A Rose for Emily, a Short Story by William Faulkner

Published 22 Feb 2017

The story, A Rose for Emily, is fictional in terms of characters but the setting of the plot is very similar to where the author grew up. The author’s background of belonging to an esteemed family of veteran heroes most probably contributed to the development of the characters of Miss Emily, Judge Stevens and Col. Sartoris. Knowing that William Faulkner attempted to make a saga out of the life of certain fictional characters from his other novels make it easy to understand why he incorporated some seemingly irrelevant people like Col. Sartoris in the story.

Although the story itself is fictional, the writer’s views of his hometown were reflected in the story. William Faulkner grew up in Oxford which is where he based his description of his fictional town called Jefferson. His ancestors were prominent figures in the town and this influenced his choice of characters in the story as with the inclusion of Col. Sartoris.

The story very much reflected the problems and issues in the South during the late 1800s. It showed that the town was already undergoing many changes as can be seen in the description of Miss Emily’s house as compared to the neighboring structures. It also showed the political relationships of the people back then as was depicted in Judge Stevens’ role in the story. The social issues on black slavery were also implied with Miss Emily’s employment of a black Negro and Homer Baron’s treatment of the slaves that he was working with.

It is very important to know the historical context because the story revolved around the relationship of Miss Emily to the town. To understand this relationship and to make sense of her reactions to the people, the readers must understand the changes that were going on in society at that time. Reactions to Homer Baron’s treatment of black slaves would also be easier to understand in the light of the social issues that prevailed during those times.

Emily Grierson was a popular figure in her hometown, Jefferson and her death was a major gossip topic because she was mysteriously illusive even when she was younger and alive.

The narrator jumps from recounting her burial to the different phases of Miss Emily’s life explaining how she had become a spinster. The story-teller says that after her father’s death, Miss Emily only had the house and a Negro. Two years after, she found companionship and romance in a Yankee named Homer Baron which caused Miss Emily to be at the center of town gossip. Because of the scandalous situation, the pastor’s wife had decided to inform Miss Emily’s relatives of her plight and these cousins seemed to be the cause of Homer Baron having to leave. This was also the time when Miss Emily bought arsenic from the druggist and the town thought she was going to use it for suicide. Miss Emily’s kin stayed with her for awhile but eventually went away. Homer Baron came back a week after the cousins had gone and talks of his wedding to Miss Emily abound because she was known to have purchased things that indicated so. However, Homer Baron was never seen again and the town thought he had left her for good. Little did anyone know that she had poisoned him so that he will not leave. His remains were found in an upstairs bedroom of Miss Emily’s house after she was buried.

A Short Biography

William Cuthbert Falkner (later on changed to Faulkner) was born on September 25, 1897 at New Albany, Mississippi. He took his name from his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, who was known as the “Old Colonel” who had been killed eight years before he was born because of a fight he had with a business partner. (Padgett 2006) The Old Colonel was a figure that dominated his family even for generations after his death because of his stature in life. He had not only lent his service as colonel in the civil war. He was also lawyer turned politician, a farmer, and a man with great business acumen. He was the financier of the railroad that was built in their town.

His great-grandson did not just inherit his name because he was also a novelist. His The White Rose of Memphis became a best seller in his time.

William Cuthbert Faulkner’s family moved to Oxford when he was just five years old. As he grew up he got to meet Phil Stone who became his mentor. Later on, Faulkner attempted to become part of the U.S. Army but his height caused his rejection. Instead, he became a cadet of the Royal Air Force of Canada but did not finish his training before the war was over. When he went back to Oxford in December 1918, he told people of his war experiences even if he was never given the chance to truly participate in combat. His stories of adventure were either lies or exaggerations of true experiences. In 1924, Phil Stone was able to get Faulkner’s The Marble Faunn, a collection of poems, published. Faulkner then tried to venture into novels so his Soldiers Pay was published in 1926. His next novel entitled Mosquitoes was a flop.

