Known for its complex narration, vivid language, expressive imagery, and the horror-like quality of its last scene, A Rose for Emily is arguably one of Faulkner’s most famous and popular works. While the story’s plot is fairly simple once the reader gets a full picture and can view it from a linear perspective, there are almost limitless possibilities for interpreting the symbols within it. Among the elements most frequently analyzed, there is the titular Emily – a spinster from the Old Southern aristocracy that serves as a vehicle and the focus point of the narration. While her character can be interpreted in multiple ways, one approach, in particular, is obvious but no less true because of that. Emily functions as a metaphor for the Southern inability to part with the antebellum past, suggesting that the idealization of the ‘Lost Cause’ is just as necrophiliac as her morbid affection toward a decaying corpse.
One defining trait that Emily demonstrates throughout the story is her inability – or, rather, unwillingness – to cope with the passing of time and with the historical changes unfolding around her. Born long ago and raised by a strict father, Emily is forever stuck within the historical period when her upbringing took place. As a result, “when the modern ideas… come from the north… Emily has no choice but to lock herself in a closed house” (Feng 85). The image of Emily as a thing of the past, a historical anomaly that is somehow still present in the gradually modernizing Jefferson, is omnipresent throughout the text. The narrator refers to her as “a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation” – something received from a bygone age to keep and pass forward (Faulkner I). The image of her house, which stands alone in its “stubborn and coquettish decay” amid such symbols of modernity as cotton gins and gasoline pumps, also reinforces this symbolism (Faulkner I). In short, Emily is the embodiment of the Southern past, and even her fairly conservative neighbors consider her to be exactly that.
This affection toward the ideas of the past is particularly prominent in the way in which Emily’s romantic relationships unfold in her life. While her father, a Southern aristocrat himself, was still alive, he denied all of her suitors because “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily” (Faulkner II). Emily internalizes this strict code of southern courtship and adheres to it with “stubbornness and unrelenting attitude,” expecting the same of the men in her life (Zhao 80). When Homer Barron, a blue-collar worker from the North, arrives in town and the two start a relationship, the latter’s declaration that he is “not a marrying man” becomes its turning point (Faulkner IV). While it might be tempting to interpret Emily’s decision to poison her beloved with arsenic as vengeance for either herself or the collective South, it is probably not. Rather, it is Emily’s attempt to fix Barron “in her elevated world of traditional courtship, marriage, and family” (O’Brien 106). Fixated on the Old Southern notions of romantic relationships, Emily stops at nothing in her dedication to re-enacting them in the rapidly changing world.
Finally, the function of Emily as a metaphor for the decaying Southern aristocracy becomes all the more obvious thanks to the way in which the story deals with the subject of death. Emily is positively unable to come to terms with death, which becomes evident on more than one occasion. When her father dies, she insists on the opposite and prevents the townspeople from taking away his body for several days (Faulkner II). When Colonel Sartoris, who freed her from taxes, dies, and the new administrators attempt to tax Emily again, she denies them because she is “convinced that Colonel Sartoris is still alive” (Bai et al., 614). Finally and most notably, after killing Barron, Emily keeps his body in her bed and sleeps alongside it, as evidenced by “a long strand of iron-gray hair” (Faulkner V). Whenever Emily encounters the death of someone important to her, her first and only response is denial – although she is unable to control the passing of time, she genuinely aims to ignore it. This stubborn unwillingness to accept the death of the Old South and its aristocratic values makes ultimately makes her the epitome of the decaying class.
As one can see, the protagonist of A Rose for Emily is an epitome of Old Southern nobility that outright refuses to accept change and clings to the values of a bygone age. The narrator immediately presents Emily as a relic of the past, which is further reinforced by the image of her decaying house in the middle of the gradually modernizing town. Emily’s views on love and romantic relationships are firmly rooted within the ideas of elevated courtship, up to the point of forcefully incorporating the murdered Barron into this framework. Finally, the heroine’s pathologic inability to accept the reality of death and decay lines up with her unwillingness to part with the Old South, which is openly represented as a form of necrophilia.
Bai, Xiaojun, et al. “An Analysis of Emily’s Characters in A Rose for Emily from the Perspective of Narration.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 11, no. 4, 2020, pp. 611-615.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The University of Virginia.
Feng, Shiying. “Fallen Monument: a Marxist Analysis of William Faulkner’s a Rose for Emily.” International Journal of Frontiers in Sociology, vol. 3, no. 3, 2021, pp. 85-87.
O’Brien, Timothy. “Who Arose for Emily?” The Faulkner Journal, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015, pp. 101-109.
Zhao, Yang. “Symbolism in A Rose for Emily.” 2018 International Conference on Education Technology and Social Sciences, edited by Pei Kang, Clausius Scientific Press, 2018, pp. 80-83.