Symbolism and Imagery in “A Rose for Emily”
Time plays a very palpable role in William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.” Almost strong enough to be considered a character of its own, Time marches through the story in a disjointed fashion, always leaving its mark wherever it touches. Through this treatment, readers get a glimpse of the old south of the 1800s as it is seen through the eyes of its early 1900s narrator(s). However, even in dealing with aspects of the past, Faulkner shows that time can and will affect changes however much they might be shunned or ignored by those trapped within its domain. Throughout “A Rose for Emily,” readers experience the rigidity of the past through the symbols and imagery Faulkner employs to portray them, primarily through the character of Miss Emily, the objects Miss Emily is associated with and the town elders.
By utilizing several of the older characters in the story as symbols, Faulkner demonstrates the unchanging and unchangeable nature of the past through the actions of these characters. Standing out as the prime example for his case is Miss Emily Grierson herself, as inflexible and unchanging as possible. Miss Emily’s inflexibility is demonstrated in several instances, most notably when she insists the Aldermen speak with Colonel Sartoris regarding the question of her taxes when “Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years” (435) and when she refused to acknowledge her father’s change of state upon his death. “Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (437). In dealing with others, Miss Emily proves just as implacable. “Miss Emily just stared at him, her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye, until he looked away and went and got the arsenic and wrapped it up” (439). Throughout the story, Miss Emily is further characterized as an unchanging object through the use of such imagery as “her upright torso motionless as that of an idol” (437) as she is framed in a lit window, “We had long thought of them as a tableau; Miss Emily a slender silhouette in the background” (437) when discussing the image the town had of Emily and her father, and the occasional glimpse of her “in one of the downstairs windows … like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which” (442). Even the one time period in which Miss Emily was seen to be most alive, just following her father’s death and while she was courting Homer Barron, she remains described in terms of rigid, unchanging material — “her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows — sort of tragic and serene” (438).
Making the picture complete, the inanimate objects associated with Miss Emily were also seen to be unchanging with the passing of years. The house is a “big, squarish frame house that had once been white” that lifts “its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps — an eyesore among eyesores” (433). Correspondence sent addressed from Miss Emily are described as “a note on paper of an archaic shape, in a thin, flowing calligraphy in faded ink” (434) indicating neither the paper nor the ink had changed nor yet retained its ability to communicate under the terms of the present. Even in her activities, Miss Emily proves to be outdated, utilizing her one skill, the ability to paint china, to earn some extra money for a few years. “She fitted up a studio in one of the downstairs rooms, where the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’ contemporaries were sent to her … Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their children to her” (441).
Miss Emily is not the only character to symbolize the unchanging nature of the past, though. In Tobe, Miss Emily’s servant, the reader finds a character with no voice and no change in pattern. “Daily, monthly, yearly we watched the Negro grow grayer and more stooped, going in and out with the market basket” (442) indicates that the only change observed in this character was the inevitable aging that no one can avoid. Although the newer generation is insistent about addressing the issue of the odor coming from Miss Emily’s home, the older generation is more concerned about propriety when addressing a woman of gentle birth. “’Dammit sir,’ Judge Stevens said, ‘will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?’” (436). That the older generation held sway in this decision is shown by the composition of the Board of Aldermen “three greybeards and one younger man” and in the action taken “four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglers, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings … They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings” (436).
Through symbols and imagery, Faulkner manages to convey a sense of the old South as it was in a time even before the narrative of his story as it continuously contrasts itself against the ideas and attitudes of the present. He allows characters to become symbols themselves, playing off of the stereotypes typically held, and so often true, regarding the gentility and sometimes impracticality of their decisions and illustrates how these types of manners and behaviors actually serve to isolate the woman sitting in the window. The imagery used to describe Miss Emily’s house and belongings further serves to separate her from the society in which she is forced to live, isolating her within a world doomed to decay and die in joyless isolation.
Faulker, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Anthology of American Literature – 8th Edition. Ed. McMichael, George, James S. Leonard, Bill Lyne, Anne-Marie Mallon and Verner D. Mitchell. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2004. 433-444.