Short Story: A Rose for Emily

Author: William Faulkner, 1931
Genre: Southern Gothic
Format: Ebook, 2294 words

William Faulkner described his short story “A Rose for Emily” as a ghost story (Gwynn and Blotner 26). However, after finishing it, a reader might wonder why the author might refer to his creation this way, as there are no apparent ghosts in the story. While it does have elements of Gothic literature, there is no presence of supernatural. There is an elderly Emily who lives in isolation and is the subject to much gossip, and her full of life fiance who vanishes from the scene shortly after his appearance. There is also an ever-present voice of the narrator who seems to represent the inhabitants of Emily’s town, but is never identified. The interpretation of “A Rose for Emily” is different depending on an individual, but it seems that every one of these characters might qualify for a role of a ghost.

SPOILERS AHEAD

When trying to identify a ghost in the story, one might jump into conclusion that Homer Barron, Emily’s fiance, is an obvious candidate for such role. After all he is the one found dead laying in the marriage bed – subject to Emily’s obsession. The narrator describes the bedroom covered in “a thin, acrid pall as of the tomb” (Faulkner par.57), which sounds like a true habitat of a ghost. He is presumably poisoned by his bride and left decaying in the locked room for years – another reason to believe that a spirit not laid to rest might still lurk in the house. As this interpretation might be considered very literal, the reader might look at the image of the groom as a ghost figuratively. When he is found, “what was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay” (Faulkner par.59), – a mere shadow of the robust and loud man he once was.

If the reader tries to step away from the obvious answer, they might also suspect Emily herself to be a ghost of the story, but a living one. In his paper “In Search of Dead Time: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’”, Paul Harris proposes the idea that “Emily is not simply an eccentric character whose story the town tells; she also comes off as a ghost that haunts it still” (174). Emily is definitely set up as a ghost character with many gothic elements to support that. Her house that she inhabits is off limits to others, “her front door remained closed” (Faulkner par.49); there are closed doors “which no one had seen in forty years” (par.56); her belongings are covered in dust, “yellow and moldy with age and lack of sunlight” (par.53). She comes off as part of the house when people see her perched up in the window, as they compare her to “carven torso of an idol” (Faulkner par.51). Emily is barely ever seen on the streets, and her personal life after her father’s death remains big mystery to everyone in the town.

Harris suggests that the way the story begins with Emily’s death, sets the entire mood of ghostliness and suspension in time. He goes further and deems her death necessary for the story to take off (Harris 174). Why is that? Right from the start the reader is informed that Emily is dead and this image of her stays with them till the end, framing it as the story of a dead person. The way she is portrayed during her life resonates with that image. The townsfolk are too timid to inquire her about taxes, poison or foul smells underlining her position of respect, isolation from others, and even some fear. She is not married and living alone with one servant, making her look incomplete in the eyes of the society. She regards other dead people as still living, like deceased Colonel Sartoris whom she advises to see upon tax enquiries, or her father. The borderline between dead and living is especially blurred for Emily when it comes to her father’s funeral. She greets guests “dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face”, telling them that “her father was not dead” (Faulkner par.27). And finally, her choice of having a husband who is dead rather than alive makes Emily part of a ghost world.

When the reader flips the situation around and looks at Emily as a victim hiding in the house from the rest of the world, another character emerges as a possible figurative ghost – the narrator. Tomas Klein discusses in his article “The Ghostly Voice of Gossip in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’” the role of narrator in creating the ghostly atmosphere of Emily’s town. Faulkner never identifies the speaker in his story, leaving out their gender or age. At some point it looks like the voice is contemporary with Emily’s youth, then it jumps far ahead in the future to reminiscence about her funeral, then suddenly it is back to her old age. Such confusing time layout is especially pronounced in this paragraph:

So she vanquished them, horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell. 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. (Faulkner par.15)

The narrator goes back and forth between the time frames, making it very hard for the reader to pinpoint the event’s exact location on a timeline. At the same time, the narrator has the ability to transcribe the dialogues and detailed events from different events accurately as if being contemporary to every one of them. Klein also notes the change in the narrative from first to third-person and back again throughout the story (231). There are phrases like “at last they could pity Miss Emily” (Faulkner par.26) or “we did not say she was crazy then” (par.28) that make it hard to put a face on the narrator. The voice blends into the crowd, but then it suddenly looks at the events from aside, shape shifting from a group of people into a single person. It seems that it always whispers and gossips about Emily, trying to take a peek into her life, curious about her every move. There is something sinister about all these eyes constantly looking at the woman, picking her life apart. Klein concludes that “the voice of the town is the most ghostlike” (231), placing it as the story’s main figurative ghost.

While Faulkner might have labeled “A Rose for Emily” a ghost story (Gwynn and Blotner 26), it looks like he is not doing so in a traditional way. There are no literal supernatural beings here. However, there is an array of characters that blur the borderline between life and death. There is Homer Barron who is killed, yet kept alive in his bride’s obsessive mind. There is Emily who lives among ghosts of her own mind, isolated from the outside world in her dust-covered house. Lastly, there is the town itself – always watching, always whispering. This is what makes “A Rose for Emily” a ghost story.

Citations:

  • Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957–1958. 1959. New York: Random House, 1965.
  • Harris, Paul A. “In Search of Dead Time: Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” KronoScope: Journal for the Study of Time 7.2 (2007): 169-183. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.
  • Klein, Thomas. “The Ghostly Voice of Gossip in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Explicator 65.4 (2007): 229-232. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.

Rating: 5/5 – I loved digging around in search of my ghost.
Source: the story belongs to public domain and is available freely online

3 comments

  1. Really interesting thoughts. I feel like the Old South is the ghost — a metaphor. I’d never considered the narrator as the ghost.

    I find Faulkner’s work fascinating…

  2. One reason I loved the story is the numerous interpretations I could apply to it. I agree that it is unlikely that there is an actual ghost there, but metaphorically it’s wonderfully executed.

  3. This story leaves a great deal to the reader. It’s kind of spooky. And as Andrea said it has a beautiful execution.

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