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A Rose for Emily as a Southern Gothic

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William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is brilliant for its mastery of suspense. The story makes proper use of a Gothic style throughout, which makes it one of Faulkner’s finest short stories. “A Rose for Emily” illustrates how one’s mind cannot be changed, even when faced with the end of one’s life. Emily Grierson, the main character of the story, remains distant from society due to the feeling that people are always intruding in her private life. She is very stubborn and she only cares about her personal feelings toward the past. But what makes this story most interesting is the description of how she became this kind of person: apparently, her attitude stems from coping with her father’s mentality and his treatment of her. In depicting his character, the author seems to put her development on the backward nature of the old, post-antebellum South, a place of rigid traditions, unlike the more industrious (and more industrialized) North.

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William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. He came from a family that had been involved in the Mexican American War and the Civil War. Faulkner strongly disliked the established state of things in the South, particularly its decadence and backwardness, while also admiring the legends and romantic past of the South. Accordingly, his character, Mr. Grierson, is the best example of the destructive nature of the Southern way of life. Southerners clung to their idealized past, making for a deeply troubled existence which Faulkner criticized masterfully in his works. As critic Paul Harris states, “What he hates is not so much the South’s morbid, pathological attachment to the dead glory of the past but the ghoulish power of the past on the consciousness of the South. And what he loves is the tragic figure of the Southerner, trapped by his pride in his heritage and tormented by conflicting needs to conform and to defy, struggling vainly and helplessly to escape from the past and exist in the present.” Emily herself is a great example of this way of thinking, with her prim and proper attitude, followed by her act of defiance after her father’s death.

Faulkner himself participated in World War I for a brief period of time until he suffered a leg injury from a plane crash. Following this release, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1919 and, during the early 1920s, he wrote a series of short stories that include “The Marble Faun” (1922), “The Green Bough” (1933), and “A Rose for Emily” (1930). Faulkner’s reputation as one of the greatest American writers largely stems from his highly experimental style which involves taking characters from different parts of society and placing them in his stories, as well as using multiple narrative techniques, shifts between past and present, and long and complex sentences.

“A Rose for Emily” was the first short story that Faulkner published in a major magazine, Forum, in April 1930. This is still at the time when Faulkner was still trying to make a name for himself. Many critics did not fully understand his experimental work; as one of them mentions, “Faulkner’s poetry shows the poet’s taste for the language but lacks stylistic discipline” (Credo). However, this much-anthologized story is widely read and highly praised today. Beyond its lurid appeal and somewhat Gothic atmosphere, “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s self-proclaimed “ghost story,” contrasts the world of the North with that of the South and brings forth the complexities of bringing change to the South, the disappearing realms of gentility and aristocracy, and the rigid social behavior placed on Southern women. This reflects Faulkner’s interest in the decline of the Deep South after the Civil War, which was further explored in many of his novels.

“A Rose for Emily” takes place in the southern town of Jefferson and it takes the reader through the life of its main character, Emily Grierson. Emily possesses highly individualistic traits: she is quite shallow and jaded. She acts very mysteriously throughout her life, to the point that people even come to question some of her actions’ motives. The story starts by explaining Emily’s life living with her father. Emily was born into an aristocratic family and her father was known for being very controlling of her life. He always prevented Emily from being independent and acting on her own. At one point in the story, he even drove away from her suitors and deemed them as not being “good enough” for her, condemning her to live a lonely, isolated life. Actually, Emily never lived much of real-life because her father was a rather selfish person, refusing to change his ways toward Emily. After her father’s death, Emily had a mental breakdown and started to display bizarre behavior: she refused to accept her father’s death and kept his corpse unburied. This went on for three days, after which she finally turned his body over. This is the reason why the community gets curious about her behavior: because they knew the influence her father had on her.

Upon her father’s death, Emily chooses to live in the same old, decayed house, which can be seen as a symbol of her decline over the years. Her attempt to marry Homer is another example of this decline. Homer stands in exact contrast to Emily: this is, most likely, why he is so appealing to her and they ultimately become romantically involved. When Homer refuses to marry her, Emily plans to kill Homer and even builds a tomb-like room for him. This behavior may indicate that she is trying to regain control over her life, as she had tried during her relationship with Barron. She’s literally refusing to let go of Homer, no matter what he thinks. These actions only go to show that the influence that Emily’s father had on her made her into a reclusive, selfish being who wants control over her life and refuses to change.

The fabric of the story, then, harbors an internal split between two incommensurable timescapes. It is as if there are two regions, and there are no rules of operation for how to pass from one to the other (Harris 177). Faulkner’s stories are about the post-Civil War era American South, so the traits that the Southerners in this narrative possess illustrate those of the people during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction. Southerners did not give up on their aristocratic culture but rather clung to it nostalgically and yearned to return to a past more glorious in memory than it ever was in reality. In the story, the townspeople are not in favor of Homer because he represents change and has a mindset towards the future⸺a societal aspect that the North inherited yet, for one reason or another, eluded the South.

Emily seems to uphold these traits as well: she takes up a more stubborn attitude because she is so out of touch with reality that she fears that change will destroy her. That’s another reason why Emily’s life is so gloomy: because she is stuck in time. Her actions become even more extreme when she kills Homer and puts him in her macabre bridal chamber. This is literally her attempt to stop time and prevent change. Just like her father, who lived the lifestyle of a typical Southerner, Emily internalizes this lifestyle too. Because of that, “Emily is not a part of living history but a strange emblem of, and other, dead time” (Harris 174). Mr. Grierson’s behavior stems from the South and he passed on those traits to Emily, so she cannot possibly live a life of her own. Emily represents the South, which is why the townspeople feel pity for her in a way: she is stuck in a set of traditions that people respect no matter how dire their impact on them is.

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is an important narrative whose themes relate to real-world conflicts and possess universal appeal. What Faulkner showed in this short story is that the Southerners fought change because they believed that it was their responsibility to keep their beliefs. He shows that refusing to change can have negative effects on individuals whose egos cause them to lose touch with reality. Even though “A Rose for Emily” contains a dark, Gothic-like theme, Faulkner has managed to write a story that keeps readers in suspense throughout, while still having the main character with who readers can empathize. Thus, the “rose” in the title is a direct allusion to such sympathy: it is as if Faulkner wrote this story for Emily because he felt sorry for her. This feeling is definitely justified when reading her story: Emily is a victim of her controlling father, the Southern society, and the oppressive nature of the nineteenth-century United States as a whole.  

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