William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

rose for emilyLet me start out by saying “A Rose for Emily” is a difficult read! If you found yourself reading through the story a few times and still not quite understanding the plot, don’t worry. Much of this blog post is going to be spent just clarifying the basics of the story – what happened and when did it happen.

I think that the frustration of reading “A Rose for Emily” comes from two different aspects of the story. First, the plot does not follow a linear, chronological order. In other words, Faulkner structures the plot in such a way that events are presented out of sequence. (For example the first section of the story [pp. 730-731] begins with Emily’s funeral, then jumps to back to when her taxes were remitted in 1894, and then leaps forward to when the Aldermen of Jefferson county tried to collect those taxes twenty years later.)  Second, the perspective we as readers are given in the story is that of the town folk, who prove to be very unreliable. While Emily is the main character of the story, we are not given insight into her thoughts. We only ever hear speak twice, and never does she express her emotions. Most of the story is the town folk speculating on what’s happening with Emily, and they prove to be often wrong! So we also have to separate rumor from fact in the story.

Plot: “…confusing time with its mathematical progression”

When trying to untangle the plot of “A Rose for Emily,” the year 1894 is central – this is only year that we are given. It was this year that Col. Sartoris remitted Emily’s taxes. Here’s the chronological sequence of events for the story:

Emily’s father dies when she is a little older than thirty.

Emily meets Homer Barron that following summer and , presumably, their romance begins. (However, we don’t know for sure when the relationship ever is between the two.)

The Baptist minister visit Emily and refuses to ever go back. (Notice how we don’t learn what happened during their conversation.)

Emily buys arsenic from the druggist. Emily is over thirty by this point.

Almost two years later, Homer Barron disappears. (The town people assume that he had abandoned Emily and returned to the North.)

Shortly after Barron disappears, a smell emanates from Emily’s house. (The neighbors believe it is a dead animal trapped in the basement.)

Emily secludes herself in the her house, except for giving china painting lessons. These lessons continue for about 6 to 7 years, when Emily is about forty. This is also around when her taxes are remitted. Col. Sartoris dies.

Ten years later, the Aldermen of Jefferson County attempt to collect Emily’s back taxes. This is the last direct contact anyone has with Emily.

Emily dies at the age of 74. The town people go into Emily’s house and break into a room that no one had seen for forty years, approximately the time when Homer Barron had gone missing. In the room, the people discover a decomposed body resting on the bed and, more disturbingly, a “long strand of iron-gray hair” resting in an indented pillow.

"Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust  dry and ancrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron gray hair" (736).

“Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron gray hair” (736).

(The implication here is that Emily had been lying next to Barron’s decaying corpse for the past 40 years! Don’t forget that she was unwilling to have her father’s body removed from the house. What do you make of that parallel?)

Based on this sequence, we might actually be able to put years to the different events. Here are two links to different chronologies for “A Rose for Emily.” (Here’s one that has Emily dyng in 1926, and another that has Emily dying in 1938.) The reason for the confusion is whether Col. Sartoris remitted  Emily’s taxes when she was thirty or forty, a point that the story is ambiguous on.

So the next question is why does Faulkner structure the plot this way. While Faulkner does not give any answer, I think that we can understand the non-linear plot line like a reverse detective story. A typical plot of a detective story introduces a crime and presents clues that only make sense after the criminal is identified. In “A Rose for Emily,” we don’t learn about the crime until the end. Only then do we realize the true significance of events. (It was not a dead animal that caused the smell coming from Emily’s house.) Lawrence R. Rodgers, whose article you read excerpts from, elaborates on how “A Rose” is essentially a detective story, but one without a detective character.*

“Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town…”: Emily as a source of gossip

Reading through “A Rose,” part of the challenge is that the narrative voice – that of the town people of Jefferson County – is unreliable, constantly misunderstanding or misinterpreting events. For example, the town folk believe that the reason for Homer Barron’s disappearance is that he has jilted Emily and returned North. Further, Emily’s seclusion is thought to be her retreating from the world due to her wounded heart. Neither of these is the case! Emily herself is not actually part of Jefferson County, or part of the community. (Notice how she refuses to have mailbox numbers placed on her house. Even not paying her taxes is a way she is removed from the community.)We only ever seen her interacting with the town folk twice – when she buys the arsenic and the conversation with the Aldermen regarding her back taxes. Even in these brief moments, Emily appears aloof, not revealing anything about her own mind.  Emily serves, I think, more as a source of gossip rather than as an actual character. She becomes an icon for the town that is “passed from generation to generation – dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse”(735).

Consider all of the attempts the town folk make to enter into the Grierson family home. We are told about the possible suitors to Emily who are not able to make past the front door that her father is guarding:

None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had thought of them as a tableau: Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip…(732)

Here Emily and her father are presented as figures in a painting, to be looked at not spoken to – her father, imposingly standing in front the door holding a whip while Emily hides behind him.  Then there is the episode of the Aldermen sprinkling lime around Emily’s home to kill the smell emanating from it. Even as the men are leaving her lawn, Emily comes across as otherworldly: “As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol”(732) Emily is dehumanized, appearing more as an idol.

We might see the effort to get into Emily’s home as analogous to the attempts to learn about Emily. The wording used to describe the Grierson home (“It was a big, squarish frame house. . . lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay” [730].) is very similar to that used for Emily, bloated, decaying, and corpse-like.

The only person from the town we know for sure that Emily speaks to is the Baptist minister, who is sent to her about her relationship with Barron. However, rather than learning what they talk about or gaining any insight into Emily, the minister never speaks about his conversation with Emily and refuses to ever go back to her home.

Ultimately, three major questions are left unanswered: what was Emily’s relationship like with her father? What happened between Emily and Homer Barron? Why did she poison him? One way of reading Emily’s story is seeing her as a victim of male authority: her father confined her to the family home, not allowing her any social interaction, particularly romantic. Shortly after his death, Emily meets Homer with whom

William Faulkner: "I feel sorry for Emily; her tragedy was, she was an only child, an only daughter. At the time when she could have found a husband... there was probably someone, her father, who said, 'No, you must stay here and take care of me.'"

William Faulkner: “I feel sorry for Emily; her tragedy was, she was an only child, an only daughter. At the time when she could have found a husband… there was probably someone, her father, who said, ‘No, you must stay here and take care of me.'”

she begins an affair. Believing that Homer won’t marry her and will eventually leave her, Emily poisons him, keeping his corpse in a seclude room for forty years. In this way of reading Emily’s story, her murder of Homer is her way of gaining power over his body.

(If you read Faulkner’s interview on pp 736-7, he seems to support this reading.) Personally, I wonder if we are meant to piece together Emily’s story. Perhaps she is supposed to remain a dark, mysterious figure who is left unknown and unknowable!

* Faulkner was heavily influenced by another Southern Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe. It is debated among scholars whether Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” was the first detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his iconic character, Sherlock Holmes, on Poe’s French detective, Dupin. Also, the detective story grows out of Gothic literature and shares some of its characteristics, such as a focus on the death and the macabre.

About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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