Terry Heller: Writing Projects
Terry Heller: Home Page
The Telltale Hair:
A Critical Study of William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"
Terry Heller, Coe College
The Soul selects her own Society -
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more -
Unmoved - she notes the Chariots - pausing
At her low Gate -
Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat -
I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then -- close the valves of her attention -
Like Stone -
During the more than four decades since the first publication of William Faulkner's story "A Rose for Emily," two general questions seem to have attracted significant critical attention. The more recently flourishing discussion of the narration has centered on the narrative voice, whether it is distinct from or coincident with the voice or voices of the town. Those readers who have made strong arguments for a distinct persona have differed widely in characterizing it. Nicklaus Happel, for example, believes that the narrator is somewhat aloof from the town and that, in the course of his narrative, he shows sympathy for Emily to atone for past neglect.(1) Ruth Sullivan, in a long article devoted exclusively to the narration, asserts that psychoanalysis of the narrator shows him to be not only the most important character, but also the villain of the story.(2)
The larger portion of critical discussion has centered on the nature and cause of the aberration which leads Emily to kill Homer and keep his body in her bedroom. On this question, also, there is little agreement. Is Emily a black widow who devours her unsuspecting lover? A desperate and slightly crazed spinster who kills to possess him? Denied natural outlets for her emotions, perhaps she is forced into madness or a fantasy world? Is she a victim, then, of time, the town, her father, or her own repressed sexuality?(3) Some of these interpretations suggest that we should sympathize with Emily and some do not. Others suggest that our feelings should be mixed.
Such varied disagreement about our basic responses to the story may indicate that it, like "The Turn of the Screw," simply does not seem to allow us to reach a single definitive understanding. On the other hand, it may be that we have been asking the wrong questions or asking our questions in the wrong way. Let us then attempt to look at "A Rose for Emily" from a slightly different point of view, keeping in mind the major questions that have puzzled other critics, but also trying to find new or, at least, untried questions that might help to increase our understanding and appreciation.
Beginning with section one, let us look closely at the text and our responses to it. The first sentence introduces the antagonists:When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant -- a combined gardener and cook -- had seen in at least ten years.(4)Emily's clause is subordinate; the town is the subject of the sentence. Such a construction used by an artist who compared the short story to the lyric poem in its demands for exactness and economy, should lead us to suspect that the town may require as much of our attention as Emily.(5)
Besides telling us that Emily is a spinster who has not been visited in ten years, this sentence also provides important clues to the town's attitudes toward Emily. The town comes to her funeral, not in grief to mourn the passing of a beloved member of the community, but out of curiosity and respect for a defunct institution. In the first sentence, we are already disposed to side with Emily as a victim for there is no evidence that she is regarded with deserved hate or disgust. On the contrary, she seems to have been a pillar of the community.
Although the second paragraph seems to move our attention from Emily and the town to her house -- a house such as we often see in Gothic Romances -- we are shown a similar set of antagonists. The house appears to be the victim of the town, too. Having been surrounded by commercial interests, it is "stubborn and coquettish" in its decay. The last sentence of the paragraph suggests that Emily's removal to the cemetery is parallel to the house's removal from selectness. The house stands in a neighborhood of obliterated august names as her grave is among "the ranked and anonymous" graves of Civil War soldiers. The parallel works in reverse also, suggesting that the house is a kind of tomb. In each case, Emily and her house are not the agents but the victims. Of what are they the victims? The house seems clearly to be decaying, a victim of time, yet it may not necessarily be a natural process that changes the most select street to a commercial area. As Emily's house is invaded by the townspeople in the first paragraph, so her neighborhood is invaded by commercial interests rather than preserved for the value it may once have had. It is suggested, then, that the men's "respectful affection" is a hollow emotion, hollow as would be the suggestion that her house is still standing because of the town's sentimental nostalgia.
