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A Horror in Two Acts: A Rose for Emily

ACT I: The Systems Within

Scene I: A Haunted House

Stories are like houses, hidden away from view. Peeking in one window versus looking through a backdoor, each will give a different snapshot of what the house entails. In that manner, hidden secrets and viewpoints contained within tales can be discovered depending on the reader. So come peer through the keyhole with me, as we discuss what I found in A Rose for Emily.

At first glance a strange gothic story, of a misunderstood—or crazy—woman who was pitied by the town in which she lived. But was she truly crazy, or are the townsfolk far more to blame for her deteriorating state? Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see what the townsfolk, especially the townswomen, felt was wrong with her:

We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.

Despite what her own desires and wishes may have been, according to the town she had failed in her duty as a woman, and therefore became a social pariah. Upon the death of her father, Emily was left alone in her grief, with no man to comfort or hold her, no position as mother to her elevate her.

And then they took him. Took him away after badgering her for days, took him away and declared her a mad spinster. Took away her voice and mind, by declaring her to be pitied, and not intelligent enough to realize they were giving her a tax break in honor of her father. She had no identity, a ghost among the masses, to be pitied surely but never given the elixir to make her human—alive—once again.

Until Homer came.

Scene II: Tall, Dark, and Handsome: The Death of a Hero

A man from out of town, the “hero” come to rescue the damsel in distress in a town full of shapeshifting vipers. A person who spoke to the mad, pitiable ghost, made her alive as he took her through town in a buggy. Who once more validated her existence. However the women, the witches of this forsaken town, quickly began to poison this relationship.

Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister—Miss Emily’s people were Episcopal—to call upon her.

Scene III: Wandering Ghosts

And thus Emily was thrust back into the world of the living dead, trapped within her house, trapped within her mind. The poison slowly started to work on her, the spell destroying the fragments of her mind. Homer, who was once the gallant knight, fled the cursed town, fled the damsel, and Emily’s decision was set. All Emily had was that house. There was no man to grant her a voice and no children to paint her as a living being. There was nothing but a shade who hadn’t realized they were dead yet, wandering the haunted house at the end of the lane. What ghost bound to a place hasn’t slowly gone mad? When Homer returned, to ensure she would no longer be a solitary ghost, a non-entity in her own home, Emily murdered him to ensure he would never leave her. If she could not be happy in life, Emily found a way to be happy in death.

ACT II: A Rose for Emily as Southern Eulogy

Scene I: A Eulogy             

Many critiques of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily position Emily as a victim of the very class system she inhabits. While this critique of Emily is valid, in this critical reading of A Rose for Emily, I argue this short story is also a type of horror, as it symbolizes society’s desire/wish to rid itself of “undesirables.” The three characters—Emily, Homer, and The Negro—are metaphors for what the dominant society wishes to rid. While the main characters are single individuals, they represent multiple undesirable behaviors/characteristics: Emily is insane, a murderess, a spinster, and a symbol of the Old South. Homer is a gay, a Yankee, and symbolizes the North infringement on Southern traditions, while The Negro is Black (and therefore undesirable), and functions only as slave.

In no way is Faulkner hiding that this story is also about both death and lamenting. While Faulkner is showing the death of “old Southern ways of living,” he is also lamenting them through the voice of the narrator, giving the old Southern ways of living a type of Eulogy. One of the ways this death of the South is depicted, is when Emily’s death is positioned in relation to her house and the changing neighborhood:

It was a big, squarish frame house… set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of the neighborhood… And now Miss Emily had gone 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.

In this passage, Emily’s death and burial next to Union and Confederate soldiers, her decaying house—the “eyesore among eyesores”—flanked by cotton gins and garages (a symbol of the Industrial Capitalism), foreshadow the end of an undesirable way of life: Southern. Though the death of Emily symbolized the death of the South, she also symbolizes other undesirable traits: insane, woman, spinster, and murderess. For this analysis, I will focus on woman and spinster as undesirable.

Scene II: (Southern Belles) Woman as Undesirable and Unfulfilled

This story is centered in the early 20th century, before women had the right to vote and just before what is widely considered “first-wave” U.S. feminism. Within these constraints and the patriarchal system in which she functioned, Emily was undesirable not only because she was a woman, but because she had not reached her potential as a woman in becoming a wife and mother:

None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such… We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.

While women as inferior and undesirable within the context of the patriarchal systems are at play in the aforementioned passage, Emily is also denied the opportunity to become wife and mother by her father. It is a type of double patriarchal oppression of which Emily is victim. Coinciding with the death of Southern ways of living, The Negro plays an integral role in functioning somewhat as a timeline for the slow death of Southern pre-Civil War life.

Scene III: The World’s Most Interesting Man

The Negro, nameless and voiceless, is arguably the most important character in this story. Readers will notice that Emily is rarely in a scene without The Negro. The Negro is the only person who sees Emily on a daily basis. The Negro is the only person who allows admittance to Emily’s home. He is, in essence, a gatekeeper to the Old South:

They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall from which a stairway mounted into still more shadow. It smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell. The Negro led them into the parlor. It was furnished in heavy, leather-covered furniture. When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked.

The Negro is both a relic within and a gatekeeper to the house, as well as Emily. The house, as readers can infer, and the happenings within (though we are never allowed to see the inside of Emily’s house) function as a time capsule, with living bodies (The Negro and Emily) reenacting the roles of Slave and Master. Though hard to imagine a character with no name and no voice is central to the literary arc of a short story, The Negro is mentioned over ten times, and most prevalently towards the end of the story after Homer “deserts” Emily. When Emily goes into seclusion, her daily happenings are known/recorded via the narrators who observe what The Negro did every day over a period of decades.

Scene IV: Homer, The Yankee Queer

Lastly, Homer represents a double metaphor: The victorious North, its Queer ways of living, and Industrial Capitalism. When readers encounter Homer, he is the foreman managing workers as they build a paved road through town. This first scene with Homer symbolizes a type of colonization and Industrial Capitalism, a new way of civilizing the Southern savage from his/her backwards ways (unpaved roads, quiet gentle life, and so on):

The construction company came with riggers and mules and machinery,and a foreman named Homer Barron, a Yankee–a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face… Pretty soon he knew everybody in town. Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer Barron would be in the center of the group.

From the very beginning, Homer can be understood to represent the upheaval of Southern life as it moved—begrudgingly—towards certain Northern ideals of modernity and civility. While Homer is a representation of this emerging way of life, he also represents queerness, as he is gay, another type of undesirable characteristic. This undesirability—this flaw— allows the narrators (the witnesses to this change) to pity/shame Homer, and criticize the North for its own backwardness as the ladies all said:

“Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer”… because 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. Later we said, “Poor Emily.”

Scene V: Murder, Acquiescence, and Jim Crow

In the final scene of A Rose for Emily, readers are once again allowed access into the house by The Negro. After letting family and gawkers into the home, The Negro—the nameless, voiceless slave—exits the house using the rear door, no longer a slave of an individual, Emily, but a slave of a system: Jim Crow. As onlookers ascend the stairs and break into Emily’s bedroom, we see the remains of Homer, whom Emily had obviously killed and lain in bed with for years. This final act by Emily is representative of Southern vengeance on the Queer ways and thinking invading their lives, as well as its eventual acquiescence, when she lies in bed with Homer: the victor (the North). Consequently, using Queer as an umbrella term, A Rose for Emily is an homage to the Old Confederate South, a Eulogy, and a purging process by which this new Jim Crow South is attempting to shed itself from all actions and behaviors it considers undesirable.