The Tradition-Change Contrast in William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily

In his 1930 gothic short story titled “A Rose for Emily”, William Faulkner contrasts the ability and inability of the people in Jefferson to change over the time. The story is set in Jefferson, Mississippi, the fictional small town during the late 1800’s. Through a set of symbolisms, Faulkner narrates the struggle that often comes from trying to maintain tradition in the face of widespread, radical change. The two sets or generations of people contrasted in the narrative are the ‘Old South’ (foremost represented by Miss Emily, Colonel Sartoris, the Board of Aldermen, and the errand servant) and the’Modern South’ (represented foremost through the new Board of Aldermen, the omniscient narrator Homer Barron, and the townspeople).

Towards the final years of Emily’s eccentric life, a new group of town Directors comes up with new forms of management that foster changes in social administration and architecture. But after Emily’s death, the change that takes place is a change of perception among the townspeople as they finally come to the full understanding of Emily’s inner struggles.

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While the town of Jefferson is at a crossroads, embracing a modern, more commercial future with new forms of architecture, Emily chooses to remain in the past. Her house is still perched on the edge of the past. Emily’s house, like Emily herself, is a monument, the only remaining emblem of a dying world of Southern aristocracy. The outside of the large, square frame house is lavishly decorated. The cupolas, spires, and scrolled balconies are the hallmarks of a decadent style of architecture of the seventies.

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Emily’s abode was probably one of the few houses downtown Jefferson that had kept the same old architectural design in the midst of new houses with new architectural styles. The narrator says it had “a stubborn and coquettish decay” and looked like “an eye sore among eye sores” in the midst of all the newly constructed buildings. With the new board of aldermen implementing new forms of administration like affixing metallic numbers to the side of every house, The Old south was getting a new shape and a new landscape, looking more structured and organized. Only Emily’s house did not fit into that new landscape as she refused to have any address affixed to her home. Could it be that Emily resisted this change in housing administration because she did not want to be seen as a number or a referenced member of her community? One thing is sure, Emily was not interested in being counted as a member of her community neither was she interested in what was taking place outside her world. In return, she would not suffer anybody to violate her privacy. She was out of touch with the reality that constantly threatened to break through her carefully sealed perimeters. Year after after year, the house grew older. As her house fell into decay, so did Miss Emily, ‘She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water and of that pallid hue.'(72). Emily and her old house appear to be symbols of the old past in the architectural landscape of the new south.

Save the change in architectural style, another change that took place in the south was the change of calligraphy. At the beginning of the story when the new Mayor writes a letter asking her to meet with him she replies the Mayor’s letter with “a note on an archaic shape with a thin flowing calligraphy” she writes in an old-fashioned style on an old-fashioned paper; which shows that she is stuck in the past.

If Emily resisted change in her lifetime the mystery revealed after her death provoked a change in the perception of the townspeople who spent their time trying to fathom the mystery that surrounded her life. Emily’s excessive need for privacy was constantly challenged by the townspeople’s extreme curiosity. First, the ladies of the town kept monitoring her love affair with Homer Barron, a liberal man from the North. They felt that Miss Emily was not setting a good example for the ‘younger people’ and her affair with Homer was becoming a ‘disgrace to the town’ (75). The traditions, customs, and prejudices of the South which is developed in this story as a character doomed this affair from the beginning. Emily could not let Homer live, but she could not live without him. After her death, her secret got revealed when the people discovered the hair of the strand on the pillow next to Homer’s dead body in the attic. They understood that she poisoned the man she loved, but whom she could not have as she lawfully wedded husband because he was not as he himself said “ the marrying type”. Homer entered Emily’s life by courting her publicly; by not wanting to marry her, he would have easily slipped off her hands. She poisoned him to have him for ever for herself. Since he could not be hers in life he would be hers in death. This macabre act that turned the attic into a macabre bridal chamber can be seen as an attempt to prevent change. She loved Homer and desperately wanted to be married to him and nobody would change it, not even Homer himself.

In conclusion, William Faulkner’s “ A Rose for Emily” is a short story that contrasts tradition and change in the South during the late 1800’s. Miss Emily, the most traditional character in the town resisted all the social and architectural changes brought forth by the new board of Aldermen. Instead, she remained committed to living life on her own terms and not submitting her behavior, no matter how shocking, to the approval of others. Without saying a word, she changed through her death the perception that the curious townspeople had about her as they came to understand the inner struggles she lived with.

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The Tradition-Change Contrast in William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. (2020, Nov 23). Retrieved from

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