William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” is a story about a woman who is isolated from her town because of the attitudes and beliefs of the Old South social structure. Throughout the story, she is seen as a town oddity because she represents the ways of the Old South even though social structures have been changing. The changing social structure is demonstrated through the disjointed way in which the story is told as well as in the attitudes and beliefs of the plural narrator. This world of the present with its absence of social propriety is strange and unrecognizable to Miss Emily, who has always been kept strictly within the bounds of Old South expectations. As a result, Miss Emily’s relationship with the town is one of superior distance as a result of their social position and pitiable isolation as a result of her strangeness.
Faulkner introduces Miss Emily Grierson as a woman who has been strictly contained within the boundaries of her father’s old world ideals. “None of the young men were quite good enough to Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau; Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door” (437). This created a situation in which Miss Emily “got to be thirty and was still single” (437), forced to live in her maidenhood forever and lacking any connection to the rest of the world; she is alienated from her society. As a result, the town cannot think of her in any way other than in her association with the values and traditions of the Old South rather than releasing her into the more liberal conceptions of the new.
After her father’s death, Miss Emily is seen to attempt to break out of the mold he has placed her in through her willingness to date Homer Barron. When she is seen in public following her father’s funeral, “her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows – sort of tragic and serene” (438). At the same time, she is seen defying the old order of her class in her willing appearances on Sundays in the company of Homer Barron, “a Northerner, a day laborer” (438) so far beneath her station in life. However, she is still not permitted to escape the bonds of the Old South as her cousins are quickly sent for (by the townspeople) to bring Miss Emily back into her ‘destined’ role.
While the town insists on Miss Emily retaining her social position, she remains isolated from the community, but this strangeness also gives her a degree of power over them. For example, although the new generation insists the town needs to do something about addressing the issue of the odor coming from Miss Emily’s home, the older generation is more concerned about propriety when addressing a woman of her status. “’Dammit sir,’ Judge Stevens said, ‘will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?’” (436). The community’s adherence to these rules is shown as the board of Aldermen take action, “four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings … They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings” (436). While they insisted that she remain in an elevated if antiquated social position, they also found that they could not relate to her in the normal way.
The strictures of the community as they tended to weigh on Miss Emily are symbolized through the figure and ideals of her father, reinforced by the appearance of her cousins and upheld by the rigors of the watching community, finally locking Emily into the rigid figure she appears to the townspeople in the end. Her action of bringing Homer into her life through poisoning was the only means by which Emily was able to finally get someone to cross the division line of propriety and accompany her through her isolated existence. Thus, her strangeness as a result of her social position irrevocably traps her within the isolation of a dying social era.
Faulker, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Anthology of American Literature – 8th Edition. Ed. McMichael, George, James S. Leonard, Bill Lyne, Anne-Marie Mallon and Verner D. Mitchell. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2004. 433-444.