It was upon the advice of another poet, Sherwood Anderson, that he based his third novel on his own experiences in his home town. This proved to be successful in liberating Faulkner’s prowess but his publisher did not like it. The novel entitled Flags in the Dust, went to another publisher’s hand and was edited to only 1/3 of its original volume. This was released with the title, Sartoris which was later reissued entitled Flags in the Dust in 1973. (Faulkner, 2002)

Faulkner’s other literary works centered much on the saga of the Sartoris clan which could be likened to his own family background. In the short story, A Rose for Emily, Colonel Sartoris was mentioned as the influential figure that Miss Emily would use to seek refuge from paying her taxes. Colonel Sartoris was a main character in his novels and was the character narrating in “My Grandmother Millard.” He appeared in The Hamlet, Requiem for a Nun, The Town, The Mansion, The Reivers, “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses, and “There Was a Queen.” (Padgett 2006)

The town of Jefferson, aside from the being the town of Miss Emily Grierson, was also a part of his saga on the Sartoris clan. Jefferson was patterned out of the life he had at Oxford while he was growing up.

The author’s frequent referral to Union and Confederate soldiers were also taken from his family background of military and political figures.

Faulkner’s Values

It is hard to find Faulkner’s principles behind this story but there are certain aspects of his personal values that show. His belief that women do a better job than men in household duties show in the line, “Just as if a man—any man—could keep a kitchen properly,” which was said by the ladies talking about Miss Emily’s Negro slave.

While explaining how Miss Emily has been escaping her duties on taxes, his assumption that men can lie and women are gullible is shown in the line, “Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.”

The low status of Negroes where also emphasized when Col. Sartoris’ decreed that “no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron,” and the description of Homer Baron’s relationship with the town’s people as proven by the line “boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the niggers.” These reveal how low society thought of blacks in those days.

Another of Faulkner’s ethical values is revealed when Judge Stevens denies the pleas of his people to investigate on why Miss Emily’s house smelled bad. The line, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” may either show his respect for women or propriety itself.

Historical Background of the Story

The story was set in the time when the American South was beginning to develop commercially and technologically. Many descriptions in the story fully demonstrate life in the town of Jefferson (which is actually patterned to the author’s life in Oxford).

Miss Emily’s house was “a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies.” This immediately sets the background for the era of the story. The description of “cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers” also show that the town has already passed civil war.

Points in the story also show that Jefferson was already becoming developed. The description, “But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood” shows that development in the cotton industry had already started a new way of life for the townspeople. While introducing the first appearance of Homer Baron, the author has also chosen to give a description on how the town was improving by saying, “The town had just let the contracts for paving the sidewalks,” and “ The construction company came with niggers and mules and machinery, and a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee.” This revealed so much about how the infrastructure development then. The introduction of Negro slaves and machinery also describe the kind of social and business life in the South during that period. The description, “When the town got free postal delivery Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox,” shows that many developments were already putting a new system in place of an older era.

As evidenced by the “yellow-wheeled buggy and the matched team of bays from the livery stable,” there were still no automobiles at that time and horses were still the primary source of transportation.

The views of people from the South regarding those from the North are also reflected in the way Faulkner’s narrator stated that “a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.”
The clothes of the era were also vividly described by the author when he wrote “their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed.”
The narrator’s statement that on “the day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom,” shows the traditional values that abound during Miss Emily’s era.

Form and Content

The setting of the story is typical of a town in the early 1900s because it was actually patterned to the town of Oxford which is where the author grew up.
Miss Emily had a black slave and this was very reminiscent of the time when the Negroes were only allowed to work in the lowest stations of society. Negroes, although there were contentions that they should have equal rights, did not really enjoy this liberty at that time. In fact, in 1881 Tennessee State Legislature voted to segregate railroad passenger cars between whites and blacks which were by Mississippi in 1888. (University of Washington, 2007)
The descriptions of people in this story revolved around the circumstances they were in. Homer Baron’s frequent cursing towards black people and his term “niggers” showed how Americans at that time, were prejudiced against the Negroes.
Faulkner’s novels and stories, including A Rose For Emily, contributes to the construction of a whole saga on the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County (Faulkner’s major literary work) and its inhabitants with the underlying theme on the decay of the Old South. This can be seen with his inclusion of Colonel Sartoris, a major fictitious character in the saga, in the story who is also cited in his other different works. (Nobel Prize Foundation 1949)

Works Cited

  • Faulkner. (2002) Retrieved May 11, 2007
  • Padgett, John B. “‘A Rose for Emily’: Commentary & Resources.” William Faulkner on the Web. 17 August 2006. Retrieved May 11, 2007
  • The Nobel Foundation. (1949). William Faulkner, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1949: Biography. Retrieved May 12, 2007, 2007
  • University of Washington (2007). Blackpast.org. Retrieved May 12, 2007 from http://www.blackpast.org/?q=timelines/african-american-history-timeline-1800-1900
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