Psychoanalysis teaches that ignorance “is not a passive state of absence-a simple lack of information: it is an active dynamic of negation, an active refusal of information” (Felman 29-30). The isolation of signifying elements is traditionally the province of formalist criticism, which specifies (after the New Criticism) that we note point of view or imagery or metaphor in our analysis. The interpretation of these elements, the making of meaning out of them, then depends on the context or method of interpretation we apply to them.
Thus we can easily see why a signifying elementlike the figure of the father in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”-has so many different meanings. Do we interpret him historically as a metaphor of Southern manhood? Psychologically as the cause of Emily’s neurosis? In a feminist context as a symbol of the patriarchal repression of freedom and desire? Do any of these meanings seem more comprehensive than the others in accounting for the other signifying elements of the text? What procedures would we follow in testing the significance of these interpretations, or in trying to tie them together?
The political version of Lacanian interpretation appears peculiarly well-suited to Faulkner’s texts, in that they so demonstrably involve the positional conflicts of masters and slaves, aristocrats and rednecks, patriarchs and daughters in anguished narratives that dramatize our historic choices of what and how to value. Whereas a conventional psychological reading might emphasize Miss Emily’s “insanity” or “hysteria,” a Lacanian one would focus upon her position in a community of structuring institutions.
As Judith Fetterley has shown, “it is a story of a woman victimized and betrayed by the system of sexual politics” (351, or in Faulkner’s own words the tale of a young girl “brow-beaten and kept down by her father, a selfish man who didn’t want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper” (Gwynn and Blotner 185). Miss Emily’s position is most graphically represented in a reminiscence of the genealogy of her spinsterhood: None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such.
We had long thought of them as a tableau; Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. (437 My choice of example, however, somewhat belies the simplicity of my model, since it is the critical framework that dictates which signifying elements we notice and interpret. Would I, in the absence of psychoanalysis or feminism, stop and ponder at such length that paternal, immovable body blocking Emily’s access to society and sexuality?
And how will these perspectives affect my decision over whether this Emily (like Emily Dickinson) is a madwoman in the attic or a victim of patriarchal culture? These are questions which students can, and should, learn to ask. “A Rose for Emily,” in its final Gothic nightmare of repression and necrophilia, spells out a tale of the Name-of-the-Father as a prohibition and perversity of desire, and Emily’s murderous union as a symbolic resolution of her feminist outrage and erotic longing. The narrative point of view in “A Rose for Emily” puts us in a strange position.
It is “our town,” and our position towards Emily is initially that of the narrator and the community. They are the subject who is supposed to know, but this posthumous narrative turns on their lack of knowledge-a lack that leads to a corpse and to what Emily’s life has lacked. Pedagogically. an analysis of this narrative temporality must pose certain questions: why is this tale told after the fact? what gap in the town’s knowledge of Emily does the narrative set out to correct? how is the inquisitive structure of this detective narrative analogous to an act of voyeurism, and part of the town’s longstanding prurient curiosity toward Emily?
An effort lo interpret the lack of knowledge that motivates this narrative, then, will open up discussion of the correspondences between the represented themes and characters of the story, on the one hand, and the manner of representation on the other. What the narrator and the town don’t know is the answer to Freud’s famous question: “What do women want? ” In prescribing woman’s desire, as Colonel Sartoris and Emily’s father do, the patriarchal subject writes of his own lack, projected as the “castration” of woman, which returns to haunt him in the poisoned figure of Emily’s lover, Homer Barron.
This none-too-subtle name signifies the lack of love in Emily’s house and the sterility of patriarchal structures. Fetterley brilliantly summarizes the tale’s conclusion: When the would-be “suitors” finally get into her father’s house, they discover the consequences of his oppression of her, for the violence contained in the rotted corpse of Homer Barron is the mirror image of the violence represented in the tableau, the back-flung front door flung back with a vengeance. Having been consumed by her father, Emily in turns feeds off Homer Barron, becoming, after his death, suspiciously fat.
Or, to put it another way, it is as if, after her father’s death, she has reversed his act of incorporating her by incorporating and becoming him, metamorphosedfrom the slender figure in white to the obese figure in black whose hair is “a vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man. ” She has taken into herself the violence that thwarted her and has reenacted it upon Homer Barron. (42-43) As Faulkner shows in The Bear,” man’s desire to own and control nature, women, and other races becomes the desire for death, for the end of his own lack.
In acting out the Lacanian formula that desire is always the desire of the Other, Emily revenges herself by identifying with Man’s desire, by incorporating the Father, by giving him what he wants. In penetrating Emily’s house to discover the “truth” about her, our male narrator actually dramatizes the truth of male desire in an anxious discourse that discloses the castration fear signifying Man’s own lack. To ask what Emily wants seems, with Freud, almost inconceivable, and it is her point of view, her position, that becomes the most difficult, and necessary, for us to occupy.
And this can be no simple identification, since, as Penley argues, “each individual ‘exists’ only as a nexus of various and sometimes contradictory subjectivities which are legislated or assumed, either consciously or unconsciously” (144). As a subject of racial and class discourses, the figure of Emily is more than a “woman,” and so the reader must resist a reading that is “only” feminist. Here, then, is where we discover what Fetterley’s interpretation is lacking, for in incorporating her father’s desire Emily adopts a subjective position-that of the patriarchal master-that in fact has been a constitutive part of her character all along.
Emily is not simply the feminist subject (or victim), as Fetterley’s reading often implies (its motto could be “Spinsterhood is powerful! “); Emily is also, contradictorily, identified with the enforcers of subjection, as a train of imagery and incident shows. Her fate’s connection to the Civil War is indicated by her burial site “among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers” (433).