There is also in this second paragraph a curious statement, the judgment that the house is "an eyesore among eyesores." This phrase is unique in the first two paragraphs because it is the only purely evaluative statement we find. It is significant because it alerts us that we are perceiving through a consciousness that not only sees and generalizes, but also judges. Before we have seen an actual incident, we have a sense of antagonistic forces and a judging narrative consciousness.
The remainder of the first section presents a brief history of Emily's taxes, beginning with their remission by Colonel Sartoris: ". . . Colonel Sartoris, the mayor -- he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron -- remitted her taxes . . ." The syntax encourages us to see the mayor's two acts as similar. Emily, as impoverished aristocracy, is somewhat like the former slaves; she becomes a duty, obligation, and care. The Colonel's apparently charitable action is qualified by his motives, which appear to be based more on the maintenance of a rigid class order than on respectful affection. The mayor treats her not as an individual human being in need, but as a class, as a Lady Aristocrat. The newer generation recognizes no such category and decides she must pay her taxes. The new aldermen dehumanize Emily into a Faceless Citizen. From them she receives an impersonal tax notice, a formal letter, an offer from the mayor to meet at the place of her choosing, and finally, a deputation. In the second pair of paragraphs we see two generations in relation to Emily. The generations are similar in that they both choose to deal with an idea of Emily, rather than with Emily herself; they are different in that they have different ideas of her and, therefore, approach her and her taxes differently.
Another pair of paragraphs precedes the first dramatic incident. In them we see the interior of the house that the ladies were so curious about, and we see Emily. The atmosphere of the house reminds us again of Gothic Romance. It is tomblike, dusty, dark, and damp, with a stairway that mounts into shadow. The room we see is dominated by a crayon portrait of Emily's long dead father on a tarnished gilt easel. When Emily appears, we begin to see that she resembles her house. A gold chain disappears into her belt just as the stair disappears into shadow, and her cane has a tarnished gold head. Her appearance is striking,Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.This passage begins with a kind of apology for her heaviness that teases the imagination. First she is small and spare, then pleasingly plump, but by the end of the first sentence she is obese. Three words later she is bloated and by the end of the passage she has been transformed from a little old lady into a bloated corpse as decayed as the house. How do we respond to such a description? If, through the hints that we may be in Gothic Romance, we have come to expect a Gothic heroine, we may be surprised when we learn she is small and fat. If in spite of our developing sympathy, the description tempts us to see her as a Gothic villainess, the apologetic narrative approach to her appearance prevents us from succumbing. But how are we affected when she balloons into a drowned corpse? Looking like a corpse, she may be sinister, yet on the other hand, she may deserve sympathy -- especially if her appearance is the result of the same kind of process that has made the house into an eyesore. The narrator, by introducing us so gently to her ghastly appearance, seems to have shown some sympathy for her, reinforcing the sympathy we already feel for what appears to be the helpless victim of powerful and careless forces.
Before we see her act, before we have any knowledge of her character, we are disposed to see Emily as victimized. The town shows little sympathy for her. Two generations have viewed her as a stereotype rather than as a living person. As Americans we usually side with the underdog, yet we are not sure how to judge Emily. She seems both pathetic and sinister. The interior of her house is both sad and frightening. One of the frightening things about her and her house is exemplified by the staircase and the gold chain both of which produce lines that frustrate the eye, causes without effects. We are led to believe there is a watch at the end of the chain because the deputation hears the ticking, but the ticking is an effect without a visible cause and adds to our sense of uneasiness by suggesting mystery and disorder. We should now be alerted to watch for a continuation of this pattern.
When we finally see her act, our responses are both clarified and clouded. As Americans, we tend to support Emily against an invasion of tax collectors, yet she seems not to need support. In the confrontation, we see her standing framed in a doorway, dominating the room as her father's portrait dominated before she entered. She is dignified and powerful as she vanquishes them. Her triumph is undercut, however, by the narrator's parenthetical remark that her authority, Colonel Sartoris, has been dead for ten years. That she acts as if the mayor is still alive is another unexplained action like an effect without a cause. Is it possible she does not know he is dead? Does she live in a fantasy world where the people she likes never die, or is she perversely pretending ignorance? By defeating the deputation she upsets our expectations that she will be victimized and earns our admiration for her strength. At the same time, she confronts us with disturbing mysteries about her character and motives.
