A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Context


The Deep South

Miss Emily Grierson, the main character of "A Rose for Emily," was born during the American Civil War (1861–65). The story's events take place between the mid-1890s, when her father dies, and the mid-1930s, when Emily herself passes away. Her family's fall from grace parallels the social and cultural changes experienced in the Deep South during this tumultuous period. Industry had exploded in the North, bringing with it jobs and an influx of money. The South, however, clung to its agricultural roots, and profits were dwindling. Black southerners, barred from owning land, worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers and were forced to share the profits of their harvests with the white landowners. As more and more people planted cotton, supply outpaced demand and prices decreased—creating a cycle of poverty throughout the southern states. Racial tensions ran higher than ever as Jim Crow laws dictated a policy of segregation and local vigilante groups used terror to enforce the discriminatory rules.

Tensions escalated between genders as women defied the "Cult of Domesticity" that had pervaded the 19th century. Rebelling against the notion that a woman's highest calling was to take care of the home and its inhabitants, many women put aside their aprons to further their education at institutions of higher learning. Others began championing social causes, such as the prevention of child abuse, the mitigation of poverty, and an end to unsafe labor conditions. The suffrage movement gained traction. Many criticized women's more active roles outside the home as a degradation of American ideals and values. This was particularly true in the South, where women had historically been expected to uphold the image of the demure and virtuous southern belle.

Yoknapatawpha County

"A Rose for Emily" is set in Jefferson, the county seat of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Yoknapatawpha (pronounced "yok-na-pa-TAW-PHA") County is based on author William Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. The fictional county serves as the setting for 15 of Faulkner's novels and more than 50 short stories. According to Faulkner's descriptions the county covers 2,400 square miles and has a population of 15,611 individuals, 9,313 of whom are black. Jefferson is its only city. Readers of Faulkner's works will notice Yoknapatawpha County residents and locations appear in more than one story. Colonel John Sartoris, for example, is a major character in the novel Sartoris, later published in full as Flags in the Dust, and a minor character in "A Rose for Emily."

Faulkner once said that Yoknapatawpha County is both actual and apocryphal, or of doubtful authenticity. By this he meant it isn't a real place one can visit but its people and events are rooted in reality. Literary critics and scholars have debated whether Yoknapatawpha represents the South as a whole or just a small part of it. Many have concluded it represents the Lowland South, where the economy revolved around the agricultural system. Also known as the Deep South, this area encompasses Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.

Southern Gothic

"A Rose for Emily" is classified as a short story in the Southern Gothic tradition. The Southern Gothic genre, popularized by writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams, is an offshoot of Gothic literature. Characterized by a chilling atmosphere of mystery and suspense, Gothic literature was particularly popular from the late 18th century through the 19th century. Southern Gothic literature follows in the same eerie footsteps, but authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams aren't just trying to spook the reader for the thrill of it; they purposefully use the macabre and grotesque to illuminate the cultural and social issues unique to southern society.

Common characteristics of Southern Gothic literature include:

  • Unusual characters: More often than not, they are "broken" in some way, either physically or mentally. The hero is usually an outsider who goes against cultural norms as a means of championing social progress.
  • Imprisonment: This can be a literal imprisonment, such as someone locked up in a jail or sequestered in a home. It can also be a figurative imprisonment, such as being constrained by fate.
  • Violence: Southern Gothic stories address issues of race and class, which often come to a head through an outburst of violence.
  • Strong sense of place: The setting is everything in Southern Gothic literature. Authors craft detailed portraits of small-town life, rural backwoods, and urban centers to establish mood.
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