William Faulkner was born in 1897 and spent the majority of his life in the South, where he became well acquainted with various character types that inevitably emerge in his stories. Frustrated with school and hoping to find his own path in life, Faulkner left high school and joined the Canadian Air Force, which allowed him to travel. Upon his travels, he met the writer Sherwood Andersen who also wrote regional fiction (Winesburg Ohio for instance) and was encouraged to keep writing.
Following a year-long walking tour of Europe, Faulkner settled back in Mississippi and began writing more frequently and began to enjoy some success. While he left for some time to write for the film industry in Hollywood, he returned rather quickly back to the South, choosing Virginia over Mississippi, and eventually received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 with books he wrote that include The Sound and the Fury, among others. Just as in many of his works, the South and its characters are among the primary issues for exploration—especially in terms of the South’s dark history of slavery and its efforts to reconcile itself with modernity. These are primary struggles in “A Rose for Emily” as well as the townspeople, both curious and repulsed by the strange, fascinating, and fallen figure of Miss Emily are themselves caught in a web of perceptions of the Old and the New South.
Briefly, in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the main character, Miss Emily Grierson (click here for a full character analysis of Miss Emily), is described in great detail by a local narrator who provides a very personally nuanced and chronologically disjointed narrative. Emily and her family (which was really only her father) represented the town’s aristocracy, but upon her father’s death and the apparent disappearance of her suitor, she sinks into a depression and becomes a recluse in her massive, antiquated and decaying old house with only a servant permitted in. This provides the narrator opportunity to talk about her past, her family, and her oddities but eventually leads to the revelation that she poisoned her suitor and had been sleeping with his corpse for several years. While “A Rose for Emily” is about this plot itself, it is almost more about her community and how Emily serves as a monument or broken relic to remind her community, even if they tend to romanticize the past, of days gone by and an era passed.
When Emily Grierson passes away, the community comes to pay their respects not out of genuine sadness about her death, but more due to “a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument.” Despite this more direct and unmistakable association between Emily and a fallen monument, Faulkner urges his readers to make this connection throughout the text by using characterization techniques and imagery. These tactics that subtly urge readers to make connections between Miss Emily and a fading monument reinforce the idea that Emily represented the old way of life in her town. Emily is a relic from another era who refuses to accept changing times and who persists without change, like an old monument that is always present but immobile and steady in its spot.
Miss Emily’s house itself stands as a fallen monument and reminder of days gone by and is symbolic of Emily’s position in the community. It sits with its “stubborn and coquettish decay” among signs of modernity such as garages and signs of mass production, thus rendering the house “an eyesore among eyesores.” Just like the structure that housed her for so many years and decayed right along with her, Miss Emily refused to take note of the changes occurring around her and instead chose to confine herself in her monument of a home and become a relic herself. The stubborn nature of home that persists among an entirely new world is representative of her personality as well and it seems it is still standing out of sheer stubborn defiance due to the grudge over her tax notice and inability to escape a bygone era.
“The house is a shrine to her father’s narrow values, with everything left in its nineteenth-century place” (Roberts 159). While it is all left intact and in much the same condition it had always been, the exterior is rotting away and the house looks particularly out of place amidst the growing modernity that Emily is oblivious to. One scholar makes connections between the decaying old home and what it represents symbolically in terms of the “rot” that was taking place inside. “Her house, with its musty unused rooms and locked doors—a prison and a mausoleum—signifies how she has pretended to confirm to the Old South code of chastity, all the while reveling in her deviancy” (Roberts 159). What this suggests that the outward appearance of wealth, no matter how faded it was becoming and how much of a relic of the Old South it was, hid horrible truths—just like the entire history of southern slavery. While this is a much broader topic that would require its own set of multiple pages, it is worth pointing out that the external state of decay and denial of modernity reflected the antiquated view of the Old South, which was kept alive only by strange figures such as Miss Emily.
The use of imagery in “A Rose for Emily” reinforces the idea that Emily is like a fallen monument. For example, following the death of her father and the desertion by her suitor, some of the male town leaders are unable to find a way to tell her that her house smells. People are afraid of her and have no idea how to approach her, thus in this case, they are forced to sneak around her house at night to lay down lime to resolve the horrible smell. Interestingly, instead of saying anything to them, Miss Emily sits with the “light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol.” This image of Miss Emily silhouetted in the window of her aging home, completely still, reminds one of a monument; a still, lifeless (but somehow still life-like) object silently looking out on a world it cannot touch. What is notable about this passage is that this is an observation from when Emily was a younger woman. Few aspects of her life changed because just before her death, the same image is used again when the narrator states just before she died, “Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows—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.”