Miss Emily Grierson, the main character in William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” is certainly strange by any average reader’s standards and a character analysis of Emily could go in any number of directions. It is nearly impossible not to examine her in a psychological as well as contextual light. Over the course of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, Miss Emily’s erratic and idiosyncratic behavior becomes outright bizarre, and the reader, like the townspeople in the story, is left wondering how to explain the fact that Miss Emily has spent years living and sleeping with the corpse of Homer Barron. According to the narrator in one of the important quotes from “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner the townspeople “did not say she was crazy” at first (Faulkner 2162), and of course, she was never evaluated, diagnosed, or treated by a mental health professional. Yet by the story’s conclusion, the reader can go back through the narrative and identify many episodes in which Miss Emily’s character and behavior hinted at the possibility of a mental illness, even if the town wanted to deny this fact and leave her intact as a social idol. In fact, this information could be used to support the claim that Miss Emily suffered from schizophrenia as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV criteria (American Psychiatric Association 159). It is reasonable to propose that Miss Emily developed this mental illness as a response to the demanding conditions in which she was living as a Southern woman from an aristocratic family. Miss Emily decompensated because she was unable to develop healthy and adaptive coping and defense mechanisms. While most people can handle the kinds of stressors Miss Emily faced, those who cannot develop psychotic symptoms in response to their situation.
Diagnosing a mental illness is often a challenging task, and one that implies a great deal of responsibility on the part of the mental health professional who assesses the patient and determines the diagnosis (American Psychiatric Association 5). Among the numerous variables that a clinician considers are the patient’s prior history. In the case of Miss Emily, an analysis of the setting and the other characters in the story, as well as an examination of some of the themes in “A Rose for Emily” and especially incidents involving Miss Emily’s father, helps the reader to understand the particular pressures with which Emily was trying to cope and how, by extension, she might have developed schizophrenia. Miss Emily was from a family of great stature and wealth in their small Southern community, and Miss Emily had always been burdened with the great expectations that others had of her. Her community viewed her as having a “hereditary obligation” (Faulkner 2160) to maintain certain traditions, traditions that had been established generations before her. Her father, charged with transmitting these traditions and values to Miss Emily, was rigid in reinforcing these expectations, and in the words of the narrator, the father was a man who had “thwarted her woman’s life so many times” (Faulkner 2164). Just one example of his behavior was that he drove all of Miss Emily’s suitors away because none were perceived as good enough for her. As a result, she never married.
Despite his oppressiveness, it is when her father dies that the reader begins to observe the acceleration of Miss Emily’s mental decline. While this phenomenon may seem paradoxical, it is not at all uncommon. When the ill individual suddenly no longer has to cope with managing external stressors, their defenses yield completely and they succumb to the psychotic symptoms that have been latent (Staton 275). The narrator observes that after her father’s death and her subsequent breakdown, Miss Emily was “sick for a long time,” though he does not offer more specific details as to the type of illness that she suffers (Faulkner 2162). It is also at this time that Miss Emily begins to avoid contact with others and other psychotic symptoms become evident. Immediately after the death of her father, the ladies of the town come to Miss Emily’s home to offer their condolences, and they observe that she had “no trace of grief on her face” (Faulkner 2162). The inability to either feel or demonstrate appropriate affect, or emotion, that is congruent to a particular situation is one of the classic symptoms of schizophrenia (American Psychiatric Association 147). Perhaps more tellingly, Miss Emily insisted to the visitors that “her father was not dead” (Faulkner 2162). For this reason, she would not permit his body to be removed until “she broke down” and the townspeople removed the body quickly before she could protest (Faulkner 2162).
Despite this and other evidence that Miss Emily is not emotionally or mentally well, the townspeople persist in enabling her to maintain her delusions. In fact, their denial is almost as pathological as Miss Emily’s own symptoms. The townspeople avoid confronting Miss Emily about any important concerns, such as the terrible smell that is emanating from her home, which itself is becoming more “detached, superseded, and forbidding” (Stone 87) every day. While the newer generation of townspeople advocates addressing the matter with Miss Emily directly, Judge Stevens responds to this suggestion in a rage, saying, in one of theimportant quotes from “A Rose for Emily” “Dammit, sir…will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”, as if the smell was merely a body odor rather than a pervasive stench (Faulkner 2162). The younger generation relents, and the men responsible for such local concerns sneak into Miss Emily’s basement surreptitiously to spread lime as an effort to eliminate the odor.
