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"A Rose for Emily," by William Faulkner, is an interesting character study. Faulkner fully develops the characters in this story by using the passage of time and the setting as well as the narration. The story is not told in chronological order; this allows him to piece in relevant information in an almost conversational way. He tells a tale of a woman who goes slowly insane due to heredity and environment; and describes the confusion and curiosity she causes the watching town.
The tale takes place in a smallish town in Mississippi, circa 1920. Over time, the glory of the town has faded, just like Miss Emily Grierson, the main character, and her house. At one time, the house was one of the best houses in one of the best neighborhoods; Miss Emily was considered one of the best young women in town. Now, her house stands amidst the business section of town, a run-down eyesore. This compares to Emily herself; once a beauty, she is now old and considered crazy.
Miss Emily and the changes in both her appearance and mental state are portrayed in full detail. Once a young, slim woman, she is now fat and bloated, her eyes "looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough" (Faulkner 468). Her coldness and reclusive nature becomes more pronounced as the story evolves. As she ages, she does not leave the house as often and allows fewer visitors to come in.
Two men directly influenced her fate, her father and her lover. Her father did not believe anyone was good enough for her; so he ran off all of her possible suitors. He is described as a "spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip" (Faulkner 469). Her first sign of insanity appears when her father dies; since she had no-one else, her mind refused to believe that he was dead.
Two years later, when Emily was about thirty, she met Homer Barron, her only sweetheart. He is described more directly than anyone else in the story, including Emily. He is "a Yankee - a big, dark, ready man" (Faulkner 470), good natured and well liked by everyone. His refusal to marry Emily pushes her over the brink, into madness. Homer disappears quietly, saying goodbye to no-one.
The third man in her life, her manservant, is described as a quiet and reserved black man.
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One other man had a profound impact on Miss Emily's life. Colonel Sartoris, the mayor at the time of her father's death, was an old-fashioned man. Knowing that she was poor now, the mayor remitted her taxes, inventing a story so that it would not look like charity, thus saving her house and her dignity. This act shows that the town was small enough that everyone knows and, to some extent, cares about each other. However, this kindness also caused much trouble. By the time the next generation came into power thirty years later, Emily's madness was progressed to the point that she had absolutely no respect for authority. Attempts to get her to pay taxes were met with absolute indifference.
The townspeople are less developed, but relevant. Their reactions to the changes in Emily's state of mind, the way she is perceived over time, are the finishing touches that define her character. When she was young, the family acted as though they were better than everyone else, everyone thought they were cold and haughty. Then, Emily's great-aunt went completely crazy, so the people started looking for signs of madness in Emily and her father, they seemed strange to the people. Later, when Emily's father died, she was left alone and poor; she could be pitied. A few years later, Emily buys rat poison; the townsfolk believed she was going to commit suicide. When a stench comes from her house, they spread lime across the yard and in the outbuildings at night, rather than confront her about it. They were confused by Emily, and did not know how to deal with her.
By the time Emily was forty, she was fat, with gray hair. She gave painting classes for several years. After the last pupil, "The front door closed one last time and remained closed for good" (Faulkner 472). Emily became a total recluse. During the last ten years of Emily's life, she saw no-one except her manservant. Even so, Emily's funeral was attended by the entire town. It was not until after she was buried that the town knew the real truth, the rat poison was for Homer. She had poisoned him to keep him near her, and was the cause of the stench so many years ago.
Outward appearances can change over time. What was once shiny and new, almost always becomes dull and dark with age. Events and time can change character also, in this instance turning a young, proud beauty into a fat, ancient lunatic. Faulkner uses time, the backdrop of a small town, and perceptions of Emily's neighbors to develop a wonderful, dark tale of a lonely old woman.
Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." Literature: Writing and Thinking about Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. 2nd ed. Ed. Madden F. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. 467 - 473