Sunday, January 13, 2008

Faulkner Gives Us Emily (Favorite Essays, Part 1)

I wrote several essays for a college English course. I am posting a few of them here for preservation purposes and my own amusement, so be gentle.

The Ruin of Emily and the Fall of the Old South

William Faulkner writes a wicked story in classic Gothic style about a small Southern town's relationship with one of its iconic inhabitants. On the surface, this story's shocking ending is the result of the dysfunctional relationship between the town of Jefferson and a woman named Emily Grierson; however, closer examination reveals the hidden story within. Emily Grierson, along with a handful of other supporting characters and symbols, represents the Old South amid a constant and overwhelming theme of death and decay. Could it be that "A Rose for Emily" embodies the end of an era in Southern history and culture?

This theory is spelled out by means of symbolization as well as by the consequences of events that occur throughout the story. One of the major symbols of the Old South is represented by Miss Emily. Her story is a reflection of how the traditions and values of the Old South were decimated in the aftermath of the Civil War. In her youth she is described as "a slender figure in white". The color white represents purity, truth, conservativeness, and innocence, concepts which reflect ideals of what the South was like before the war. This impression is also given through the description of Miss Emily's house, which is depicted as having been white at one time but is now in a state of deterioration. Further symbolization of Miss Emily is given by references to her being slender and her skeleton being "small and spare". This description supports the Old Southern notion of women as being helpless and weak. These combind images support a romanticized vision of what the South was like before the Civil War. However, a description of Miss Emily in her later years is more disturbing:
A small, fat woman in black. . . Her skeleton was small and spare; 
perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. 
She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. 
Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal
pressed into a lump of dough...

It is no accident that she is compared to a dead body. These images bring to mind deterioration and neglect, two words which have been strongly linked with the condition of the South after the Civil War. Her clothing, which was once white, is now black, a color associated with death and mourning, darkness and hostility. The disparity of the descriptions of Miss Emily in youth and in old age is symbolic and representative of the idealized condition of the South before and after the Civil War.

Further proof of the parallels of Miss Emily's life and the decline of the Old South are plentiful in this story. Once piece of evidence can be found in the way the townspeople liken Miss Emily to a "fallen monument", a "tradition", and an "idol". On this basis, they insist on continuing to treat her in an antiquated manner: Colonel Sartoris develops a noble excuse for remitting her taxes, the Board of Aldermen remain standing in her presence and are unable to argue with her, Judge Stevens declares, "will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?", older members of the community comment that, "...a real lady [could not] forget nobless oblige...", and some of the old men wear "their brushed Confederate uniforms" to her funeral. These behaviors demonstrate a reverence on the part of the townspeople. They treat her uniquely because she represents their ideal of the Old South.

Another confirmation of Miss Emily's life mirroring the violation of the Old South is evidenced by her relationship with Homer Barron. His entrance to the story is in the company of change and progress after the war. His character is representative of the North, for he is introduced as a Yankee. He is described as, "a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face". "Ready man" alludes to a person who is quick to seize an opportunity, such as a carpetbagger. Many Southerners consider Northerners to be loud and brash, thus the mention of his "big voice". A big voice indicates a sense of strength, and a big voice will drown out one that is weaker, which indicates the fact that the Old South had no say in how it was governed post-war. Portrayal of Homer Barron as "dark [with] eyes lighter than his face" is a subtle suggestion that his blood line may have been tainted with African blood. The contamination of Caucasian blood with that of the Africans' is representative of a Southern taboo as well as a defilement of the purity of the Old South.

Homer goes on to represent the carpetbagger, or defiler of the Old South, in other ways. The townspeople's disdain for him is evidenced in behaviors that are both obvious and obscure. They refer to him in derogatory terms, as a "day laborer", a Yankee, "not a marrying man". About Homer's relationship with Miss Emily, the ladies of the town say, "it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people." Faulkner carefully insinuates a more obscure depiction of Homer Barron's character in a scene where Judge Stevens suggests that a mysterious smell is the result of Miss Emily's manservant killing a snake or a rat. Snakes and rats are often equated with being devious, filthy, and treacherous, which was a popular view of Yankees by Southerners before, during, and after the war. So there is no real surprise when the smell is eventually revealed as Homer Barron's rotting corpse. This creates a subconscious suggestion on Faulkner's part of a snake in the Garden of Eden, with Homer Barron representing the snake and the Old South symbolizing that fabled Garden of purity and innocence.

Using this theory as a foundation it can be said that Miss Emily plays Eve to Homer Barron's satanic snake. Her relationship with Homer, a man the townspeople obviously disapprove of, results in their believing she is a fallen woman. Though the word "fallen" is considered antiquated and outmoded, it does not just allude to the loss of Miss Emily's reputation as a proper Southern lady; it also refers to political collapse, defeat in war, and is a description for people who are killed in war. Therefore, Miss Emily embodies the Old South and Homer Barron the North. Her sullied reputation not only signifies the defeat of the South, but also the defilement of Old Southern traditions and values through the encroachment of Northern influences.

Miss Emily's death and the town's reaction to it serve as another link to the fall of the Old South. Two significant events occur at her funeral which contribute to this theory. Firstly, the "Negro" manservant who has attended her for many years walks out and is never seen again. This is a clear representation of the abolition of slavery at the end of the war. He does not need to request permission or offer excuses; rather, emancipated by Miss Emily's death, he simply walks away. Secondly, the body of Homer Barron is discovered and a strand of what is unmistakably Miss Emily's hair is found on the pillow next to him. This demonstrates that despite the gruesome consequences of the war, the North and South are together one nation and that the South is dependent on the North more than ever.

"A Rose for Emily" is an anthem to these consequences as well as to the death throes of Old South. Miss Emily's death is viewed by the townspeople of Jefferson as the end of an era, for she is regarded with the "respectful affection for a fallen monument". The narrator tells us that "the very old men... in their brushed Confederate uniforms" reminisce about Miss Emily, even going so far as to believe they each had romantic social interactions with her in their youth. Wearing their defunct uniforms and dreaming of things which never happened enables these men to express an idealized memory of the past, one in which the negative memories are forgotten and the positive memories are magnified. An example of this type of thinking is manifested in the way many people tend to remember the Civil War; despite the loss of thousands of lives in a horrendous battle that pitted a nation against itself, the Civil War is often glorified by Southerners. The discovery of Homer Barron's body destroys the townspeople's flawed perception of Miss Emily as an icon and forces them to see the brutal reality. In conclusion, Faulkner uses "A Rose for Emily" as a parable which reveals the reluctant truth about the death of the Old South.

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