This essay deals with William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” in which the author utilized numerous symbols to buttress his main themes, which are tradition clashing with the need for change and the power of death. The symbols used by the author and explained in the following chapters are Emily Grierson’s house, the bridal chamber, dust, the strand of hair, pocket watch, the stationary and the rose. The author’s intention in creating this story was to give homage to Emily, a fallen Southern belle, and to all others who are unable to develop themselves in order to follow the necessary life changes, through offering this story as a symbolical rose.
Keywords: tradition, change, death, necrophilia, dust
William Faulkner’s most anthologized short story, entitled “A Rose for Emily” is a shocking narrative of love, the inability to accept change while stubbornly sticking to the past that is no longer a part of the present, the final element of isolation that exemplifies one person’s passage through time and the eventual and inevitable death. Faulkner has managed to portray the subsequent decay of a once notable Southern belle, under the watchful gaze of the town of Jefferson, as she commences her spinster life due to her father’s belief that no man is good enough for her, moving on to her love affair with an outsider, who is on top of it all, a Yankee, which serves as her rebellion against the small town community and its Southern values. Finally, the deranged heroine murders her ill-fated lover, and in this act, she secures his presence and thus, his love until she dies. However, the revelation of the killing appears to be “eclipsed in the imagination of readers by evidence of some sort of necrophilia” and the reader is left with little of a conclusion (Dilworth 251). Still, Faulkner’s potent imagery and ability in exposing themes and various symbols, while intertwining them to serve his authorial purpose have transformed this story into a representative of the Southern Gothic genre, with its tragic heroine trapped not only inside her decaying house, but also inside her own disturbed mind.
One of the most prominent themes in the story is the clash between tradition and the necessity to change, which Miss Emily intractably refuses. Faulkner (1993) states about Miss Emily that “Alive, [she] had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (p. 48). The word order is very important: initially, she is equaled with the tradition everyone wishes to uphold, then, as times start changing, she becomes a duty and finally, a full burden, an additional care for all the townspeople. Thus, right at the beginning of the story, when the author creates this fallen Southern belle persona, it becomes evident that she is a person who has had great influence over the town, not merely because she comes from a family that exuded respect and reverence, but rather because of her loner instinct which made her lock herself up in her old house, not seeing a living soul except for her servant, Tobe. While some respect her, others put her under close scrutiny and examine her under a microscope her entire life, due to her relationship with a newcomer, the dandy and sociable Homer Baron. Still, as she comes from a long line of revered personas, Emily will to the very end, continue to be a symbol of what her family used to represent in the past, when her father was still alive to take care of her and prolong the image they had in public. Now, she is merely a remnant of a past time, during which her family had wealth and prestige and as such, is a burden on the townspeople of Jefferson. For instance, her being a burden is evident in her financial inability to pay her taxes and the highly implausible story of her father having loaned the money to the town and now, this was the town’s preferred manner of paying it, a story which “Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it” (Faulkner, 1993, p. 48). Consequently, her unwillingness to keep up with the times and acknowledge the need for change, due to the fact that she can no longer rely on her family’s forgotten respectability and the disappeared wealth, have made her not only a financial burden for the town, but also an inexcusable exception to the rules which are supposed to apply to everyone. By allowing her not to pay her taxes, Colonel Sartoris had allowed her to become a person of privilege and just like her father, kept nurturing her belief that she is somehow better and above everyone else.
In addition to the clash between tradition and change, another relevant theme in the story is the power of death, which lingers over the lives of every single Jefferson resident, especially Miss Emily. The author draws attention to “her skeleton [which] was small and spare” and that she “looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue” (Faulkner, 1993, p. 49). The references to the skeleton and a body submerged in water, a corpse, only accentuate the death imagery surrounding the female protagonist. Emily appears to be dying slowly and almost painfully, locked inside her huge house, of her own accord, simultaneously trying to control the deaths of her two beloved people, her father and Homer. Naturally, death cannot be contained, sustained or stopped in any manner possible or impossible, as Emily herself will learn. Primarily, the death of Emily’s father awakens a necrophiliac tendency in her mind, and she refuses to let him be buried. She desperately continues to cling on to the authoritative and controlling father figure that shaped her, simply because she does not know of any other kind of love but a submissive one. Only when forced to, she allows his body to be buried. Some time later, she not only does exactly the same thing with her ill-fated lover Homer, but actually emerges as the death bringer. She allowed her father to be taken away from her, but this second time, she is determined not to make the same mistake. So, in an effort to stop time and death itself, she murders Homer to be able to keep him with her.
Thus, she idolizes and idealizes her father and Homer Baron to such an extent that she even succeeds in endowing them with fictitious life beyond death (Dilworth 253-54). Emily utilized death to keep their love alive, in a twisted woman’s fantasy marriage of life and death, and this is where the reader endeavors to sympathize with the poor and doomed protagonist. The author himself offers the story and the titular rose as a memento of a woman who could not force herself to be something she was not and thus, has made shocking decisions. Still, her humanity pierces through the veil of insanity and the reader can understand the plight of a woman who did the unthinkable for love, and even tried to prevent death. Nonetheless, death cannot be conquered and it finally penetrates her fantasy, destroying and exposing everything.
