By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Rose for Emily’ is a classic American short story with an unsettling denouement on the final page. In just a dozen pages, William Faulkner’s narrator conjures an ageing matriarch of the Old South, telling us about her life, her love, and her death.
The setting of ‘A Rose for Emily’ is one of the many remarkable things about the story. Faulkner’s curious narrator (who uses the royal ‘we’, as if speaking as the whole town in which the story is set) paints a vivid picture of Jefferson, the town which is the setting for the story, often in just a few words, and like many works of Gothic literature, the story’s setting is crucial to its power.
Let’s take a closer look at the setting of Faulkner’s unsettling tale. We’ll start big and then get smaller as we home in on the location of the story.
‘A Rose for Emily’ is set in the American South. Indeed, it’s an example of the Southern Gothic: a subgenre of the Gothic set in the South, and often featuring elements of Gothic fiction such as the crumbling castle (here, Miss Emily’s old house, the last in her street that’s still standing), the dark secret housed inside (the rotting body of Homer Barron upstairs in the attic room), and other sinister features, such as eccentric or disturbing characters.
Emily is a product of the Old South, and her mindset was shaped by that vanished world: that explains why she has (according to the narrator) a superior, haughty air and acts as though she’s better than the rest of the town.
The American Civil War led to the abolition of slavery in the South. Emily represents the Old South, an outdated ‘monument’ (to use the word the narrator reaches for to describe Emily in the story’s opening paragraph) which is (literally) decaying and dying out. And what is the Old South being replaced with? The new industrial America: cotton and gasoline are now the way the townspeople make their money.
Jefferson is the fictional town which is the setting for ‘A Rose for Emily’. It’s essentially Faulkner’s fictional name for Oxford, in Lafayette County, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived for much of his life.
Just as Oxford became ‘Jefferson’, so Lafayette Country became the fictional ‘Yoknapatawpha County’ (pronounced ‘yock-nu-pu-torfa’), the setting for much of William Faulkner’s fiction. Jefferson, of course, was the third US President, and there are many places in the US named after him: the capital of the neighbouring state of Missouri, for instance, is Jefferson City.
The narrator of ‘A Rose for Emily’ tells us that Miss Emily’s house was the only old house left in the street, and that ‘garages and cotton gins’ had sprung up and replaced the other houses that had once stood alongside Emily’s dwelling. The house was once white but isn’t any longer: it has literally faded (and have those nearby gasoline stations polluted its exterior, we wonder?).
The house, we are told, is in the ‘heavily lightsome style’ of 1870s houses: that is, houses built just after the Civil War. The house, in calling back to earlier traditions, embodies the desperation to cling to a disappearing way of life that many people in the South felt at the time (much as Emily will later hang onto the body of her deceased father).
The adjective ‘lightsome’ means ‘carefree and happy’ as well as ‘graceful’, but now the garages and cotton gins – functional and ugly buildings and structures – are more useful to the people of Jefferson, and the fey elegance of the Grierson house is out of place in the modern world.
The Locked Room.
‘A Rose for Emily’ is, of course, a Gothic story. And the locked room at the top of Miss Emily’s house is a quintessentially Gothic space, housing a dreadful secret (much as crypts or secret parts of the Gothic castle, in much earlier narratives, harboured a dark secret that would later come to light).
The locked room is also another symbol for Miss Emily’s determination to cling to the past. She sets up the room as a bridal chamber for a wedding that will never take place, and then keeps her would-be groom inside the room, a symbol of her reluctance to let go of her romantic bond with him.
This bridal chamber has become a mausoleum, as love has perverted into murder and death: love is rotting in that rose-coloured room. Note how the chamber is described as having valance curtains of a faded rose colour and rose-shaded lights.
The curtains are faded because they have been in the attic room for decades, but also because they symbolise the faded dreams of sexual fulfilment and marital love which Emily, through her engagement to Homer Barron, had entertained. But these rose-coloured details convey more than Emily’s thwarted sense of womanhood and romantic love.