Themes and Meanings
Miss Emily’s story is certainly bizarre, suspenseful, and mysterious enough to engage the reader’s attention fully. She is a grotesque, southern gothic character whose neurotic or psychotic behavior in her relationships with her father, her lover, and her black servant may elicit many Freudian interpretations. For example, her affair with Homer Barron may be seen as a middle-aged woman’s belated rebellion against her repressive father and against the town’s burdensome expectations. That William Faulkner intended her story to have a much larger dimension is suggested by his choice of an unnamed citizen of Jefferson to tell it.
The narrator never speaks or writes as an individual, never uses the pronoun “I,” always speaks as “we.” As representative of the townspeople, the narrator feels a compulsion to tell the story of a woman who represents something important to the community. Black voices are excluded from this collective voice as it speaks out of old and new generations. Colonel Sartoris’s antebellum generation is succeeded by one with “modern ideas”: “Thus, she passed from generation to generation.”
Even though Miss Emily was a child during the Civil War, she represents to generations past and present the old Deep South of the Delta cotton-plantation aristocracy. She is a visible holdover into the modern South of a bygone era of romance, chivalry, and the Lost Cause. Even this new South, striving for a prosperity based on Northern technology, cannot fully accept the decay of antebellum culture and ideals. Early, the narrator invokes such concepts as tradition, duty, hereditary obligation, and custom, suggesting a perpetuation in the community consciousness of those old values. The community’s sense of time is predominantly chronological, but it is also like Emily’s, the confused, psychological time sense of memory. Like many women of the defeated upper class in the Deep South, Miss Emily withdraws from the chronological time of reality into the timelessness of illusion.
Miss Emily is then symbolic of the religion of southernness that survived military defeat and material destruction. The children of Colonel Sartoris’s generation are sent to learn china-painting from Miss Emily in “the same spirit that they were sent to church.” It is because “we” see her as resembling “those angels in colored church windows” that her affair with a Yankee makes her “a bad example to the young people.”
Given the fact that the Yankee colonel who made the deepest raid into Rebel territory was named Grierson, Faulkner may have intended Emily’s family name to be ironic. The insanity of clinging to exposed illusions is suggested by the fact that Miss Emily’s great-aunt went “crazy” and that Miss Emily later appears “crazy” to the townspeople. Ironically, even within aristocratic families there is division; her father fell out with Alabama kinsmen over the great-aunt’s estate.
Immediately after the narrator refers to Miss Emily as being like an “idol” and to her great-aunt as “crazy,” Faulkner presents this image, symbolic of the aristocracy: “We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door.” Her father’s rejection of her suitors is like the defeated aristocracy’s rejection of new methods of creating a future. Emily’s refusal to accept the fact of her father’s death suggests the refusal of some aristocrats to accept the death of the South even when faced with the evidence of its corpse. Perversely, “She would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.” However, the modern generations insist on burying the decaying corpse of the past.
Miss Emily preserves all the dead, in memory if not literally. “See Colonel Sartoris,” she tells the new town fathers, as if he were alive. The townspeople are like Miss Emily in that they persist in preserving her “dignity” as the last representative of the Old South (her death ends the Grierson line); after she is dead, the narrator preserves her in this story. The rose is a symbol of the age of romance in which the aristocracy were obsessed with delusions of grandeur, pure women being a symbol of the ideal in every phase of life. Perhaps the narrator offers this story as a “rose” for Emily. As a lady might press a rose between the pages of a history of the South, she keeps her own personal rose, her lover, preserved in the bridal chamber where a rose color pervades everything. Miss Emily’s rose is ironically symbolic because her lover was a modern Yankee, whose laughter drew the townspeople to him and whose corpse has grinned “profoundly” for forty years, as if he, or Miss Emily, had played a joke on all of them.