Student Question

What does Miss Emily's refusal to pay taxes and to let go of her father's body reveal about the theme of "not letting go of the past"?

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In Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Emily's refusal to let go of her past is analogous to the South's refusal to let go of its pre-Civil War glory.  Using Emily, her house, and her compact with death as symbols for the South's morbid denial, Faulkner shows that the Old South is a corrupt and decaying culture with many skeletons in its closet.

Miss Emily is a victim of the patriarchal and Southern debutante culture of the Antebellum South.  Her father was aristocracy and paid no taxes; therefore, Miss Emily likewise refuses.  In her family's eyes, taxes are paid to the North, and the South has had a long history of not paying taxes or labor (slavery) to Washington bureaucrats.

Not only does Emily want to hold on to her father's legacy and exemptions, but she wants to hold on to his body--out of fear and denial.  She feels protected by the name and reputation he affords her.  Why would she want to get married?  She is, effectively, married to her father (a kind of Electra complex).

As a Souther woman, however, Miss Emily knows she must get married; otherwise, she will become an "old maid," the worst moniker afforded to a Southern Belle.  So, she marries the antithesis of a Southern gentleman: Homer Baron, a Northerner who is gay.  She marries him not to escape public rumor, but as a kind of revenge against the North and a means to seclude herself from society.  Again, she hides behind the protection of the male.  This time, however, she refuses to give up his body.

So, just as the South was reluctant to give up its institutions (slavery, agrarian culture, Southern belles, patriarchal aristocracy), so too is Emily reluctant to cede her past.

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In “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner, Emily Grierson’s life is a tragic example of the consequences of refusing to let go of the past. For instance, Colonel Sartoris devises a lie to cover the fact that he pays Miss Emily’s taxes because he refuses to see that her changed socio-economic condition is permanent. He does not allow her to suffer the shame of accepting charity or the town’s ridicule of her bankrupt condition. Still, she will never again hold the social or financial influence that she once held. Like wise, Emily’s refusal to acknowledge her father’s death is her pitiful attempt to cling to a past that can never be recovered. Unfortunately, these are only two of the vain attempts in the story to ignore changing circumstances.

When Homer Barron arrives in town and Miss Emily finally has a viable suitor (with ready cash), the town refuses to acknowledge him as a suitable mate. Rather, they cling to the Miss Emily’s past standing as the town’s socialite, whose family was thought to be better than all others. When Homer is forced to leave the town, his return offers the most tragic example of failing to let go of the past. Miss Emily poisons him with arsenic and keeps him with her forever. Of course, none of the decisions made by Colonel Sartoris, the townspeople, Miss Emily’s kinfolk, or Miss Emily herself can prevent change from coming to the town of Jefferson.

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