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A Rose for Emily: Southern Gothic

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‘A Rose for Emily’ was first released in 1930, and is the most widely read short story by William Faulkner.’A Rose for Emily’ discusses many dark themes that characterized the Old South and Southern Gothic fiction. The story explores themes of death and resistance to vary. Also, it reflects the decaying of the societal tenets of the South within the 1930s. This is also among the most baffling short stories in American literature of the 20th Century. For more than 80 years, non-linear chronological order, unidentifiable plural narrator, and mysterious homicide have provided literary critics with enough subjects for debate, including disagreements on the role of the town in the murder. A closer inspection of the time period in which the crime takes place and the narrative nature of the short story, however, certainly indicates that the town knew about the killing shortly after it happens and attempts to conceal its awareness. Proof of the awareness and cover-up of the town is confirmed by the handling of bodies at the turn of the century and selecting a non-linear sequence of events from the narrator.

Due to changes in the handling of bodies in the intervening 100 years, the direct evidence of the town’s discovery of the murder is especially obscured from modern reading. Corpses were embalmed in common readers ‘ lives, and memorial services were held in temples, churches or funeral homes. Yet, as the literary critic Thomas Dilworth points out that these procedures were not in existence in 1896, when in Faulkner’s tale Emily Grierson kills Homer Barron. Bodies might not have been embalmed in that era, according to Dilworth, and memorial services were held in houses, typically about three days after passing (257). This piece of historical information is very striking due to the specifics of the short story about the odor that comes from the premises of Emily shortly after Homer enters her house and then never is seen again around the town. Before the character Homer Barron is introduced to readers, the narrator makes reference to the story of the younger people in the town complaining to Judge Stevens that Emily’s house smells terrible. Stevens, unwilling to ‘accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad’ (Faulkner 158), suggests that the scent in the lawn must originate from a dead rat or snake and refused to take action .Then four males go to the property of Emily and spread lime not only within the yard, as well as in the cellar and even on the ground (Faulkner 158).

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The stench and the behavior of the men, as Dilworth points out, provide clear evidence that the people of the town suspect Emily has killed Homer. First, because of the way bodies were dealt with and funeral services were held in that time span, the people in the town would have immediate, advanced knowledge of the odor associated with a dead human body; they would have either attended memorial services of bodies that were not mummified, or even had such dead bodies sitting in their own homes. Second, the fact that the scent infests much of the town clearly indicates that no creature so small as a rat or snake can produce that potent of an odor, as Stevens suggests. Finally, the probability that the townsfolk equate the significant smell to a larger animal is disproved by the places where the men scattered lime. A dead animal would never be kept in the cellar or outhouse of a residence; however, it would have been best to cover up or bury a decomposing body in a very shallow grave (257-58). But awareness of how corpses were handled in the late 19th century may not be the most clear evidence that the town knew about the killing soon after it takes place and continues to hide their knowledge well after the grotesque skeleton is discovered and proof of necrophilia after Emily’s death is discovered. The narrator’s confounding non-linear timeline in painting a picture supports the idea that the city tries to conceal its innocence while offering what might be called a quasi-confession.

Even a quick read of ‘A Rose for Emily’ on the surface makes it abundantly clear that the storyline is not told chronologically yet, closer textual unravelling is highly informative. The scent and lime-spreading plot is set nearly two pages before Homer’s introduction. Although there is a brief mention to the smell being obvious ‘a short time after her sweetheart–the one we believed would marry her –had deserted her’ (Faulkner 157), it is quick for the reader to overlook this connection while describing Homer’s inappropriate relationship with Emily in the town’s salacious perception.

The narrator is not focusing heavily on placement to connect the story of the odor to Emily’s intransigence and range it from the mysterious death of Homer. He, she, or they’re introducing that portion of the story with a gradual shift that links it to Emily’s lack of cooperation with the town’s tax judgment. ‘So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years ago about the smell,’ the narrator says (Faulkner 157). Only after nearly six pages of sexually vivid narration about the interactions between Homer and Emily will the narrator say, ‘A neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door a dusk one evening. And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron.'(Faulkner 162). Therefore, it is simple to see that the story of the stench as just one more example of the eccentricity of Emily, like the story of her response to the visit of the young aldermen who appears directly before her in the story, rather than seeing the direct link with the sudden disappearance of Homer, which was not addressed until sometime later.

This instance is one of several examples of non-linear chronological order, it is most important in terms of the narrator’s motive to so meanderingly tell his story. In his book Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994), Umberto Eco notes that the term ‘story’ alludes to the order in which events actually occur in a work, but ‘plot’ refers to events in the order in which they are related by the narrator of the story (qtd. in Melczarek 239). Critic Nick Melczarek establishes that the narrator of ‘A Rose for Emily’ specifically selects the non-linear timeline for the story to shift responsibility and allegations that would arise if the readers underwent events in the order in which they occur. In refusing to recognize the murder and trying to hide it by distributing lime, admitting to guilt would, as Dilworth points out, incriminate the city as an accomplice to murder after the fact, which in itself is criminal (252). The complicated method of narrative allows the narrator to acknowledge both what the people of the town discover and to suggest at their complicity while continuing to prevent an actual confession of guilt (240-41).

The question must be asked as to why the narrator would at all tell Emily’s tale and her criminal act if the aim is to hide the involvement of the town. Melczarek declares an answer by examining some of the information given in Critic Laura Getty’s 2005 Explicator article. Getty states in her essay that the word ‘rose’ occurs in the short story’s title but has never been seen within the story itself. She goes on to say that the term is a subtle reference to sub-rosa, a Latin term that refers to secrecy, especially Catholic confession confidentiality. The phrase has its roots in the practice of carving a rose above the confessional entrance, Getty retains (qtd. in Melczarek 239-240). Although Melczarek pointed out that writerly intent can never be confirmed, and rejects the idea of Getty that the meaning of confession applies to an alleged ‘relationship’ between Emily and author William Faulkner, he mentions that the rose in the title is helpful in understanding the story as a potential confession. The complicated non-linear order of events lets the narrator find closure from guilt by distancing himself or herself without someone expressing remorse or, more importantly, facing a form of justice (Melczarek 239-242).

A popular phrase claims that ‘Acknowledgement of wrongs is good for your life’ Although it may be true, it may be very bad for the person themselves to confess a crime because it can put the admitter in jail. Given that the people of the town knew more than readers of what is happening to Homer because the town is experienced with the scent of a dead human being and is witnessing chronologically organized occurrences, it is obvious that they retain evidence of the murder soon after it happens and tend to secretly conceal their information even after Emily’s passing. The decision of the writer to use a non-linear chronology enables the town to free a woman who had been ‘a tradition, a duty, and a care’ (Faulkner 156) in her life from her burden. The hidden concession that forms ‘A Rose for Emily’ frees the town from its pressure by directly confessing to being murder accessory after the fact and eventually sets it free from its oppressive power. 

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