William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily - A Gothic Horror Tale
William Faulkner is widely considered to be one of the great American authors of the twentieth century. Although his greatest works are identified with a particular region and time (Mississippi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), the themes he explores are universal. He was also an extremely accomplished writer in a technical sense. Novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! feature bold experimentation with shifts in time and narrative. Several of his short stories are favorites of anthologists, including "A Rose for Emily." This strange story of love, obsession, and death is a favorite among both readers and critics. The narrator, speaking for the town of Jefferson in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, tells a series of stories about the town's reclusive spinster, Miss Emily Grierson. The stories build up to a gruesome revelation after Miss Emily's funeral. She apparently poisoned her lover, Homer Barron, and kept his corpse in an attic bedroom for over forty years. It is a common critical cliche to say that a story "exists on many levels." In the case of "A Rose for Emily", this is the truth. Critic Frank A. Littler, in an essay published in Notes on Mississippi Writers regarding the chronology of the story, writes that "A Rose for Emily" has been read variously as ". . .a Gothic horror tale, a study in abnormal psychology, an allegory of the relations between North and South, a meditation on the nature of time, and a tragedy with Emily as a sort of tragic heroine." These various interpretations serve as a good starting point for discussion of the story.
The Gothic horror tale is a literary form dating back to 1764 with the first novel identified with the genre, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ontralto. Gothicism features an atomosphere of terror and dread: gloomy castles or mansions, sinister characters, and unexplained phenomena. Gothic novels and stories also often include unnatural combinations of sex and death. In a lecture to students documented by Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner in Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958, Faulkner himself claimed that "A Rose for Emily" is a "ghost story." In fact, Faulkner is considered by many to be the progenitor of a sub-genre, the Southern gothic. The Southern gothic style combines the elements of classic Gothicism with particular Southern archetypes (the reclusive spinster, for example) and puts them in a Southern milieu. Faulkner's novels and stories about the South include dark, taboo subjects such as murder, suicide, and incest.
James M. Mellard, in The Faulkner Journal, argues that "A Rose for Emily" is a "retrospective Gothic;" that is, the reader is unaware that the story is Gothic until the ending when Homer Barron's corpse is discovered. He points out that the narrator's tone is almost whimsical. He also notes that because the narrator's flashbacks are not presented in an ordinary sequential order, readers who are truly unfamiliar with the story don't put all the pieces together until the end. However, a truly careful first reading should begin to reveal the Gothic elements early in the story. Emily is quickly established as a strange character when the aldermen enter her decrepit parlor in a futile attempt to collect her taxes. She is described as looking ". . .bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue." She insists that the aldermen discuss the tax situation with a man who has been dead for a decade. If she is not yet a sinister character, she is certainly weird. In section two of the story, the unexplained smell coming from her house, the odd relationship she has with her father, and the suggestion that madness may run in her family by the reference to her "crazy" great-aunt, old lady Wyatt, are elements that, at the very least, hint at the Gothic nature of the story. Emily's purchase of arsenic should leave no doubt at that point that the story is leading to a Gothic conclusion. It would seem that a reader would have to be very naive not to suspect that something awful is going to happen at the end of the story.
It is Emily's awful deed that continues to captivate readers. Why would she do something so ghastly? How could she kill a man and bed his corpse? This line of questioning leads to a psychological examination of Emily's character. David Minter, in William Faulkner: His Life and Work, notes in several different passages the significant influence that Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, had on Faulkner's fiction. Freud theorized that repression, especially if it is sexual in nature, often results in psychological abnormality. In the story, Emily's overprotective, overbearing father denies her a normal relationship with the opposite sex by chasing away any potential mates. Because her father is the only man with whom she has had a close relationship, she denies his death and keeps his corpse in her house until she breaks down three days later when the doctors insist she let them take the body. Later in the story, the ladies of the town and her two female cousins from Alabama work to sabotage her relationship with Homer Barron. Of course, the narrator suggests that Homer himself may not exactly be enthusiastic about marrying Emily. However, it is left to the reader to imagine the exact circumstances leading to Homer's denoument. Finally, Emily takes the offensive by poisoning Homer so he can't abandon her. The discovery of a strand of her hair on the pillow next to the rotting corpse suggests that she slept with the cadaver or, even worse, had sex with it. Emily's repressive life therefore contributes to her (rather severe) psychological abnormality: necrophilia.
