A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does "A Rose for Emily" reflect society's ideals for the Victorian woman?

Women of the Victorian era, which lasted from the 1830s to the turn of the 20th century, were considered to be weaker and more delicate than their male counterparts. A woman's domain was the home, and her chief tasks were overseeing the cooking, the cleaning, and the caring for children. Women who didn't fit into this stereotype were considered abnormal, or perhaps even mentally ill. These narrow ideals of womanhood are alive and well in Jefferson during the first half of Miss Emily's life. Her inability to find a suitable husband earns the pity of her neighbors, who think it would be "for the best" if Miss Emily killed herself. They believe her life isn't worth living if she doesn't have a man for whom to care. In her own way Miss Emily believes the same thing, which is why she's so intent on finding a husband, even if he doesn't live up to the ideals of a proper southern gentleman. Being the perfect Victorian woman even if just in secret is more important to Miss Emily than silencing the gossiping tongues of her neighbors.

What is the price of progress according to William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"?

Tradition versus progress is a major theme of "A Rose for Emily." Miss Emily and the older generation of townspeople represent the way things were in the Old South, and the younger generation represents the New South. The Old South is remembered not only for cotton, plantations, and slavery but also for a particular way of life. Miss Emily, Colonel Sartoris, and Judge Stevens are all concerned with what is right, what is proper, and what is genteel or refined. Proper protocols are to be followed, particularly where women are concerned. That's why Judge Stevens refuses to ask Miss Emily point blank to do something about the smell on her property. That type of business was handled by men, not women. These antiquated rules of propriety don't mean much to the younger generation in Jefferson. They are more focused on getting things done by the quickest means possible. They don't care about the Grierson family's history in Jefferson, or that Miss Emily may not have the means to pay her taxes. Embarrassing her is the least of their concerns. Faulkner uses the ongoing struggle between tradition and progress to show that while new ways of doing things may be faster and easier, they also erase the things that make a particular place or people special. In the case of the South, manners and customs particular to the region are traded for a more generic way of life.

To what extent is "A Rose for Emily" a response to the outcome of the Civil War?

"A Rose for Emily" is a story of revenge not just for the main character but for the southern United States as a whole. At the time the story was published, more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, many native southerners still felt the sting of defeat at the hands of the Union army. Faulkner, who grew up in Mississippi, capitalized on this cultural animosity by having two of his major characters embody characteristics of each party in the decades-old feud. Miss Emily, aristocratic and genteel, represents the South, while Homer Barron, a harbinger of change, is the North. Instead of having his characters join in harmony Faulkner portrays the character representing the North as the trigger for the fall of the last remaining great family in Jefferson. When "the North" refuses to follow the local rules for proper behavior, "the South," represented by Miss Emily, stands up for itself one last time.

Why doesn't anyone report Homer Barron's disappearance in Part 3 of "A Rose for Emily"?

The most basic explanation is that Homer Barron is an outsider in Jefferson. He has no nearby family, and nobody is going to miss him. More important than that however, is the town's allegiance to Miss Emily. The Grierson family has its roots in Jefferson, and Miss Emily has become part of the town's culture and history. Reporting Homer's disappearance would eventually unearth the fact that he was last seen going into Miss Emily's home. Suggesting her involvement would violate the unspoken code of southern ethics where neighbor protects neighbor from outside persecution. The people of Jefferson protect Miss Emily and her secret, passing them "from generation to generation" until after her death, when she no longer has to fear the consequences of her actions.

Do the townspeople in "A Rose for Emily" view Emily Grierson as a victim or a villain?

The citizens of Jefferson view Miss Emily as a victim of her circumstances, particularly those related to her father's stifling influence. When she refuses to admit her father's death, they are understanding rather than being outraged or shocked. They "believed she had to do that" and that she would "cling to that which had robbed her, as people will." The same sentiment holds true when it is confirmed that she killed Homer Barron. He courted her with no intent to marry her, effectively robbing her of her virtue and good reputation as well as the chance to have the life expected of her by society and her peers. Miss Emily was effectively backed into a corner by her upbringing and the long shadow of southern tradition. When she kills Homer Barron it's not because she is evil but because her metaphorical prison finally made her crack. Her insanity is not her fault.

What is the significance of Emily Grierson's hair in "A Rose for Emily"?

