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The short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner describes the life of Miss Emily Grierson who has grown up with an over-protective father. Faulkner illustrates the negative results of isolation and the lack of human contact through the tragic and lonely outcome of Emily’s life. The non-linear narration selectively presents context and events in an influential order, causing the reader to feel sympathetic towards Emily before making initial judgements. When Emily loses her father, her connection to society and order in life is lost, causing her loneliness to result in insanity. “A Rose for Emily” is a warning of the consequences of social isolation, for when individuals are separated from society, they fall behind in their understanding of social norms in a changing society, and any attempts later in life to return to society will result in further isolation due to an inability to fit in.
In the first two sections of the story Faulkner describes the lonely and unfortunate circumstances of Emily’s life: her father has passed away and she lives alone in her home, secluded from the town (1–3). Context to Emily’s situation is later revealed – her father drove all the young men out of her life, isolating her from any opportunity to meet other people (Faulkner 3). Growing up devoted to her father, Emily becomes very dependent upon his presence, unaware just how much she is supported by her Father. Faulkner describes Emily’s reliance in the quote, “… with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (3). When Emily’s father passes away, she continues to cling to him, for being isolated her entire life caused her to be completely reliant on him. Emily showed “…no trace of grief on her face and told them that her father was not dead.” Denial of his death and refusal to dispose of the body illustrates Emily’s need for her father’s presence (Kurtz 40)
The house that Emily lives in has a significant role in “A Rose for Emily.” The seventies style house is described as, “…a big squarish frame house… decorated with spires and scrolled balconies (Faulkner 1). The house was situated in a select neighbourhood, but as years passed it is now the only house that remains. Faulkner symbolizes Emily’s isolation through the description of the house; the portrait, the bridal chamber, and the window frames all give insight to the situation (Khrais 123). After the town takes away Mr. Griersons body, his portrait remains in the house, which validates Emily’s refusal to accept his death and her inability to live without him (125). The bedroom that confined Emily growing up becomes the tomb for Homer Barron and the sickening location Emily lives out the remainder of her life. (125) The walls that physically isolated her as a child, in the end become her place of secret and comfort. Only a few times in forty years is Emily seen within the house, “Now and then the people would see her at a window for a moment” (Faulkner 6). The perspective from outside of the house perceives Emily’s figure framed within the windows, depicting Emily as boxed in, alone, and isolated (Khrais 125). Emily chooses the confines of her isolated home for it is all she has ever known.
When Emily’s father passes away, the assumption can be made that she now has the freedom and opportunity to engage with society and interact with new people. Having grown up confined to her home and limited by her father’s protectiveness, the death of her father could bring about new opportunity. However, Faulkner reveals throughout the story that Emily does not flourish with her new freedom, but instead further isolates herself. For in the past “she gave lessons in china-painting” (Faulkner 6), but “from that time on her front door has remained closed” (6). At the age of 30 when her father passes, Emily has not been equipped with the social foundations to successfully integrate herself into society (Kurtz 40). Having been isolated her whole upbringing, Emily misses out on the typical childhood lifestyle and the learning opportunities that come with it. Basic social skills such as picking up on social cues, communicating with others, and making strong genuine connections can only develop through experience. With no opportunity to experience life, Emily is unable to integrate herself into society.
Faulkner uses Emily’s situation to emphasize the lasting mental and phycological effects of isolation, even once an individual is no longer separated from society. Emily’s insanity increases throughout the novel as she becomes more anxious for personal connection but even further isolated from everyone else. Emily resists the burial of her father, loses value in hygiene and self-care, envisions a wedding with a dead man, and willingly sleeps beside a dead corpse. Emily’s desperation to the extreme even causes her to kill her lover Homer Barron to ensure having him forever. Trying to repair the harmful effects of an isolated relationship through additional social integration will only lead to further issues, for growth is limited by previous unresolved issues (House 273). Emily’s future potential is hindered by the fact she was not granted opportunities to grow as a child. Emily’s history of isolation and reliance on her father has caused her to act out senselessly in desperation for someone to replace her father’s presence.
