By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
William Faulkner’s celebrated short story ‘A Rose for Emily’, which was initially published in Forum in 1930 before being reprinted in his short-story collection These Thirteen the following year, encompasses a great number of important and weighty themes within its dozen or so pages.
But what are the most significant and prominent themes of ‘A Rose for Emily’, and how can learning more about these themes help us to understand the story? Let’s take a look at some of the key topics the story explores and look at each of them in more detail.
The death of the title character is obviously a central event in the story. The very first words of the story are ‘When Miss Emily Grierson died’, and the story returns to her death, and what is discovered in the wake of it (a dead body), at the end of the narrative. In between, the narrator tells us about the incidents in Emily’s life and the responses of the townspeople, but death ‘bookends’ the story.
Miss Emily’s death symbolises the death of something greater: the death of the Old South, of which she is one of the few surviving members. When she dies, another part of an old world dies with her. She was already something of a living fossil, as it were: her house was the only house on the street not to have been demolished to make way for those garages and cotton gins, while she had treated the house as a kind of living tomb for herself for the last few decades of her life, never leaving it and seldom even being seen.
Of course, it turns out that the house is already a tomb: a mausoleum for her would-be husband, Homer Barron, whom Emily appears to have poisoned when he told Emily he did not want to marry her; at least, this is the supposition most readers arrive at, in light of what the narrator tells us.
So the death of Miss Emily is not just an event in the story: it is thematically important to the story as a whole, because ‘A Rose for Emily’ is about the death of the American South that existed when Emily was born but is now no more. We discuss the South in more detail below.
While new generations grow up and take over the running of the town, Miss Emily remains much as she was: isolated, living entirely at home and never leaving the house, not letting anybody into the house, and enduring much as she had for decades before. The world outside is changing, but Emily remains largely unchanged.
The Old South.
‘A Rose for Emily’ is an example of the Southern Gothic: a subgenre of the Gothic set in the American 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 (in the case of ‘A Rose for Emily’, that’ll be the dead body of Homer Barron upstairs), and other sinister features, such as eccentric or disturbing characters (and Miss Emily certainly disturbs the townsfolk of Jefferson).
Emily, a Southern lady, falls for Homer Barron, who is a ‘Yankee’: a man from the North of the United States. Although the American Civil War ended in 1865, decades before Faulkner was writing (the story was first published in 1930), the sense of North-South divide, in terms of culture, class, and identity, proved long-lasting (and arguably persists to this day).
What’s more, Emily is a product of the Old South stretching back to the antebellum days, before the American Civil War which led to the abolition of slavery in the South. Emily represents the Old South, an outdated edifice 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.
Then Homer Barron arrives with his labourers to (literally) rebuild the town’s streets, by paving its sidewalks. He is described as a large man, symbolising the financial power of New York (his hometown) which is spreading its influenced across the new America. Although most readers will interpret Emily’s (presumed) poisoning of Homer as an act of frustrated and obsessive love, it is also arguably a symbolic act of revenge, in which the Old South asserts itself one final time against the powerhouse of the North.
Miss Emily becomes increasingly isolated as she grows older, but she was always something of a recluse, even when her father was alive. This led to speculation from the townsfolk (as the narrator informs us) about what the relationship was between father and daughter: was her father keeping her from meeting young suitors because he forbade her to marry?
In many respects, Miss Emily in her decaying house is the Southern Gothic version of the count or duke in his crumbling castle; only she is surrounded by gas stations and cotton mills, rather than forests and mountains.
In many ways, this only intensifies her isolation, and the narrator – who speaks on behalf of the community as a whole – is a constant reminder that, although she is a reclusive figure, she is literally surrounded by the town. She is alone within the community which she has shunned and which views her as an object of gossip, disapproval, and, most of all, pity.
What kind of love did Miss Emily Grierson bear Homer Barron? The narrator tells us he was not the marrying kind, so we are led to believe that, when he broke off things between himself and Emily, she used the arsenic she had purchased from the druggist to poison him in an act of obsessive love.
Certainly, her actions after his death – which are foreshadowed by her determination to hang on to the dead body of her father when he died – suggest that she killed him out of a perverse kind of love: she keeps his body in the bed, a grim perversion of the marital bed they never shared, and the indentation on the pillow next to his reveals that she has been lying, and perhaps even sleeping, next to his corpse.