Usually, when one’s past problems are pushed away and neglected, they grow in size until they are too much to handle. The two short stories The Swimmer by John Cheever and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner portrays how a reluctance to accept or let go of one’s past can lead to many problems and difficulties. This is emphasized through the development and actions of the characters, Neddy and Emily, the aspects of southern life and American suburbia, and the irony and structure of the plots. Throughout their lives, Neddy and Emily inevitably experience change despite their attempts to disregard and ignore it.
The actions and characteristics of Neddy and Emily illustrate and give insight about their past, their crutches, and the archetypal change they ultimately face. The American suburbia and Southern town that Neddy and Emily reside in directly symbolizes their problems, emphasizes the changes they face, and possible sources that fuel their reluctance to let go of their past. The irony, structure and conflict of the plots illustrates the futility of Neddy and Emily’s reluctance to accept and let go of their past, the overall damage of their problems, and other sources that fuel their problems.
The actions and personality of people can give insight about their life. Firstly, Neddy and Emily’s characteristics and actions illustrate their problems and past. For example, in The Swimmer, after Neddy visits the Halloran’s pool and Mrs. Halloran expresses her condolence towards Neddy’s misfortunes, Neddy says “My misfortunes? (…) I don’t know what you mean” (25). The fact that Neddy seems unaware of his problems shows how Neddy is reluctant to accept his past, so much so that it made him lose grip on his life. Similarly, Emily, after her father’s death, becomes secretive and “people hardly [see] her at all” (12).
This shows how Emily clings to her past because she spends all her time confined in her house, avoiding the present. Additionally, “when the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen”, Emily refuses to pay taxes and says, “I have no taxes in Jefferson” (12). This emphasizes how she does not want to change from her past ways and conform to the new ideas of the town. Secondly, Neddy and Emily’s characteristics and actions illustrate the crutches that they use to forget or hold on to their past.
For example, in The Swimmer, Neddy drinks a lot of alcohol and naturally accepts it from numerous houses he visits. This shows how he cannot cope with reality and his past so he uses a crutch, in this case alcohol, to make him wash away his reality and forget his underlying problems. Moreover, when Neddy decides to swim across the county, it shows how he is possibly using the idea as a way to keep his mind off his past. Likewise, in A Rose for Emily, Emily keeps her father’s body “for three days” after he dies (13). This reveals Emily’s desire to control another and her refusal to accept the fact of death.
Her desire to control is her crutch and it shows how she does not want to let go of her past since her father, before he died, controlled her, so she “[had] to cling to that which had robbed her” (14). Lastly, the actions and personalities of Neddy and Emily signify the archetypal change that they ultimately face. For example, in The Swimmer, after completing his journey, Neddy “[cries for] (…) probably the first time in his adult life” (27). When compared to Neddy’s first description of being very happy, youthful, with “[nothing] confining in his life,” it emphasizes the change that Neddy faces despite his attempts to avoid it (21).
In contrast, in A Rose for Emily, Emily does not go through any change as she stays confined in her house, with “the only sign of life about the place being the Negro man (…)going in and out with a market basket” (12). Her lack of change as a person while the “newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town”, illustrates her dislike towards change as a whole (16). This also emphasizes her reluctance to let go of her past because it would involve change, which she clearly loathes.
Ultimately, the characters’ actions and personalities create irony because their problems are expressed through them, despite their efforts to forget about it. The setting one resides in could be a factor that influences one’s actions and characteristics. The setting that one resides in can give insight about their way of life. Firstly, the American suburbia and Southern town that Neddy and Emily reside in directly symbolizes their problems. For example, the setting in The Swimmer is illustrated to be an American suburbia full of wealthy and privileged adults who spend all their time drinking and having parties.
This is symbolic of Neddy who considers himself energetic and having “especial slenderness of youth” with very few problems (21). However, just like the suburbia, under Neddy’s apparent happiness and bloated comfort lie growing family and economic problems. Similarly, A Rose for Emily portrays the setting to be a southern town with ignorant views and rumours. This is representative of Emily’s ignorance towards change because despite many messages from the mayor and sheriff asking for change, “[Emily] would not listen to them” (16).
