WHEN Miss Emily Grierson died, 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, which no one save an old man-servant--a combined gardener and cook--had seen in at least ten years.
Those words first appeared in print in Forum: The Magazine of Controversy, in the April edition, 1930. It was fitting. Forum was at its height as a magazine of literary significance and had served as a clarion call on issues of social significance since the 1890s. It ceased publication in 1950. I can only surmise the editorial staff threw up their hands in the face of rising McCarthyism.
I KNOW it's not the April issue. I couldn't find one! "A Rose for Emily" is in it!"
These Thirteen, First ed.,Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, New York, 1931
As always, you can find contradictory opinions by William Faulkner regarding the value of Novels, Short Stories, and Poetry. He has referred to writing short stories as "whoring," especially when he was sending stories off to The Saturday Evening Post, his favorite market for his short fiction. However, consider his remarks while writer in residence at the University of Virginia.
Yes sir. You can be more careless, you can put more trash in [a novel] and be excused for it. In a short story that's next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can't. I mean by that the good short stories like Chekhov wrote. That's why I rate that second – it's because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There's less room in it for trash. Faulkner in the University,Introduction by Douglas Day,Frederick Landis Gwynn, Joseph Blotner,University Press of Virginia, 1995
I ascribe to that statement by Faulkner where "A Rose for Emily" is concerned. For this story is a remarkable construction of plot, characterization, theme, and the use of a unique narrative technique. It is only through close reading, repeated reading, that the perfection of this story reveals why this story has become the most anthologized American short story.
Alas, Andalusia, aka Martha Jo, aka "The Queen" has decreed that I, who has decreed himself Jeeves around this abode WILL squire her to Kentuck, the local festival of Arts. And here, Dear Reader, I will leave you until I have returned, covered in the dust of the trodden paths, bearing objects of art, smelling of funnel cake, deafened by strains of music played too loudly through poor public address systems. Goodbye Faulkner. I will think of your story while I am gone.
Actually in route, I have in mind the ideal photograph for Miss Emily's house. Paint peeling, the grey cypress revealed underneath. And our town's oldest cemetery along the way. Perhaps time well spent. Happy reading.
The afternoon has passed as I told you, reader, it would. I have shaken the dust of well trodden paths from my shoes, my beloved is content with purchases made. I am content with photographs taken, downloaded, edited, and shortly to be uploaded and shared.
Ah, Mr. Faulkner. There you are. Well, you weren't whoring with this one. Nor were you telling a straight forward ghost story, although you have said so more than once. Your favorite themes are there, rising from the page. The changing South is there. Miss Emily's house itself is a symbol of it. The past is never past. That's there.
Once the Grierson mansion was a brilliant white on the finest street in town. Now it is falling into disrepair. No longer on one of the finer streets, it is surrounded by businesses, within the sound of the passing trains, near the cemetery where the rows of Union and Confederate dead lie. Miss Emily herself, dead, is a monument.
And we begin the story in the present with Miss Emily taking her place among the eternally peaceful. It is all fairly straight forward. Those first few paragraphs.
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.-Edgar Lee Masters, The Hill, Spoonriver Anthology, 1915
However, Mr. Faulkner tells his story in anything but a conventional manner after the seemingly innocent beginning narrative. Time becomes non-linear. The initial narrator who might have been an omniscient third person observer, a single first person voice, becomes the curiously effective first person plural narrator. The narrator is not I but We. Should you be patient and count, you will find "we" used forty-eight times. It is not a mere whim. Faulkner did nothing by whim.
Through multiple sets of eyes, through multiple generations, we learn the story of Emily Grierson's life and her place in the community.
Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from 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, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily's father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris' generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this arrangement created some little dissatisfaction. On the first of the year they mailed her a tax notice. February came, and there was no reply. They wrote her a formal letter, asking her to call at the sheriff's office at her convenience. A week later the mayor wrote her himself, offering to call or to send his car for her, and received in reply a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink, to the effect that she no longer went out at all. The tax notice was also enclosed, without comment.
Read carefully. It's like asking Salvador Dali for the time.