A series of confrontations between Emily and Jefferson takes place in the following sections. When the aldermen attempt to take care of the smell without confronting her, she catches and shames them. The next confrontation concerns her refusal to admit her father's death. On the surface, the town defeats her, bending her to its will. Emily profoundly shocks the town, however, and "she broke down" after a three-day struggle followed by a long illness and a kind of resurrection. In part three, she refuses, or perhaps fails, to play the part of Fallen Woman, when the town thinks she is fallen. She also succeeds in buying arsenic without satisfying the law's requirement. Her victories continue into part four, when she vanquishes the Baptist minister and when the town's female-relations strategy backfires. Then, apparently, she suffers complete defeat. Homer disappears and the town is morally triumphant. The suspected affair is at an end and Emily has not married a Yankee day laborer. Throughout the rest of part four, Emily leads the isolated spinster's life, doing the things spinsters may be expected to do: teaching china painting, refusing a mailbox and house number, and finally dying alone in her decaying house. In part five the town is completely in control. They bury her and behave as they wish at her funeral. The old men change her past to suit their befuddled fantasies. It is as if all are eager to remove the old monument and to replace her house with a cotton gin or a filling station. Then her bridal chamber reveals that once again she has vanquished the town and that even after her death, Jefferson has failed finally to understand and deal with her.
As we witness these confrontations, we seem to learn much about the town, but relatively little about Emily. Through what the town feels, says, thinks, and does we gradually obtain a fairly clear idea of its character as a group. For example, there is a cluster of events which do not surprise the town. The ladies are not surprised when the smell develops because a man could not take care of a kitchen and because, "It was another link between the gross, teeming world and the high and mighty Griersons." Believing Emily and Homer are married, the town is not surprised when Homer is gone or when he returns after the cousins leave. Emily's isolation after the disappearance of Homer is to be expected as her reassertion of morality.
There are things about which the town is sad and glad. The townspeople begin to be really sorry for her after the smell goes away because they remember how her great aunt went "completely crazy" and how her father kept suitors away. On the other hand, they are "not pleased exactly, but vindicated" when she is still single at thirty. They are glad when her father dies and leaves her a pauper, because, at last, they can pity her and believe her equal to themselves for "Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less." They are glad when Emily and Homer are seen together, but begin to say "poor Emily" when the old people gossip enough to convince them she is a Fallen Woman. They are convinced it would be the best thing if she killed herself with the poison she buys. They are really glad when they think Emily and Homer are married, because they want to be rid of her female cousins, but are sorry when there is no public party. The town in being glad, sad, and not surprised reveals itself to be not only unsympathetic, but unmistakably vicious.
As distinguished from what the town feels, the things that the town says, believes, and does not only reveal viciousness and callousness, but seem to reflect limited inductive powers. For example, the town believes Homer will marry Emily, but he deserts her. They believe she is fallen, but she does not behave as a Fallen Woman. They believe she will kill herself with the poison, and she does not. They summon the cousins to prevent Emily from behaving immorally, then are willing to countenance the affair and the marriage in order to be rid of those cousins. They say she will marry Homer, then discover that he likes men and is not a marrying man. They say she will eventually persuade him, but we never know if she does. In general they are wrong -- as it is almost certain that they are wrong about the cause of the smell and the fact of the marriage. The town's actions reveal callousness, viciousness, hypocrisy, meddling, and a general inability to understand the meanings of events. The people of Jefferson prove themselves completely unable to sympathize with and understand Emily. Every man who attempts to coerce Emily, except perhaps Homer and her father, leaves her house never to return in her lifetime. Even the druggist does not return from his supply room after confronting her.
