Clinging to the Past in Faulkner's A Rose for Emily
Length: 1553 words (4.4 double-spaced pages)
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The end of the American Civil War also signified the end of the Old South's era of greatness. The south is depicted in many stories of Faulkner as a region where "the reality and myth are difficult to separate"(Unger 54). Many southern people refused to accept that their conditions had changed, even though they had bitterly realized that the old days were gone. They kept and cherished the precious memories, and in a fatal and pathetic attempt to maintain the glory of the South people tend to cling to old values, customs, and the faded, but glorified representatives of the past. Miss Emily was one of those selected representatives. The people in the southern small-town, where the story takes place, put her on a throne instead of throwing her in jail where she actually belonged. The folks in town, unconsciously manipulated by their strong nostalgia, became the accomplices of the obscene and insane Miss Emily.
Faulkner tells the story in first form plural, where the narrators represent the folks in town, which gives a feeling of that this description is the general perception. One immediately gets involved in the story since they first retell what actually happened and then add their own interpretations and assumptions. The double perspective one gets invites to draw one's own conclusions from a more objective point of view, which mine hopefully is!
Miss Emily was brought into the spotlight the same moment as her father died. Being the last remaining person from the high ranking Grierson family in town, she became the new ambassador of the old days. The people welcomed her with open arms, without actually knowing anything more about her than her admirable name. Her father's death also meant that Miss Emily's unrevealed secret was brought into the grave. It is well known that insanity is a hereditary disposition, and Miss Emily's great-aunt, lady Wyatt, had "gone absolutely crazy"(80) before she passed away a couple of years earlier. Emily's father had since then dissociated from that branch of the family, as if to run away from a dishonorable influence. I believe that he was aware of her condition, and he therefore had kept her from social life and driven away the long road of suitors to prevent her from causing another scandal, which could spot his and his family's remaining reputation.
However, as she was the last Grierson in town she became their protégé, who they did not want to defame since it would be equivalent with confirming the ruin of their values and historical inherence.
The first indicators of Miss Emily's insanity occur in connection with her father's death. When the people come to offer their condolence and aid, she acts like nothing has happened. She does not understand that her father has passed away, and she tries to keep the body. Despite this rather awkward behavior, no one ever questioned it. She was of Grierson blood, an example of the good sort of people, and they all assumed that this was a proper and entitled way to behave. No one would ever contradict or insult her. She was untouchable, not because she tried to maintain her high position herself, but because the inhabitants had created the perfect, immaculate person, who possessed all the venerable heroic characteristics: "pride, isolation, and independence,"(Brown Jones 136) which someone from the old days would have. Miss Emily herself, I believe, was totally incapable of realizing what happened outside her closed front door. Her clock had stopped a long time ago, and she preferred living her isolated and protected world inside her house. She did not take care of neither her own personal health nor her house, which both were left to fall into ruin. She was totally lackadaisical for the future; moreover, she had lost the concept of time. When the city authorities came to tell her that she no longer can run away from her taxes, she simply dispatch them by saying "See Colonel Sartoris. I have no taxes in Jefferson" (Faulkner 79). The only problem was that he passed away ten years ago. She didn't want any intervention, nor was she in any need of compassion or companionship for the simple reason that she was emotionally disturbed. No mentally, healthy human being would live the way she did. But instead of interfering in her obviously morbid and obscure life, they kept their worshipful distance. She was more like a holy symbol of the past than an actual human being. Therefore, an intriguing myth was created around her. She was like a living legend and the weirder she behaved the more colorful and fascinating the myth became.
What struck me about the story was the misinterpretations the folks in town made in he shade behind their jalousies. For example, when her father dies she shows no sign of grief. Instead of realizing her condition, they interpret her action as an example of pride and unuttered grief, which she hides for them in her precious little heart. They also make up a romantic story about her relationship with Homer Barron. When he disappears, they assume that he has left her with a broken heart, and this gives them yet another reason to pity the poor little creature. Yet they see her walking with even straighter back and keeping her head even higher. With dignity she bears all the sorrows and disappointments on her frail shoulders, and the folks seem to admire her even more. If only they could imagine that she actually was responsible for a well-planned murder. What is more comical, or perhaps one should say tragic, is that they even supplied her with the lethal arsenic, even though the druggist had to break the law for her sake. She was beyond the law. It was like she was their law incorporated- the unwritten law of the values and beliefs from the old days.
In order to mislead the reader and to behold the suspense, Faulkner switches the chronological order of the events. However, if one sees through this clever maneuver the evidence that connects Miss Emily with the vanishing of Homer Barron is flagrant. She purchases a mortal poison; Homer Barron is seen for the last time entering her house; a couple of days later a terrible stench of cadaver occurs around her house. It is a clear case, but the folks in town did not even suspect her. They were more embarrassed of making remarks about the smell. As the Judge said, "Dammit sir, will you accuse a lady of smelling bad?"(80). As a result they sneaked around the house and sprinkled lime to extinguish the terrible stink. In a way it was also a quick and smooth operation to prevaricate from digging deeper to find out the truth. A truth which they did not want to now. Miss Emily, who probably was both indifferent and unconscious of the crime she had committed, had not even bothered to conceal her traces. Instead of taking the reality as it was objectively, they romanticized everything to her benefit to maintain the bond to their inherence.
Even though the interest in her decreased as the generations changed, her unexpected death attracted the curious attention of the folks in town. The event was a ceremonial and nostalgic moment, and the old people even bragged about their relationships to this true lady. They were finally going to get the denouement of their life-long, self-created mystery of who Miss Emily actually was. Although they probably were more or less convinced that their assumptions were true, they wanted a confirmation, which in some way would justify themselves of their strong attachment to the past. What they probably hoped for was to find some sort of evidence that would embellish their already spotless image of her, which would defend their denial of the fact that time is inevitable passing. However, the revealing of Homer Barron's withered dead body lying in a bed for two, where the pillow beside him had an indentation of a head, on which they also found one of Miss Emily's gray hair strands must have silenced their gossiping mouths for good. The truth that Miss Emily had not only killed her beloved one but also slept beside his rutted body was relentlessly thrown in their stupefied faces. She had clung to him the same way the people in town had clung to their inherence. I believe they finally realized how foolishly wrong they had been throughout the years. The powerful contrast that a hardly detectable hair strand would be the indication that finally led to the discovery of the truth emphasizes even more how frail their imaginary world actually was. They could no longer run away from the fact that time passes and that conditions change. I believe that the old southern values and traditions are reflected in the revealing of her death. Their " poor Emily" was no less than a cool-blooded killer, like the once dreadful slavery had also been for many people. If they had just opened their eyes they would have seen all the defects and faults in their heritage, and not only Homer Barron but also other men's lives could have been saved. But I guess the love for their cherished Old South made them blind.