In his famous piece of short fiction “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner writes under seven pages to cover over 50 years of an unusual woman’s life, along with the mystery of a strange crime, and what her fellow townspeople thought about it all. Even more amazing, this small gem of a story asks important philosophical questions about how much we can really know about other people, and why we invent stories about folks to fill in the blanks, usually without realizing we are making things up. All this in under seven pages? How does Faulkner do it?
“A Rose for Emily” is intriguing not only for its characters, its grisly plotline, and its themes; it is a showcase for Faulkner’s consummate literary acrobatics. Let’s take a closer look.
SPOILER ALERT: Plot details will be mentioned. You may want to read the story first, if you haven’t already.
You may have read “A Rose for Emily” in high school. A lot of my students had. Nobody forgets the end of the story, the big revelation that Miss Emily had murdered her Yankee lover (who was about to leave her) and spent years sleeping next to his rotting corpse. Creep factor is definitely high enough to merit the oft-awarded descriptor “Southern Gothic.” However, this isn’t the part that stuns me the most. What amazes me is how complex, interesting, and thoughtfully composed this little tale is.
Let’s start with “scope” of the fiction. Scope refers to how much time is covered in how much space. As I mentioned, the story is about seven pages long, quite short, but it covers about 55 years of the life of a strange and complex woman, AND of Jefferson, the small Mississippi town she lived in, as well as her relationship to the people of the town. With that much to tell in such a short space, you would think the tale would be forced into bland generalities, but not so. The tale is crammed with richly-detailed, impactful scenes that linger in the memory. Here’s a partial list of scenes with details that come to life:
- Emily’s obdurate routing of the town delegation who have come to ask the aging recluse to pay her back taxes.
- The “tableau” witnessed by townspeople of Emily’s father scaring suitors from their door with a horsewhip.
- Young bereaved Emily refusing to let her father’s corpse be removed from the house.
- Glimpses of Emily tooling around town in the yellow-wheeled buggy with her new Yankee lover.
- Emily buying rat poison at the general store (people thought she would kill herself over her loss of reputation after openly taking a lover).
- Men secretly sprinkling lime under her smelly house.
- Of course, the aftermath of the funeral when townspeople find Homer’s corpse on Emily’s bed next to strand of iron-gray hair on the adjoining pillow.
Each of the story’s incidents, briefly told as they are, is full of vivid detail, from the very first description we have of Emily as an old lady, “a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head,” to this description of the men who sneaked up at night to sprinkle lime on her smelly house so they wouldn’t have to “accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad”:
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder.
This description, with its minute visual detail, is easy to imagine and remember.
The way Faulkner uses carefully selected scenes to portray a bigger story in “Emily” is typical of his technique throughout his fiction. Faulkner especially loved the “stop-action” scene and used it widely in his fiction. Here in “Emily,” there’s a great example of a stop-action scene, a visual memory of the narrator’s from when Emily was 19:
None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them [Emily, her father, and her suitors] 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, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door.
In drama, a tableau is when the actors all freeze for a moment in places on the stage that are representative of their characters and symbolic of the dramatic relationship between them. Frozen in time, this tableau-like scene explains everything, to the townspeople and to readers, about rich Mr. Grierson’s disdain for the ordinary townsfolk and predicts the future radical loneliness of Miss Emily.
Who’s Telling This Story, and Why?
But what is the source of all this descriptive scene-painting? Who is telling this story? In most of Faulkner’s work, we can see that what fascinated him was not just how people behaved and why, but what people THINK about how other people behave and why. He was obsessed with how people try to understand, judge, and create stories about others based only on the few things we can observe about somebody else.
Given that we truly know little of another’s experience, no one person’s view of anyone else can be authoritative. To make that point, Faulkner fashioned an unusual narrator, someone who claimed the authority to speak for the whole town’s opinion, but who had only an outside view of Miss Emily. He (or do you think it might be she?) seems to represent someone who is privy to, and probably an arbiter of, the town’s gossipy consensus on everyone in town. But clearly the narrator’s knowledge is only partial and filtered through prejudices of his and of the town’s.
For instance, when Emily is seen buying rat poison, her neighbors assume she will kill herself over her lost reputation. The narrator, speaking for the rest of the town, doesn’t see how any woman can hold up her head after openly taking a lover who won’t marry her. Later we learn how these narrow ideas blinded him, and the whole town, to the truth. The narrator’s misjudgments of Emily call readers’ attention to the real topic of this story. It’s not Miss Emily’s gothic madness that this story is really about, even if that is the part that many of the story’s first-time readers focus on. Rather, the story is about how a whole town can create a symbolic and largely mistaken identity for someone who holds herself apart from the group.
How the Tale is Spun
This talkative narrator doesn’t tell his version of Emily’s story chronologically. He recounts it in an organically evolving order that reflects how someone might actually recall events that took place over the course of fifty years. He begins by explaining to his listeners (us, the readers) about Emily on the occasion of her funeral. First, he sums up his view of why she was important to the town: she was “a fallen monument” and “a tradition, a duty, and a care: a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.”
The narrator is a good storyteller, saving the shocking revelation of the rotted corpse in Emily’s bed for the end of the tale. But the first incident of his narrative recounts how the elderly Emily “vanquished” the town committee “horse and foot” when they came asking for years of unpaid taxes. This seems to be the first incident he remembers in which Emily shows the personal qualities he admires. Readers then follow as he works backward in time to her youth, then forward again to her old age. As we follow, we begin to tease out what Emily might represent to this narrator, and to the other older members of this town.
The quality the narrator seems to relish is Defiance. He interprets her as proud to the end, refusing to give in on anything she believes it is her right to have. It is probably significant to this proudly Southern narrator, telling the story in the 1930s, that the faithless lover Emily targets for her revenge is a Yankee. Hence, for her never-back-down backbone, he offers his tribute of a “Rose for Emily.”
It’s Lonely Being a Symbol
The narrator, then, offers readers his version of Emily’s life, framed by his own judgments of her, including some affection for her Southern defiance of Yankee incursion. But Faulkner provides readers enough poignant detail to show that Emily’s experience is different from the one the narrator describes and cherishes. The narrator sees a proud, independent woman, but readers can see someone who is radically lonely, mentally unbalanced, and in trouble. No one succeeds in connecting with her or helping her. A lot of my students found this very sad; I remember one person in particular who had worked with mentally ill people, and was quite angry that the townspeople turned Miss Emily into a celebrity spectacle instead of trying harder to help her. Indeed. And yet the same process still happens, and we don’t always see that it is happening, or may see it but not know what to do.
Because how much can we really know about someone else’s inner life and experience? We try to tell someone else’s story, but succeed only in making her a character in our own.
Certainly nothing Faulkner ever wrote could be called an easy read. His style is elaborate, mannered, and even today, avant-garde. Reading can also be difficult because of his unflinching presentation of the worst in human character, and the horrible and sad things that people go through. But his work is incredibly worth wading in, for the intimate experience of human consciousness and knowledge of human relationships readers gain. Despite the dark subjects he explores, most works find something worthy and redeeming about humanity–a hope, a way forward out of the mysterious morass that humans make of their lives, as well as the lives of their descendants. And not least for me, Faulkner’s unique style of writerly gymnastics is absolutely thrilling.
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Town Square of Oxford, MS. Photo by MJ Booklover, March 2012.