Why does the town fail so completely? Its major failing seems to be either one of vision, which in turn results in one of sympathy, or vice versa. In order to account for and deal with Emily, the people constantly resort to categorization. We have seen that Colonel Sartoris remits her taxes in order to preserve a kind of status quo, that he assigns static identities to people and classes, identities which then define appropriate responses. Because she is a poor Lady, she should not have to pay taxes; because she is a Lady, Judge Stevens cannot tell her to her face that she smells bad, and the aldermen are forced into their ludicrous escapade; and because she is a Lady, the plebeian townspeople envy her and are glad to discover evidence that she may be ordinary. They, especially the older generation, are eager to turn her status against her when she is courted by a Yankee day laborer. The new generation has the same limitation in a different form. For them Emily is a Faceless Citizen, who must be made to pay her taxes and forced to "clean up her place," who must comply with the law in regard to dead fathers and buying poison, and who should have a mailbox on her house. Whereas the older generation felt that sending their children to Emily to learn china painting was a duty or obligation like sending them to Sunday School, the new generation does not even feel the obligation. In effect, the new generation's approach is little different from the old, yet we prefer the latter because its roots in human feeling and concern are still discernible.
The Lady Aristocrat and the Faceless Citizen are not the only categories applied to Emily, though most of the others can be seen as extensions of the former. When the town sees her as the heroine-in-white of a melodramatic tableau in which her father threatens off suitors with his horsewhip, she is expected to do the kinds of things a melodramatic heroine usually does: to cling to her dead father despite his supposed cruelty, to kill herself with poison when her honor is sullied, and to isolate herself in her house when her lover deserts her or when she has ordered him to leave. When she is a Fallen Woman, she is a bad influence on children and ought not to ride with her beau on Sunday afternoon or to hold her head high. She is then to be gossiped about behind jalousied windows, preached to by middle-class ministers, and protected by female relations. Although she apparently sees qualities in Homer that make him worthy of her attention, the town dismisses him using the categories of Northerner and Day Laborer. In parts one, two, and four, Emily is almost always described as framed in a door, window, or picture so that we come to see her as confined in the vision of the town. For us, however, the frames seem to make her into a kind of portrait of an unknown and mysterious woman, the special object of our sympathy and wonder as she is the object of the town's lack of sympathy.
Though it is not really clear whether stereotyping is a cause or an effect of lack of sympathy, it seems rather clear that the problem with the categories is that they falsify their object, making sympathy difficult. Categorizing Emily as Lady Aristocrat, the confederate veterans at the funeral even falsify the public record, remembering things that could never have been. Because the town unfailingly bases its approach to Emily on stereotypical expectations, it never sees her as the very human person we believe her to be. The older generation fails because it is decadent and its categories have become inflexible; the new because it is impersonal; the town as a whole because Emily's class identity provokes pettiness and jealousy in them and because they tend to see her in terms of stock melodramatic stereotypes. All fail to see the human Emily. Their vision is so limited by these categories which, instead of being shortcuts, are barriers to sympathy, that they are always ludicrous in their attempts to understand and deal with her. She never does quite what they expect. Regardless of which comes first, the failure of vision and the lack of sympathy are mutually supporting. They form a closed system of which Emily appears, in spite of her resistance, to be a nearly helpless victim.
We find, then, that the town's actions, feelings, and motives are scrutinized rather closely. The quality of their actions disposes us to sympathize with Emily as a victim of careless cruelty. We noted in our discussion of the first section that we felt pressure to sympathize with Emily as a victim of the town at her funeral and concerning her taxes, but we also felt ambiguously about her character upon first seeing her. Let us attempt to determine how we should feel about Emily through an examination of some of the means that are used for controlling our responses. We can begin by looking at the narration.
