The Enigma of Emily Grierson

“A Rose for Emily”, a short story by William Faulkner, is one of the most enduring examples of literature of the early twentieth century. The story has been written through the perspective of a first-person narrator and it is centered on a main character by the name Emily Grierson. Faulkner’s expert usage of a combination of symbolism and imagery manages to capture and hold the attention of readers by portraying Emily as a rather mysterious and grotesque figure. “A Rose for Emily” keeps readers in suspense from the beginning of the story to the end, as they try to figure out the exact motivations of Emily’s mysterious behavior.

What however makes Faulkner a prolific writer in respect to his contemporaries is the organization of his story. “A Rose for Emily” can be said to have begun from the end. The death of Emily, which also marks the very end of the novel, is what introduces the story. Whereas many questions are left lingering through the course of the story in relation to Emily’s supposedly crazy behavior, more so in relation to the present society in which she lived in, a critical analysis of the story reveal that her behavior is a reflection of the traditions of the previous generation that she symbolizes.

The mystery surrounding the life of Emily Grierson is something that cannot be over-emphasized any further. This is well evidenced at the point of her death. The narrator observes that her death attracted the attention of the entire Jefferson Township, prompting almost the entire populous to attend her funeral.

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The men that gathered in the funeral did so out of “a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument (Faulkner 1958).” On the other hand, the women attend the funeral “mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house.” (Faulkner 1958) Emily lived a lonesome life that for a period of ten years, only an old man-servant had seen the inside of house. Upon the death of her father, Miss Emily refused to accept the reality and instead told the ladies that visited and expressed their condolences that “her father was not dead” (Faulkner 1958). It took the intervention of several ministers and almost the invocation of the law for Emily to accept the reality of her father’s death. Equally, Emily’s supposed love affair with Homer Barron, a northerner, was largely mysterious for two reasons: first is that Homer Barron was not a member of the nobility and, secondly, Homer Barron was homosexual as he preferred the company of men opposed to women. The purchase of the Arsenic poison, the killing of Homer Barron, and the awful smell of the decomposing body that Emily chose to live with, all point to the mystery surrounding her life.

Miss Emily’s crazy behavior is symbolic of the attempts by some members of the society to hold onto old and outdated social traditions. There are several inferences from the story which lead to this conclusion. For instance, Miss Emily is described as having been “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town Faulkner 1958).” She refuses to remit her taxes based on the grounds that Colonel Sartoris (former mayor) in 1894 exempted her from doing the same. What Miss Emily failed to accept at this point is the social and generational change that required everyone, regardless of one’s social position, to remit their taxes. Her failure to remit taxes is said to have created considerable dissatisfaction “When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen(Faulkner 1958).” The narrator is particularly alluding to the historical usage of slave labor of the southern states, and the politics of the civil war. The author is basically saying, times have changed, the result of the civil war has stripped the south of its old traditions and that this town and country are in a historical moment of transition. To this extent, Miss Emily’s refusal to remit taxes reflect on her unwillingness to embrace the modern ideas that were sweeping across the society with the generational changes.

Miss Emily crazy behavior can also be said to symbolize generational conflict. It is well understood that Jefferson is one of the towns in the South where slavery was largely embraced. As a matter of fact, among the reasons why the Confederates engaged in the civil war with the

Union was an attempt to preserve the institution of slavery. The defeat of the confederates meant an end to slavery. Miss Emily is clearly representative of those who still entertained the idea of slavery in Jefferson town. For instance, she had a male Negro servant. Also, readers learn that Colonel Sartoris, who was a close associate of Emily’s father, was responsible for fathering “the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron. The death of Miss Emily however seems to mark the very end of such practices that characterized the society in which she was brought up in. The Jefferson town people see her as a “fallen monument” (Nebeker 1970). Also, her death ushers her “to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson (Nebeker 1970).” In a larger way, the death of Miss Emily symbolizes the end of an era that spelt generational conflict.

In conclusion, the supposedly crazy behavior of Miss Emily that is depicted by Faulkner in the short story a Rose for Emily is symbolic of the generational conflict that characterized the society in which she lived in. Emily found herself at the cross-roads between two generations. On one hand, she represented the last of her father’s generation. On the other hand, she finds herself living in a generation that was characterized by modernity and new ideas. Her attempt to hold onto the old traditions is best exemplified by her refusal to accept the death of her father, her refusal to pay taxes, and her continued living with a male negro as her servant.

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The Enigma of Emily Grierson. (2020, Nov 23). Retrieved from

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