“A Rose For Emily” is a short story by Mississippi born William Faulkner, first published 1930. I didn’t know of the short story when I listened to the podcast Shit Town.
The theme song to Shit Town is A Rose For Emily by The Zombies. There’s exists a disturbing ironic distance between the sadness of the narrative and the upbeat tune. Now I’ve read the short story and also listened to the podcast, I can see why this song was chosen.
As for the short story itself, “A Rose For Emily” is often returned as an excellent example of naturalism.
William Faulkner‘s A Rose for Emily, a story about a woman who killed her lover, is considered an example of a narrative within the naturalism category. This story, which also used Gothic elements, presented a tale that highlighted the extraordinary and excessive features in human nature and the social environment that influences them. The protagonist, Miss Emily, was forced to lead an isolated life, and that — combined with her mental illness — made insanity her inevitable fate. The environment in the forms of a class structure based on slavery and social change, together with heredity, represented the forces beyond her control.Wikipedia, Naturalism
These questions are by Ronald Walker, retired Professor of English at Western Illinois University and at present an independent scholar.
- Why did “the whole town” attend the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson? What is the source of their interest in this 74-year-old woman?
- What difference is mentioned between the interest in her held by male and female townsfolk?
- How would you account for this difference?
- What does it suggest about the town?
- How is Miss Emily’s house described? What details seem particularly suggestive of her status in the town?
- How has that status changed through the years?
- Why did Colonel Satroris remit her taxes in 1894?
- Why does she assume, more than ten years after Sartoris’ death, that she still need not pay taxes?
- What is suggested by the description of Miss Emily in the scene in which the alderman visit her regarding her refusal to comply with the tax law?
- How does this description compare with the descriptions of her when she was still relatively young? Note the emphasis on her eyes and hair.
- What is implied by the references to Miss Emily’s father in the tableau, holding a horsewhip, with his daughter behind him?
- What seems to have been the nature of their relationship?
- What effect did this have on Emily’s relationships with other men?
- How did she react, later on, to her father’s death?
- How do the reactions of Judge Stevens and the aldermen regarding the bad smell in the Grierson house typify the town? To this we might add the way in which the druggist deals with Miss Emily’s insistence on purchasing poison to exterminate “rats” or, later, the postal service’s acceptance of her refusal to allow the numbers of her street address to be posted on her house.
- How do her reactions to all their efforts typify her?
- Why does the town take such an interest in Miss Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron?
- How do the women and men assess the various stages of that relationship differently?
- Why does the fact that Barron is a Northerner and a labourer bother some people in the town? or, later, that some regard her as a “fallen” woman?
- Why is the town so deeply invested in her, seeing her variously as an angel in a stained glass window, an idol in a niche, an object of pity, “a fallen monument”, “a tradition, a duty, and a care”, or as “a dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse”? How can she be all these things?
- What narrative point of view does Faulkner use throughout the story?
- How would the story be different if presented from another perspective?
- Is the narrative voice used reliable?
- What are the strengths and limitations of this particular point of view?
- How does it contribute to the story’s suspense?
- What is suggested by the description of the upstairs bedroom that the townspeople break into after Miss Emily’s funeral?
- As precisely as possible, explain how the “long strand of iron-gray hair” is significant.
- In addition to its point of view, the story’s narrative structure is purposefully complex. It begins and ends in present time, i.e., after Miss Emily’s funeral and the exposure of her secret to the town. So there is a kind of circularity in the story’s framework. In between, we move around freely in time past — from the remission of her taxes by Col. Sartoris in 1894, to the aldermen’s futile appeal for her to pay local taxes more than thirty years later, to her father’s death two years before Sartoris’ promise was made, to her isolation after Homer’s initial disappearance, to the incident involving the bad smell from her house, to the paving of sidewalks and Homer’s arrival in town, to the rumours of their love affair, to her purchase of arsenic, to Homer’s reappearance and subsequent vanishing from public view, and finally to her gradual withdrawal from all life outside her home. Why do you think Faulkner chose to use such a complicated time scheme? How does it contribute to the story’s effectiveness?