Meanwhile, as the reader will soon learn, Miss Emily has retreated entirely into a world of delusion and fantasy. At first, Miss Emily has few callers, and those townspeople who dare to visit her “were not received” (Faulkner 2161). Then, there is a period where she withdraws from society altogether, and “From that time on her front door remained closed” (Faulkner 2164). The changes that the narrator reports the townspeople having observed the time the townspeople “next saw Miss Emily” also hint at symptoms of advanced psychosis. Miss Emily “had grown fat and her hair was turning gray” (Faulkner 2164). This failure to attend to her personal appearance and to perform what mental health practitioners call the “tasks of daily living”—such as hygiene and grooming—also demonstrate severe deficits in the area of “social/occupational functioning,” which is one of the criteria for the diagnosis of schizophrenia (American Psychiatric Association 147). At this point, Miss Emily is totally unable to relate to other people in an appropriate manner. Although her contact with others is limited, when she is forced to interact socially she is irrational and inappropriate, yet another symptom of schizophrenia (American Psychiatric Association 147). The narrator reports one episode that is particularly telling: When the town got mailboxes, “Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them” (Faulkner 2165).
There are other episodes sprinkled throughout the story that indicate Miss Emily’s compromised mental state. Early in the story, before the extent of her symptoms has become clear to the reader, the narrator relates an episode in which Miss Emily appears before town officials to insist that she does not owe taxes. She repeats several times that she has “no taxes in Jefferson” and that the county’s Board of Aldermen could speak with Colonel Sartoris if they felt otherwise (Faulkner 2161). It is not the fact that she said this that hints at her psychosis. Rather, it is her insistence against the facts that they present and her refusal to listen to aldermen at all that makes her more than just a stubborn town eccentric. There are two other episodes that are equally telling. When Miss Emily goes to the pharmacy to buy poison, she is described as lacking in affect and appears to be paranoid, withholding information from the pharmacist about the reason for her request. Once again, the pharmacist, representing the town as a whole, finds this request odd, but does not challenge it. After all, Miss Emily is a special woman, “the last of a proud line,” (Stone 88), and as such, she is unassailable. The other important episode, besides the obvious psychotic act of sleeping with a corpse, involves Miss Emily’s purchases of items for the man that the town believes is her betrothed, but who is already presumably dead and decaying in Miss Emily’s bed. Indeed, when the townspeople kick down the bedroom door years later, the narrator describes a tableau that is “decked and furnished as for a bridal” but frozen in time and covered with dust and tarnish (Faulkner 2165). Clearly, Miss Emily’s grasp on reality had slipped completely.
If one agrees that Miss Emily was schizophrenic, then naturally one might want to understand the influences that precipitated her illness. Kinney has argued that Miss Emily’s delusions, especially about her father’s death, develop as a defense mechanism, for the death of her father represents “the death of the old order and of herself as well” (94). Staton adds that “Having been consumed by her father [figuratively], Emily in turn feeds off Homer….She has taken into herself the violence in him which thwarted her and has reenacted it….” (275). Some feminist critics interpret Miss Emily’s illness differently. Appleton Aguilar, for instance, contends that Miss Emily “insists on maintaining her own existence, which the townspeople continually refuse to allow as they wish her to sustain her position as icon and memorial to the antebellum South” (30). While Miss Emily’s gender and her place, both literally and figuratively, certainly exacerbate and may have even caused her condition, there is far too much textual evidence to support the counterargument. Miss Emily is not merely trying to assert an independent existence; rather, she has never been able to do so and for that reason she has developed symptoms of schizophrenia as a maladaptive coping mechanism. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a short story that is, at its heart, a tale about the pressures of society and the ways in which they can wear people down. Miss Emily lacked adaptive coping skills to help her manage substantial stressors, and for this reason, she was vulnerable to the onset of mental illness.
Other articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Comparison of Themes in “A Rose for Emily” “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Sweat” and The Sound and the Fury: Character Analysis of Dilsey
American Psychiatric Association. Quick Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
Appleton Aguiar, Sarah. The Bitch if Back: Wicked Women in Literature. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” In The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 2160-2166. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.
Kinney, Arthur F. Faulkner’s Narrative Poetics: Style as Vision. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Staton, Shirley F. Literary Theories in Praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Stone, Edward. A Certain Morbidness: A View of American Literature. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.