Literature can reflect the lives of individual characters and more importantly it can allow the reader to put the character or conflict in context by revealing the community through the eyes of the individual. In the instances of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and John Updike’s “A&P,” the community plays a central role for the narrator. The community and people are filtered through the lens of Sammy the checkout boy and the unknown narrator.
Both belong as part of the larger community but their observations allow the reader to glean a closer, though biased look of the other characters such as Emily and the girls roaming through the A&P. Their narrations reveal the closed sensibilities of two communities separated by decades and the leaps of modernity, but the New England town of Updike’s story is no less judgmental or structured than the Faulkner’s 19th century southern community.
In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner shows Emily only through the eyes of the other community members. Haughty and self-contained, she is part of the community legend but not part of the reality of the town, described from the beginning as “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town”(Faulkner, W. 2001; p.79).
Their day-to-day lives continue with or without the presence of Emily, her death excites only curiosity. She is a living eccentricity who in her secrecy has elicited the town’s curiosity. They feel “not pleased exactly but vindicated” (2001; p. 80) in Emily’s inability to marry successfully and heartened by the pity they can feel for her financial straits.
The individual woman has long fallen to the wayside as the legend of her odd nature is absorb as lore. Presented through the eyes of the narrator, the reader never really attains a complete understanding of Emily as an individual character. Instead, Faulkner presents both facts and suppositions to show the mixture of gossip and fact that had created the myth of Emily. Stripped of her individuality by her inability to be part of the community and the community’s inability to accept her, Emily becomes a two-dimensional caricature of a woman.
The reality of her preceding years, shown in the long-dead corpse lying in the bridal chamber and the gray hair upon the pillow beside, will simply be added to this myth. The narrator makes no attempt to explain this strange image but implies in the form of the rest of the story that this will be added to the legend.
Faulkner’s story shows how the community can change an individual into a story, through their perceptions and judgments. Updike’s “A&P” shows a similar trend in how judgmental assumptions can replace the reality of an individual. The community in this case is the closed community of an afternoon supermarket crowd who represent the town at large. In much the way Faulkner’s narrator reflects the views of the town, Sammy expresses and relays the perceptions of the “few house-slaves in pin curlers” (Updike, J., 2001; p. 33) and the judgmental manager.
His observations of the other people in the supermarket and their reactions to the girls, both verbal and non-verbal, show the community’s perception of the girls’ character based on shallow assumptions. Sammy also unwittingly reduces the girls to embodiments of his own sexual desires. While he is outraged at the treatment they receive, he seems more bothered by the way the opinions of the community alter his own vision of the “Queenie” (2001; p. 32) and her friends.
Like Emily, the girls’ represent myths for Sammy individually and the community. For Sammy the myth is created from his own hormone fueled ideals that inspire him to the “heroic” gesture of quitting his job. But why did he not simply stand up for the girls? It is simple, he has created in his minda romantic myth where he is the hero, and they the damsels in distress. For the community, the girls represent a myth of the immorality and indecency of youth. Their exposed flesh merely highlights their growing maturity from the easy acceptance of little girls to questionable teenagers on the cusp of womanhood.
Both stories show how the myths of individuals can be created by the perceptions and attitudes of their communities. These myths exist outside the closed ranks of the community because the the community’s inability to accept their difference. With Miss Emily the difference lies in her eccentricies. For the “Queenie” and her friends their difference lies in the community’s difficulties in reconciling these generational changes with the children they once were and the women they would become. Unable to accept these women as part of the community’s indentity, they are reduced to mere myths in the eyes of the community members.
Faulker, W. (2001). A Rose for Emily. In R. Diyanni (Ed.). Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama. (5th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 79.
Updike, J. (2001). A&P. In R. Diyanni (Ed.). Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama. (5th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill. pp. 32.