- What is Miss Emily’s attitude towards time? How does she deal with the many changes in the town through the years? What does she seem to represent? That is, does she embody a symbolic commentary on our society? Explain.
- There are several suggestive passages concerning time that, along with the story’s narrative structure, should be carefully considered. The old men at her funeral, wearing their Confederate uniforms, speak of Miss Emily “as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter every quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.” Here is another: “The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him.” How do such passages, along with the story’s structure, embody a view of time different from Miss Emily’s?
- What do you make of the story’s title? What exactly is Miss Emily’s “rose”?
FEATURES OF LITERARY NATURALISM
- Naturalism is a movement from late 1800s to early 1900s.
- Realism came after Romanticism. (See Wikipedia’s list of literary movements.) Naturalism is basically ‘extreme realism’.
- Naturalism is all about exploring common values of the ordinary individual, whereas movements which came before included a lot of symbolism, idealism and even supernatural treatment.
- In naturalism there’s an emphasis on the setting and an exploration of how setting shapes character.
- Naturalism is based around the idea that science (rather than supernatural explanations) account for all social phenomena.
- Darwin pretty much changed everything, and naturalism is his influence on art.
- How do humans interact with nature to become who we are? Naturalist writers explored this question via stories about: natural law, evolution, atavism, and degeneration.
- We’re now in a ‘post-naturalism’ literary period,
Rather than a ‘gothic‘ tale per se, “A Rose For Emily” might better be described as a callback to a twisted Southern Gothic tale. Faulkner borrowed tropes from this movement without belonging to this earlier movement himself.
SETTING OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
Like most of Faulkner’s fiction, “A Rose For Emily” is set in the town of Jefferson, the seat of an imaginary county in Mississippi, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story spans nearly half a century and several generations in the town during the time of transition between the post-Civil War South and the quasi-modern era of automobiles and paved roads.Ronald Walker
B.F.: I can’t remember exactly where in your autobiography you say that the Irish are especially gifted in the short story, and in that way they’re similar to American Southerners.
V.S.P.: The two societies had certain resemblances.
B.F.: Why do you think that’s so?
V.S.P.: That’s a very hard question to answer. I think there’s a similarity between a certain kind of person in the American South who is very much like the Anglo‑Irish gentry, and in fact there was something like an Anglo‑Irish situation in the South really. It is another version of a similar situation, of people who had large houses and estates, who ruled, or have been dominant, being suddenly dislodged, or gradually dislodged from their position. And especially Ireland and the South seem to me, from my reading too, as it were, colonies. They had known defeat. There had been large estates or plantations and their capital disappeared year after year. They say if you leave your capital still, it dies away in three to nine years.Journal of the Short Story In English Part Two: Interviews of short story writers ENGLAND V.S. Pritchett
Emily’s house is your classic house-as-character. Faulkner uses words that more ‘correctly’ describe a human, not an edifice.
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the big struggle of Jefferson.
Faulkner’s famous description of that house is known as dialectical montage — a technique which emphasises, rather than hides, the discontinuity between one image and another. Montage tends to emphasise connections rather than discontinuities, but not this kind. Dialectical = concerned with or acting through opposing forces.
Note that we learn about Emily’s house before we learn about Emily. Emily = her house.
The local history of this Deep South town is the Civil War, the ghost of “A Rose For Emily”. The war is off the page, but influential nonetheless.
At least one scholar has placed Jefferson in Faulkner’s native Mississippi due to an obscure reference. The narrator mentions many cedars in the cemetery. There are no true cedars in North America, but the misnamed Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a cypress, is native and common to Mississippi. There are few to none Atlantic White cedars in the neighboring states.TV Tropes
Faulkner talks about Emily’s lineage — her great aunt and so on, and achieves what Annie Proulx also aims for in her short stories — to paint a portrait of a collection of people living in a community, not just one individual. This is based on the idea that individuals never exist in isolation and are therefore pretty uninteresting on their own.
