“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.
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.
STORYWORLD OF “A ROSE FOR EMILY”
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.
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.