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“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

20 Feb 2017Literature Essays

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner is the story of a lonely unmarried woman, Emily Grierson. It describes the strange circumstances of Emily’s mysterious life and her peculiar relationships with her father, with her lover, and with the people of a town called Jefferson, and the gruesome secret that she concealed until her death.

The story begins with the demise of Miss Emily and her funeral. The townspeople men and women all came to her funeral to pay their last respects to the woman with an aristocratic past she personified. “The men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant a combined gardener and cook had seen in at least ten years.” At her funeral, men brought roses for her as mark of respect they had for her.

Miss Emily and her life was a mystery to citizens of the Jefferson town.

She lived in a neglected house, “It smelled of dust and disuse a closed, dank smell,” and when her guests are seated, a “faint dust” rises “sluggishly about their thighs” (667). This indicated the lonely existence of Miss Emily and her life was full of neglect and decay. Emily had lost track of time living secluded and solitary life. She addresses the deputation as “See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson.” Where as Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years ago. “Her skeleton was small and spare;” Emily’s appearance was so lifeless. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water and of that pallid hue” (667). “Her voice was dry and cold” and that she did not accept no for an answer (667). She had lost interest in living but retained her aristocratic pride.

“She vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell. That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart the one we believed would marry her had deserted her. After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all.” She stopped going out and lived in her own universe with no social outings. She shunned everyone from her life with none having access to her other than a servant. “The next few years” her hair “grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning” (671). Emily had grown old and frail just like the house she was living in. (Faulkner, William 2002)

“From that time on her front door remained closed, save for a period of six or seven years, when she was about forty, during which she gave lessons in china-painting.” She trained children in China painting which earned her meager living for some years. “She had evidently shut up the top floor of the house like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which. Thus, she passed from generation to generation dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse. ”Gradually as the years passed she grew older she completely shut the outside world from her life living a solitary existence. She fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows and she died at 74 years of age.

After the townspeople buried her, they went to her house to see that room on top floor that was closed since many years. They opened the room that was covered with great amounts of dust. They could not believe what they saw. A room decked and furnished as for a bridal, “the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man’s toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram H B was obscured.”

“Then shockingly, lying right there in the bed was the man. For a long while, we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust. Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.” (Faulkner, William 2002)

Emily was a lovely but a very lonely child looking for love and acceptance. Her inner world was very limited with not much access to the outside world. She lived a very sheltered life protected from the vices of the world. Her universe consisted only of her protective father and a servant. She learned the aristocratic ways from her father. When she was young there were men in her town desperately in love with her and seeking for her hand in marriage. Her deceased father would send them all away. Her father, who said, “No, you must stay here and take care of me.” When her father passed it was a devastating loss for Emily. Her world completely shattered. Emily tried to hold on to him in some way even though his spirit had left. “She told them that her father was not dead,” and “did that for three days,” until she finally broke down and allowed him to be buried properly (669).

Emily came from a dysfunctional home where her emotional needs were never met. Borne into a family of great wealth with a well pronounced rich lineage a duty of any woman of her age was supposed to follow, was expected to be followed and with exact precision. Because her father denied her reality, she began to deny it too. Emily being highly concealed by her father, she had to live with many restrictions of life, resulting in a pronounced backlash and profuse alteration of her personality. And this severely impaired the development of her basic tools for living life and for relating to people and situations. It is this basic impairment that operated in Emily who loved too much. She was unable to discern when someone or something was not good for her. The situations and people that others would naturally avoid as dangerous, uncomfortable or unwholesome did not repel her because she had no way of evaluating them realistically or self-protectively. She did not trust her feelings or used them to guide her. Instead she was drawn to the very dangers, intrigues, dramas and challenges that others with healthier and more balanced backgrounds would eschew.

When Miss Emily was younger, her deceased father forced away all the young men that were in love with her. Because she was never able to change her stubborn father into a warm loving father she longed for. Emily was searching for what was missing in her life, not where there was some hope of finding it, but where, it was easiest for her to look. She responded deeply to an emotionally unavailable man, a Yankee by the name of Homer Barron. He was a foreman in a construction company. “He is a Northerner, a day labourer, a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face.” he laughs a lot, and he curses “the niggers” (669). Emily had no experience in people. And when she met the first man she had fallen deeply in love with him. (Faulkner, William 2002)

Emily probably had picked a wrong one, who was about to desert her. “Homer himself had remarked he liked men and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ Club that he was not a marrying man”. Terrified of abandonment she did everything to keep the relationship from dissolving. Emily’s loving turned into loving too much when her lover was inappropriate, uncaring, and unavailable and yet she could not give him up in fact she needed him even more. And her wanting to love, her yearning for love, and her loving itself became an addiction. Eventually Emily’s relationship with her lover became addictive and she had a strong desire for Homer’s reassuring presence in her life.

Emily loved him so much that when she discovered that he would leave her, she experienced emotional abandonment, with all the terror and emptiness that implies. She felt that she may not be able to survive alone. Emily could see that for her it was the end of life, there was nothing left, except to grow older, alone and solitary. She had suffered and became so obsessed with her lover that she was barely able to function rationally. Hodgkinson states that it is important to realize that “one who loves obsessively has not fallen in love with a real person, but rather an illusion.” Because obsessive love is more of a delusion than actually falling in love with a real person, it could lead to dangerous results depending on how far the obsession grows. Obsessive love could lead to stalking, rape, murder, and other harmful things to the target of obsessive love as it did in Emily’s life. (Hodgkinson, 1991) Obsessive love is similar to unrequited love. Forward and Buck believe that “rejection is the trigger of obsessive love.” Those who love obsessively are full of fear, fear of being alone, and fear of being unlovable and unworthy, fear of being ignored or abandoned. (Forward and Buck, 1991)

Homer Barron had become everything to Emily, a target of her obsession, her beloved, which meant that she would win the struggle to gain what she had wanted so much for so long. She had someone she loved so truly and she wanted to keep him. Emily did not want to let go of him, and she decided to go to any length to keep him with her forever. Emily wanted her beloved’s presence in her life always. Many women, looking for someone to love them, seem inevitably to find unhealthy, unloving partners instead and have such difficulty ending it. The Bible speaks of love as a set of attitudes and actions that are far broader than the concept of love as an emotional attachment. Love is seen as a set of behaviors. “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, it’s jealously unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” (Bible) Emily poisons and kills her lover by giving arsenic to him. Her love for him never faded nor diminished nor ended. She kept him with her embracing him each day and loving him ever so dearly. She lived with his corpse for many many years of her life till her death. Never did she let go of her beloved ever.

Reference:

  • Bible, 8:6-7, NIV.
  • Hodgkinson, Liz Obsessive Love. How to Free Your Emotions and Live Again. 1991
  • Forward, S. & Buck, C. Obsessive Love. When It Hurts Too Much To Let Go. 1991
  • Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Literature: The Human Experience. 8th ed. Ed. Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. Boston: Bedford, 666–672. 2002.

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