Faulkner plays around with time as if it doesn’t move like an arrow through space. Miss Emily cuts her hair short, ‘making her look like a girl’ once more.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
A lot has been said about the narration of “A Rose For Emily”, because it is a stand-out example of narration which moves seamlessly from multiple perspective to single. Peter Selgin wrote more about that here, in a guide for writers.
The story opens with Faulkner’s narrator describing men as feeling the appropriate emotions around any dead person (respectful affection) and the women as feeling the inappropriate, unfeeling state of ‘curiosity to see the inside of her house’. Immediately I feel more empathy for the men, but also a little irritated at the gender binary summary. Is this going to be an irritating woman-hating tale? This is literally the first I’ve ever read of Faulkner.
I don’t dig far before finding a thesis which suggests Faulkner wrote women according to four main types:
- The Unvanquished — Black and white women who kept the plantations going during the Civil War, or those who held their families together amid disruption.
- Ghosts — De-sexed women, usually spinsters, who have lived the greater part of their lives as barren ‘ladies’. Their puritanical backgrounds have caused them to live these unnatural and tragic lives.
- Earth Mothers — women who scorn traditional codes and allow their primitive female urges to take over.
- Rebels — The inverse of the chaste Southern lady. These women openly reject Southern ideals of womanhood.
Each of these types has her own stock shortcoming. Emily is clearly depicted as belonging to the second category of Faulkner’s women. But she is revealed to be a Rebel.
That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart—the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.
Faulkner is writing a variation of the Madwoman In The Attic trope:
As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. […] We did not say she was crazy then.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins is another example of this trope.
There is a full list of tropes used in “A Rose For Emily” at TV Tropes.
But is Emily the main character? The town is the main character really. Emily is an interesting artifact of it. Their shortcoming is that they crave drama, pretend to themselves that they care when they’re really just curious. Worst, their curiosity is misplaced. The narrator describes Emily as looking like an ‘idol’ (as in a statue that doesn’t move) without realising that Emily has created an actual statue of her own. The townsfolk have misjudged and underestimated this woman, thinking her pathetic and ‘mad’ when really she is dangerous and Machiavellian.
It’s more about what Emily does not want.
She does not want to leave her house. She’s a shut-in. She does not want to pay her taxes. We can safely assume she can’t at this stage.
The new aldermen and mayor, who want Emily to start paying her taxes.
The townspeople want her place cleaned up because it smells bad.
Four men break into Emily’s house and scatter lime to get rid of the smell. This does get rid of the smell and they consider their job done. They don’t look beneath the surface, to find whatever’s making that smell.
The Battle scene is in section five, which returns to the beginning of the tale (with seconds two, three and four existing as backstory). The townspeople make the gruesome discovery.
Not all horror has to be directly bloody or violent with its language. For example, William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a good example of a violent story which avoids being directly bloody and violent. Faulkner offers subtle cues and creates an air of mystery without truly revealing Emily’s dark side until the end of the tale—
The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust.
In this passage, Faulkner tells the audience what happened to a man that disappeared from Emily’s town (and the story) years before. He has been found—or rather, his skeleton, which is subtly revealed through the language: a “fleshless grin.” The reader learns that there has been a murder, who the murderer is, and that Emily is more disturbed than anyone ever could have imagined.
The plot reveal also explains the title. The ‘rose’ in the title is the gay man who Emily took for herself, killing him for her own purposes.
With her Black servant escaped and Emily herself dead, all that’s left of the family is a good story for the townsfolk to tell and retell over and over. The storyteller narrator may have embellished parts of it, but we’ll never know.
The best-known symbolism of roses: love. We’re reminded whenever Valentine’s Day rolls around. Beyond that, all sorts of meanings are ascribed to colour:
Deep red: I’m ready for commitment.
Light colours: I’m up for something a little less intense.
Pink: I admire you and I’m grateful to have you in my life.
Whether modern rose exchangers pay any notice of this colour symbolism is another question.
The rose has an ancient history as a symbol of secrecy. We see it in a phrase such as sub rosa (New Latin for “under the rose”). This phrase denotes secrecy or confidentiality. In the Middle Ages and in Roman times, roses hung from the ceiling during a meeting sent a clear message: What happens in the room stays in the room.