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A Rose for Emily, a Short Story Overlaid with Divergence

In a story, whether it is short or long, obscurity and mystery have always been intriguing factors for readers. There are various ways to demonstrate ambiguity; one of them is through conflict because disunity brings uncertainty. And since there is no clear side in the conflicts, the reader gets hazy reading something that includes disunity. For the last couple of centuries, readers have often been in search of stories that would keep their level of curiosity high. Since we live in a century where humans frequently get distracted due to the negative effects of technology addiction, people are trying to find something that will keep them focused. As the research psychologist Larry D. Rosen mentions in his article The distracted student mind – enhancing its focus and attention, in the study they conducted, "students unlocked their phones about 60 times a day and used them for a total of 220 minutes" (2017, p.5). By investigating their research, it is not a surprise that people lose concentration, considering that, in this world strongly impacted by social media and technology, the simple action of reading a book must be very difficult for some people.

William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily is a great example of keeping the reader’s concentration on a book that also implies elements of southern Gothic literature, such as social taboos, decaying imagery, historical context, and conflict. William Faulkner tells the story of the unmarried woman Emily and the mystery surrounding her residence, which is a representation of Southern life after the American Civil War. In this story there are various layers of conflict, which also provide readers an analysis of the complexity of human nature This becomes possible given that some people tend to be their own worst enemies, and conflict with their surroundings as depicted in Emily’s refusal to adapt the society and choosing to isolate herself. Along with its alluring mysterious content, such as the undefined identity of the narrator in the story, this short story contains contrasts such as south and north conflict, particularly in the Reconstruction Era, and person versus self, which reveals itself when Miss Emily conflicts with herself through her decisions such as isolating herself from townspeople.

Identity of the Narrator

A Rose for Emily is a well-known short story first published in 1930 and written by Nobel prize winning American author William Faulkner. Conflict in this short story initially reveals itself through the narrator, since his/her identity remains unknown and is shown to the reader as an undefined neighbor of Miss Emily. A possible intention behind Faulkner' decision to put an undefined narrator in his Gothic short story was his desire to add more mystery. Unreliable narration would make readers question the validity of the information provided, which would result in conflict in the reader's understanding of the narrative, as there could be various perceptions of readers. The unresolved questions surrounding the narrator's identity can contribute to this discordant interpretation. If the narrator is generally assumed to be objective, only a single critic, Austin McGiffert Wright, has a few doubts about its objectiveness when analyzing Faulkner's use of narrative in this story (Sullivan, 1971, p.3). The reader's connection with the characters may become conflicted since the narrator's identity is kept secret. As readers gain more insight about Emily and her behavior, they can develop sympathy for her or come to disagree with the narrator's assessments and ideas. This misalignment can generate internal conflicts within readers as they navigate their own understanding of the story. From the beginning till the end, as the feelings conveyed are indicative of the general sentiment of the whole town of Jefferson, the entire text is focused on and presumably narrated by a townsperson (Kim, 2011 p.2). In addition to the obscure identity of the narrator, it is noted that there are numerous contrasts in the story, such as past and present, south and north, old and new, and so on (Watkins, 1954 p.1).

Figure 1: "Lady with the Rose" (Burckhardt, 1882)

South versus North

A Rose for Emily carries the reflections of “Old South contending with the New Order of the Post-Civil War Era” (Sullivan, 1971, p.1). The American Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865, was a major armed conflict fought between the United States of America, known as the Union, and eleven Southern States that seceded to form the Confederate States of America. This war is significant in American history since it played crucial role in ending slavery in the United States and "the average productivity of American labor has increased over time" (Gunderson, 1974, p.3). Even though the origin of the war is not precisely known, there are some speculations over the reason why this war started such as "diverse mechanisms as slavery, sectionalism, political ineptitude, a slave-power conspiracy, economic conflicts and abolitionist activism" (Gunderson, 1974, p.1). The Reconstruction Era was a period of the American post-Civil War Era that ended in 1865. The protagonist of the short story, Emily Grierson, typifies the Old South people in the Reconstruction Era. Old Southerners experienced the collapse of the agrarian economy and the defeat of the Confederacy that affected many people in terms of struggling to adapt to a new way of life.

