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Jun 20, 2012

Notes on Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Don't be intimidated by William Faulkner. He may be difficult, but he is worth the effort.  "A Rose for Emily" teaches well and fosters lively discussion. 


The bulk of Faulkner's work consisted of a group of interrelated stories and novels about a fictional county in Mississippi, tracing its cultural history from the time of the Civil War through the 20th century. In that fictional world, Faulkner explored many themes, among them the disintegration of the old antebellum south in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the impact of modernity on rural culture and rural identity, racism, gothic perversion, family history, family feuds, and family legacies.

Who are the key characters in "A Rose for Emily"?

Emily Grierson
Negro manservant
Homer Barron
Emily's Father
Colonel Sartoris
Cousins from Alabama


In "A Rose for Emily" we have a story about a woman, Miss Emily Grierson, one of the last holdouts of the "old south." When she dies she is respected by the men of the town as a "fallen monument." When alive, in the town's eyes (and this is a story told from the first person plural perspective – the point of view of a collective "we"), Miss Emily "had been a tradition, a duty, a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town." 

Emily is, in short, a living relic of bygone times. But the town has changed around her. How so? Faulkner cites the trappings of modern industrial life – garages, cotton gins, wagons, gasoline pumps, tax bills, paved sidewalks – and they have "encroached" upon the neighborhood and its "august names". 

How does Emily react to this encroachment of modern life? By retreating into the confines of her house. It happens in stages. First, when her father dies, she is seen less and less. When her sweetheart the Yankee Homer Barron is gone, she's seen even less. And in the last ten years of her life, no one but her African American manservant has seen her at all. 

While the modern world steadily encroaches on this sleep southern rural town, Emily Grierson is steadfastly clinging to the past. She refuses to pay her taxes, for three days she denies that her father is dead, she gives the ladies of the towns lessons in the art of china painting, she keeps her manservant as a virtual slave, and, as we discover by the end of the story, she has murdered her true love and kept his dead body in an upstairs bedroom, where she slept next to him. 

Why did Emily murder this man? In part, because her "old south" identity could not allow her to marry a Yankee, a representative of modernity (remember he's the foreman responsible for paving the town sidewalks). Her attraction to Homer, and their parading through town in a buggy on Sunday afternoons has become a scandal in the town. Some in the community think it's a disgrace. Relations from Alabama are called in to talk sense to her. Shortly thereafter, Homer is seen by one of the neighbors entering the house, and he's never seen again. 

Emily's necrophilia is symbolic, is it not? She's sleeping with a dead man, trying to preserve an era that has died with the civil war. Her whole way of life is like the rotting corpse in the bedroom, and yet she is unwilling to give it up. And, her old way of life prevents her from allowing Homer to live.  It's a story about clinging to the past in the face of change. 

This is a story about concealment. Faulkner deploys some interesting narrative tactics to conceal the horrifying revelation until the very end of the story. If you back track through the story, you'll find all sorts of clues, evidence that a crime has been committed.  

How does the story tinker with plot? What "A Rose for Emily" makes clear is that a story can have two independent narrative lines. One is the literal chronology of events as they occur in the fictional space (Russian formalism calls this fabula). The second is the narrative order in which those events are revealed and told in the story (Russian formalism calls this sujet or syuzhet).  There is a lot of skillfull jumping around in the way Faulkner recounts the tale. He feels absolutely no need to tell you things in chronological order. 

Here is an exercise that works well in a classroom: Plot the two narrative lines in this story. Map them and compare how the order events as revealed varies from the chronological order of events. 

How does this story telling technique enhance your reading experience? For one, it creates a sense of mystery, of suspense. It also mimics the way the community assembles a coherent narrative to explain what is going on. Scattered observations separated by years must be assembled and reordered and associated for any sense to be made of the factual details. The story is about the community's growing awareness – it is connecting the dots, making sense of a life that has been largely concealed from view. We might compare this to other forms of social narrative construction, e.g. journalism, detective work, gossip. 

The technique of concealment also relates to the way Faulkner reveals action. He doesn't always tell you directly. He shows you the effect and lets you determine the cause. Examples: the iron gray hair on the pillow, the indentation on the pillow, the purchase of arsenic poison, the smell around the house, the fact that the Negro servant leaves and never comes back after Emily's death. In isolation these facts have little meaning. Together, they add up. 

This is a story about community responsibility – about the collective "we" watching over neighbors, gossiping about them, caring for them, and ultimately blinding themselves to some stark realities out of a sense of decorum, politeness, gentility. Nobody really dares to intrude into Emily's world. They restrict themselves to observation from the outside. 

In terms of setting, we can think of the town as a character, both as an influence in the story and as a method of storytelling. What influence do the townspeople exert over Emily? Observe how they apply social pressure – they spy on her behavior, out of a curious mixture of compassion, perverse fascination, and suspicion. 

These casual notes are merely starting points for exploration. Treat yourself to this story and discuss away in the comments....