Complex Love In A Rose For Emily English Literature Essay

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This paper will investigate the complex love relationship between the southern belladonna Emily Grierson and the northern street worker Homer Barron in William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. In order to analyse this issue, I will divide my research in two parts. I will first focus on the female protagonist who seems to have a great desire for companionship and love. To verify this idea I will outline the main features of her life and try to enter in the world of her psyche. Moreover, I will define and interpret possible reasons for her actions. The second part will concentrate on the important male figure of the short story: Homer Barron. Here, I will focus mainly on his role in this sophisticated love-scenario and on the questions, why he gets murdered and which reasons led Emily to commit such a crime. I will then compare these findings to the title of the short story and concentrate my thoughts on the meaning of the symbol of the rose in A Rose for Emily.

2. A Rose for Emily: A Portrait of Emily Grierson.

An absent-minded Southern belladonna named Emily Grierson represents the protagonist of William Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily. Interpretations about this character can lead to numerous directions due to her life which is seen as extremely bizarre and macabre: The daughter of an aristocratic and a good standing family has difficulties with growing-up due to her stern father who never accepts one of her suitors. After Mr Grierson passed away, a young street worker from the North, named Homer Barron, appears in the small town of Jefferson, to whom she loses her heart. Suddenly, he vanishes and he never turns up again, while Emily is caught in the act of buying arsenic. Until then, Ms Grierson stays in her house for good but her black servant leaves sometimes. All of a sudden, Emily dies and as the curious townspeople enter the house at her burial, they come across a bedroom made up as a bridal room where they find a grey strain of hair next to the tracks of a skeleton.

Schizophrenia as a Scapegoat for her Actions.

Although Emily's behaviour is outrageous, she never had a reputation for being insane. The townspeople "did not say she was crazy" (A Rose for Emily [1] 124), but her actions and her character would lead one to assume that she has gone barking mad. If not, why would someone stay in a house for a lifetime and sleep next to a corpse? A possible explanation for this might be a mental illness, as e.g. schizophrenia (Smith).

Its causes can be easily lead back to Emily's childhood: As a result of the high values of an aristocratic family, she grew up with ever-lasting expectations that the inhabitants of Jefferson had of a daughter of such an ancestry: "Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town" (RfE 119). The citizens demanded the maintenance of those traditions set up by her ancestors but already as a child she was not probably able to handle these demanding conditions (Smith).

Another culprit for Emily's mental state is definitely Mr Grierson. The family values were of a particular importance for him, even if his daughter would have to suffer: "[…] her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times […]" (RfE 127). Therefore Emily never had a love relationship with a man because Mr Grierson thinking none of those suitors were good enough for her was always shooing them away.

"[…] the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were. None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. […] she got to be thirty and was still single […]." (RfE 123)

2.2 Death of her Father as the Last Straw.

After Mr Grierson passed away, the reader is able to observe an acceleration of Emily's mental decadence (Smith). This process might seem peculiar but it is easy explainable: Emily was always burdened with external stress, which her father has to be partly blamed for. Now, much of this pressure disappears suddenly owing to the death of Mr Grierson and of all his expectations and orders, whereby the previous hidden symptoms surface (Smith). Therefore, Emily is not able anymore to convey her true feelings at the burial, i.e. she is not affected by her own father's exitus and has "no trace of grief on her face" (RfE 123). Hence, the former Southern belle is leaving more and more reality and enters an imaginary world, as e.g. by saying to the townspeople that "her father was not dead" (RfE 123) or by totally withdrawing herself from society. Another classic symptom for schizophrenia can be detected in her inability of interacting socially with others and in the later lack of hygiene and of self-awareness on her physical appearance (Smith):

"When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man." (RfE 127-28)

Besides all these examples, the best argument for a supposable mental illness on the part of Emily Grierson establishes her attraction to corpses.

2.3 Transcending Death of Emily's Love.

The fact that Ms Grierson spends time with a dead human body states Faulkner in the last sentences of his short story:

"The man himself lay in the bed. For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and […] in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair" (RfE 130).

This paragraph demonstrates well the height of her mental illness and explains frankly what Emily did in the last years of her life: She murdered her suitor Homer Barron and passed the nights next to his cadaver.

Such attractions to dead bodies are termed as necrophilia which is a combination of the two Greek words nekros (dead person) and philia (affection). This mental disorder includes sexual intercourse with a corpse which is in fact illegal in Europe. Whether Emily slept with Homer's corpse can only be interpreted because it is not mentioned directly (Grabher).

3. A Rose for Homer: A Portrait of Homer Barron.

Homer Barron displays an essential figure in A Rose for Emily because he can be presented as a symbol for hope and for companionship, i.e. Emily Grierson sees in this Northern street worker a ghost of a chance of getting away from all the expectations laid upon her and from solitude. Her whole life has been marked by the feeling of loneliness but through Homer she tries to break this mould.