One of the things to look at to understand Faulkner's portrayal of Old Southerners is the setting of the story, which is a fictional Southern town of Jefferson. In this town, Emily, like other nostalgic Southern Americans, finds hard to truly let go her Southern identity because they desired to stay with their pre-war life so that they did not have many losses, including their traditional lifestyle. Thus, the Griersons, stand in for the Old South's dwindling nobility and resist modernization. "The summer of 1865 was the South's moment of fundamental historical disjuncture. Thrust into an alien, unpredictable world, southerners felt a loss of historical continuity a loss of sameness and wholeness as the price of defeat" (Anderson, 2005, p.8). Thereby, she reacts to her loss of traditional values by refusing to adapt to a new community and does not define herself to the society she lives in. The narrator shows the vanity of the heroine’s aristocracy by using southern Gothic elements such as isolation and marginalization, since the narrator points out that even prestigious names left the neighborhood, “only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay” (Faulkner, 1930, p.1). The invasions of Emily's home by the supporters of the new order in the town are intended to emphasize the contrast between Emily and the townspeople as well as between her home and its surroundings, which encourages the reader to comprehend the North-South struggle that happened in the Reconstruction Era (Watkins, 1954).

Figure 2: "Recognition: North and South" (Mayer, 1865).

One of their divergences between North and South was about the differences in their economic systems before the war. The North relied more on industrialization, while the South was heavily dependent on agriculture. In addition to that, their lifestyles were different as was their economy; Northerners chose to remain in urban places while Southerners sought to stay in their agricultural surroundings; accordingly, the new order in town wanted a lifestyle that Emily did not want. The protagonist represents the Old Southern aristocracy and its indomitable spirit, “the enclosing parts reveal the invasion of the aristocracy by the changing order” (Wakins, 1954). Emily Grierson rebels against the younger townspeople and their needs by refusing to pay the "mailed tax notice” (Faulkner, 1930). Moreover, she ignores the pharmacist by getting the arsenic that she demands, even though the law requires her to tell what she intends to use it for. “Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up” (Faulkner, 1930, p.6). Rejecting societal norms and making an attempt to take charge of her own life and circumstances emphasizes on the fact that Emily avoids confronting the new social life that the Reconstruction Era brings.

Person versus Self

Another conflict depicted in the short story is between person and self, a particular type of internal dispute existing within a character. It is depicted through the internal struggles and psychological state of Miss Emily Grierson, specifically with her decision to be alone. “The inviolability of Miss Emily's isolation is maintained in the central division, part three, in which no outsider enters her home” (Watkins, 1954, p.3). She lets in the house only one young man who enters it with a market basket and rejects the other townspeople from connecting with her, isolating herself more and more from the society. She becomes a remote figure to the townspeople and avoids all forms of social interaction. In fact, the next time she is seen, people notice that she has gained weight and that her hair has turned gray.

"Looking like ‘a body long submerged in motionless water,’ Emily is an uneasy conjunction of being and nonbeing" (Allen, 1984 p.3). After a while, the younger generation took over the role of the town's heart and soul. Yet, “when the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it” (Faulkner, 1930, p.7). She refuses to listen to the newer generation, and person versus self shows itself at this specific quote since throughout the book, Emily chooses to stay alone and ends up being unable to find anyone to share her sorrow with. When Emily dies alone, people are curious to see what is inside of her house since residents in the town knew that there is one room which no one had seen before. The time that people get into the room, they witness “a man himself lay in the bed” (Faulkner, 1930, p.8). At the end of the short story, people see long strands of hair colored iron-gray. Her revenge towards people results in killing those close to her, and hiding the two dead bodies which were found in a sealed room by townspeople after Miss Emily's death. Her concealment of the bodies shows her unhealthy obsession since Emily stays in denial by refusing to let go her loved ones and maintaining a sense of control over the deceased people.

