Death and Change in “A Rose for Emily”
In “A Rose for Emily,” a short story by William Faulkner, Miss Emily is a very stubborn character, reluctant to accept change into her life. She insists on isolating herself from the rest of her town rather than modernize, and refuses to acknowledge either her father’s passing or her lover, Homer Barron’s, death and decay. Emily’s actions show us how death and change are related. Emily isn’t as concerned with death, as she actively ignores both men’s passings, as she is with change. Whether the offending incident be losing the authoritative rule of her father, potentially being abandoned by her lover, or implementing a post office, Emily does not accept change. When Emily keeps Homer’s poisoned corpse in her bed and her life, we see her choice to surround herself with death in order to avoid change. The ending image of a strand of Emily’s hair laying next to Homer Barron’s rotting corpse effectively illustrates the balance between death and change in Emily’s life.
Miss Emily symbolizes the Old South’s reluctance to change and eventual demise. The Old South resisted the industrial changes from the North, attempted to keep their traditions and customs alive. Similarly, old Miss Emily and her old house resist the rest of the town’s modernization, acting as the last remnants of the Old South in her town. When the whole town got postal delivery, Emily alone “refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” (414). Both Miss Emily and the Old South struggled to uphold their traditions and both were eventually silenced. Through the years, the townspeople’s tolerance for Emily’s adherence to seem to decline, eventually leaving her to die and become obsolete to the rest of the community. People attend her funeral as “a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument”(409). Emily seems to be a “monument” of the Old South, representing its decay with her own downfall. She was the last standing reminder of the South in her town, and she slowly gives in to death, just as the South did. “Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (409). The words tradition and hereditary indicate that Emily exemplifies the old customs of the South, thus representing their demise as she herself loses her place in society. The Old South died out due to societal changes, just as Emily was isolated from her town until her death because she wouldn’t conform to the altered standard of living.
Emily reacts to her father’s death by simply rejecting the change. Emily attempts to keep her father present in her life long past his death, refusing to accept his altered state of mortality. While he was alive, Emily’s father had always controlled her life. He turned away suitors and claimed charge of everything in the household, keeping southern customs very much alive. Emily does not accept her father’s passing. Immediately following his death, Emily met the inquiring townspeople at her door, “dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. she did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (411). Emily tries to ignore death by holding onto her father’s corpse and shows how fearful she is of change by acting as though he’s still living.
Though she is eventually coerced into accepting her father’s death on a physical level, by giving up the body, he seems to stick with her far past this incident. It’s possible to tell that the death of Emily’s father was an important event to her because it is mentioned a few times as a marker in time, or referred to as an incident that changed things, such as “the summer after her father’s death” (412), or “after her father’s death” (410). The crayon portrait of Emily’s father (410) leads to the idea that he still possesses control over her life, even in his death. The childish medium suggests that her father’s presence could be affecting her character in a regressive sort of way, stifling her growth without him. This creates an interesting relationship between the past and the present, allowing someone from the past to impose their will on the present. Emily seems to be willingly haunted by her father’s presence, rather than accepting the change. Emily had trouble accepting his death and the consequential changes.
Emily had the same problem accepting change with the death of her lover, Homer Barron. First, she killed him to make certain that he could never leave her, thus their life together would never change. Then, her extreme attempt to hold on to Homer leads to a grotesque living situation between Emily and her steadily rotting husband. Emily tries to use death to her advantage, to avoid change, but it provides her with a warped, though admittedly stagnant, reality. Refusing to acknowledge Homer’s death in the usual way, Emily keeps him near her and lives with a lifeless corpse as though he were a real husband. She may even see his deathly and static state as enticing. Homer’s “profound and fleshless grin” (415), bestowed upon him by death, seems to associate a state of enlightenment with death. Profound, hinting towards a higher understanding, paired with fleshless, a feature only achieved in death, indicates a state of bliss found in losing life. The neverending grin of death could seem enticing to someone as resistant to change as Emily.
The ending image of “the indentation of [Homer’s] head” next to Miss Emily’s “long strand of iron gray hair” (415) effectively represents Emily’s aversion to change and tendency toward death. As the reader realizes that, not only did Emily murder Homer to keep him close to her, she lived around his lifeless body, sleeping next to him every night, we see how Emily would prefer to surround herself with death than accept change in her life. Rather than allow Homer to leave her or sleep anywhere but next to her, Emily places him permanently by her side. Choosing to sleep next to a corpse night after night shows how far Emily will go to avoid change. Emily cannot seem to accept any changes in the story. She rejects the town’s innovations, her father’s death, and Homer’s death. The closing image of a the strand of hair laying next to the withered remains of a man represents the portrayal of Emily as a woman who would rather consistently sleep next to her decrepit, lifeless lover than face the changing reality death brings.