In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the town serves not only as the narrator but also as a character in its own right, indeed the only other major character besides Miss Emily. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘they’, ‘we’ or the ‘people’, but is not linked to any particular time or generation. At no time does Emily speak for herself but only through the eyes of this community-narrator, except for one scene which was never included in the published version of the story. Therefore Emily is seen only through the thoughts, feelings, memories and reflections of the town, which knows a great deal about her and is omnipresent, but not omniscient or all-knowing. Faulkner’s first short story has remained his most famous one, and serves as a portrait of the “Southern psyche” from the post-Reconstruction years through the 1920s (Volpe 98). Emily symbolized the decaying Southern aristocracy as it lingers on into the 20th Century, with the dead had of history and the town-narrator preventing her from escaping into present-day reality. There are three stages of time that the community-narrator relates: Emily’s youth up to her father’s death, her affair with Homer Barron, and then her seclusion after his disappearance. Although it is not clear whether the community-narrator is fully aware that she has murdered him, they must strongly suspect it. All the Southern gentlemen who still control the community in the 1890s like Col. Sartoris and Judge Stevens do not question her about these events. Even after the younger generation takes over they continued to show her deference and allowed her to refrain from paying taxes. By the 1920s, gas stations and automobiles have appeared in town, but Emily has long since become “the embodiment of the dead past” and the community-narrator prefers it that way (Volpe 99).
The town-narrator always refers to Col. Sartoris, Judge Stevens, the ministers and even the younger generation on the Board of Alderman in the third person plural as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. These are the authority figures in the community over the decades and seem to be somewhat removed from the larger group referred to as ‘we’ or ‘us’. Even when the community-narrator uses the pronoun ‘we”, however, it can refer to events in the distant past, such as when Miss Emily was a young woman and her father drove away all her suitors “as unworthy of a daughter of the Southern aristocracy” (Volpe 101). This generalized ‘we’ seems to live on generation after generation and is not linked to any particular time either in the past or the present. It is as if the town-narrator itself is some kind of living consciousness or entity that lives on forever, even after particular individuals are dead, and they were present when she was riding in the carriage with Homer, when he disappeared and when his remains were finally discovered. While the community-narrator always speaks in the past tense, the story is told in flashback from the time of Emily’s death until Homer’s decayed remains are discovered in her decayed house. The community also “knew” that no one had been in that room for forty years, but in this case they were wrong (Faulkner 129).
Col. Sartoris was an authoritarian, patriarchal figure like Emily’s father, and men like him still governed the town into the 1890s. He treated blacks as if the Civil War and Reconstruction had never occurred, and of course in Mississippi during this entire era, the ‘Redeemers’ and the Ku Klux Klan had indeed stripped blacks of their voting and citizenship rights and relegated them to a segregated and impoverished existence. As Southern gentlemen, they also treat women as an inferior class of beings, but at the same time are polite and deferential to ladies of Emily’s social class. She has no money or political power in town, and was only left with the decrepit house by her father. Yet the Colonel excuses her from paying taxes because she is poor and even the younger generation that came to power in the early-20th Century still acted deferential in her presence. For the community-narrator, Emily was “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (Faulkner 119). Their fathers had also been defeated “thirty years before about the smell”, even if they had not actually known that this emitted from the remains of Homer (Faulkner 121). Judge Stevens might have suspected foul play, as did the town, but he was still a traditional Southern gentleman who would never mention to a lady that she smelled bad. Very likely, she even hated the town and refused to permit it even “to attach and mailbox and a street number to her house” (Volpe 103).
Emily was as much a prisoner of the past as the community-narrator or the men who came to her funeral in Confederate uniforms. Her father exercised absolute power over her and prevented her from marrying or even becoming financially independent. She was as much a prisoner of the old house as her black servant Tobe, while the town thwarted her one attempt to escape with Homer. They did not blame her when she refused to give up her father’s body for three days, and understood that “she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people would”—as they all did (Faulkner 124). The town-narrator did not approve of her affair with Homer, since he was a Northerner of working class background, and the type of man her father would have hated as well. Therefore they called her a disgrace, sent a minister to argue her out of the marriage, and even called in her wealthy cousins from Alabama. Homer left town for a week while they stayed with Emily, pressuring her to abandon the engagement and when Homer returned she poisoned him with arsenic. After he disappeared, the community-narrator character sympathized with her “futile attempt to escape from the past and enter time” (Volpe 102). Only after this did Emily turn into a complete recluse, living in a haunted house with the dead body of her lover, and essentially turning into a living relic.
Perhaps the most revealing scene in “A Rose for Emily” is the one that Faulkner or his editor chose not to include when it was published in 1930. It featured Tobe and Emily alone in her room when she is near death, and seems particularly interesting because it was the only one that that community-narrator did not observe. Tobe is actually allowed to speak at this time, when Emily is on her deathbed, which he never does in the rest of the story. Because Emily also speaks for herself with no town witnesses present, it “dissipates the aura of mystery and horror that is achieved by seeing her only through the eyes of the community” (Volpe 104). As she lay dying, Emily expresses her contempt for the town-narrator character, and declares with grim satisfaction that they would finally have proof that she was insane after all. She also confirms that she would leave Tobe the house in her will so he could finally sell it and move north to Chicago. He admits that he knew all the time that Homer’s body was in the bedroom, but tells her he does not want the house. Rather he intends to move into the county poorhouse so he can spend the rest of his life sitting on the porch and watching the trains go by. Emily reflects on this but says nothing at the end of this scene. When she dies, Tobe opens the front door and lets the community-narrator in, while he quietly slips out the back to his freedom, or at least as much freedom as a black man in the Mississippi of the 1920s could expect.
In “A Rose for Emily”, the community-narrator is as actual character in the story that could best be described as timeless or even existing outside of time. It is a conscious entity or spirit that rejects that modern world and dominates all the individual characters, including Miss Emily. She represents the impoverished and declining Southern aristocracy that lost everything in the Civil war, yet still remains in control of the South like the dead hand of history. Her father did everything possible to prevent her from escaping from the traditional society, either through marriage or physical flight, while the town-narrator prevented her from marrying Homer. In effect, she entered into a sort of conspiracy of silence with the town after his disappearance in which no questions were asked. No one investigated the smell of death emitting from her house and instead they just spread quick lime around it, as if it were a grave or a tomb. For Emily, it did turn out to be a tomb for the next forty years, and one that the town-narrator and its rulers let her keep instead of taking it for back taxes. If Homer represented the future or some type of modernity intruding on this timeless Southern world, his existence was definitely rejected by the community-narrator, even if not by Emily herself. She turned out to be as much a prisoner of the house and the town as Tobe, who was still a slave in everything but name.
Faulkner, William. Collected Stories. NY: Random House, 2011.
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse University Press, 2004.