Faulkner's Rose For Emily is a Portrait Of The Post War South
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Growing up in Mississippi in the late Nineteenth Century and the early part of the Twentieth Century, young William Faulkner witnessed first hand the struggles his beloved South endured through their slow progression of rebuilding. These experiences helped to develop Faulkner’s writing style. “Faulkner deals almost exclusively with the Southern scene (with) the Civil War … always behind his work” (Warren 1310. His works however are not so much historical in nature but more like folk lore. This way Faulkner is not constrained to keep details accurate, instead he manipulate the story to share his on views leading the reader to conclude morals or lessons from his experience. Faulkner writes often and “sympathetically of the older order of the antebellum society. It was a society that valued honor, (and) was capable of heroic action” (Brooks 145) both traits Faulkner admired. These sympathetic views are revealed in the story “A Rose for Emily” with Miss Emily becoming a monument for the Antebellum South.
“A Rose for Emily” is a story about Emily Grierson who kills her Yankee boyfriend Homer Barron and lives with his body in her bedroom for over forty years.
However, the story is not really about Miss Emily’s actions, but more about the “society that made her” (Dilworth 254). Miss Emily grew up as part of an aristocratic Southern family, with an overpowering father who refused to allow her to be courted by the young men of the town. It is Emily’s father who first elevated her to idol status by keeping her segregated from her peers. Critic Jack Scherting describes Emily’s father as “an imperious man, proud of his Southern heritage and of his family’s status in Jefferson” (400). However, after her father’s death, the town continues to idolize Miss Emily as a monument of their by gone era. The narrator states this fact at the very beginning of the story when he says “alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (Faulkner 29). Miss Emily was a tradition; she represented the old South and their past. The narrator discloses this fact early in his tale in essence giving the reader a possible explanation to her later actions. Miss Emily is called an idol twice by the narrator which is a “good metaphor because, like an idol she was revered,” (Dilworth 255) just as the South revered their antebellum ways. During the Post Civil War period the Southerners were being forced to change their way of life, to become more like the industrialized North. As the town begins to change, Miss Emily continues to live much as she did prior to the war and this seems to satisfy both. Her father left her broke, yet she never worked outside of the home, she continued to have a black servant, and Miss Emily always looked prim and proper with an air of aloofness.
The town’s folk held Miss Emily to a different standard because they revered her so. She is even compared to an angel, almost Godlike. Miss Emily is allowed to live by old standards and is not expected to change. She is perceived as a genteel Southern lady who should not be bothered with everyday problems. This is evident when Colonel Sortoris fabricates a story about why she did not owe taxes, the narrator says “only a man of Colonel Sortoris generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it”(Faulkner 29). Also when neighbors complain of the smell around Miss Emily’s house Judge Stevens states “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad” (Faulkner 31). Miss Emily’s status allows her certain privileges in the town. When the next generation town folk attempt to collect the taxes, Emily refuses to pay and the town allows it. Miss Emily refuses to state the purpose for her wanting to buy the arsenic, yet the pharmacist still gives her the poison. When free mail service came to Jefferson, Miss Emily refused to allow mail service and the house numbers be placed on her house. Miss Emily refuses to follow the law, and she is allowed to rebel against change. The town allows her not to conform because they need her “to preserve the value of their old South” (Dilworth252).
Emily Grierson becomes the tragic heroin of “A Rose for Emily”. Her status as the town’s idol or monument of their past, comes with a hefty price. Emily is forced into “a life of solitude owing to denial of natural sexual affection” (Dilworth 254). The town expects Emily to behave in a certain manner, to uphold their view of her. When Emily finds love, the town intervenes because “of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner 32). Both the town and Miss Emily need each other; the town needs her to remain the same because she represents their past, and Miss Emily needs the town because they allow her to keep her outdated beliefs. Homer however, is a threat to the town, he represents the industrialized North, and the town can not allow their beloved Southern icon to fall for the ways of the North. The South had already lost once to the North, they could not allow their icon to be lost to the North. Homer is also a threat to Miss Emily’s fragile self. He had already let it be known around town that he was not looking for marriage, so there was a possibility he could humiliate Miss Emily. As a result, Miss Emily becomes the tragic heroin of the old South, tragic because she is never allowed to become fully humanized. By nature humans like to keep relics or mementos from their past and Emily becomes the town’s relic. The critic Ray West sees this as a representation of the “complex relationship between the Southerner and his past and between the Southerner of the present and the Yankee of the North” (74). The town sees Emily as “a monument of Southern gentility. As such she is common property of the town” (West 74). In the town’s view Miss Emily is a symbol or icon, thus her personal desires are not important. If she was to marry, this would make her human in the eyes of the town, a fallen idol. Thus the only way Miss Emily can maintain her image with the town and cherish her love is to kill Homer. “What she does in order to get her own way is, of course, terrible. But there is an element of the heroic about it too, and the town evidently recognizes it as such” (Bloom 30).
Miss Emily’s story is told by an unnamed person who tells the events out of order. The narrator purposely tells the story out of chronological order to allow the reader time to fully understand all the factors involved, and to develop a sympathetic view towards Miss Emily and the Old South in general. The narrator becomes a spokesperson who represents “the town of Jefferson and the South in general” (Dilworth 251). Through the narrator Faulkner illustrates the attitude and the struggles of the South after the war. As the town becomes more modernized they seem to focus more on Miss Emily’s life watching her constantly, even when she stops going out, they still watch their icon. The narrator knows every aspect of Miss Emily’s life to the point that he or the town had knowledge of the murder. With this knowledge the fact that the town avoids accusing Miss Emily of murder and allows her to hide the secret for decades is perhaps their attempt “to preserve the honor and myth of the Old South” (Dilworth 253). The narrator goes through a transformation as he tells the story from first idolizing his old ways to finally accepting that his old way of life is outdated and dead. This is illustrated by his view of Miss Emily through the years from idol worship until her death when he describes her as “a fallen monument” (Faulkner 29) meaning in death she finally becomes human. Even though she has become mortal in death, Miss Emily is still a monument to the Old South’s traditions, a lasting remembrance.
The narrator never discloses his opinion on Emily, yet he does hint to it when he describes her face “as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper’s face ought to look” (Faulkner 32). The critic Harold Bloom quotes Cleanth Brooks when he says the comparison of a lighthouse keeper’s face is a “very illuminating simile” (30). For a lighthouse keeper’s job is to “serve others but lives in sheer isolation… his job is to warn others from being wrecked on the dangerous rocks” (Bloom 30). William Faulkner uses his character Emily Grierson to represent his Old South antebellum society and their values. “The town’s ambivalence toward Emily seems to be a reflection of Faulkner’s own ambivalence toward the South” (Sullivan 88). “A Rose for Emily” becomes a contrast between Old South and New South. Perhaps Faulkner is warning about the dangers of living just in the past or just in the present, but that mankind must look at both to survive.
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