In Falkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, the narrative voice is a separate observer to the happenings in Miss Emily’s life. This is depicted through its limited omniscience, its ever-changing viewpoint and its lack of reliability. The narrative voice in this story is intelligent and unique, and seems to serve to demonstrate a distanced and unreliable knowledge of Emily. Through characterisation and other literary techniques, the author delivers a story which is both accessible and rich in content and theme.
The interesting narrator of "A Rose for Emily" is more correctly termed "first people" rather than "first person" narrative. Generally mentioning itself as "we," the narrator at times speaks for the men of Jefferson, at times for the women, and frequently for both groups. Additionally, it covers three generations of Jeffersonians, one of which being the age bracket of Miss Emily's father, that of Miss Emily's, and the “newer generation,” which is comprised of the children of Miss Emily's age group. The narrator is quite brutal when covering the first and second generations. Through this, it is clear to the reader how their behaviour towards Miss Emily could have caused her ruin. This adds a rather confessional sense to the narrative.
On the topic of “we,” it is interesting how no individual person is solely to blame for what transpired for Emily. The readiness of the town to acknowledge accountability is optimistic, and it lets the reader imagine an improved life for future generations.
As Terry Heller discusses in his article, “A Telltale Hair,” the range and conflict of information is organised so that as the reader begins to doubt the truth concerning Emily, one set of information endorses and the conflicting one dispels the doubts (Heller). Heller’s thoughts on the subject certainly seem feasible as, for most readers, this is the outcome for much of the story. The reader is not able to feel comfortable with just one judgement before another viewpoint is introduced which throws it into question again.
The limited omniscience of the narrators is viewed via their incapability to understand the complexities of Miss Emily and her private life. Furthermore, it is visible in their incapacity to understand her thoughts, emotions and motivations. For example, nobody identifies why Miss Emily the reason for Emily shutting herself in the home. The narrators likewise demonstrate limited omniscience as the central happenings and individuals surrounding Emily are not known, such as both her father’s and her own deaths. Once she is discovered deceased, the narrators confess “We did not even know she was sick; we had long given up trying to get any information from the Negro. He had talked to no one probably not even to her” (Faulkner).
Nevertheless, while the narrative viewpoint is limited, Hawthorne still retains an omniscient element. Even though the narrators fail to recognise that she was unwell, they discuss to the circumstances of her death in some depth: “She died in one of the downstairs rooms, in a heavy walnut bed with a curtain, her gray head propped up on a pillow yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight.” Additionally, the narrators trail Emily constantly and are aware of exchanges and occasions, even the ones that they were clearly not in attendance for. This is demonstrated through the historical discussions over generations and the in depth exchanges among many sets of people, for example the townspeople and the judge (75).
Emily is portrayed by the author as a confused woman, one who’s heart is in conflict with itself. Emily’s heart is in conflict, both regarding her relationship with her father and her relationship with her lover. The townspeople’s collective heart is also in conflict as they are unsure how to feel about Emily. Emily is an interesting character and, although frustrating at times, an effective one. The inner turmoil she suffers makes her accessible to readers as they are likely to be able to relate to her in some way.
Emily refused to accept the death of her father until she was forced by the law to do so. Interestingly, although she shied away from the task of burying him, he was responsible for her oppression when he was alive. In this way, her heart was in conflict between wanting to be free of her father, but not wanting to let him go. Following this, Emily killed her lover in order to stop him deserting her. This is another prime example of how Emily was in conflict with herself; she loved him too much to see him leave, but then she murdered him.
Emily is an interesting character, largely because of the contradictions within her, as discussed. Although taken to an extreme, the conflicts within Emily are similar to those many people experience every day. One element that makes a successful fictional character is that readers find they can relate to them in some way. Many readers are likely to be able to relate to certain aspects of Emily’s character, if not all of them. The author has delivered a well-rounded, three dimensional character who is accessible and memorable for his readers.
The unreliable nature of the narrative voice is shown all through this story as they evidently no not have an actual connection to Emily, nor with any other people who are central to her life. They adopt an stranger’s viewpoint and can sometimes misinform the readers. For example, when Emily purchases arsenic, the entire town believes she intends to commit suicide, failing to inform readers of the real reason.
The narrative voice is also unreliable as they undervalue Emily’s strength, constantly acting astonished when in tough moments “she carried her head high enough- even when we believed that she was fallen.” In the town, Emily is at times viewed as human and at other times not. This is another demonstration of their unreliability. At the start, they perceive her as part of the town, but then further on they begin to feel empathy for her.
Finally, the narrative voice experiences changing points of view. The “we” viewpoint switches to “they” every so often. After Emily has passed away, the narrators say: “they waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.” However, in the section after the narrators have gone into the room, they say: “we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin.” This changing outlook causes readers to query who is actually relaying the tale, particularly when, conversely, sometimes it is communicated from an more distanced viewpoint.
The narrative voice in “A Rose for Emily” is unlike that of most short stories. It is shifting, collective and unreliable. While making for interesting reading, this device also keeps the reader guessing and actively engaging with the information that is being fed to them. Their perception of Emily changes several times before they realise they have to make up their own mind about her. Through his strong characterisation and viewpoint, as well as other literary techniques, Faulkner tells a gripping story with various levels of meaning.
Faulkner, W. “A Rose for Emily.” 1930. Web. 5 June. 2013. http://flightline.highline.edu/tkim/Files/Lit100_SS2.pdf
Heller, T. “The Telltale Hair.” Coe College. 2011. Web. 5 June 2013. http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/essays/rose.html