William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" Essay
Part 1: The Plot
In William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”, the narrator tells the story of a woman who lived and died in his/her town. The story is told in bits and pieces and is jumping back and forth in time. Although the story begins with Emily’s death, enough information is given to track the course of her life. As a young teenager, she lived with a very strict father, who chased away all her boyfriends. When he died, Emily was already past 30 and still single, meaning he was all she had. She didn’t want to release his body for burial, but the town forced her to and she went into depression for a long time. What brought her out of the depression was meeting and dating a Northerner, Homer Barron, who was a manager of a work crew installing sidewalks. The town didn’t approve of the match, because he was far below Miss Emily’s social status, and they tried to break up the couple. Emily bought a large amount of arsenic this time and would not explain what she needed it for, but the town decided to believe it was for rats. Since they couldn’t break up the couple, the town wrote to Miss Emily’s cousins who came for a visit, effectively chasing Homer away. When the cousins left, Homer returned at least once, but the town thought he and Emily must have had a fight because they never saw Homer again. She refused to pay her property taxes and she ignored the town’s complaints about a bad odor that was coming from the house for a while, but apart from town girls whom she taught china painting, no one was ever invited in. After Miss Emily died, the town discovered Homer’s body in an upstairs bedroom, lying on a bed with one of Miss Emily’s grey hairs on the pillow beside it.
Part 2: Setting, Atmosphere, Pattern/Structure, Point of View
The setting of the story is an old crumbling mansion in the South, making the story officially a Southern gothic. Miss Emily’s house was once a very fine house in a very respectable part of town, but the neighborhood and the house have deteriorated over the years and the town around it has continued to grow and change. Because of the change between the vibrant town and the crumbling mansion, the atmosphere of the story becomes eerie. There is a strong sense of strangeness as the younger generation attempts to understand the factors that influenced Miss Emily’s life and her passionate adherence to the past. This atmosphere is created through constant references to the strange, old, and deteriorating elements, and the puzzled reactions of townspeople as they attempt to deal with Miss Emily.
Although there is a clear story told that traces Miss Emily’s life, it is not told in chronological order or even reverse chronological order. Instead, the story jumps back and forth in time, starting with Emily’s death, then scrolling back to a time about 10 years earlier when Miss Emily refused to pay her taxes. This leads to recollections among the town members of another time when Miss Emily confounded the town elders to do something about the terrible smell coming from her house, but the town pitied her because she had just been jilted by the only man she had ever d. This causes reflection to move even further back to the reason why Emily is still single and further puzzlement as to why Emily wouldn’t allow the town to take away his body after her father died. Another memory is triggered, jumping forward again, to a time when Miss Emily bought a large amount of arsenic, and then moves back to talk about Miss Emily’s dating Homer Barron and his disappearance with the arrival of Miss Emily’s cousins (after the townspeople wrote to them about the unsuitable match). Finally, it jumps back to Miss Emily’s death and the discoveries that took place after her funeral. This structure is meaningful to the work, because it contributes to the sense of strangeness and it reflects the town’s shock as they slowly begin to piece the evidence together of what must have happened.
The narrator of the story is never identified but is frequently self-referred to as the plural ‘we’. This suggests that the narrator is the town itself. This makes the narrator very unreliable, because it is a collective, outside view of events upon which the town as a group has agreed upon and eliminated any outside, fringe opinions. However, if the story was told from another point of view, such as from that of the black servant, it would not convey the same sense of strangeness or shocked reaction at the gruesome end.
Part 3: Characters
The main character of the story is Emily Grierson, and she remains the central focus of the story throughout, even though she never has a voice of her own, nor are her actions ever interpreted according to her own beliefs or customs. It is difficult to see a lot of change in her through the story except in the middle. Before Homer, she is kept inside and unsociable by a reclusive and very strict father, who holds clear ideas about his highborn daughter fraternizing with the riff-raff of the town. As a result, not much is known about her before her father’s death. After Homer, she becomes reclusive on her own, preferring to stay away from the other townspeople and very mistrustful of them. Only while she is dating Homer does she seem to come out of her shell and definitely comes out of her house. During this time, she is seen laughing and having fun on the town streets, she talks with people, she wears contemporary fashions, and she has her hair done in a fashionable style. Even though she is reclusive and suspicious, Miss Emily is still a sympathetic character because of the way she has been treated throughout her life.