Secondly, the societies and settings that Neddy and Emily are in emphasize the possible sources that fuel their reluctance to let go or hold on to their past. For example, the society in The Swimmer makes Neddy act like everyone else where people have parties, fun, and are “honored to give [Neddy] a drink” (26). This illustrates how Neddy’s problem with accepting his past could have rooted from his town’s society where he is expected to live in apparent happiness. Similarly, the society that Emily is in expects her to act like others, like when Emily is expected to marry someone.
This shows how Emily’s necrophilia and use of her father’s controlling ways was caused by the society because she was expected to marry someone, but since Homer was not a “marrying man”, she killed him so she could be with him and be in control (15). Lastly, the settings that Neddy and Emily reside in emphasize the changes they face. For example, in The Swimmer, as Neddy begins his journey and is unaware of his problems, the setting is described as a “midsummer Sunday” where everything seems peaceful and perfect (15). As Neddy continues his journey and his problems and past begin to dawn on him, the weather changes and a thunderstorm occurs.
By the end, “the place [is] dark” and gloomy and Neddy is hit with the full realization of his problems (28). This pathetic fallacy is symbolic of the change that Neddy goes through because the setting and weather are directly connected to his emotions, changing depending on how he feels. Similarly, in A Rose for Emily, as the town changes constantly, Emily’s house stays, “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay” (11). The fact that her house is described to be stubborn and decaying is symbolic of Emily, who is also stubborn towards change and is decaying metaphorically, as she lives in her past, confined from the outside world.
Ultimately, it is shown that the setting one resides in can heavily influence the decisions and choices one makes. The setting of a story is closely linked to the plot as it has influence on it. The plot of a story connects the characters and settings to the problems and difficulties at hand. Firstly, the irony of the plots illustrates the futility of Neddy and Emily’s reluctance to accept and let go of their past. For example, The Swimmer is ironic because Neddy drinks alcohol in order to forget about his past but it ends up sharpening his unhappiness and problems.
The irony emphasizes how Neddy’s attempt at forgetting his past is pointless and futile because it ends up coming back to him. Likewise, A Rose for Emily is ironic because Emily buys arsenic and the town thinks, “she will kill herself” with it, but Emily ends up using it to poison Homer (15). This shows how Emily did not chose death as a way out of her past but succumbed to her father’s controlling ways. She resorted to necrophilia in order to control Homer, emphasizing how her reluctance to let go of her past is useless because in reality, she can never go back to her past.
All she can do is pretend to still be in the past by dwelling on her father’s old ways. Secondly, the structure of the plots emphasizes the overall damage that Neddy and Emily face. For example, The Swimmer ends with Neddy looking at his abandoned and broken down house. The fact that there is no falling action shows how Neddy’s disregard for his past upscale his problems to the point of no return. In contrast, A Rose for Emily does not follow a regular beginning to conclusion structure since it begins with Emily’s death.
The non-chronological and unnatural structure is symbolic of how Emily, who was once considered “tradition, a duty, and a care”, had succumbed to eccentric and unnatural ways (11). Lastly, the conflict of the plots illustrates additional sources that fuel Neddy and Emily’s problems. For instance, The Swimmer portrays the central conflict to be person vs. himself since Neddy always “[needs] a drink”, showing how he cannot control his urge (26). This emphasizes how his problems are deeply rooted in his alcoholism and are simply not from his family and economic problems.
In contrast, the main conflict in A Rose for Emily is person vs. erson since Emily’s father was possessive and controlling of Emily. The town “[remembers] all the young men [Emily’s] father had driven away” illustrating how he kept Emily isolated from the community (14). This shows how Emily’s eccentric ways and hatred towards change stemmed and rooted from her father because of the way he treated her. Since he controlled her so much, Emily had no choice but to cling on to the past when he died because it was the only thing she was used to. Ultimately, the plot emphasizes how Neddy and Emily created more problems than they started out with by not letting go or accepting their past.
In conclusion, the two short stories The Swimmer by John Cheever and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner emphasize, through the development and actions of the characters, the aspects of the settings, and the structure and irony of the plot, how a reluctance to accept or let go of one’s past can lead to many complications and difficulties. Ultimately, when people with underlying problems reside in a society, whose views and traditions tempts them to forget or cling on to their past, end up losing their grip on reality and ruining their lives.
Courtney from Study Moose
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