As stated previously, the narration of "A Rose for Emily" has been the subject of varied controversy. A particularly thorny problem in trying to understand the narration is the alteration of the chronology. The story seems to be told by a participant in at least some of the events described, yet all of the events are complete at the time of the telling. Emily's funeral is over before the story begins, and the last scene of the story is in the past tense. Therefore, the narrator must suspect now, as he apparently did not at the time, the causal relation of the poison, the disappearance of Homer, and the smell, yet he gives us the smell in part two, the poison in part three, and the disappearance in four. One apparent effect of this alteration is to prevent us from easily perceiving the possible relation of these seemingly isolated events. Another effect might be to emphasize both the speaker's distance from the events -- as he is able to re-order them -- and the town's lack of sympathetic understanding which he presumably shared when the events took place. At at least one point, the narrator fails to give us pertinent information we assume that he has: he must know in what order Emily bought the toilet articles, the clothing, and the poison. In both the alteration of chronology and this withholding of available information, the narrator seems to be purposive. In the second case, he increases our difficulty in understanding Emily's intentions. Does she intend to seduce Homer into marriage or death, or the latter only if the former fails?
In the first section of the story, we noted a separation of cause and effect in the matters of the stairway, the chain, the ticking, and Emily's belief that Colonel Sartoris is alive. The silent minister, the purchase of the poison, the smell, the return of Homer, the body on the bed, and a host of other phenomena seem also to fall into one of these two classes: floating effects or dangling causes. Now we can see, however, that this separation may be a deliberate narrative strategy, that it serves several purposes and is essential to our reading experience. The separation of cause and effect obscures the obvious pattern of events for us, very much as does the alteration of the chronology, thereby keeping our judgments about Emily in suspension and allowing the narrator to build sympathy for her before we can suspect what she may have done. It also reveals another facet of the town's failure to sympathize with her. The town's categories encourage the isolation of causes and effects, increasing the probability of interpretive error. Furthermore, a series of mysteries is created which we strongly suspect to have different explanations from those offered by the town. As we learn to distrust the town, we begin to wonder what really happens between Emily and Homer. Is there really an affair? Does she marry him? These mysteries increase in number and depth as the story continues.
The patterns we have seen in the narration thus far seem to indicate that the story is told by a single voice. We have also seen evidence of narrative sympathy for Emily in the first part of the story. Is there other evidence of narrative sympathy? The first sentence of part two, "So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell" clearly indicates admiration for Emily. The last two paragraphs of part four show great narrative sympathy for Emily. The sentence which precedes them, "Thus she passed from generation to generation -- dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse" applies five adjectives to Emily, only four of which we have seen portrayed. To whom is Emily dear, unless in the sense of being costly? Perhaps at this point she has become dear in another sense to the narrator and to us. The last two paragraphs of the section tell of Emily's dying alone in pitiable circumstances without anyone even knowing she is ill. The narrative tone is one of pity for the forlorn and neglected Emily. In part five the narrator seems to separate himself from the people and to judge them as he tells us that the flowers were bought by relatives rather than cut by the townspeople, that the ladies are curious and macabre, and that the old veterans distorted her past in their memories. Even though the townspeople seem, for once, to do the decent thing by not opening the room until she is buried, they have pried enough to know that the door will have to be forced. The consistent narrative sympathy for Emily is not only in contrast to the town's attitude, but presumably, also in contrast to the narrator's own attitude at the time the events took place.
How, then, does this narrative attitude affect us as readers? The teller's sympathy reinforces our similar emotions. Yet, even though we tend to take Emily's part against all tax collectors, mailmen, and busybodies, we are not required to sympathize with and admire her without qualification. The narrator appears also to be rather uncertain about Emily's true character. We have already noted our ambiguous response to her initial appearance. Emily does many other things that make us uneasy about her: thinking Colonel Sartoris is alive ten years after his death, keeping her father's body, buying poison, and having a smell about her house. Subtle and macabre suggestions of perverse madness, i.e., incest, cannibalism, and necrophilia, appear in the first four parts and receive some support in the fifth. Balancing these disturbing elements is another set of facts and appearances. She appears to really love Homer if the expensive gifts she buys him are any indication, and perhaps her father, if we can judge by the ever-present portrait which she herself may have done. She appears to treat both men as if they were not dead after they die. Such treatment may indicate either madness or love. When the lime spreaders open her cellar, they reveal that there is no secret there as is often the case in Gothic houses. When she has her hair cut, she looks like an angel. Ten years after Homer's disappearance, she offers china painting lessons to the village children, reminding us of kindhearted Hepzibah Pyncheon and her little shop. Even the final scene in the dusty bridal chamber may be as pathetic as it is gruesome.
