“A Rose for Emily”, by William Faulkner, begins and ends with the death of Miss Emily Grierson, the main character of the story. In the story William Faulkner uses characterization to reveal the character of Miss Emily. Faulkner divided the story “into five sections, the first and last section having to do with the present, and the now of the narration, with the three middle sections detailing the past” (Davis 35). Faulkner expresses the content of Miss Emily’s character through physical description, through her actions, words, and feelings, through the narrator’s direct comments about her, and through the actions, words, and feelings of other characters. Faulkner best uses characterization to examine the theme of the story, we are the products of our environment.
Miss Emily lives for many years as a recluse, as a result of her surroundings. In the story the narrator comments that “no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen [the house] in at least ten years” (Faulkner 217). Miss Emily’s father is partly to blame for her life as a recluse. Faulkner’s narrator says that, “We remembered all the young men her father had driven away” (221). Critic Donald Akers notes that:
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. (2)
Her father robs her from many of life’s necessities. She misses out on having friends, being a normal woman, and her ability to be happy. Emily is so used to having her father be there for her, she figures that by keeping his body he can still be part of her life. Miss Emily may have lived in seclusion, but her heart longed for companionship.
The summer after her father’s death, the town brought in a construction company to begin paving the sidewalks. The foreman of the company was Homer Barron. The town then begins to see him and Miss Emily on Sunday afternoons together. Michael L. Burduck, of The University of Mississippi Studies in English, notes in his article that “Faulkner himself sheds interesting light on this matter when he describes Miss Emily as a woman ‘that just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family’” (210). It is later gossiped that Miss Emily had bought arsenic, and the town all said, “She will kill herself”(Faulkner 223). Later it was gossiped that she had bought a man’s toilet set and men’s clothing and the town was glad because they thought that the two either were or were getting married. Emily now feels that “without a husband, her life will have no meaning” (“A Rose for Emily 1). It is noted by Daniel Akers 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 denouement. Finally, Emily takes the offensive by poisoning Homer so he can’t abandon her” (3). Miss Emily’s desire for love and companionship drives her to murder Homer Baron with arsenic poison that was bought to be used for rats. Critic Michael L. Burduck says:
Our narrator knows that Emily purchased poison, ostensibly to kill “rats”. One slang use of the term “rat” applies to a man who has cheated on his lover. Perhaps Faulkner’s tale-teller suspects that Emily feared that Homer would not remain faithful to her. In order to “keep” Homer by her side, Emily poisoned him. (210)
She knew her true intentions when she bought the arsenic poison, but Emily did what “she could to retain Homer’s companionship and insure that he would not give her up for another woman” (Burduck 210). After Homer’s disappearance the front door was not used again, except for a period of six to seven years when she gave china-painting lessons.
After Homer’s disappearance Emily is seen now and then in the windows of her house. After the death of her father and the disappearance of her sweetheart, Emily’s house began to develop a smell for which a few of the townsmen sprinkled lime around her house on night and the smell went away. Faulkner’s narrator then notes about her hair that “[u]p to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray like the hair of an active man” (224). Critic John F. Birk says, “Notably, the new-found quality of Emily’s hair hints that, first, she is playing a more aggressive if unseen role behind the scenes, and, second, she is somehow adopting a male role” (210).
Faulkner later describes Miss Emily by saying “Thus she passed from generation to generation—dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse” (225). Davis does not believe that this is simply a list of adjectives Faulkner chose to catalog but that he uses to:
Describe Miss Emily with some care and for a specific purpose. It could be argued that they are intended to refer to the successive sections of the story, each becoming as it were a sort of metaphorical characterization of the differing states through which the townspeople of Jefferson (and the readers) pass in their evaluation of Miss Emily. (35)
Another critic, Robert Crosman, comments that in his reading of the story he found Miss Emily to be “menacing” and even “grotesque and stupid” while one of his students describe Miss Emily as having “endurance, faith, [and] love” (208-209).
After the adjective description Faulkner’s next line states, “And so she died” (Faulkner 225). Miss Emily fell ill and died with only her Negro to wait on her. The town then waited for Miss Emily to be decently in the ground to open the one upstairs room that they knew had been closed for forty years. The scene next seen was completely unexpected. Homer Barron was in the bed. The town stood staring looking at the body. “Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head” and then someone lifted something from it, it was a “long strand of iron-gray hair” (Faulkner 226). It was obvious that Miss Emily had not only killed her sweetheart by actually laid with him after his death. Her deepest and hidden longings were lying in the bed. She kept Homer’s body so long because she feels that she has finally accomplished something in her life.
William Faulkner’s use of characterization to describe Miss Emily and her intention was triumphant in bringing the story to life. Miss Emily’s character was expressed though her actions and feelings, through the narrator’s direct comments about her, and through the actions, words, and feelings of other characters.
“A Rose for Emily.” Magill Book Reviews. 2pp EBSCOhost. Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX 8 Nov. 2000 .
Akers, Donald. “A Rose for Emily.” Short Stories for Students. New York: Gale, 1999. 4pp Literature Resource Center. Harris County Public Library, Houston, TX 21 Nov. 2000 .
Birk, John F. “Tryst beyond Time: Faulkner’s ‘Emily’ and Keats.” Studies in Short Fiction 28.2 (1991): 103-13.
Burduck, Michael L. “Another View of Faulkner’s Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1990): 209-211.
Crosman, Robert. “How Readers Make Meaning.” College Literature 9.3 (1982): 207-215.
Davis, William V. “Another Flower for Faulkner’s Bouquet: Theme and Structure in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Notes on Mississippi Writer 7.2 (1974): 34-38.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Best Short Stories of the Modern Age. Ed Douglas Angus. New York: Fawcett World Library, 1968. 217-226.