Figure 3: "A Rose For Emily" (Hsu, 2009).

Emily is a perfect anti-hero: as she refuses to be in touch with the townspeople who go on seeing her like a stranger, we can say that, intentionally or not, she prepares her own end. She has a hard time accepting the losses in her life; she rejects communication and ends up isolating herself even though she longs for companionship. In general, isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness, boredom, and a sense of disconnectedness. It can even contribute to mental health issues such as depression and can affect self-esteem negatively since it is associated with the "issues of prosocial behavior and that self-deprecation is connected more strongly to indicators of diminished psychological and social well-being, particularly distress, isolation, and dependence"(Owens, 1993, p.2). Even though the story does not have a clear conclusion, it was predictable that she murdered her husband, Homer Barron. As apparently he had never shown any interest in getting married and settle down, people thought he was homosexual, and this is a crucial part of the story. Homer is one of the depictions of the challenges to the traditional societal norms of the time, as he is a Northerner and of a lower social class than Miss Emily. While their relationship seems like a potential reunion of North and South, as predicted by the story's conclusion, this relationship fails, and Emily endangers her romantic life by killing her husband because, in the end, she isolates herself from everyone, Homer included. Miss Emily's resistance to change and her fixation on the past are evident in her refusal to accept the death of her father and later the decomposing body of Homer Barron. Her unwillingness to let go of the past draws attention to her internal conflict between her desire to reconcile the present and the past. She becomes a remote figure to the townspeople; she avoids all forms of social interaction. Thereby, the narrator indicates that Miss Emily starts to have a conflict with herself as well. The protagonist of the story alienates herself from sexuality, romance, and society because of the expectations of society.


What makes this short story so unique is that it combines divergence with ambiguity. Since Emily's motivation remains uncertain given that the narrator of the story is not reliable source for understanding the real reason of her motive. Thus, a significant amount of the critical analysis of the work observes Emily's behavior and her portrayal of Southerner American in Reconstruction period. Likewise, a reader may immerse themselves in the book by trying to understand the intended meaning of William Faulkner. Most likely, given that growing up in Mississippi, Faulkner was surrounded by the remnants of the Old South, its traditions, and its complex history, which played a significant role in shaping his writing, he uses Emily's downfall as a representation of the downfall of old Southern people. From any kind of information about the narrator to the ending of the story remains obscure because there are various things left as unpredictable to the reader, such as the identity of the narrator and the unclear ending of the story. Moreover, the real intention behind the actions of the protagonist remains indefinite since a reader can only predict when there is not even a defined narrator in the story. In addition to that, Miss Emily stays undefinable with her "both grotesquely fat and excessively thin, living and dead, female and male, the copresence of opposites". (Allen, 1984, p.3).

Bibliographical References

Allen, D. W. (1984). Horror and perverse delight: Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” Modern Fiction Studies, 30(4), 685–696.

Anderson, D. (2005). Down memory Lane: Nostalgia for the old south in Post-Civil War plantation reminiscences. The Journal of Southern History, 71(1), 105–136.

Faulkner, W. (1930). A Rose for Emily. Retrieved from

Gunderson, G. (1974). The origin of the American Civil War. The Journal of Economic History, 34(4), 915–950.

Kim, J. (2011). Narrator as collective ‘We’: The narrative structure of “A Rose for Emily”” English Language & Literature Teaching, 17(4), 141-156.

Owens, T. J. (1993). Accentuate the positive-and the negative: Rethinking the use of Self-Esteem, Self-Deprecation, and Self-Confidence. Social Psychology Quarterly, 56(4), 288–299.

Rosen, L. D. (2017). The distracted student mind – enhancing its focus and attention. The Phi Delta Kappan, 99(2), 8–14.

Sullivan, R. (1971). The narrator in “A Rose for Emily.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, 1(3), 159–178.

Watkins, F. C. (1954). The structure of “A Rose for Emily.” Modern Language Notes, 69(7), 508–510.

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Zişan Doğdu

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