William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” takes place during a period of new thoughts, ideas, and a different way of life for the United States. Faulkner draws a vivid representation of this change that the South faces during the turn of the century. He shows the destruction of the South, represented by the changes of the entire town, as well as the resistance to the changes by Emily and many of the townspeople. In addition to the characters, the house can also be seen as a symbol of the changing South, and as a parallel for Emily and her life.
“A Rose for Emily” is told from the viewpoint of an anonymous resident of the town where the story takes place. In Jefferson, Mississippi, the Grierson family was looked at very highly. Emily was raised by a strict father, which after his passing still feels irreplaceable ties towards him, like any daughter would. Because of him, her ties to the “Old South” remain with her, while holding on to the memories that she has of him. She learned from him to be proud of their old self-heritage.
Emily seems to be the product of a past era and surrounds herself with reminders of the times before. Referred to as a “fallen monument” in the story, Emily was once a product of what the South once stood for, and has “fallen” when she becomes subjected to death and perishes away (425). Throughout the story, she fades from the strong, effervescent person that she was, to a person in hiding, living in the shadows of her past. This feeling of hers is shown when she keeps her fathers body in the house after he has died, denying that he is even dead. She is unwilling to let go of the past, and is trying to keep hold of everything in the past that remains. All her life, she had been put on a pedestal. But after her father’s passing “it got about that the house was all that was left to her, and in a way, people were glad. At last they could pity Miss Emily” (428).
After being abandoned after her father passes away, finding herself lost and alone, she finds herself a lover to whom her strict father would have forbid, for “None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily” (p. 428). Homer represents a change in her life, as he represents the New South and the attitude that starts to invade the town of Jefferson. He was “a Yankee – a big, dark, ready man with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face” (428). The people of the town looked on as the “Old South Emily” was seen on “Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy” with Homer (428). Eventually, she began to realize that her relationship with Homer was essentially forbidden, due to whom she was and what she was supposed to stand for. Upon the arrival of her cousins, Emily became repulsed with what she was doing, realizing that although she loved and cared for Homer, he represented everything that she was against – the ruin of the family and of the Old South. With this, Homer suddenly disappeared, and this is when Emily began to disappear also. She took shelter from the world and the town of new ideas that surrounded her, and took Homer with her, by putting him to rest in the room that they shared together. “From that time on, the front door remained closed” (430).
The house where Emily hides herself away for years has many parallels with the changing south, as well as Miss Emily herself. The house was “once white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street” (426). This house that was once the most beautiful in Jefferson, has now turned into “an eyesore among eyesores” (426). This also parallels with what Miss Emily was once like. At one point, she was standing above the rest, and now only stands out against all of the new townspeople. Times began to change and “cotton gins and auto garages” replaced the houses. Because of these new changes that came along with modernization and industrialization, Emily and her house became the last evidence that showed the refusal to the new ways, her house serving as a visible reminder of this.
The Grierson’s house showed her refusal to come out of the past that she was trapped in. When the Board of Alderman arrives at Emily’s house questioning about the taxes, “it smelled of dust and disuse – a close, dank smell. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture” (426). When the blinds were drawn, “a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray” (426). The house was filled with shadows, not only rejecting the sunlight into the house, but the light of the future as well.
Following this grave condition of the house, a similar description is given of Miss Emily. Her appearance is depicted as looking “bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough,” much like the previous description of the house (426). But Emily was not always like this. In the portrait with her father, Emily is described as “a slender figure in white in the background,” delicate, fresh and full of life. After her father dies, she is described “with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows – sort of tragic and serene” (428).
Both the house and the tenant can be seen as suffering with age and abandonment. The darkness and obscurity of the house with a “dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow” has a tie with Miss Emily herself. (426) She is a “small, fat woman in black…her skeleton small and spare” with a voice that is “dry and cold” (426, 7). After years of seclusion and a yearning to stay in the past, she becomes decayed herself, just as the house becomes. Emily’s soul becomes lost in the house, which represents the past and everything she stands for. The soul of the house also becomes lost, as times change. Something that was once so beautiful and grand is now nothing more than an “eyesore.”
As changes occur from the movement of the Old South to the New South, transformations are seen all over the town. Just as in the appearance of the town as they “let the contracts for paving the sidewalks” the people of the town turned to “more modern ideas” (428, 426).
At the turn of this new era, some people favored the change while others held on to the past. The town began to change, and those people that agreed with the new thoughts began to step up and realize their own self worth. The newer generation, “with its more modern ideas” became the strength of the town (426). As people of the older generation started to move out of Jefferson, in came the fresh, new minds that represented the New South. Emily still felt ties to the Old South, and so continued to hide herself away in her deteriorating house. It is in that house where she slowly deteriorates as a person.
Throughout the story, several characters can be seen to symbolize the changing South that is seen during the story. These key characters still reflect on the “old” ideas before the South began to change, and as it continued to change. Although the entire town is changing before their eyes, this old generation of thoughts and ideas is still present, although it eventually fades away with time. As Daniel Bronson states in his response to this story, “Members of the Old South were very honorable, graceful, and above all, dignified. They had great respect for each other and each other’s feelings” (435). These characteristic traits are shown through several characters throughout the story through actions they take for Emily, someone who saw things the same way they did.
Colonel Sartoris, a man who “fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron” still passed on her taxes – the privilege that was given to her after her fathers passing (426). He makes up a story to defend the prior fabricated story, something that “only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented” (426). When the Board of Aldermen, of the new generation, come to her house to request her taxes, they view this situation quite differently than Colonel Sartoris did. Emily insists that his word is enough evidence, which the “new” men insist that this is not correct because their new views aren’t based on “promises” or “word” but rather the law and “the books.” However in the end, they too dismiss her taxes, but only due to the fact that Emily is who she is and because of the promise that Colonel Sartoris had given her.
Another character in the story that still abides by these Old South values is Judge Stevens. When a smell began to invade around Miss Emily’s property, the “new” townspeople started complaining. “It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Grierson’s” (427). Judge Stevens, being 80 years of age, belongs to the old generation of ideas, just like Emily. When a woman of the town complains of the smell, she insisted that word should be sent to her to stop the smell by asking, “Isn’t there a law?” (427). Judge Stevens speaks against word of the new by saying, “Dammit…will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” (427). This Old South mindset is quite evident regarding the situation with the smell and how Judge Stevens handled it, by showing self-respect to a fellow person of his time. After all, when Emily was alive, she was “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (426).
The situation with receiving the poison at the pharmacy also reflects on the dwindling, but still present spirit of the Old South, despite the changing times. Upon her request for arsenic, the pharmacist says, “If that’s what you want. But the law requires you to tell what you are going to use it for” (429). Although Emily basically insisted that this drug be given to her despite the law, the pharmacist complies with her request, even though it really is not permissible. This action by the pharmacist is typical of the values of the Old South, as he shows honor and respect for Miss Emily, realizing that this would help her.
Throughout Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” a vivid picture is painted of the many changes that occur in the South after the Civil War. As the Old South moves out and the New South moves in, Emily refuses the changes that are occurring in Jefferson, Mississippi, which are bound to happen eventually. After years of fighting against the alterations of this era, she falls victim to it. Just as her house, the death of her father, and the townspeople, she too finally meets the same destiny. “And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery” where they rest, signifying the past that Miss Emily tried for so long to hold on to (426).
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