"[…] we were sure that they were to be married. We learned that Miss Emily had been to the jeweler's and ordered a man's toilet set in silver, with the letters H. B. on each piece. Two days later we learned that she had bought a complete outfit of men's clothing, including a nightshirt […]" (RfE 127).

The townspeople's description of Emily's activities reveals her seriousness about her relationship with her beloved foreman but does not convey the reason for her subsequent tasks.

3.1 Revelation of Homer's Homosexual Proclivities.

A possible reason for the murder of Homer Barron could be seen in Emily's fear of being alone again. Indeed, she falls in love with her follow and insists on marrying him but that differs with Homer's intentions. As a labourer from the North, he is just looking for a place to stay during the working weeks and not for a future wife. In addition to that, it seems that Homer is not interested in any woman but in men, because he "himself had remarked-he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club-that he was not a marrying man" (RfE 126).

A closer analysis of his first and last name can be used to strengthen this theory. Homer leads us back to Ancient Greece (8th century BC-146 BC) and to Homeros who wrote Iliad and the Odyssey. Anyway, the Greek society of this time is largely known for its acceptance of homosexuality. Barron could be interpreted in various ways, e.g. as a pun [2] due to barren which has a similar sound. However, barren displays a tight connection with the character, if we look at its synonyms: fruitless, sterile, meagre or infertile. This particular meaning of that term ties in with the inability of a homosexual couple to reproduce and therefore with the figure of Homer Barron (Grabher).

Moreover, Faulkner integrates little hints to get to know Homer's sexual preferences, as e.g. through the use of colours: "[…] Homer Barron with his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove […]" (RfE 126). The colour yellow could be here a clear reference to the Yellow Book which was the most popular British magazine in the 1980s [3] . It was associated with aestheticism, a 19th century movement which attached more importance to aesthetic values than to moral ones, and indirectly with homosexuality (Roth).

3.2 Emily's Response to her Discovery.

The most interesting issue about this complicate love-scenario between a forlorn Southern lady and a gay Northern industrial worker is how her discovery of Homer's truly sexual proclivities affected Emily. After discovering his secret, she tries to adapt her physical appearance to the conceptions of beauty of her beloved: she cuts her hair which then looks "like the hair of an active man" (RfE 128). The motive for doing that can be lead back to the desire of pleasing him in order to keep their relationship alive.

This whole aspect reminds me of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), better known as Caravaggio, whose sexual identity was also surrounded by numerous rumours, e.g. it is said that he went for male androgynous younglings. Many of his paintings show such infantile boys, like e.g. Bacchus (1595) or Amor Vincit Omnia (1602). Even more striking is that women were unusual objects in his canvases and if he depicted them, they mostly have a short, boyish hairstyle, as Faulkner's Emily and as the angel in Caravaggio's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1597) have (Harten 30-34).

Fig. 1. Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome; rpt. in Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (London: Allen Lane, 2010; print; 162).

3.3 Homer as a Rose for Emily.

Emily realises soon that Homer and she do not have the same feelings for each other and that he will not be in her town for a long time anymore. Therefore, she takes to more extreme measures: she buys arsenic in order to kill Homer.

"'I want some poison' she said to the druggist. […] 'Yes, Miss Emily. What kind?' […] 'I want the best you have. I don't care what kind.' The druggist named several. 'They'll kill anything up to an elephant.'" (RfE 125)

The reason for the murder lies clearly in her great desire of avoiding a probable recurring solitude and of keeping Homer as close as possible. This leads directly to a possible interpretation concerning the title of the short story which can be irritating due to the absence of the image of a rose in Faulkner's work. Although the flower is not stated at all, the term rose arises four times bearing two different meanings. On the one hand the author uses this word as the past form of the verb rise and on the other hand as the colour rose:

"A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose colo[u]r, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, […]." (RfE 129-30)

That is why it is not evident who or what symbolises the rose in the title. A plausible conclusion could be that Homer personalises the rose because Emily does not endure letting him go, not even after his decease. On the contrary, she uses death to be even closer to her beloved street worker. Her greatest wish of keeping Homer's body resembles to the action of bending a rose and pressing it then between some pages of a book in order to keep its beauty forever (VCCS Litonline).

4. Conclusion

The leading idea of this paper has been to analyse the complex love relationship between Emily Grierson and Homer Barron in William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. As we have seen, the female protagonist of this short story had a difficult life due to a probable mental health illness developed from her personal problems with her aristocratic background and the expectations laid upon her. Her only wish was to find companionship and love which she thought having found in the figure of Homer Barron. After having discovered his real sexual orientation, she was gutted and did not want to accept that she has to let him go too. Thusly, she murdered him in order to keep him for good a pressed rose between some pages of a book.