These apparently conflicting cues are arranged so that as our suspicion of the truth about Emily grows, one set confirms and the other allays those suspicions. When Homer disappears into the house one evening, we are almost certain that we know the truth, even if the town does not. Almost immediately, however, we see Emily become a fat and lonely spinster. We are asked to pity poor Emily who teaches children to paint and dies alone on a moldy bed. Our suspended judgment is never allowed to settle itself. We pity and admire Emily without being certain that she needs or deserves such sympathy. The story is so constructed that we sympathize with Emily without understanding her, whereas the town, thinking it understands her, is shown to lack sympathy. At the same time, we share, to a degree, a sense of the town's error as we are tempted to see Emily in terms of certain literary conventions, i.e., Gothic Romance or Melodrama, from which she continually diverges.
The last scene of "A Rose for Emily" has the form of a revelation. The secret room is entered, and light falls on the dark mystery of Emily's life. How does this scene affect our feelings and knowledge about Emily? Conventionally, we may expect resolution of conflicting emotions and the explanation of mysteries. First, let us examine our emotional response to the scene. Just before it, our pity for Emily and contempt for the town have reached their highest points. Then we are led into the dusty room and shown everything in it, the details of a rose-colored, tomblike bridal chamber. The scene is first pathetic, expressive of the fulfillment Emily never had, the mausoleum of a girl's hopes covered with dust. Then the narrator points out the body that once lay in an attitude of embrace and describes it as victim of the same forces that outlast love: time and death. Grisly as it is, the scene is one of frustrated tenderness. If we are horrified at what Emily appears to have done, we are at the same time asked to pity the woman for whom this scene represents nearly all the love and companionship she has known for forty years and to admire the woman who has once again thwarted the town's attempts to categorize her. It seems to me that each of the emotions that Emily arouses in us -- pity, admiration, and horror -- is here felt to its extreme. Does the long, gray hair finally horrify, or does it move the reader to tears and awe? The final scene stubbornly refuses to resolve the conflicting responses that have been cultivated in the reader throughout the story.
What mysteries does the last scene solve? It strengthens our suspicions about the causal relation of the poison, Homer's disappearance, and the smell, but does not confirm those suspicions. In fact, the narrator teasingly encourages the reader to doubt the relation. The monogram on the silver is obscured. The body is not identified, nor is it in an attitude to indicate a violent death from arsenic. It is possible that Homer and Emily lived together in the house, secretly of course, for several years. Such a suggestion seems absurd, but the very fact that it can be defended illustrates how little we really learn in the climactic scene. Mysteries about Emily's actions remain unsolved: if she had an affair with Homer, if she killed him, and if she used the poison. New mysteries are created: if she lay with the corpse and, if so, for how long. These are only a few of the mysterious events that remain mysterious, and the greatest mystery, too, remains as dark as ever. If she did all the things it appears she did, why? As was stated in the introduction to this essay, this question has absorbed much critical effort since the story's publication, yet if my analysis is correct, that was probably not the most fruitful question to attempt to answer, because neither the narrator, the town, nor the reader has enough information to answer it. Instead of trying to explain Emily, the narrator does his best to present all the difficulties in the way of such an explanation. The narrator shows us a group of incidents in which the town uses stereotypes that always fail to account for her. Finally, the narrator has more information than we, because he knows the order in which the gifts and the poison were bought. With that knowledge, we might possibly guess with more certainty whether she planned to murder Homer and then decorate the room where she keeps him, or whether the gifts were purchased before his death and mean that she loved him. Knowing less than the narrator and no more than the town, how do we dare to guess at Emily's motives, given the examples of his restraint and the town's failure? So Emily remains very much a mystery. We never see her thinking and must infer her motives from a small group of external actions. As so many critics have so ably shown, even after agreement is reached on the content and extent of her actions, those actions admit of numerous explanations.
