Rejection of Change “A Rose for Emily”
Born in the northern part of Mississippi in 1897, William Faulkner grew up in a time where the ideas of the Old South could not keep up with the new, innovative ideas that the rest of the country was trying to enforce. After his father accepted a teaching position at the University of Mississippi, Faulkner was exposed to a southern middle-class lifestyle (Millgate). With no desire to finish school, Faulkner went from job to job, but financial needs forced him to write screenplays for many Hollywood films. In 1931, he published “A Rose for Emily” and dedicated it to the women he was surrounded by growing up. Faulkner uses the setting and symbolism in “A Rose for Emily” to address how change will always happen, regardless of the main character, Emily Grierson’s, outdated views (Millgate).
Faulkner sets the beginning of the story in the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, almost seventy years after the Civil War. The main character, Emily Grierson, lives in a house that closely resembles a historical monument of the Old South. It is described as “…a big, squarish frame house that had once been 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 selected street…(Faulkner 308).” While her father was alive, the Grierson’s had many servants tending to their every need, calling them “negro men” (Faulkner). In spite of the war ending almost a century prior, it is still apparent that Emily’s life is shaped by the ideals of the Old South instilled by her father.
The traditions of the town also contribute to the setting of “A Rose for Emily.” Faulkner opens “A Rose for Emily” with a statement that displays immediate pressure through the gender roles of the time (Curry). The women are said to have only come to Emily’s funeral to see her house rather than to pay respects to Emily, while male characters such as her father and Colonel Sartorius are described as being forthright and demanding. Emily refuses to cooperate with the new generation of town officials when they inform her that she must start paying her taxes, despite the arrangement that her father and the former mayor made thirty years prior. “From a historical perspective, the story can be read as a chronicle waning of the Victorian Age and the ascendancy of the twentieth century (Kriewald 2).” Not only is there a clash between the male and female townspeople, but between the older and newer generations. After Homer Barron is never seen again by the people, a smell from Emily Grierson’s house starts to infest the town. The younger generation demands Judge Stevens, the city’s current sitting judge, that she have her house cleaned, to which the judge does not oblige. He shouts, “…will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”(Faulkner 311). This shows the reader that the new townspeople are insistent that Miss Emily and others of her generation, such as Judge Stevens, do not conform to the new ideals of the changing town and that the social norms of the Old South are slowly dying out.
William Faulkner’s use of symbolism in “A Rose for Emily” allows for the audience to have a deeper understanding of the characters and the town. His choice in using a rose is interesting due to the fact that they require a great deal of care and attention. Roses require a delicate hand to grow, which is something Emily needed from her father growing up but did not get. Emily is described as small, skeletal like woman who only would wear white while her father was alive, but when the Board of Aldermen come to collect Miss Emily’s taxes thirty-two years later, her figure is described as “…a fat woman in black…a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue…”(Faulkner 309) This indicates that Emily’s personal appearance is deteriorating much like her traditional, southern ideals. The crayon portrait of her father on the easel is painted of Mr. Grierson is positioned in the ray of light coming from the window, almost as a shrine (Argiro). It is said to have not been moved, not even after her father’s death; at Emily’s own funeral the portrait is seen in the same spot. This indicates how controlling he was over Emily even after his own death. In the next section, where Emily meets Homer Barron, she goes to the drug store to buy poison and has a jeweler inscribe Homer’s initials on a toilet set coated in pure silver. The detail of pure silver is interesting because if silver is not polished, it will tarnish, losing its luster; this could specify that Emily is working so hard to enforce her ideals as she ages, but cannot keep up with the plans of the newer generation, thus causing her to become dull. After she kills Homer, his body exudes a strong unpleasant smell. In the people’s eye, it was this unwanted smell that formed a relationship between the Emily and the community. Emily becomes forgotten as she can no longer be disconnected from the social shackles and is forced to live with the severe social exclusion (Perry).
In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” he chooses key details involved in the setting of the story and symbolism to show that ideas are always changing and that no matter how hard Emily Grierson tries, life and time will go on (Millgate). Faulkner’s “rose” signifies how regal and beautiful Emily once was, but over time, she slowly wilted away. With the details about her house standing as a type of figurative monument, he is able to portray an outdated image of pre-Civil War Mississippi. The patriarchal society that Emily was born and raised in left an indelible mark on her that no amount of modern-day therapy could fix. As the town grew and changed, not even the strongest traditions Emily’s generation held dear could survive. The deterioration of Emily’s physical appearance was an indication of the decline of her mental health, which symbolized how tragic her upbringing really was. Dedicated to the women he was surrounded by growing up, Faulkner uses Emily Grierson’s morals to show how meaningless it can be trying to carry on the outdated traditions of the past.
Curry, Renee R. “Gender and Authorial Limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’ (Special Issue: William Faulkner)” The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol 47, No 3, Summer 1994
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily” The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable 12th ed.,by Kelly J. Mays, Norton, 2017,pp 308-316
Kriewald, Gary L. “The Widow of Windsor and the Spinster of Jefferson: A Possible Source for Faulkner’s Emily Grierson.” The Faulkner Journal, Vol 19, No 1, Fall 2003
Millgate, Michael. “William Faulkner.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Sep 21, 2018, Accessed Oct 21, 2018