By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Rose for Emily’ is William Faulkner’s most widely studied short story, and its distinctive narrative voice is one reason for the story’s continued appeal. More so than ‘Barn Burning’ and ‘Dry September’, which are probably Faulkner’s other best-known stories, ‘A Rose for Emily’ uses narration not as a means of telling a linear narrative, but to produce other effects – effects which are worth stopping to consider in more depth and detail.
We’ll divide our consideration of narrative in Faulkner’s story into two sections: ‘the narrator’ and ‘narrative style’. These two elements are interlinked but deserve to be analysed separately.
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 (that is to say, they are heterodiegetic rather than homodiegetic, to use the narratologist Gerard Genette’s terms).
Moreover, they are different from a traditional first-person narrator who uses ‘I’ and ‘me’ in reference to themselves; but nor are they an omniscient third-person narrator who views the events of the story from a detached position and perspective.
This makes them a strange phenomenon: perhaps we can call them a ‘character’ in their own right, but they remain an intangible and amorphous presence, almost a phantasmal figure in the story. Perhaps this is appropriate for a story which is a quintessential example of the Southern Gothic, featuring a seldom-seen recluse who harbours a dark secret in the attic chamber.
The narrator of the story is never named, and their identity – or what they are meant to represent – has attracted considerable critical speculation. Are they an individual member of the town where Miss Emily Grierson lived, or are they the town itself? Are they an individual speaking on behalf of the whole community or are they that community, which is somehow speaking, as it were, as one unified voice to us?
How we answer this question can have consequences for how we analyse the story. If the narrator is a kind of symbolic representation of the whole town, this suggests the community as a whole had one view of Emily and her life. If the narrator is merely one individual presuming to speak on behalf of the rest of his (or her) townspeople, then we should approach their narration with more caution.
Early on in ‘A Rose for Emily’, for example, they tell us that ‘our whole town’ went to Emily’s funeral. Is it likely that literally the whole town, down to every single citizen, attended? Is this hyperbole, and what does it tell us about the narrator’s gossipy manner of telling us about the rumours and facts surrounding Miss Emily Grierson?
But the narrator is not the only unusual narrative feature of ‘A Rose for Emily’. There’s also the non-linear way in which that narrator recounts the life of Miss Emily Grierson, the story’s title character.
The story begins and ends with the events surrounding Miss Emily’s death, and in between – in the main portion of the story – the narrator describes some of the most prominent and significant incidents in the life of the story’s title character. Faulkner uses a kind of foreshadowing to hint at the story’s grim denouement.
For example, he tells us that the foul and mysterious smell which the townsfolk started complaining about first became a problem ‘a short time after her sweetheart … had deserted her.’ Later, the narrator tells us that she purchased the arsenic ‘over a year’ after she had started being seen with Homer Barron.
In summary, then, the clues are there but they are lightly planted along the way, with the story’s chronological jumps back and forth in time requiring a very attentive reader to piece together the chronology and realise that Emily appears to have murdered Barron.
This method of furnishing the reader with the details of Emily’s life is effective for at least three reasons.
First of all, there is the practical reason that it enables Faulkner to build a gradual sense of mystery and suspense surrounding Miss Emily and her past. What did happen to Homer after he was seen being admitted to the house – and then never seen again? What was her relationship with her father really like, and why does she keep the crayon portrait of him in front of the fireplace?
There is also, however, a second advantage to Faulkner’s mode of narration, and it is related to a central feature of ‘A Rose for Emily’. In a sense, she exists only as an object to be viewed through the eyes of the townspeople: she barely speaks herself in the story, and she is always regarded from the outside, by the narrator who speaks for (or even is) the whole town.
The narrator fashions their narrative around the town’s attitude to Emily, homing in on specific moments when she interacted with them (such as when the deputation went to speak to her about her unpaid taxes) or when she was seen (such as when she was out riding in Homer Barron’s buggy). Emily herself would have told her own story in a very different manner.
Third, and just as importantly, the non-linear way in which Emily’s life is revealed to us allows Faulkner to foreground her death and then work backwards from that starting-point. Since ‘A Rose for Emily’ is partly a story about the decline of the Old South in the decades following the end of the Civil War, it is significant that the ‘monument’ (the narrator’s word) to that vanished world is already dead when the narrative begins.