Other important characters include Homer Barron, the townspeople as a collective whole, and the black servant. Homer is the one who brings Emily out of her depression and out of the house, but he does not stay around long enough to create permanent change in her. It is important to recognize the townspeople as a single character, because it is as this character that they are deemed beneath Miss Emily’s social class, that they force Miss Emily to give up her father, that they attempt to take her money in the form of taxes, that they attempt to restrict what she can purchase in the case of the arsenic, and that they approach her in relation to the odor at her house. All of this causes Miss Emily to be highly mistrustful of them and contributes to her reclusive nature. The black servant is important both because he reminds us of the Southern upper class lifestyle and because he makes it possible for Miss Emily to remain hidden within her house. When she dies, he disappears like smoke.
Part 4: Symbolism, Images, Irony
The house is a powerful symbol of Emily herself. It represents the old Southern elite lifestyle with a lot of fancy decoration and not a lot of usefulness. The house is implacable, stubbornly holding on to its elite status, even though the neighborhood has long since declined and the town has moved on. It insists on clinging to the old world charms and traditions even in the face of a modernizing nation. It is an enigma that causes everyone in the town to be fascinated by it, but it never allows anyone to come inside for much of a look around. As it crumbles, it begins to collect dust just as Emily aged and her hair began to turn grey.
There is also a lot of irony in the story. For example, Emily is often referred to as Poor Emily even though her family was once one of the richest families in town and Miss Emily is still considered to be among the social elite. Although Miss Emily appears to dislike being alone, as is shown in her unwillingness to give up her father’s body for burial, she spends most of her life alone. As a girl, she is alone because her father does not allow her to socialize, and later she is alone because she can’t afford having the town discover the dead body upstairs. Rather than give Homer a chance to spend his life with her, she gives him poison so that he can spend his death with her. Although the town criticizes her father for refusing to allow her to , they call in the cousins to keep her from dating someone they feel is unsuitable.
Part 5: Theme and Meaning
The significance of the title of the story could have a lot of connection to its meaning. Roses are often given as symbols of respect, love, or sympathy and are often kept as mementos of important events such as weddings. The rose could thus be referring to the town’s last gift of love to its old aristocracy, of which Emily was the last surviving member. It could also be the town’s last gift of respect to Miss Emily, who refused to give in to the rules of conduct of the new world order and instead found a way to live by her own rules and ideas, however crazy they might have been. No matter how hard they tried, Miss Emily always seemed able to defeat the most stout-hearted members of the community. The rose could also be a sign of sympathy for Miss Emily in that she was never allowed out of the cage her father had fashioned for her. Even after he died, the town treated held her according to the same standards he had established and Emily discovered she would never be free to live the kind of life other townspeople live. Finally, the rose could be a sign of memento of this woman and her bizarre story, recognition of the strange marriage she shared with a dead man and the town’s remorse that they were never able to celebrate any happiness with her while she was alive.
The main theme of the story, I think, is the conflict between tradition and progress. Emily is constantly made by her father to hold to traditional values, which the town harshly criticizes because they are so modern and progressive. They bring in all the new modern comforts and even arrange for the streets to be paved and for sidewalks to be put in. However, when Miss Emily tries to join this progress, the town insists that she remain tied to the old values, proving that they may not be as progressive as they believed. Emily has become a symbol of the traditions they lost but want to hold to as much as Emily herself wants to hold to what she knows. As they finally let Emily go into her death, the town begins to realize the damage that can be caused by holding too closely to traditions as well as their own need to hold to some traditions as to the glue that binds them together; in this context, the rose is a symbol of remembrance in the process of moving forward.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Anthology of American Literature – 8th Edition. Ed. McMichael, George, James S. Leonard, Bill Lyne, Anne-Marie Mallon, and Verner D. Mitchell. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2004: 433-444. Print.