Essay: Rose for Emily by William Faulkner Roles of the South

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Rose for Emily

Nothing is What it Seems in Faulkner's "Rose for Emily"

In William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," Emily Grierson serves a symbol of the old, dying conflicted Southern aristocracy that existed in the immediate post-Civil War era. Or does she? Du Fang, Hal Blythe, and Thomas Klein each notes how nothing is what it seems in the world of Emily Grierson. Even the voice of the narrator is curiously suspicious (Klein 229). The townspeople, too, show a tendency towards duplicity in their "respect" for Emily (which does not keep them from gossiping fairly frequently about her). This paper will show how Faulkner's tale may be considered an expose of sorts -- a lifting of the mask of Southern gentility and respectability, to reveal the sad "long strand of iron-gray hair" of good manners -- all that is left beside the very real and literal "skeleton" in Emily's closet.

The story is told through the voice of an anonymous narrator, who "avoids identifying his or her own sex" (Klein 229). Here is the first mystery of the tale: the reader has no idea who or what sort of person the information is coming from. Does this make the narrator unreliable? Not necessarily -- but it does place a degree of distance between teller of tale and reader, as though Faulkner's narrator were willing enough to spread the news of Emily Grierson, but unwilling to be identified in the dissemination. Identity plays a major role in the story's theme of "masking" -- and it begins right with the very narrator.

Blythe pushes the analysis of identity even further when he takes "a closer examination of Miss Emily's 'lover,' Homer Barron" (49). In Homer Barron, Blythe sees an outsider -- a Northerner (whose very Yankee-ness makes him separate from the Southern world he has seemingly infiltrated). That Emily should take to him is scandal in and of itself (he is not like the kind of respectable Southern gentleman that a respectable Southern gentlewoman would choose) -- but her choice seems to suggest something about her as well, something hidden -- a longing for otherness, perhaps. The fact that the South has lost the War, has lost face, has lost in a sense its respectability, may have a role in Emily's desire for a Northerner -- a man from the opposing camp. Some critics (such as Fang) see in her murder of Homer an act of revenge -- the Southern spirit refusing to be betrayed twice (Fang 23). Yet, Blythe asserts that Emily's motive for murder has roots in Homer's identity. He argues that Homer is hiding his true self and that he is "not a marrying man" because he is in fact a homosexual (49). Homer, like the narrator (and even like Emily) is hiding his true self from the Southern world -- hiding it beneath a veneer of respectability.

Homer Barron's very name sounds larger than life: He is "Christian" name is not "Christian" at all -- but of pagan origin (Greek antiquity to be exact), and recalls one of the greatest epic poets of all time, Homer (who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey). "Barron" suggests aristocracy and "nobility" (Blythe 49) -- and yet Faulkner's Homer is neither aristocratic nor poetic. He is a "day laborer," whose very race is questionable (there are rumors that he might be part Negro). Thus, the object of Emily's affection is not what he appears to be -- or at least not what his name suggests him to be: he "liked men," the younger the better, it seems; yet he uses Emily in order "to keep the good people of Jefferson from seeing his pedophilic deviation" (Blythe 50). Here we have interior not matching exterior.

But Faulkner is not content simply to expose incongruity between inner and outer selves. His story is about "de-masking" society -- pulling the mask off and exposing the inner works. This act of "de-masking," moreover, he suggests to be inevitable -- as though the truth will out itself of its own power. This is symbolized in the way that Emily's house begins to reek. The townspeople notice the smell and know that it bodes no good -- but they do not want the Southern mask taken off: they do not want corruption exposed. So they try to mask the smell emanating from the house. They do not pry into Emily's affairs. They let her off the hook when it comes to paying local taxes. They assert that they are respecting her as the Southern gentlewoman that she is -- though an undercurrent of gossip and suspicion is felt in the very tones that the narrator uses, in the shadowy images he projects, and in the imprecise but subtly suggestive sketches he provides.

All the time, the townspeople are actually trying to keep the skeleton in the closet. The skeleton in their case is Emily. She has shown signs of mental disturbance; her reclusive nature appears to be unnatural -- just like the smell that comes from her house and suggests corruption. Her family may have represented high respectability in the past, but Emily has certainly fallen, even though there remains a "high and mighty" air about her. She fools no one. But rather than lose face, the town is willing enough to keep Emily's peculiarities from becoming a public scandal. The mask they put on her is one of acceptance. But that mask is ultimately just a mask: and the truth is finally revealed, when Emily is buried and the house investigated by the public for the first time in years: what they find is the dead body of Homer Barron -- still in Emily's bed (where it is plain Emily has continued to sleep all these years).

Is it a sudden shift in genre from Southern Realism to Southern Gothic, the way Hitchcock shifts genres in his 1960 film Psycho? Possibly -- but the fact that the major theme of the story -- that nothing is what it seems -- points to the "twist" ending that Faulkner provides. He has, in other words, anticipated this revelation from the beginning, as Klein insists: "From the beginning of the story, we notice…the narrator avoids signaling allegiance to a particular generation," (229) as though he or she were somehow un-implicated in the events of the story -- as though he or she were simply an innocent bystander in the whole affair. Klein argues that the voice of the narrator is meant to suggest "the gossipy, first-person style of society columnists" (229). It certainly helps the thesis of this paper, since the such a gossipy society style is very New Yorker-ish and completely incompatible with Southern aristocratic ways and conventions. Yet, Faulkner as much as says, here it is: the two are one. The "difference" or "advantage" that the South imagines it has over the North -- the air and attitude of haughtiness -- is gone; it has been wiped out by the Union's victory in the Civil War; and it is currently being wiped out by the story being spread by the anonymous narrator. For what the story ultimately reveals is that Emily Grierson, the symbol of Southern manners and mores, is actually a murderer -- and more than yet: a woman who has literally lived and slept with the skeleton (or rotting corpse) of her "gay" lover, for years.

The mask of respectability is one that must come off -- that will come off, Faulkner suggests -- because truth (being what it is) cannot stay hidden forever. Something in human nature compels us to seek it. This is why the Souther narrator becomes like the Yankee society muckraker: he (or she) must in order to "out" the truth of Emily Grierson. This is why the townspeople themselves finally… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Rose for Emily by William Faulkner Roles of the South.  (2013, April 12).  Retrieved July 17, 2019, from

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"Rose for Emily by William Faulkner Roles of the South."  12 April 2013.  Web.  17 July 2019. <>.

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"Rose for Emily by William Faulkner Roles of the South."  April 12, 2013.  Accessed July 17, 2019.