We have seen that the story focuses on the relationship between Emily and Jefferson; specifically on the ways in which the town interprets and acts on the information it gathers about her. The narrator recounts a series of incidents in which the town attempts and fails to deal with Emily. In each case, the failure seems to result in some way from a previous failure to sympathize with and understand Emily. She, on the other hand, is seen only through a few brief actions, and her motives are not represented, except as they are guessed by the town. We have also seen that we are made to sympathize with Emily despite our ignorance of her and the conflicting cues we receive about her moral nature. We are encouraged to feel about Emily in a way that the town fails to feel, so that we come to appreciate her human uniqueness as the town does not. Furthermore, we have seen that the narrator, though a participant in some of the events described, is now critical of the town and sympathetic toward Emily. "A Rose for Emily," then, shows us not only the barriers to understanding and sympathy that lead inevitably to violence and suffering, but also the means of overcoming those barriers through compassionate human sympathy, i.e., making the effort to understand another through imaginative identification rather than in terms of rigid codes of conduct and categories of perception. The story is not easily optimistic however, for it is only after her death, when the hair is found on the indented pillow and all the damage has been irrevocably done, that anyone begins to understand how the town has apparently victimized Emily and how grandly she seems to have resisted victimization. In Absalom, Absalom! Quentin and Shreve, through imaginative identification with Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, come to learn "what must be truth" about the murder of Charles Bon, but in this story no one ever learns the whole truth about Emily. Yet we sympathize with her, for in the end her acts are no more bizarre than the town's, while in many ways she seems immeasurably more valuable and grand than all of Jefferson. The town attempts throughout her life to treat her as we see it treating her in the first two paragraphs of the story, as if she were dead. If she makes Homer into a corpse, who makes her into one? We see no anguish or pain in the town, but we see evidence enough to imagine what Emily may have suffered. At least one person, forced into the realm of light by that dusty room, seems to have realized the possibility of her suffering and to have been brought by that realization to the point of saying as Faulkner said,. . . I don't think that one should withhold pity simply because the . . . object of pity, is pleased and satisfied. I think the pity is in the human striving against its own nature, against its own conscience . . . it's man in conflict with his heart, or with his fellows, or with his environment -- that's what deserves the pity.(6)
Reprinted from Arizona Quarterly 28 (1972) by permission of the Arizona Board of Regents. This printing incorporates minor revisions by the author.
1. N. Happel, "William Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily,"' Die Neueren Sprachen, 9 (1962), 396 - 404. Reprinted in M. Thomas Inge, ed. William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Pub. Co., 1970), as translated by Alfred Kolb.
2. R. Sullivan, "The Narrator in 'A Rose for Emily,"' The Journal of Narrative Technique, 1 (September 1971), 159 - 78. K. P. Kempton in The Short Story (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 104 - 06, suggests that there is a town-narrator who appears to become more visible as the story progresses. F. C. Watkins in "The Structure of 'A Rose for Emily,"' Modern Language Notes, 69 (November 1954), 508 - 10, seems to see the townspeople as a kind of group narrator. Brooks and Warren in Understanding Fiction (2nd Ed. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1959), pp. 350 - 54, suggests that the town-narrator may be an important character in his own right. All of the above except Ruth Sullivan's article are reprinted in M. Thomas Inge, ed. William Faulkner: A Rose for Emily (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Pub. Co., 1970).