Questions about her position in the town lead not only to her prison-like house, but to the strange details that link her fate to those of the blacks. We learn, for example, that she is a “sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” since “that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor- he who fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron-remitted her taxes” (433). The date suggests a coincidence of Miss Emily’s oppression and the advent of the Jim Crow laws.
This parenthetical aside functions like a slip of the tongue to disclose what Faulkner is often at pains to explore-the fundamental analogy between the patriarchal subjection of women and blacks, condensed in the image of that dictated apron which is “fathered” by Sartoris, and which simultaneously signals racial, sexual, and class differences with a fig-leaf like coverup. Though Fetterley quotes this same passage, she never, from her feminist point of view, sees that the woman is black, nor does her reading ever mention the other blacks in the story.
In discussing Emily’s shadowy “Negro” servant (whose race she doesn’t notice either), Fetterley sees his domestic work as an upsetting of sexual stereotypes, when in fact it is principally a perpetuation of racial and class roles, a social structure also embodied by the house Emily presides over. The servant’s name is Tobe, a punning appellation that echoes Hamlet in signifying the black man’s split being and the deferred futurity of hisachievement of any authorized subjectivity.
Such subjection is literally the business of Homer Barron, a construction company foreman who, like the plantation overseer, disciplines the “niggers and mules and machinery” (438). Though he is a Yankee, Barron actually perpetuates that racial and class patriarchy associated with the South, as Faulkner pointedly indicates: “The little boys would follow in groups to hear him cuss the niggers, and the niggers singing in time to the rise and fall of picks” (439). The class snobbery of Emily’s disdainful townsfolk, who deride her romance, reflects their own defensive repression f the fact that the Master’s power depends upon, and is embodied in, the work of the overseers and slaves. Their condemnation of Emily’s affair suggests their own desire to sustain the delusory differences of race and class at precisely the historical moment when such differences-and the identities they uphold-are crumbling: the imposition of the Jim Crow laws institute segregation as the ideological and administrative antidote to slavery’s abolition. Distancing himself from the past, the narrator scrupulously uses the nominal “Negro” for the manservant, who ages with Emily and disappears at her death.
Perhaps liberated, Tobe’s fate remains obscure, as is characteristic of Faulkner’s apocalyptic representations of the black race’s future at the end of novels such as The Sound and the Fury, Absalorn, Absalom! , and Go Down, Moses. Emily Grierson, then, presents a hermeneutic puzzle. As feminist subject her story speaks of a revolutionary subversion of patriarchy: as herself a figure of racial and class power, Emily also enacts the love affair of patriarchy with its own past, despite all the signs of decline and degradation.
She is a split subject, crossed by rival discourses. What the text forces us to think, then, is the complex and ironic alliance between modes of possession and subjection, desire and ownership, identity and position. Considerations of the subjects of race, class, and gender will each yield a different reading of the text, and we will be hard put to totalize them or reconcile their contradictions. A similar puzzle arose when I was teaching Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. There it was black men, rather than white women, who were split by contradictory subjective positions.
In terms of race they were subjected to white power, as prizefighter Buster Broadnax is helpless to aid Sophia when she is beaten by the police for slugging the mayor’s wife. In terms of gender the black men subject their own women to physical and sexual violence that occurs in rough proportion to their own social and economic emasculation. No single point of view will account for their divided position. Scherting argues that Emily kills Homer because she “was never allowed to outgrow her Oedipal attachment to her father and …
Homer was, libidinally, a surrogate for her father” (400). Holland says that Emily’s “vengeful murder of Homer seems just the kind of thing her father would do; I feel she has incorporated much of her father’s brutality in herself” (28). According to Dennis W. Allen, “Emily’s murder of Homer is … an attempt to forestall his loss through death” (688). Scherting argues that Emily kills Homer because she “was never allowed to outgrow her Oedipal attachment to her father and …
Homer was, libidinally, a surrogate for her father” (400). Holland says that Emily’s “vengeful murder of Homer seems just the kind of thing her father would do; I feel she has incorporated much of her father’s brutality in herself” (28). Sniderman, Stephen L. “The Tabloidization of Emily. ” Journal 10-6. 2 (Spring 2002): 177-201. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 July 2010.
Peter Hayes nominates a more compelling candidate for Emily Grierson’s prototype–a “white-garbed, father dominated, unmarried, inflexible recluse: It is Emily’s awful deed that continues to captivate readers. Why would she do something so ghastly? How could she kill a man and bed his corpse? This line of questioning leads to a psychological examination of Emily’s character. David Minter, in William Faulkner: His Life and Work, notes in several different passages the significant influence that Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, had on Faulkner’s fiction.
Freud theorized that repression, especially if it is sexual in nature, often results in psychological abnormality. In the story, Emily’s overprotective, overbearing father denies her a normal relationship with the opposite sex by chasing away any potential mates. Because her father is the only man with whom she has had a close relationship, she denies his death and keeps his corpse in her house until she breaks down three days later when the doctors insist she let them take the body.
Later in the story, the ladies of the town and her two female cousins from Alabama work to sabotage her relationship with Homer Barron. Of course, the narrator suggests that Homer himself may not exactly be enthusiastic about marrying Emily. However, it is left to the reader to imagine the exact circumstances leading to Homer’s denoument. Finally, Emily takes the offensive by poisoning Homer so he can’t abandon her. The discovery of a strand of her hair on the pillow next to the rotting corpse suggests that she slept with the cadaver or, even worse, had sex with it.