A Close Look at Emily Grierson From "A Rose for Emily"

by PDXJPrice

A look at the unusual tools William Faulkner used to show the reader the character Emily Grierson in his brilliant short story, "A Rose For Emily"

William Faulkner (September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962) was a Pullitzer Prize winning writer of beautiful, southern Gothic tales. "As I Lay Dying", "A light in August", "Absalom! Absalom!", "The Sound and The Fury" have been delighting English students and lovers of fine literature for nearly a century. One of his most famous and widely read stories is "A Rose For Emily", which tells the life story of a murderous woman through the eyes of the deep south from the turn of the 19th century until, roughly, the 1930’s. When asked what inspired Faulkner to author this unique tale, he stated: “That to me was another sad and tragic manifestation of man’s condition in which he dreams and hopes, in which he is in conflict with himself or with his environment or with others. In this case there was a young girl with a young girl’s normal aspirations to find love and then a husband and a family, who was brow-beaten and kept down by her father, a selfish man who didn’t want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper, and it was a natural instinct of—repressed which—you can’t repress it—you can mash it down but it comes up somewhere else and very likely in a tragic form, and that was simply another manifestation of man’s injustice to man, of the poor tragic human being struggling with its own heart, with others, with its environment, for the simple things which all human beings want. In that case it was a young girl that just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family.” [The Story and it’s writer, 5th edition, Ann Charters, pages 816—817]

The following contains spoilers. Please read the story here before proceeding:


A Rose For Emily

Who Is Emily Grierson?



William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily tells the story—through the use of a plural narrator—of a troubled, yet strong woman, who is perhaps mentally ill, and is certainly a murderer and struggles with separation anxiety. The story is told through the eyes of the town and the following will discuss how Faulkner’s use of this unique viewpoint to develop Emily Grierson’s character.

The most striking thing about this tale is that Emily Grierson, our protagonist, is not the one telling her story. She couldn’t. The story is told objectively and plurally, through the eyes of those observing her. We don’t spend a word in Emily’s head, yet we find out so much about this interesting woman. The narrator refers to itself as “we” and “us” and it’s a unique way of revealing the character of someone whom is obviously disturbed. It’s similar to learning about celebrities through gossip columns, not through direct interaction. That, and the fact that the story is told unchronologically, is why this story is still widely read today. The narration relies entirely on assumption and observation. The reader sees only what the narrator sees and the narrator only sees the surface.

The narrator informs us that when Emily’s dad died, she was unable to let him go, literally. She stays with his dead body for three days, in a brilliant use of foreshadowing that will be chillingly revealed at the end of the story regarding her relationship with Homer Barron. This could be evidence of separation anxiety, mental instability or, simply, love. If the story were not to continue, the reader might assume Emily deeply loved her father and was unable to let him go and deal with his death. By the climax of the story, this event showcases Emily’s instability and disturbed and murderous state of mind. When Homer Barron leaves her, she kills him, upon his return, refusing, like she did with her father before him, to let him go. This supports the idea that she is not the demure, grieving daughter but, rather, the disturbed, controlling murderer that Faulkner was interested in telling us about.

The use of foreshadowing to open the story reveals her character at the end of the story and, presumably, her character throughout her life. 

William Faulkner in Paris
William Faulkner in Paris
Public Domain
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William Faulkner
William Faulkner
Public Domain

Pardon the Use of the word Negro

In keeping with the Vernacular of Faulkner...

The story is also told through observation of the Negro, her servant. He is the only one who lives in the house with her and is presumably the one closest to her. He is not seen interacting directly with the town, but the town still watches him. They watch where he goes, they see what he buys. He does Emily’s bidding. We, the reader, learn about Emily through the Negro’s actions and purchases. They see him grow older, they see him turn the tax collectors away at Emily’s behest (we also see Emily do this very thing, when she is much younger.) It could be argued that the Negro is the McGuffin of the story. (The McGuffin is a term used by Alfred Hitchcock for an item that the characters in a story desire, but no one talks about. The micro film in North by Northwest is an example. ) He holds the key to Emily, but he is unattainable. It’s also interesting to note that, at the climax of the story, the Negro allows the town in and then bolts, as fast as he can, out of the back of the house.

We also find out about Emily by the way she looks and carries herself. She doesn’t seem to take much care in herself. Her hair is grey and shorn, she “grows fat” (of course, before she grew fat, she was very thin and had sunken, tired eyes and was believed to be sick.)  She doesn’t doll herself up, not even when she goes into town to buy the arsenic to kill Homer Barron, even though she is still a relatively young woman at this time. In fact, the town is pleased that “she would have a suitor”, and perhaps surprised because of her unkempt appearance. It is also interesting to note that when Emily buys the arsenic, she does so herself, without the aid of the Negro.  This is the only time in the story that we see Emily venture into town. This could indicate, perhaps, that Emily did not fully trust him.

It seems also that Emily is not terribly friendly, but, is also very strong. The reference to her “iron gray hair” to conclude the story speaks volumes. In town, she doesn’t even greet the druggist when she’s buying the arsenic and actually interrupts him.  She greets the tax collectors with a voice that is “dry and cold” and later “vanquishes” them—a very strong word that certainly implies more than a simple shooing away. When the townspeople come to her house to seek relief from the stench (which, we learn later, is the rotting corpse of Homer Barron), she, likewise, “vanquishes” them, giving no regard or credence to their complaint. This latter example could also be an example of self-preservation. Certainly if the townspeople were to enter her home and find the Barron’s body she would be thrown in jail, or worse. This could be seen also as further evidence of her strength.

The story of Emily Grierson is told objectively and reads like a newspaper gossip column, full of conjecture and assumption. The conjecture and assumption is mostly accurate and is based on observation of Emily’s actions and words. Still, since we never get inside Emily’s head, we don’t know truly know her motives and don’t really get to know her as well as we would if we were up close and directly in her head. This is the brilliance of Faulkner, and it allows us to write our own biography of Emily, if we so choose. It allows us to create Emily in a sympathetic light, if we so choose. The voice Faulkner uses is very appropriate given the content of the story and makes for a fascinating character study of a murderer.

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You can also find my writing in several issues of EFiction magazine and the Bellwether Review. This was my Eighth Wizzley article. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!

Updated: 06/12/2012, PDXJPrice
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