By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Rose for Emily’ is one of the most widely studied American short stories of the twentieth century, but the subtle narrative style and William Faulkner’s use of symbolism are often difficult to interpret. Starting with the ‘rose’ in the story’s title, the text is rich with symbols whose significance can only be determined through careful analysis.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prominent symbols and images in ‘A Rose for Emily’ and explore how – and why – Faulkner uses them in his short masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature.
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.
Emily’s house, then, symbolises the Old South, which is (literally) decaying and dying out. And replacing the pastoral homeliness of the old, post-war South is the new industrial America: cotton and gasoline are now the way the townspeople make their money. The new industrial South is replacing the older, simpler bucolic South.
The Locked Room.
But it is worth remembering that ‘A Rose for Emily’ is, at bottom, a Gothic story: an example of the subgenre known as Southern Gothic literature, which is associated with writers like Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Faulkner himself.
And if Emily’s house symbolises a kind of modern, urban equivalent to the secluded Gothic castle in classic Gothic horror novels, then the locked room in the house’s attic is a kind of inversion of the crypt harbouring a dark secret beneath the castle. The room does indeed contain a terrible secret which will only be revealed at the end of the story, once Emily herself is dead and the townsfolk can gain access to the house.
But as well as being a narrative device, the locked room is also another symbol for Miss Emily’s determination to cling to the past (of which more below). She sets up the room as a bridal chamber for a wedding that will never take place, and then keeps her would-be groom – or his corpse, at any rate – inside the room, a symbol of her reluctance to let go of her romantic bond with him.
Miss Emily Grierson is herself a symbol of this faded glory of the South: a land that had been defeated militarily in the Civil War and whose old ways were being ousted by the new, industrial, mechanical age (those cotton wagons and garages selling gasoline for motorcars).
At the beginning of ‘A Rose for Emily’, the narrator describes her as a ‘monument’ for whom the men of the town have a kind of ‘respectful affection’. She has endured in the town during a time when many new generations have grown up and taken over the running of Jefferson. She remains largely unchanged; her death symbolises the death of another piece of that old world.
Why does Faulkner title his story ‘A Rose for Emily’? No roses appear in the story itself, although the attic room which features at the end of the story, the would-be bridal chamber in which Homer Barron’s body rots, is described as having valance curtains of a faded rose colour and rose-shaded lights.
Note that the curtains are ‘a faded rose colour’, not only because they have been in the attic room for decades (since Emily planned to marry, and then ended up murdering, Homer), but 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.
William Faulkner himself provided us with a clue, and suggested, in an interview he gave at the University of Virginia, that Emily deserved to be given a rose as a ‘gesture’ or ‘salute’ because of all of the torment she had endured: at the hands of her father, perhaps at the hands of Homer as well, and as a result of the townsfolk treating her like an outsider. A rose is a decidedly romantic gift, one which a man might give to a lady as a mark of admiration or respect.
Indeed, roses are rich in symbolism: they are associated with love and romance, but also with an overly romantic view of the past, as in the phrase ‘rose-tinted spectacles’. ‘A Rose for Emily’ is a story about a woman who is, in a sense, trapped in the past: she is reluctant to give up the dead body of her father when he dies, and she is unwilling to let Homer leave her, being prepared to kill him in order to keep him in her life.
For the next few decades, she keeps him in the attic chamber so she can, in effect, arrest the passage of time and keep him close to her.
So the ‘rose’ for Emily also symbolises the romance of the Old South: a land of idealism and tradition, looking back to a feudal European past of the Middle Ages (as Mark Twain pointed out, it was Sir Walter Scott’s medieval romance Ivanhoe, more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that was really the book that caused the Civil War).
When the rotting body of Homer Barron is discovered in the bedroom of Emily’s house, the narrator observes that the pillow next to the body showed signs of an indentation, suggesting that Emily had been in the habit of lying next to the body with her head resting on the pillow next to his head (although not everyone believes this theory). One lock of her iron-grey hair is found on the pillow, confirming this.
The hair is described as iron-grey, symbolising the iron tenacity of Emily in keeping Homer close to her – in death, if that’s what it took (and it clearly did take that). The ‘iron’ is appropriate, since Emily is a character who is seen to be clinging to other things: to her father’s body when he dies (she is reluctant to give it up to the ministers for burial), to Homer when he rejects her, and, most of all, to a past that no longer exists.
The lock of her hair is also a symbol of Emily’s strange tenderness towards Homer – a man she killed in an act of mad, obsessive love. But Emily’s hair is significant throughout the story: earlier, the narrator told her that she cut her hair short after her father died.
This can be interpreted as a declaration of her independence – one cannot imagine her father letting her wear her hair in such an unladylike fashion – but as with so many of the details in the story, her actual motives are inscrutable.