In one of the last courses of my undergraduate career, I was assigned William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. I admit that I was unsure how I would fare reading one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century. But, after a few initial bumps, I soon found myself joining young Bayard Sartoris as he navigated a Reconstructed South. That was the first time that I had come face to face with the great William Faulkner. And now, almost a year later and more than a dozen promptings from my writing colleagues, I finally sat down with one of his most recognizable and beloved short stories of all time. And it is that story that I proudly present as That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for July 2010: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
“A Rose for Emily” takes place in Faulkner’s fictional Southern town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. (In fact, the story even references the Sartoris family I read about in The Unvanquished!) It follows the story of Miss Emily Grierson, but is not told in her point of view. Actually, in a rather radical move, Faulkner writes the story in the first-person plural form. In other words, it is told from the “we” point of view and not the “I.”
The story opens with Miss Emily’s funeral and the townspeople only attend out of a sense of obligation (something the town had felt toward her since her father passed away decades ago) to her memory and curiosity to see the interior of her house, which had been kept private for over a decade. The house is garish and monolithic, an “eyesore” left over from the days when the street her family lived on demanded respect and recognition for their name and money. But now the house, like the deceased woman inside it, seems out of place among the gas stations and cotton wagons. It is as much an imposition on the town of Jefferson as was Miss Emily herself.
Then we jump back in time, back to when Miss Emily was a woman in her twenties or thirties, and we learn that her father prevented her from accepting any marriage proposals, thus ensuring her a position in society as an unmarried woman or, if you will, an “old maid.” The townspeople pity her, especially after her father dies and she is left without a spouse, money, or even a name; all she has in the world is the large and empty house. That is, until a construction company moves into town with foreman Homer Barron at the helm. A big, strong, and dark Yankee, Homer starts taking Miss Emily out in a horse and buggy on Sunday afternoons, and the town is somewhat glad to see her romantically linked to a man. But after time goes by and no marriage proposal is made–and Homer is overheard saying that is not a “marrying man”–the townspeople start to pity her once again. Their curiosity is at a peak when Miss Emily goes out to buy arsenic, her relatives come to town, and Homer suddenly leaves. Will her love ever come back? And is the arsenic meant for herself…or someone else?
Faulkner gives away the ending in the opening line: “When Miss Emily Grierson died….” We know, right away, that the main character of the story died. So why read on? Because we’re intrigued by the second half of that opening sentence: “…our whole town went to her funeral; the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house….” That sentence established the point of view (first-person plural) and the situation of the story (that the townspeople feel more a sense of obligation toward and curiosity for Miss Emily than they do any real fondness for her). We only ever see Miss Emily through the biased lens of our storytellers, the townspeople, and the “rumored” perceptions they have of her.
It’s sort of like how, in high school, we see people live us to the rumors placed upon them. We don’t really know who they are, what their motives are, or anything about them; we stop at the things we’ve heard about them or what we thought we saw or what seemed to happen and so the persons themselves have no chance to set the record straight. Similarly, in “A Rose for Emily,” we only see Miss Emily as the person the town describes her as. So, really, the point of view of this story directly affects the character (more specifically, the perceived character) of the main character. As an emerging writer, I can say that that’s a pretty nifty storytelling technique, one that I’m sure took Faulkner many drafts to fully realize.
As much as I seem to be praising this story, let me assure you that I do have some questions about it. I’m still not sure what the title refers to or what it means. I’m left a bit confused by the ending of the story, which I can’t explain further without risking ruining the final image of the story for you! And I’m not quite sure who was the dynamic character, the one who underwent a change based upon the events of the story: Miss Emily…or the “we” storytellers? (That’s Classic! readers: If you have any ideas about or answers to any of the above questions, please feel free to comment below!)
Those few things aside, I found “A Rose for Emily” to be one of the tightest and well-crafted short stories I’ve ever read. And while I wouldn’t expect anything less from Faulkner, it is still always a wonderful surprise to find another literary treasure and to delight, even for just a few minutes, in its long-lasting splendor.
To read a full-text version of “A Rose for Emily,” please click here. (Thanks to W. W. Norton and Company’s LitWeb for posting this story.)