Past Contrasted with Present in Faulkner's A Rose for Emily

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Past Contrasted with Present in Faulkner's A Rose for Emily  


In "A Rose for Emily", Faulkner contrasted the past with the present era. The past was represented in Emily herself, in Colonel Sartoris, in the old Negro servant, and in the Board of Alderman who accepted the Colonel's attitude toward Emily and rescinded her taxes.

The present was expressed chiefly through the words of the unnamed narrator. The new Board of Aldermen, Homer Barron (the representative of Yankee attitudes toward the Griersons and thus toward the entire South), and in what is called "the next generation with its more modern ideas" all represented the present time period (Norton Anthology, 2044). Miss Emily was referred to as a "fallen monument" in the story (Norton Anthology, 2044). She was a "monument" of Southern gentility, an ideal of past values but fallen because she had shown herself susceptible to death (and decay). The description of her house "lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps--an eyesore among eyesores" represented a juxtaposition of the past and present and was an emblematic presentation of Emily herself (Norton Anthology, 2044).

The house smells of dust and disuse and has a closed, dank smell. A description of Emily in the following paragraph discloses her similarity to the house. "She looked bloated like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that palled hue" (Norton Anthology, 2045). But she had not always had that appearance. In the picture of a young Emily with her father, she was frail and apparently hungering to participate in the life of the era. After her father's death, she looked like a girl "with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows--sort of tragic and serene" (Norton Anthology, 2046). This suggests that she had already begun her entrance into the nether-world.

By the time the representatives of the new, progressive Board of Aldermen waited on her concerning her delinquent taxes, she had already completely retreated to her world of the past. She declared that she had no taxes in Jefferson, basing her belief on a verbal agreement made with Colonel Sartoris, who had been dead for ten years. Just as Emily refused to acknowledge the death of her father, she now refused to recognize the death of Colonel Sartoris. He had given his word and according to the traditional view, his word knew no death.

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It is the past pitted against the present--the past with its social decorum, the present with everything set down in "the books."

We can further see this distinction in the attitude of Judge Stevens, who was over eighty years old, and the young man (a member of the rising generation) who came to the judge regarding the smell at Emily's house. For the young man, it was easy to point out the health regulations that were on the books. But for the judge dealing with the situation it was not so simple. "Dammit, sir...will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?" (Norton Anthology, 2045). If Homer had triumphed in seducing Emily and deserting her, Emily would have become susceptible to the town's pity, therefore becoming human.

Emily's world, however, was already in the past. When she was threatened with desertion and disgrace, she not only took refuge in that world but also took Homer with her in the only manner possible--death. Miss Emily's position in regard to the specific problem of time was suggested in the scene where the old soldiers appear at her funeral. There are two perspectives of time held by the characters. The first perspective (the world of the present) views time as a "mechanical progression" in which the past is a "diminishing road" (Norton Anthology, 2049). The second perspective (the world of tradition and the past) views the past as "a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years" (Norton Anthology, 2049). The first perspective was that of Homer and the modern generation. The second was that of the older members of the Board of Aldermen and of the confederate soldiers. Emily held the second view as well, except that for her there was no bottleneck dividing her from the meadow of the past.

Emily's room above the stairs was that timeless meadow. In it, the living Emily and the dead Homer remained together as though not even death could separate them. In the simplest sense, the story says that death conquers all. But what is death? On one level, death is the past, tradition, whatever is opposite of the present (Hoffman, 265). In the setting of this story, it is the past of the South in which the retrospective survivors of the Civil War deny changing the customs and the passage of time.

Homer Barron, the Yankee, lived in the present, ready to take his pleasure and depart, apparently unwilling to consider the possibility of defeat neither by tradition (the Griersons) nor by time itself (death). In a sense, Emily conquered time, but only briefly and by retreating into her "rose-tinted" world of the past. This was a world in which death was denied at the same time that it was shown to have existed. Such retreat, the story implies, is hopeless since everyone, even Emily, was finally subject to death and to the invasion of his or her world by the clamorous and curious inhabitants of the world of the present. "When Miss Emily died, [the] whole town went to her funeral...the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant...had seen in at least ten years" (Norton Anthology, 2044).

Work Cited

Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Shorter 5th ed. Ed. R.V.Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Comp., 1995.


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