his absence, Miss Emily buys rat poison.

When Homer returns, the townspeople see him enter Miss Emily’s house but not leave. Only when she dies do the townspeople discover his corpse on a bed in her house and, next to it, a strand of Miss Emily’s hair.

This Gothic plot makes serious points about woman’s place in society. Throughout the story, the reader is aware that these events are taking place during a time of transition: The town is finally getting sidewalks and mailboxes. More important, values are changing. The older magistrates, for example, looked on Miss Emily paternally and refused to collect taxes from her; the newer ones try, unsuccessfully, to do so.

Caught in these changing times, Miss Emily is trapped in her role as genteel spinster. Without a husband, her life will have no meaning. She tries to give lessons in painting china but cannot find pupils for this out-of-date hobby and finally discontinues them. If Homer is thinking of abandoning her, as his departure implies, one can understand her desire to clutch at any sort of union, even a marriage in death.

The theme is developed through an exceptionally well-crafted story. Told from a third-person plural point of view, it reveals the reactions of the town to Miss Emily. As this “we” narrator shifts allegiance--now criticizing Miss Emily, now sympathizing with her--the reader sees the trap in which she is caught, and the extensive but unobtrusive foreshadowing prepares the reader for the story’s final revelation without detracting from its force.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on June 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Flashback and Foreshadowing

Flashback and foreshadowing are two often used literary devices that utilize time in order to produce a desired effect. Flashbacks are used to present action that occurs before the beginning of a story; foreshadowing creates expectation for action that has not yet happened. Faulkner uses both devices in ‘‘A Rose for Emily.’’ The story is told by the narrator through a series of non-sequential flashbacks. The narrator begins the story by describing the scene of Emily’s funeral; this description, however, is actually a flashback because the story ends with the narrator’s memory of the town’s discovery of the corpse in the Grierson home after Emily’s funeral. Throughout the story, the narrator flashes back and forth through various events in the life and times of Emily Grierson and the town of Jefferson. Each piece of the story told by the narrator prompts another piece of the story, regardless of chronology. For example, the narrator recalls Emily’s funeral, which leads him to remember when Colonel Sartoris relieved her of taxes. This of course leads to the story of the aldermen trying to collect Emily’s taxes after the death of the Colonel. The narrative thus works much in the same haphazard manner as human memory does.

The narrator foreshadows the grisly discovery at the end of the story with several scenes. First, when the aldermen attempt to collect Emily’s taxes, her house is described as decrepit, almost a mausoleum. Emily herself is compared to a drowned corpse. Then, in section two, the stench that emanates from the Grierson house is most certainly one of death. Another powerful example of foreshadowing comes when Emily refuses to let anyone take the body of her father after his death until she relents after three days. When Emily finally has access to another corpse, she jealously guards it for over forty years!

Point of View

The point of view in “A Rose for Emily” is unique. The story is told by an unnamed narrator in the first-person collective. One might even argue that the narrator is the main character. There are hints as to the age, race, gender, and class of the narrator, but an identity is never actually revealed. Isaac Rodman notes in The Faulkner Journal that the critical consensus remains that the narrator speaks for his community. (Rodman, however, goes on to present a convincing argument that the narrator may be a loner or eccentric of some kind speaking from ‘‘ironic detachment.’’) Regardless of identity, the narrator proves to be a clever, humorous, and sympathetic storyteller. He is clever because of the way he pieces the story together to build to a shocking climax. His humor is evident in his almost whimsical tone throughout what most would consider to be a morbid tale. Finally, the narrator is sympathetic to both Emily and the town of Jefferson. This is demonstrated in his pity for Emily and in his understanding that the town’s reactions are driven by circumstances beyond its control (‘‘Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town’’).

Setting

‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ is set in Faulkner’s mythical county, Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi. The town of Jefferson is the county seat of Yoknapatawpha. In William Faulkner: His Life and Work, David Minter writes, ‘‘More than any major American writer of our time, including Robert Frost Faulkner is associated with a region. He is our great provincial.’’ Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County are based upon the real city of Oxford and Lafayette County in Mississippi, where Faulkner spent most of his life. Once he established this fictional, yet familiar, setting, he was able to tap his creativity to invent a history for Yoknapatawpha and populate the county with colorful characters like Emily Grierson and Colonel Sartoris. The land and its history exert a great influence over many of Faulkner’s characters. Emily is no exception; she is trapped in Jefferson’s past.

Structure

The best of Faulkner's fiction is characterized by the craftsmanship of its structure. The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are both examples of daring experimentation with point of view and time in the novel. He wrote ‘‘A Rose for Emily’’ during the same period he worked on those novels. The story moves seamlessly back and forth in time through almost fifty years in its five sections. Each episode in the life of Emily and the history of Jefferson is obviously interconnected, yet the clues aren’t given in chronological order. Thus, the final scene is powerful because the narrator does not tell the story in a straightforward, beginning-to-end fashion. This is why the story is even more entertaining and enlightening when read for the second time.

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