Emily's father found no suitor acceptable for his daughter. He stood in the doorway, chasing them away with a horse whip. He left her nothing but the house. So the good Old Colonel Sartoris fabricated the scheme to save her the taxes. Notice the narrator(s) observed her to have an angelic appearance.
The Griersons always had that superior attitude. The town resented that. However, Emily was to be pitied. Left a spinster at her father's death. No wonder she denied he was dead and the preachers had to talk her into surrendering his body after he had been dead for three days.
We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will.
Faulkner continues to play with time. He plays with the reader. Unless particularly wary, the reader does not realize he is being played by a master but merciless mouser.
That was two years after her father's death and a short time after her sweetheart--the one we believed would marry her --had deserted her. After her father's death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all. A few of the ladies had the temerity to call, but were not received, and the only sign of life about the place was the Negro man--a young man then--going in and out with a market basket.
Then there's that peculiar odor that emanates from Miss Emily's house shortly after the missing sweetheart was believed to have married Emily.
So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily's lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. As they recrossed the lawn, a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her, and her upright torso motionless as that of an idol. They crept quietly across the lawn and into the shadow of the locusts that lined the street. After a week or two the smell went away.
An idol is feared as much as it is worshiped. Or did they not want to know the truth?
Faulkner spins the hands on the clock again. The sweetheart was Homer Barron, a common laborer and a Yankee at that. A drinker who enjoyed the company of young men whom he told he was not the marrying kind. The Town decided reinforcements were necessary, summoning two Grierson cousins from Alabama.
Barron leaves town, but returns when the Grierson cousins leave. The Town decides it's just as well. Those Alabama Griersons were more superior than Mississippi Griersons.
Emily buys a man's dressing set with the initials "HB" on each piece. A man's nightshirt completes the ensemble. After Homer enters Emily's home he's never seen again.
Emily offers china painting lessons to a generation of Jefferson's children. Until the children stop coming.
The hands on the clock spin wildly.
She carried her head high enough--even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness. Like when she bought the rat poison, the arsenic. That was over a year after they had begun to say "Poor Emily," and while the two female cousins were visiting her.
"I want some poison," she said to the druggist. She was over thirty then, still a slight woman, though thinner than usual, with cold, haughty black eyes in a face the flesh of which was strained across the temples and about the eyesockets as you imagine a lighthouse-keeper's face ought to look. "I want some poison," she said.
"Yes, Miss Emily. What kind? For rats and such? I'd recom--"
"I want the best you have. I don't care what kind."
The druggist named several. "They'll kill anything up to an elephant. But what you want is--"
"Arsenic," Miss Emily said. "Is that a good one?"
"Is . . . arsenic? Yes, ma'am. But what you want--"
"I want arsenic."...
So THE NEXT day we all said, "She will kill herself"; and we said it would be the best thing.
Time passes inexorably. Miss Emily is thirty when she abandons noblesse oblige and takes up with Homer Barron. She dies at the age of seventy-four. At last in death she can be openly acknowledged as one of the community's own. Her air of superiority is gone. Her peculiarity is gone. There is no trace of madness. She is no longer a burden or a duty. Two generations have passed. It is a new generation that rules Jefferson now. Only a few remain of Emily's own age. And they remember her as they wish to.
...and the very old men --some in their brushed Confederate uniforms--on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.
There is but one thing more for Faulkner to do, the final pronouncement of the omniscient "we" that gives "A Rose for Emily" its indelible shudder up the spine of generations of readers.
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it.
Just who knew about that closed room? How many knew?
(view spoiler)[Behind the door the body of Homer Barron rots inside his night gown into the bed. Beside his grinning face there is an indentation on the pillow. There is a single iron gray hair in the hollow there. (hide spoiler)]
It is this knowledge that not only establishes the town as narrator but also accomplice. We act not only affirmatively but also by failure to act, by passivity, indifference, and our own self interest. Rest well Emily, Homer, for all, all, will sleep, sleep, sleep on the hill.
Mr. Chekhov,allow me to introduce you to Mr. Faulkner.