In ‘A Rose for Emily’ William Faulkner uses the first person plural – ‘we’ – to narrate the story, and it is as if this unnamed, pluralized narrator speaks for the whole town in telling the story of Emily Grierson’s life. There is only one very significant moment when Faulkner switches from ‘we’ to ‘they.’ Overall, when the reader reaches the end of the story, it can be seen that Faulkner uses this unusual narrative device to satirize the town and to criticize its attitudes.
Emily Grierson lives a solitary life, but comes from a formerly rich and important family. Because of this, she is the subject of much of the town’s gossip and speculation. The anonymous, pluralized narrator seems to know intimate details of Emily’s life, and what might be regarded as harmless gossip, becomes intrusive prying when seen in the context of Emily’s whole life and increasingly eccentric behaviour behaviour.
It becomes clear that her father was a dominant figure in her life. The “crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father” is first mentioned on page 49, but is referred to several times in the story, and at her funeral it is placed on her coffin (58). The narrator believes that her father had “driven away” all “the young men” (52) who had courted Emily, so high were his social expectations - at least, that is what the narrator implies. The first signs of her eccentricities emerge when her father dies. When the ladies of the town arrive to offer their condolences, “She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days....” (52). Not long after her father’s death “her sweetheart – the one we believed would marry her – had deserted her.” (50) Note the narrator’s confidence – “the one we believed would marry her” – which is at the same time a prying, intrusive and speculative voice which cares nothing for Emily except for the fact that she is a source of entertaining gossip. This intrusiveness, this gossipy obsession with Emily gets worse as Faulkner allows the story to unfold. For example, the whole town knows she buys arsenic and speculates that she might commit suicide – but no-one does anything to help her, because they are more interested in being vicariously entertained by what is going on in her life.
Her relationship with Homer Barron causes special opportunity for gossip. “We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler’s and ordered a man’s toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece.” (55) “We learned” because Emily is the object of gossip. The true character of the narrator is also revealed when Homer Barron disappears: the narrator comments “We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing off” (56), presumably because a “public blowing –off” would have been far more entertaining. Homer returns within three days, and Emily becomes a virtual recluse.
Emily dies before the end of the story, and, again out of intrusive curiosity, the ladies of the town explore her house, breaking into an upstairs room that has to be forced open. Lying in the bed they find the decaying body of Homer Barron, poisoned by Emily so that she could keep him forever. It is towards the end of the story that narrator suddenly switches from “we” to “they” (58) when the narrator describes the decision to force the door. It is almost as if, for one brief second, the narrator has doubts about intruding on Emily’s privacy. Even more disturbing is the revelation that “We knew that there was one room in that region upstairs that no-one had seen for forty years.” (58). How does the narrator know? Have they always thought Homer Barron had died in the house or been poisoned by Emily? It is not made clear. But what is abundantly clear is that Emily has committed a terrible act while the narrator has seen her as an interesting topic of idle gossip rather than a woman in desperate need of help.
Faulkner, William. ‘A Rose for Emily.’ Pages 47 -59 in Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner. 1930. New York: Random House.