The narrator comments on the length and color of Miss Emily's hair throughout "A Rose for Emily" to show the passage of time and how Miss Emily changes after her father's death. Victorian women kept their hair long; those in the South styled theirs in braids or ringlets. The reader can assume Miss Emily followed this fashion prior to her father's death, for the narrator thinks it important to note that when she finally appears it is with her hair "cut short, making her look like a girl." This drastic change in appearance symbolizes Miss Emily's break from her father's way of life. Her new hairstyle also gives her the appearance of innocence and youth, which, at the advanced age of 30 according to the story, may help her find a husband. The color of Miss Emily's hair is used to track time. Following Homer's disappearance Miss Emily's hair begins to turn gray. "During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer," and when she dies it is "still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man." When the townspeople discover Homer Barron's body in the upstairs bedroom, there is a "long strand of iron-gray hair" on the pillow. This is an indicator that Miss Emily slept with Homer's body long after his death, when her hair was long again and completely gray.

What is the meaning of the title of "A Rose for Emily"?

William Faulkner reportedly didn't mean anything in particular when he titled his most famous short story "A Rose for Emily." When asked this question during an interview, he briefly summarized the story's plot then said, "It was just 'A Rose for Emily,' that's all." Yet throughout the years astute readers and literary scholars have pointed out several meaningful relationships between the story and the four words that make up its title. "A Rose for Emily" is told from the point of view of someone who most likely attended Miss Emily's funeral. It sheds light on the difficult life she led and the unconventional choices she made, and it serves as her only legacy. The story itself is tribute to the deceased woman, much like a floral arrangement next to a coffin. In the end it may symbolize the romance and married happiness left unfulfilled in Emily's life. Some literary scholars believe Miss Emily was modeled after the poet Emily Dickinson, who was noted for her isolated life after withdrawing from society over a lost love. William Faulkner was an ardent admirer of poetry, and this story may have been his tribute to her. Note that the title of the story is "A Rose for Emily," not "A Rose for Miss Emily." The use of Miss in the story as an honorific shows the narrator's empathy and care for the late spinster and what her passing represents.

How does William Faulkner portray the control men have over women in "A Rose for Emily"?

Jefferson, like most places around the world during the Victorian era, is a patriarchal society. Men control the city, the home, and everywhere in between. Women are given very few, if any, opportunities to make decisions about their own lives, including the right to vote. Mr. Grierson, for example, completely controls Miss Emily's future both during his lifetime and after his death. It is he, not she, who decides which young men are suitable for his daughter, and many of the townspeople think it is his lasting influence that dissolves the relationship between Miss Emily and Homer Barron, "as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life" had been too strong to follow him to his grave. Men's influence extends far beyond their own families. The Board of Aldermen, in particular, keep a tight rein on the goings-on in town. They determine who should be listened to, who should be helped, and who should be forced to comply. As Miss Emily continues to butt heads with them, it is an indication that time and war have changed the relationship between women and the rest of the world.

What do the mentions of Tobe's ethnicity in Part 1 contribute to the reader's understanding of "A Rose for Emily"?

"A Rose for Emily" has one black character, Tobe. He is referred to by name only once, at the end of Part 1 when Miss Emily calls him to escort the aldermen out of her home. The narrator refers to him, as well as to the drugstore delivery boy, as "the Negro." This word is a signal to today's readers that the story takes place in the past, but when "A Rose for Emily" was published in 1930 negro was actually the most common way to identify a black person's race. It fell out of favor by the 1970s, which is why it seems old-fashioned today. There is one character in "A Rose for Emily" who prefers a different term. Eighty-year-old Judge Stevens refers to Tobe as "that nigger." Nigger has been considered a derogatory word since the early 1800s, and Judge Stevens's use of it in the 1890s shows how the master/slave relationship was one the masters did not want to give up. Faulkner deliberately uses this word to show the racial intolerance prevalent in the South long after the abolition of slavery, particularly among the older generation.

What is the narrator's tone toward Emily Grierson in "A Rose for Emily"?

The narrator uses a sympathetic tone toward Miss Emily. As the reader is unaware of the narrator's identity, it is impossible to say whether he has a relationship with the Grierson family. Yet the way he speaks about Miss Emily shows genuine concern and care. She is described as being "a monument," which is something that should be inherently honored. Unflattering descriptions of her character are tempered with the words dear and tranquil. The narrator's feelings about Miss Emily are made even more evident after her burial. The narrator says "we knew" there was a room upstairs holding Miss Emily's darkest secret, but "they" wait until she is "decently in the ground" before opening it. The narrator doesn't take part in the public exposure of Miss Emily's secret, a sign of respect and affection.

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