Some readers have interpreted the story as an allegory of the relations between the North and the South. This is apparently because the character of Homer Barron is a Yankee and Emily kills him. However, it would be difficult to argue that Emily's motivation in dating Homer is to kill him because he is a Northerner. The most obvious explanation for her willingness to date a man outside of her social caste would be that she is simply a very lonely woman. A less obvious, but nonetheless reasonable, explanation for her relationship with Homer would be that is her way of rebelling against her dead father. During his lifetime, her father prevented her from having an "acceptable" suitor. Thus, she rebels by associating with a man her father would have considered a pariah: a Yankee day-laborer. There is really little to suggest that the story is an allegory of the Civil War other than the fact that a Yankee is killed by a Southerner. Faulkner himself, in his lecture on the story at the University of Virginia, denies such an interpretation. He said that he believed that a writer is ". . .too busy trying to create flesh-and-blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow to have time to be concious of all the symbolism that he may put into what he does or what people may read into it."
One can more confidently argue that "A Rose for Emily" is a meditation on the nature of time. Although the story is only a few pages long, it covers approximately three-quarters of a century. Faulkner cleverly constructed the story to show the elusive nature of time and memory. Several critics have written papers in attempts to devise a chronology for the story. It would surely please Faulkner that few of these chronologies are consistent with each other. In "A Rose for Emily, he is not concerned with actual dates. He is more interested in the conflict between time as a subjective experience and time as a force of physics. For example, in section five of the story, the narrator describes the very old men gathered at Emily's funeral The old men, some who fought in the Civil War, mistakenly believe that Emily was a contemporary of theirs when in fact Emily was born sometime around the Civil War. The old men have confused ". . .time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years." Here, Faulkner profoundly and poetically comments on the human need to deny the passage of time and the astounding capacity of the human mind to use memory in that ultimately futile denial. Emily, of course, has other methods of denying time.
Since the denial of time is futile, it is also tragic. This is one reason the story can be read as a tragedy. But every tragedy needs a hero or heroine. Can Emily actually be considered a tragic heroine? At first glance, this is a tough sell. Many readers quite reasonably believe that Emily is some kind of monster, regardless of what Freud might have said. However, as many critics have noted, Faulkner's title suggests that he may think otherwise. "In his fiction," notes Minter in his biography of Faulkner, "he characteristically mingles compassion and judgement. Even his most terrible villains. . .he treats with considerable sympathy." Emily is such an example. In fact, the narrator twice describes Emily as an idol. Although she commits a foul crime, Faulkner views Emily as a victim of her circumstance. Faulkner despised slavery and racism, but he admired much of the chivalry and honor of the old South. Emily is a product of that society and she clings desperately to it as when she refuses to give up her father's body. She also becomes a victim of her old society. The one time in her life that she dares to let the past become a "diminishing road," that is, when she dates Homer, she is ridiculed, ostracized, shamed, and finally jilted. Her response is an effort to actually freeze time by poisoning Homer and keeping his corpse in her ghoulish boudoir.
Finally, it is a tribute to Faulkner's talent that this compact yet expansive story lends itself to so many interpretations. The discussion above briefly describes the most common interpretations made by readers and critics. However, there is a great deal of scholarship, entire volumes, written on "A Rose for Emily." Several critics, including Isaac Rodman in The Faulkner Journal and Milinda Schwab in Studies in Short Fiction, have presented convincing arguments of the town's complicity in Homer's murder. Many critics written interesting papers on literary allusions that they find in the story; alternately, many critics find allusions to "A Rose for Emily" in contemporary literature. (A interesting paper might be written comparing and contrasting Faulkner's Emily with the character of Norman Bates, the schizophrenic, homicidal hotel-keeper/amateur taxidermist of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film, Psycho.) "A Rose for Emily" remains a remarkable, provocative work regardless of the critical approach.