Almost everyone laments how the world has changed since they were young, how everything is now faster, more complicated, and less friendly. In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Miss Emily sees the world change in many different ways, and yet stays the same. In her case, the world she grew up in literally is gone, and she does not posses the skills to change along with it. She is a woman lost in time, with no real place among society, especially not a society who places her on a pedestal, enabling her many questionable actions. The factors of her life and the stigmas placed upon her due to those factors yield to her no choice but the actions which she chose.
Miss Emily’s generation grew up in a time when women were expected to get married, have children, and take care of the house. For someone of her status, this would have been the epitome of her adult life. She would be the mistress of a household, leading a life of entertaining and quiet leadership. Miss Emily, however, never married. Her father had never accepted her suitors, meeting them at the door “clutching a horsewhip.” He selfishly kept her single all those years, which must have caused immense embarrassment to a woman from her era, whose whole life should have led up to her marriage. She seldom left her house after her father died, further mystifying herself to the town who watched her life from behind their lace curtains.
The Civil War came and went, and Miss Emily still lived in that same house “set on what had once been the most select street,” “lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps.” Miss Emily had once belonged to the most select class, and still stubbornly maintained the image, even though she and her entire town knew the truth to be otherwise. She remained a stubborn product of her times, keeping a manservant who most likely had been with her since he had been a slave, and had stayed out of loyalty to her. She continually refused progress, not allowing them to “fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” when the town finally got postal service. Time continued ticking on, and yet Miss Emily refused to acknowledge it. She firmly entrenched herself in denial when her father died, telling the townspeople “that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body.” Finally, she admits that her father is in fact gone, and allows the officials to bury him. She does not have an easy time adapting, which is understandable. Her entire life, she has been stuck in that house with her father, probably has never left the town, and apparently had no friends to keep her company. Nothing has ever really changed for her, and so she has never had to deal with change.
The narrator, a random townsperson, illustrates very well the awe and fear the town held for Miss Emily. To them, she portrayed everything that they wished they could be, and all that they were glad not to be. They held a twisted form of respect for her. When she dies, she is referred to as a “fallen monument” whom the men went to see out of a “respectful affection,” much like that of your child’s pet, who you go through the funeral for, but will never really understand. The women of the town went “mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no onehad seen in at least ten years.” They had always wondered what she was like, but never really found out. It was not their place to speak with her, for she was a Grierson, albeit a fallen one. Miss Emily was aware of this class distinction, refusing to receive the townswomen into her home after her father’s death. Miss Emily had to maintain her image of propriety that had been placed upon her. Indeed, it seems as if the town would have been disappointed to see her otherwise.
Miss Emily, in her “monument” position, was allowed to do mostly whatever she pleased. Her taxes had been remitted in the time of ladies and gentlemen, and no one pushed the issue too far when they decided she needed to start paying them. She remained stubborn and firm in her status, showing her power — however antiquated — over them when “she did not ask them to sit.” She simply stated “I have no taxes in Jefferson,” then asked her servant to “show these gentlemen out.” They could not argue with her. She was the high and mighty Miss Emily Grierson, who had become a “tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.” This fact was never questioned; Miss Emily did as she pleased.
When Miss Emily, who was never referred to as simply “Emily,” went to the druggist, he did not challenge her request. She asserted herself and her position, cutting off his sentences, staring him down with her “cold, haughty black eyes.” She demands arsenic, and he gives it to her, even though it is against the law. He simply writes “for rats” on the package; Miss Emily has placed herself above the law, and no one feels the need to challenge that.
Even when her house potentially poses a health hazard, she is not confronted about the problem. The stench emanating from her house is discussed by the city authorities, who decide to deal with it themselves. The judge asks “Dammit, sir, will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” They acknowledge the era Miss Emily is still living in, the era of ladies who can do no wrong, and they do not dash this image for her. Instead, they “slunk about the house, sniffing along the base of the brickworkand sprinkled lime thereafter a week or two the smell went away.” Instead of confronting Miss Emily and discovering the truth about the smell, they assume it must be something her servant killed, and continue to enable Miss Emily’s notion that she is beyond reproach.
The town does not condemn Emily for her actions.When her father died and she hid with him in her house for three days, they did not condemn her. “We did not say that she was crazy then. We believed that she had to do that.” For all the morbid curiosity they hold for Miss Emily, they always make excuses for her. They say “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.” Perhaps they would say the same when they found out who else she clung to post-mortem.
Miss Emily’s one attempt to reassert herself into the present comes when the sidewalks are commissioned for the town, and Homer Barron arrives to build them. He is a northerner, and a blue-collar worker, the exact opposite of everything Emily is held to stand for. Yet she accepts him into her life, taking him as a lover when it is apparent that he will not marry her. Emily remains the distant monument to her town even though they believe that “she was a fallen” woman. “She held her head high enoughit was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity.” All her life she had been denied happiness, and now she has found it. Unfortunately, this love was doomed to fail. There are too many traditions, customs, and prejudices engrained in Emily, her town, her family, and her love. Homer will not marry her. However, she has finally found love and happiness, and Miss Emily is above the law.
So she poisons Homer Barron and keeps him in a room upstairs. She sleeps with him every night, his body arranged in the “attitude of an embrace,” clinging to the idea of a “marriage” that she never had. She is a sad, lonely woman, and if she cannot have this one last chance at happiness, then she will keep it by force. Throughout her life the town she lived in has been her “enabler,” allowing her to continue in her unhealthy habits; Emily has no reason to think that what she has done is wrong. She is simply preserving what is rightfully hers; she is holding on to some semblance of happiness that has always been denied her.
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