By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner contains some memorable characters besides Emily herself. Even the narrator is a curious creation and deserving of further discussion, since Faulkner does some interesting things with narrative in his short story.
Let’s take a closer look at the characters in ‘A Rose for Emily’, both great and small, central and peripheral, and explore their significance to the overall story, as well as the part they play in its plot.
The narrator of ‘A Rose for Emily’ is unusual in that ‘they’ use the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’ to describe themselves. They are not a character in the story as such, and they are different from a traditional first-person narrator who uses ‘I’ and ‘me’ in reference to themselves.
The narrator of the story is never named, but they appear to speak on behalf of the whole community of the town.
Miss Emily Grierson
Miss Emily is the story’s protagonist or main character. She is known throughout the whole town and, although she becomes increasingly secluded from the outside world, she is regarded as something of an icon among the townspeople – to such an extent that everybody turns out for her funeral when she dies, aged seventy-four.
The townsfolk’s attitude towards Miss Emily changes over time. Although many consider the Grierson family to be haughty and consider themselves better than everyone else, their disdain for Emily gives way to pity, first after her father dies, and then when Homer Barron refuses to marry her. ‘Poor Emily’ is the refrain people utter the most often in relation to her.
Emily’s relationship with her father is one that has attracted considerable speculation and analysis. When the deputation of town Aldermen visit Miss Emily about her unpaid taxes, they find a ‘crayon portrait’ of her father resting on an easel in front of the fireplace, suggesting that even long after he died, his daughter continued to revere him.
When he died, Miss Emily initially refused to let the ministers inside the house to take and bury his body. This image of daughterly devotion appears to be at odds with the narrator’s – and townsfolk’s – idea of Emily and her father, with the latter holding a ‘horsewhip’ and keeping his daughter at home, forbidding her to court any young men in the town or get married.
Nevertheless, the townsfolk believe that the influence of Emily’s father is what led her to cling onto him, even in death: because when he died, she had nobody else in her life.
Colonel Sartoris was a mayor of the town, and the narrator tells us that in 1894 he remitted Miss Emily’s taxes ‘in perpetuity’, ensuring that she would never have to pay tax in Jefferson again. When the Aldermen later visit her to query this, she tells them to speak to Colonel Sartoris, who by this point has been dead for almost ten years.
Homer is a ‘Yankee’ from New York who arrives in Jefferson to work as the foreman, directing the Black labourers who are paving the sidewalks of the town. He becomes romantically involved with Miss Emily and the townspeople believe the two of them will marry.
However, when Emily is seen riding in Homer’s buggy with him, the townsfolk disapprove of her behaviour, believing it will set a ‘bad example’ to the younger people in the town. They are pleased when they believe that Homer and Emily have got married.
Not long after these rumours, Homer Barron disappears from town, only to reappear shortly afterwards. He is seen going into Miss Emily’s house, and then he is never seen again. It is only after Miss Emily dies that Homer’s body is discovered upstairs in the room of the house which Emily had clearly prepared to be a bridal chamber, had they got married.
He is presumably dead from the arsenic Miss Emily bought; realising that he did not want to marry her (he was not, the narrator tells us, the ‘marrying kind’), she presumably poisoned him so that she could keep ‘him’ close to her forever.
He was the mayor of Jefferson town, and an old man of eighty, when the townsfolk first began complaining about the smell emanating from Emily’s house. However, he is reluctant to insult the town matriarch by accusing her of ‘smelling bad’, so four men from the town take the matter into their own hands and go to investigate what’s causing the smell and to get rid of it. They are successful in their attempts.
Old Lady Wyatt
Old lady Wyatt was Emily Grierson’s great-aunt. The narrator tells us that she went mad, and makes a point about there being ‘insanity in the family’. They also tell us that Emily’s father fell out with family members living in Alabama over old lady Wyatt’s estate.
Miss Emily goes to the local druggist to sell her arsenic. He tells her that the law requires her to tell him what she is going to use this powerful poison for, but she stares him out until he looks away and chooses to assume she is going to use the arsenic as rat poison; this is what he writes on the box he sells her.
Tobe is Miss Emily’s servant, and the only person who has entered her house for many years. He is an African-American man and we could argue that this further symbolises Miss Emily’s status as part of the ‘old guard’ of Americans: even after slavery in the South was abolished during the Civil War, Miss Emily has a Black servant.
Tobe remains Miss Emily’s servant until she dies. Later in life, he becomes grey and stooping with age, and the narrator remarks that Tobe talks to nobody, and his voice had ‘grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse’.