A ROSE FOR EMILY A Rose for Emily takes place after the Civil War and into the 1900s in the town of Jefferson, Mississippia town very similar to the one in which William Faulkner spent most of his life. It is a story of the conflict between the old and the new South, the past and the presentwith Emily and the things around her steadfastly representing the dying old traditions and the present expressed mostly through the words of the narrator but also through Homer Barron and the new board of aldermen. The issue of racism also runs throughout the story. In part I, Faulkner refers to Emily as a “fallen monument”, a monument to the southern gentility that existed before the Civil War. Her house is described as having once been whitethe color of youth, innocence and purity, and also of the white societybut decayed now and smelling of dust and disuse.
It stands between the cotton wagons (the past) and the gasoline pumps (the present)–an “eyesore among eyesores”. Emily comes from an upper class family and grew up privileged and protected by her father. An agreement between her father and Colonel Sartorisa character we assume was a veteran of the Civil War and who also represented the old South with his edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron–exempted her from paying taxes. The authorities decide to pay Emily a visit to try to collect the taxes due the town. When we are introduced to Emily, she is described as being in blackthe color of deathand her eyes are lifeless”two small pieces! of coal”.
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The description of Emily is not unlike that of her house, and I thought of a corpse when reading that “she looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue.”–the dying old traditions. The tarnished gold head on her black cane is the one reminder of her affluent, upper class position of years ago. And the invisible watch hanging from her neck but hidden under her belt is symbolic of her living in the past–time at a standstill in the Grierson house. When asked if she got the tax notice from the sheriff, Emily claims she has no taxes to pay and refers them to Colonel Sartoris who has been dead for ten years–another indication of Emilys living in the past. Referring to the sheriff, she says, “Perhaps he considers himself the sheriffI have no taxes in Jefferson.” This implies that Emily still considers herself superior to the rest of the town.
Emily has difficulty accepting the death of her father, and she hangs onto him and the past for three days after he dies until she finally allows the body to be taken away for burial. Her father had overprotected her throughout her life, chasing suitors away because they werent good enough for her. And when her sweetheart deserts her, she becomes a virtual recluse. The “only sign of life” is the young Negro servant who gardens and cooks for her. In fact, it is apparent that Emily would have died years earlier if he had not taken care of her.
To me, Faulkner is suggesting that the South will die, or certainly not progress, unless its culture changes and it accepts the Negro as a vital part of society. I wonder if the smell of Homers rotting corpse represents racial prejudice: the 80 year old mayor refuses to directly confront Emily about the odorjust as he would not deal with the immorality of racial repression–and after several complaints, four aldermen take it up! on themselves to do something about it. Three of them are “graybeards” representing the old South; one of them is a “younger man, a member of the rising generation”. I think the three older men helped to find the source of the stench, but they didnt really do anything to stop itI believe it is the young alderman who spreads the lime in a “sowing motion” in an effort to get rid of the smellthe lime perhaps representing tolerance. After her father dies, Emily disappears within the house for some time; but when a construction company comes into Jefferson to pave the sidewalks, the crew foreman begins courting her.
He is Homer Barron, a Yankee, described as a big, dark man (could he be part Negro?) who drank with the young men (the new generation). Homer represents the Yankee attitudes of the time. But Faulkner also places Homer in a buggy with yellow wheels, and even though he carries a whip like Emilys father did, he wears yellow gloves. Im not sure of the authors intent here–using the yellow color of cowardice–except maybe that Homer was afraid of marrying Emily. Perhaps the North afraid of trusting the South? The town pitied “poor Emily” –they thought she was going crazy, seeing a Yankee and forgetting about proper behavior fitting a lady. A year after she starts a relationship with Homer, she asks the druggist for the best poison he has–arsenic, which is the color gray in its most comm! on form. Gray, like the Confederate uniform.
When the druggist looks at Emily, she stands erect and looks back at him with “her face like a strained flag”. Is Faulkner referring to the Confederate flag? The ministers wife contacts Emilys cousins presumably to come to Jefferson to bring Emily to her senses. When Emily begins buying mens clothing and a silver toilet set monogrammed H.B., the town assumes she has finally married Homer. Faulkner describes Emilys cousins as “even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been”. They represent the staunch old Southern culture, and Homer disappears while they are in town.
Homer is seen entering the house three days after the cousins departure, and that is the last that is ever seen of him. Emily too disappears for some time, and when we see her again, Faulkner effectively uses the color gray to describe her: When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man. To me, Faulkner has strengthened his symbolic reference to the old South and by comparing her gray hair to that of an active man, he is even suggesting a Confederate soldier.
The gray used throughout the story could also represent aging and eventual death. Emily remains inside the dark house except for a period of six or seven years when she teaches china-painting to the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris contemporaries–the last of the old Southern community. This was the only time in over forty years that Emily was a part of society, when she clung to those who represented the past. When the new generation takes over Jefferson, Emily retreats into her house for the rest of her life. She dies there– but she had been dying and only existing in the dark, moldy old house for a long time. The old men who come to Emilys funeral dress in their Confederate uniforms and imagine that they had danced with Emily.
They, too, are living in the past, the “huge meadow that no winter ever quite touches”. But unlike Emily who totally retreated to the past, theirs is separated by the most recent decade, described as a “narrow bottle-neck” –progress is slow in Jefferson, and the past wont be forgotten but change will come. When the authorities break into the locked upstairs room they discover the skeleton of Homer Barron lying on the bed. The bedroom is decorated in rose, the color of life and love, but everything is covered with dust and the room is both a tomb and a marriage suite . A strand of Emilys iron-gray hair lies on the pillow beside Homer. Rather than endure Homers leaving her, she had tucked him away just like one would preserve a rose in order to bring back memories.
The rose-colored room could also represent optimism. Perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that the old attitudes of both the North and the South must die in order for the two to be one. This is supported by the fact that the old Negro servant disappears upon Emilys death and after the new generation has entered the house.