Desperation can cause individuals to act irrationally or emotionally in an attempt to achieve what they desire. Homer Barron is “a big, dark, Yankee” (Faulkner 4) and foreman of a contract construction company in Jefferson. Emily’s high-class status made a relationship with “a Northerner, day laborer” (4) frowned upon by the town, some saying “it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people” (5). If given the opportunity in her youth, Emily could have met a man of higher status, but with her age she becomes anxious for anyone (Kurtz 40). Emily was a beautiful and elegant woman in her youth, but the outcome of her life is satisfaction with the companionship of a corpse. It is clear Emily has lost all reasoning when she believes killing Homer Baron is justified for it ensures his presence forever (40). Faulkner uses the high-status name of the Grierson’s to illustrate the effects of isolation and just how far it can cause an individual to fall from their potential. Often individuals that have been isolated are unaware of the irrational decisions they are making for they have lost all sense of understanding in their desperation.
Studies on social isolation indicate that having connections and relationships are better for the individual than having none at all (House 274). Emily’s mental and physical state is progressively better when she is in connection with others, even if it is only her father. Human interaction is a necessity in life and contributes significantly in an individual’s development. Faulkner’s non-linear plot line gradually reveals the lack of understanding and sanity in Emily’s life that limits her ability to blend with society (1–6). House explains that social ties and relationships are beneficial to an individual’s well-being, for being secluded from society can have negative health effects (House 274). Emily’s isolation results in loneliness, desperation for companionship, irrational judgement, and low standards. The people of Jefferson observe from a distance the deterioration of Emily’s life, believing “She will soon kill herself” (Faulkner 5) if action is not taken. They recognise the impact and influence relationships can have on an individual’s well-being and call out to Emily’s cousins for support( 5). Faulkner uses society’s knowledge of relationship importance to contrast Emily’s lack of understanding having never been a part of society.
Opposing opinions suppose Emily’s isolation was advantageous in her life and allowed for greater freedom, believing Faulkner intentionally organized the text non-linearly to evoke a positive and sympathetic opinion of Emily before her true character is revealed. Narrated from the perspective of the town, the complete personality of Emily is not revealed to the readers until the end of the story when the grey hair is found. The combined interpretations and curiosity about Emily from the people of Jefferson cause them to both respect and pity her (Nebeker 3). The character of Emily is a mystery to the town and her isolation only peaks their interests. Nebeker argues that the positive perception of Emily causes the town to underestimate her capability and believe her nature is good (5). As a result of their sympathy Emily receives special treatment such as, being “remitted of her taxes” (Faulkner 1) and allowed to purchase poison without reason (5). Having isolated herself following the death of her father, the town is unaware of Emily’s developing insanity. The people of Jefferson do not once question Emily or consider her a threat to others, for the illusion that she is delicate, and frail covers up her absurd actions. In being unknown to the town, Emily has more freedom which allows her to be herself – regardless of how insane it might be.
Throughout “A Rose for Emily” Faulkner gradually reveals the elements of Emily’s life that led to her insanity. The description of the town and the narrative perspective influences a sympathetic opinion of Emily before revealing the dark truth of her character. Emily’s isolated life and childhood prevented her from developing the fundamental skills to be successful in society. After being granted more freedom following the death of her father, it is too late for Emily to integrate herself into society having not been equipped with the foundations to do so. In waiting to reveal Emily’s secret, Faulkner places emphasis on the events that led up to her actions. Emily’s isolated past and failed attempts to reintegrate into society only caused her to further isolate herself, making her desperate enough to kill Homer Barron. Faulkner avoids placing blame on Emily for her unreasonable actions, believing the root cause of her insanity was her isolation as a child, and should therefore be blamed.
- Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” ENG 103 Coursepack. 1-6.
- House, James S. “Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why?” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 63, no. 2, 2001, pp. 273–274. http://www.wisebrain.org/media/Papers/IsolationHlthRiskHouse.pdf
- Kurtz, Elizabeth Carney. “Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” Explicator, vol. 44, no. 2, 1986, pp. 40. https://ezproxy.student.twu.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1986023894&site=eds-live
- Nebeker, Helen E. “Emily’s Rose of Love: Thematic Implications of Point of View in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, vol. 24, no. 1, 1970, pp. 3–13. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1346461
- Sura M. Khrais. “‘An Eyesore among Eyesores’: The Significance of Physical Setting in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, vol. 6, no. 6, 2017, pp. 123–126. https://ezproxy.student.twu.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsdoj&AN=edsdoj.1a75694f4bf34024a72f4807e4189eec&site=eds-live
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