Interpreting “A Rose for Emily”
William Faulkner (1897-1962) is known for his portrayals of the tragic conflict between the old and the new South. The majority of Faulkner’s works are centered on his hometown of Oxford, in Lafayette County, Mississippi. In his works of fiction, his hometown is used, but is renamed to Jefferson, in Yoknapatawpha County. This author’s fiction recreates more than a century of life in the town of Jefferson a few years before, during and after the Civil War. Many different types of people come into focus in his literature. A Rose for Emily easily fits into Faulkner’s pattern of fiction writing. The present, or “new south” agenda was expressed several ways in A Rose for Emily; through the words of the narrator, the new Board of Aldermen, Homer Barron (the Yankee), and in what was called “the next generation with its more modern ideas” (354). This technique is not unusual for Faulkner. It is present in many of his works and that is why A Rose for Emily is easily interpreted. In A Rose for Emily, Faulkner discussed those conflicting values of the past and present and point out those values that are misrepresented and those that continue to have meaning for today by contrasting the past with the present era as he descriptively portrayed unusual characters.
In A Rose for Emily, the past was represented in Emily. Miss Emily was referred to as a “fallen monument” in the story (353). She and her antiquated home were almost a shrine to Southern gentility and an ideal of past values. She and her home were depicted as susceptible to death and decay. Through this imagery Faulkner was symbolizing the demise of the way of life of the old, pre-industrial, pre-civil war south. The description of her house “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps–an eyesore among eyesores” shows a combined image of the past and present (353). It is easy to imagine that the house had once been grand and the envy of everyone in the community. It is precisely that past grandness that has the monument still standing at the time presented in Faulkner’s writings. No one in the community could really bear to have the house condemned because most residents remembered their awe of the home in its glory days. Inside, the house smelled of dust and had a closed, dank smell. This too, tells the reader that the home and its contents were well beyond their prime. A description of Emily tells how she is in a similar condition, “She looked bloated like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that palled hue” (354). These images of decay and age have two meanings. While it is obvious that the home, its contents and Emily are nearing the end of their existence, it is also evident from knowing the themes of the of writing of Faulkner that the author is using the house and Emily as a symbol for the death and decay of traditional “old south” values.
Emily lived in the ideal past. She was the symbol of a bygone era where things were simpler, more genteel and more formal. Faulkner shows Emily to be a symbol of the old culture by contrasting her personal conflict with conflicts in the outer world. It is very difficult for Emily to live in the ‘real’ world outside her home and it has been for sometime when this story takes place. Emily has found conflict between her father’s ways of doing things and the ways of the outside, new world since she was a young woman and could not please her father with her choice of a beau. This conflict is also seen through examples of discord between Emily and two town officials, as well as she and her lover, Homer Barron. Emily owes taxes, according to the young town officials. Emily’s side of the story is that she does not owe taxes because her father had made an arrangement with a town official. When the representatives of the new, progressive Board of Aldermen called on Emily about her delinquent taxes she declared that she had no taxes in Jefferson, basing her belief on a verbal agreement made with Colonel Sartoris, a past mayor of Jefferson who had been dead for ten years. Emily refused to acknowledge the death of Colonel Sartoris or of his genteel manner of governing the city. He had given his word and according to the traditional view, his word knew no death. This scene pitted the past, with all its honor and social decorum against the present, where everything goes by “the books.” Both her father and the official are long since dead but Emily is certain the agreement still stands. Those still in government who are older and remember her father and the agreement know that it stemmed from lack of funds and was an act of charity and they are loathed to bring this fact to light by asking Emily to pay taxes. The younger officials in the town, who represent the new way of conducting business, have no such sense of honor. They want Emily to pay like all the rest of the citizens. In this scenario, Emily is matched against progress.
The town also had another conflict with Emily. Everyone believed that a long lost love, Homer had jilted Emily, but Emily had a way of preserving the past through denial of reality. She would not allow her father’s rules or Homers inclination to leave her to prevail. She took matters into her own hands in a gruesome way, but because Emily took refuge in her ideal world, when she poisoned Homer it was with the sense that he would be with her in the permanent, unchanging form of death. In a simplest sense, the death of Homer shows that this story is about an old woman holding so tightly to past ideals that she becomes a gruesome friend; sleeping with the dead. On another level, the death of Homer is a symbol for the death of the past, of the traditions of the old south. Homer is the symbol for those people that deny the changing customs and the passage of time. Miss Emily’s position in time was clear to her. Time didn’t march on and things didn’t change. Emily’s room above the stairs was timeless. In it, the living Emily and the dead Homer were together as she pretended that death could never separate them.
Emily Grierson faces a tragic life full of internal conflict because she cannot to let go of her past. Her refusal to pay taxes and the murdering of Homer Barron are two examples of this. Emily’s stubbornness to accommodate to the new town officials and their request of taxes supports the argument that Emily is unable to deal with conflicts because she is unable to let go of the past. Along with her refusal to pay taxes, Emily’s murder of her lover, Homer Barron, also emphasizes her desire to hold on to the past. Emily’s lover plans on leaving her, so she murders him, lying him down next to where she sleeps in bed, which is implied when it was “noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head” and a “long strand of iron-gray hair”(353). While Emily’s inability to let go of the past is shown in the examples of her refusal to pay taxes and her murdering of Homer, the true cause of her inability to let go of the past lies in her conflict with in herself.
Emily tries to embrace the tradition and background of getting married, having a family, and being in love. However, these aspirations caused her to break down in her prime when Homer was about to leave. Even Emily, monument to past and to genteel values, could not make that antiquated system work for her. She “knew that you do not murder people.” She had been trained that you do not take a lover, but that you do marry. Yet, if no one would agree to marry her, how else was she to make that marriage ideal come true for herself, but to claim the actual life of the man? The decorum and rigid rules of the old traditions thwarted Emily and caused her to commit murder.
This idea of past decorum is also noticed in the attitude of Judge Stevens, who was eighty years old. When a younger man came to the judge to complain about a bad odor at Emily’s house, the younger man expected that solving the problem would be a simple matter because of the health regulations that were on the books, but it was not so simple for the judge, who was reared in an earlier time. He could not bring to Emily’s attention a matter so crude. In his own words he asked, “Dammit, sir…will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” ( 355). Of course, the younger man would have no qualms about doing so but gentlemen of earlier generations find that task abhorrent. Again, the difference between the past and present culture is personified in Faulkner’s characters.
The post civil war “new south” expressed through the words of the narrator, the new Board of Aldermen, Homer Barron (the Yankee), and in what was called “the next generation with its more modern ideas” is contrasted with Emily and all those who could not accept the loss of the Civil War and the beginning of new ways ( 354). Emily, and the old south in general did conquer time briefly by retreating into the “rose-tinted” world of the past. This sort of retreat is hopeless since everyone, even Emily, was finally vulnerable to death and to the invasion by
the inhabitants of the world of the present. Faulkner expressed this inevitable invasion at the very beginning of the story when the narrator claims, “When Miss Emily died, [the] whole town went to her funeral” ( 353). The whole town of Jefferson eventually must lay to rest the ways of the past and Miss Emily’s funeral is the perfect setting for a collection of outdated values.