In order to buttress the themes of the story, Faulkner utilizes numerous symbols, such as for instance, Emily’s house, which was like herself, “an eyesore among eyesores,” with “its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps” (Faulkner, 1993, p. 47). Miss Emily and her house are interchangeable entities, representing one and the same thing: the old, decaying South and its values. It raises itself among the newly built neighborhood, refusing to keep up with the times and continues to uphold values that have become redundant and outdated. Like its owner, it stands out of the crowd and it is painfully evident that it simply does not belong there. Southern aristocracy does not have a place in this world anymore, it is outnumbered by the industrial community that rose around it and has eventually, engulfed it. Thus, Miss Emily and her house are an eccentric oddity, no longer belonging to the elite, but rather exist in the eye of the public as a fascination, allowing the Jefferson residents to project all sorts of unreasonable and fantastic stories onto the house and its resident. Eventually, when Miss Emily dies, they are suddenly granted access into this unearthly realm, which so far they were only able to think of, and now, the truth finally sees the light of day, while the townspeople are more than eager to enter the house to confirm or annul their fantastic ideas.
On having entered the house, there was one room that they were most eager to force themselves into, the room that “no one had seen in forty years” (Faulkner, 1993, p. 58). This bridal chamber consists of things prepared for the bride and groom, with the collar, suit, tie, discarded socks, and it stands a symbol of Miss Emily’s abnormal need and desire to stop time and to conquer death; to keep love alive any and every way possible, even if it is as a withered flower that has almost turned to dust through the passage of time. The body of the man reveals itself in the bed, before the ever curios spectators as a frightening human puppet, once “in the attitude of an embrace” but now, its putrefying remains merge with the marriage bed, where the consummation of marriage was to take place (Faulkner, 1993, p. 58). The fact that a long, gray strand of hair is found on the pillow next to Homer’s corpse, shocks the residents of Jefferson even more than the notion of murder, because they have finally found out the secret of Miss Emily: her necrophilia. Her fascination with dead bodies arises from her initial relationship with her domineering father and subsequently continues as an inability to let go of a beloved man yet again.
Still, it is apparent that marriage consummation never took place, as the narrator(s) of the story keep referring to Emily Grierson as Miss Emily, an appellation symbolizing her sexual purity as it was highly unlikely that a woman of her beliefs and value system would have consummated sex before marriage, and as it is clear, no marriage took place. Thus, the roses stand as a symbol of a woman’s virginal state, because of the term to pluck a woman’s flower or deflowering a woman represents the fact that the woman is no longer a virgin. In light of this analogy, Homer himself is Emily’s rose, which she chooses to keep by her side as long as she lives, refusing to make any changes that would make her realize the error of her ways and thrust her back into the real world. She lives perfectly contented with her dead husband, in her old eyesore of a house, and sees absolutely no need to change her life.
Other notable symbols, such as the ubiquitous dust reigning in Miss Emily’s house, the pocket watch and the stationery paper she utilizes all serve as buttressing notions to her utter unwillingness to realize that her behavior is inconsistent with the times she is living in, that she upholds an outdated system of values and that she can no longer rely on her family’s public respect. The house filled with dust is a realm of stasis, where memories of a time long ago are allowed to roam free and encompass the mind of its poor, deranged inhabitant. It is a place where she can remain a Southern belle, where she can refuse to pay taxes and believe a concocted story about the town allowing her not to pay them on account of her father’s generous loan. She protects herself with this dust, wrapping it around her mind as well as body, not allowing reality to permeate her fantasy of a happy, blissful marriage with her sweetheart, Homer. In her house, protected by layers and layers of dust and memories, Miss Emily is invincible, keeping “an invisible watch ticking at the end of a gold chain,” with which she controls time inside this outdated construction of bricks and memories, and writing “on paper of an archaic shape, in thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink” that she has no taxes in Jefferson (Faulkner, 1993, p. 49, 48). With a perfect ease of mind and genteel behavior of an utter lady, Miss Emily exemplifies a time no longer alive. As such, she lives in a state of living death, breathing in the smell of a decomposing body every night, until she finally boards up the bridal room. Her death may be a succumbing to change, but her life most certainly is not.
Faulkner’s story offers a plethora of symbolism fortifying the main theme of tradition versus change, in its portrayal of the main protagonist and all the objects she was surrounded by. Her willing isolation and the resulting necrophilia should not be condoned or put into public display like remnants of a rare animal caught in the wild and brought into civilization for the pleasure and amusement of the masses; rather, Emily should be perceived as a human being, as the author most probably viewed her, by offering this story as a sign of respect and devotion, who was not able to cope with her own desires and needs, and was thrust into a time that did not regard her as what she always thought she was. As Faulkner himself knew, behind almost every person of insane tendencies, there is a heartbreaking story of love and betrayal, and as humans, we should all offer compassion and understanding.
Dilworth, T. (1999). A Romance to Kill for: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Studies in Short Fiction, 36, 251-262.
Faulkner, W. (1993). Selected Short Stories. New York: Modern Library.