When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant – a combined gardener and cook – had seen in at least ten years. (p. 119)Out of all of his fabulous novels and short stories, William Faulkner’s 1931 short story, “A Rose for Emily,” has long been a personal favorite. In only a few thousand words, Faulkner creates a multilayered tale that works as a personal tragedy, an allegory, and a pointed social commentary, among other things. It is a story that I’ve re-read on a few occasions since the time I was first introduced to it in a freshman English Composition class back in 1992 and each time, new elements come to the fore of my thoughts on “A Rose for Emily.”
Take for instance the opening paragraph. We see, through the perspective of the third-person narrator, the combination of duty and morbid curiosity of the townspeople of the fictional Jefferson, Mississippi (the final resting place of Addie Bunchen from As I Lay Dying, also published in 1930) regarding the death of that “fallen monument.” This description of Miss Emily evokes images of grandeur fated to decay. In the five sections of this tale, decay looms prominently:
“…only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…” (p. 119)
“When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray.” (p. 120)
“And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her.” (p. 128)Yet there is more than just the tragic fall of Miss Emily into decayed disrepair. Faulkner’s mixture of the literary past and present accentuates a larger change that is taking place in Jefferson that has largely bypassed Miss Emily’s mostly-shuttered relic of a home. A new generation is emerging in the 1930s, one that has no first-hand recollection of the horrors of the Civil War and its traumatic aftermath. The complexities of a Colonel Sartoris, who is referenced in a single sentence as being a courtly gentleman who remits Miss Emily’s city taxes in perpetuity while, as Mayor, creating an anti-black ordinance that serves as a reminder of the Jim Crow era, and his era are slowly giving way to a different generational outlook. There are a few fleeting references to how that “monument,” Miss Emily, has had to battle city leaders who seek to revoke the Colonel’s roundabout way of “providing charity” to the nearly indigent scion of an old Southern family. This connects with other references to social mores and the ways that the neighborhood around Miss Emily’s home is changing. Decay is much more than a person or home mouldering into dust.
“A Rose for Emily” is littered with foreshadowings of the final event. From the purchase of arsenic, “for rats,” to the spreading of lime to the drastic changes in Miss Emily’s figure, nearly every paragraph contains portents for what follows after. The narrative suspense developed from each of these little clues actually improves upon a re-read, as much of the joy derived from the story comes from seeing how adroitly Faulkner weaves these references to Miss Emily’s past and present, overlain with commentary on the townspeople and their myriad responses to the events surrounding Miss Emily and her later seclusion, into a narrative tapestry that is a delight to read and re-read.
Furthermore, the two most powerful “voices” in this novel never “speak” from a point of view perspective. Miss Emily we come to know through her curt politeness to the city leaders, but beyond that and the recollections offered by the narrator, tinged with innuendo as those are, we never see her in action, yet by the story’s end, when the tragedy of her life is revealed, her life, or rather, her descent into animated decay, has come to dominate the story. Yet over this looms another, more hidden figure, that of her father. His control of Miss Emily is only hinted at in a couple of places, yet the insidiousness of it permeates the action of the story. Faulkner’s use of allusion in regard to Miss Emily’s father (and apparently, his own role as another symbol of the fading post-war generation) tinges “A Rose for Emily” with an allegorical quality (one that Faulkner once noted was the origin for the “rose” in the story’s title; even the most destitute deserve that “rose” of respect).
Each of the elements discussed above combine to create an absorbing read that rewards the reader who pauses and reflects upon each sentence, as there is so much occurring under the surface of the narrative. Miss Emily is a fascinating character and the background townspeople serve to underscore the divisions and social changes that are taking place around the core tragedy of this story. When compared to As I Lay Dying, “A Rose for Emily” is not as experimental, as we see no use of stream of consciousness or multiple point of view narrators, yet it complements well that novel’s exploration of duty in the face of near-farcical happenstance, not to mention that like Addie, Emily here is defined as much in how she dies as in how she lived. Before re-reading both stories, this connection was not readily apparent, but upon further consideration, it could be argued that what drives both of these 1930 Faulkner tales is a sense of absence. Addie is departing and yet in dying she relentless drives the family that she mostly resents toward a discovery of life that they might not otherwise have made. Emily has long departed life before she breathes her final breath, yet despite the absence of a direct point of view of hers, her unspoken “voice” dominates the story. Taken together, As I Lay Dying and “A Rose for Emily” complement each other and showcase Faulkner’s burgeoning talent to depict setting and its effects on character (and vice versa) in an honest and moving fashion.
Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday." Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays. The review of "A Rose for Emily" was revised from its original publication on this blog in May 2011.