3. Brooks and Warren believe that Emily heroically resists restrictive local values. C. W. M. Johnson, "Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily,"' Explicator, 6 (May 1948), item 45, argues that, far from heroic, she resists change as the South has done and that her just punishment is to live with death. R. B. West in "Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily,"' Explicator, 7 (October 1948), item 8, and in "Atmosphere and Theme in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily,"' from The Writer in the Room (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1949), pp. 205 - 11, defending Emily, states that she resists time because she has been betrayed by it in the forms of her father who represents the Old Order and Homer who represents the New Order. In her attempts to overcome time, she is at once monstrous, heroic, and tragic. C. A. Allen, "William Faulkner: Comedy and the Purpose of Humor," Arizona Quarterly, 16 (Spring 1960), 60, thinks that Emily takes Homer in defiance as a father-substitute, then kills him to insure possession when he threatens to leave her. Dominating her world, she is unable to distinguish between reality and illusion. W. V. O'Connor, The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954), p. 68, agrees that Emily retreats into a fantasy world, but because she has been denied natural outlets for her emotions. Irving Howe in William Faulkner (2nd Ed. New York: Vintage, 1962), p. 265, sees the story as one of the decay of human sensibility from "false gentility to genteel perversion." Irving Malin in William Faulkner: An Interpretation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), pp. 37 - 38, believes Emily is the victim of self-repressed sexuality and, therefore, becomes masculinized. Faulkner, who dislikes masculine women, thus has an opportunity to analyze her necrophilia. Elmo Howell in "A Note on Faulkner's Emily as a Tragic Heroine," Serif, 2 (1966), 13 - 15, argues that if Emily is to be a tragic heroine, she cannot be a necrophiliac, nor can she kill Homer from such a petty motive as revenge. We have no indication that a break with Homer is imminent when he disappears. Therefore, the murder is a victory of the spirit over the body. Convinced that the affair is immoral, she kills Homer and keeps the body in an act of expiation. Faulkner's own comments do little to clarify matters. As quoted in Gwynn and Blotner's Faulkner in the University (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1959), p. 58, he says in a March 1957 interview that Emily realized she had broken the law of her tradition and that her life was wrecked. She murdered to expiate her crime. In April, answering a question about the title, he says that she was a poor woman whose father was cruel and whose lover was about to desert her. She had to kill him to keep him (pp. 87, 88). In May, asked about his inspiration, he replied that her natural emotions had been denied by her father who treated her as a servant, that all she wanted was "to be loved and to love" (p. 185). Earlier at Nagano, he was asked whether or not he liked Emily. He answered, "I feel sorry for Emily's tragedy; her tragedy was, she was an only child, an only daughter. At the time when she could have found a husband, could have had a life of her own, there was probably some one, her father, who said, 'No, you must stay here and take care of me.' And then when she found a man, she had had no experience in people. She picked out probably a bad one, who was about to desert her. And when she lost him, she could see that for her that was the end of life, there was nothing left, except to grow older, alone, solitary; she had had something and she wanted to keep it, which is bad -- to go to any length to keep something; but I pity Emily. I don't know whether I would have liked her or not, I might have been afraid of her. Not of her but of anyone who had suffered, had been warped, as her life had probably been warped by a selfish father." (Robert Jelliffe, Faulkner at Nagano [Tokyo: Kenkyusha Ltd., 1956], pp. 70 -7 1.) All of the above except Allen, O'Connor, Howell, and Faulkner at Nagano are reprinted in the Inge casebook.
4. William Faulkner, The Collected Stories (New York: Random House, Inc., 1950), p. 119. Page numbers appearing in the text are from this edition.
5. In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein, Paris Review, 12 (Spring 1956), 30, Faulkner says that "the short story is the most demanding form after poetry." In Faulkner in the University, p. 207, he says in a June 1957 interview, "In a short story that's next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right . . . because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There's less room in it for trash. In poetry, of course, there's no room at all for trash. It's got to be absolutely impeccable, absolutely perfect."
6. Faulkner in the University, p. 59.
Terry Heller: Writing Projects
Terry Heller: Home Page