William Faulkner wrote, “A Rose for Emily. ” In the gothic, short story he contrasted the lives of the people of a small Southern town during the late 1800’s, and he compared their ability and inability to change with the time. The old or “Antebellum South” was represented by the characters Miss Emily, Colonel Sartoris, the Board of Aldermen, and the Negro servant. The new or “Modern South” was expressed through the words of the unnamed narrator, the new Board of Aldermen, Homer Barron, and the townspeople.
In the shocking story, “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner used symbolism and a unique narrative perspective to describe Miss Emily’s inner struggles to accept time and change The main character, Miss Emily, was born into a prominent Southern family, the Grierson’s. The Grierson family represented the era of the Old South; and to the people of Jefferson, Mississippi, the family stood as a monument of the past. Miss Emily held on to the ways of this bygone era and would not change.
Because of her inability to change, she was considered vulnerable to death and decay and, therefore, a “fallen monument” (71). Miss Emily had no intentions of changing her ways to please the people of her town. During her generation she “had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (71). The new generation felt no hereditary obligations to her and her reputation in town was “dying and decaying. “. Miss Emily’s relationship with Homer Barron was also a conflict of the past and the present.
Homer was described as, “A Yankee — a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face” (74). Miss Emily, a Southern Aristocrat, represented the traditions of the past. Homer, a Northern construction worker, was part of the constantly changing present. In the summer after her father’s death, they were seen by the townspeople “on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy” (74). Miss Emily would sit with her “head high. ” She represented the past. Homer would sit with his “hat cocked. ” He represented the present (75).
Homer entered her life by courting her publicly; by not wanting to marry her, he would have robbed her of her dignity and high-standing in the community. The ladies of the town felt that Miss Emily was not setting a good example for the “younger people” and their affair was becoming a “disgrace to the town” (75). The traditions, customs, and prejudices of the South doomed this affair from the beginning. Emily could not let Homer live, but she could not live without him. He was her only love. When she poisoned him with arsenic, she believed he would be hers forever.
The symbolism between the past and the present was also shown in the beginning of the story when Faulkner wrote, “only now Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and gasoline pumps – an eyesore among eyesores. ” It was ironic that the same description “stubborn and coquettish decay” could be a description for Emily as well (71). As the house fell into decay, so did Miss Emily, “She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water and of that pallid hue.
Miss Emily was described as “a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head” (72). Traditionally, in the Old South people wore black while they were grieving the death of a loved one. The cane she used was a symbol of her physical weakness. The mystery of the descending gold chain was then revealed; “Then they could hear the invisible watch ticking at the end of the gold chain” (72). This invisible ticking symbolized Emily’s unwillingness to recognize the passing of time.
The house was set on “what had once been the most select street” (71). The fact that Emily never maintained her house showed her struggle with modernization. She also refused to allow the newer generation to fasten numbers above her door or attach a mailbox when Jefferson got free mail service. Miss Emily and her house represented the Old South. Like her, the house stood alone to battle the changes. And soon a strange smell developed around Miss Emily’s house, which was another sign of decay and death.
There were numerous complaints, but due to the old Southern ideals of honor, duty, and loyalty to the elders, the more traditional members could not possibly confront her about this odor. “Dammit sir,” Judge Stevens said, “Will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad? ” (73) So instead they chose to creep around her house during the night and to sprinkle lime on the foul areas. They were afraid to confront her, just as the next generation was afraid to confront her about the taxes.
Miss Emily believed that just because Colonel Sartoris remitted her taxes in 1894, that she was exempt from paying them years later. “On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came and no reply. They wrote her a formal letter asking her to call at the sheriff’s office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paperto the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment,” (71-72).
Faulkner’s effective use of narration was a key asset in this story. He used the narrator not only to report the events, but the narrator became the observer for the town as well. This omniscient narrator had the ability to view the inner minds of the characters and used “we” instead of “I”. The narrator translated the words, thoughts, and suspicions of an entire small town community, and he was completely aware of its ways. The time sequence skipped around, as if someone was randomly remembering the events.
William Faulkner effectively used symbols in the story to allow the reader to develop their own views of Emily. The cane represented her physical weakness and the invisible ticking watch illustrated her inability to face and deal with time and change. Miss Emily wore her mourning clothes which connected her to the Antebellum South. She would not live in the Modern South because she could not handle change. Instead, she embraced the past, became trapped in the past, and then died in the past.