A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Who is the antagonist in "A Rose for Emily"?

An antagonist is a person, a group of people, or an idea that stands in opposition to a story's main character. "A Rose for Emily" has several antagonists: Mr. Grierson, Homer Barron, and the values of 19th-century America all stand in the way of Miss Emily's happiness. Mr. Grierson prevents Miss Emily from exploring potential relationships with gentlemen callers, and his death leaves Miss Emily a spinster, well past her marrying prime. It will be very difficult for her to find someone willing to marry her now. Homer Barron is Miss Emily's last opportunity for a life of married happiness. He courts her with no intent of marrying her but rather in the hope of raising his own rank in the town. This breach of protocol effectively ruins Miss Emily's reputation. As a woman during the Victorian era Miss Emily's one job is to secure a husband and take care of his home. These narrow ideals of feminine life limit Miss Emily's chances of ever truly being happy. If she can't achieve this one goal she will be considered an outcast and a social reject. Her desperation for marriage, even with a northerner, blinds her to the possibility that he may be using her to advance his own reputation, with no intent to marry.

Who is the protagonist in "A Rose for Emily"?

A protagonist is the hero or main character of a story. Miss Emily is certainly the protagonist of her own story, though she is not a hero in the traditional sense of the word. After all she murders a man. While today's readers may be tempted to view Miss Emily as a fed-up woman who finally takes a stand against the patriarchy, Faulkner didn't approach the character from that point of view. Instead Faulkner earns the reader's sympathy for his main character by showing the personal and mental destruction caused by years of repressive social customs. Miss Emily is driven insane by the culture that created her. That is why the reader ultimately comes to care for her, even if she is a murderer.

How is Homer Barron a foil for Emily Grierson in "A Rose for Emily"?

A foil is a character in a work of fiction with characteristics that contrast those of another character. When compared the two characters highlight aspects of the other's personalities. In "A Rose for Emily" Homer Barron, a northerner, is the foil for Miss Emily, a quintessential southerner. He is a dark, hulking brute of a man; Miss Emily, in her youth, is slight and spare. Homer has "a big voice" and is known around town for his infectious laughter. Miss Emily rarely speaks, and when she does it is without a trace of humor or happiness. Homer's eyes are "lighter than his face" while Miss Emily's look "like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough." While she is eager to find a husband he states outright that he "likes men"; although it's not explored beyond that declaration it seems clear that Homer is gay. They are opposites in every way, and these differences magnify the unflattering characteristics of each. Homer seems too brash and low class in the company of Miss Emily, while she seems more prudish and snobby than ever. While it can be argued that opposites attract, it is clear from their differences, particularly their vastly different backgrounds, that this relationship is not destined to last.

What are the sources of conflict in "A Rose for Emily"?

There are several minor conflicts in "A Rose for Emily": the question of Miss Emily's taxes, her altercation with the druggist, and her refusal to allow a mailbox to be hung on her home. The overarching source of strife in Jefferson and the thing that contributes the most tension to the story is the horror under which Miss Emily was raised and how it changed her role in the town once she was released from her father. At first her inability to find a suitable husband is a problem she faces entirely alone. The longer she goes without a mate however, the greater a burden she becomes on the town, both emotionally and financially. She doesn't contribute to the local tax fund, and her weekly dates with Homer Barron are cause for speculation. Her problem becomes the town's problem, particularly when her snobbish cousins come to town to weigh in on her behavior with Homer. The cousins' lack of action with Miss Emily means that any dealings with her must first meet her approval. The past has proven that she will not engage the townsfolk at that level. Homer's disappearance marks the transition of the conflict away from Miss Emily and squarely into the lap of her neighbors. She no longer cares about society's standards or how a proper southern woman should behave, which results in more than one conversation about "what to do with Miss Emily." The only answer, of course, is to wait for her to die.

How could "A Rose for Emily" be interpreted as a commentary on the changing roles of women in the 20th century?

Some literary critics think that "A Rose for Emily" is William Faulkner's response to the shifting roles for women in early 20th-century America. The end of the Victorian era saw rapid progress in the development of women's rights. By the time "A Rose for Emily" was published in 1930, women had demonstrated their aptitude for work outside the home during World War I, and they had successfully campaigned for the right to vote. Women were moving away from a life of subservience and purity toward more fulfilling lives they dictated for themselves. Today's readers familiar with the shift in women's roles from the early 20th century through the early 21st century may have a more feminist interpretation of Miss Emily's story than Faulkner originally intended. For example, Miss Emily refuses to speak to the Board of Aldermen about her taxes. Faulkner most likely intended this to be a sign that Miss Emily is relying on sexist traditions to be upheld; namely that women do not deal with money. From a feminist perspective, however, Miss Emily is defying the Board of Aldermen's wishes by refusing to pay her taxes, which establishes her power over the group of men who have run the town since its inception. As Miss Emily gets older she begins dictating the terms of her relationship with the rest of the town. Even if Faulkner did intend to show a female character wresting power from the patriarchy, he made it clear that it wasn't necessarily a good thing. The source of Miss Emily's power is Homer Barron's murder, which was a product of her own insanity. More than anything else "A Rose for Emily" is a cautionary tale about the madness at the root of female power.

What does Emily Grierson's watch symbolize in Part 1 of "A Rose for Emily"?

Miss Emily wears "a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt" when the aldermen come to her home to speak to her about her taxes. In the strained silence of the room the ticking of the "invisible watch" at the end of the chain is the only sound. Miss Emily is too much of a southern belle to be rude enough to actually look at the watch, but the volume of the ticking serves as a reminder to the aldermen that they are taking her time. This is symbolic of the indirect power that southern women could exert without saying a word.

How does William Faulkner appeal to the reader's senses in "A Rose for Emily"?

Faulkner was known for trying on a variety of writing styles over the course of his illustrious career, particularly the stream of consciousness exhibited in The Sound and the Fury. "A Rose for Emily," though published soon after The Sound and the Fury, has a completely different feel. It is almost lyrical in its descriptions and turns of phrase about the fading trappings of aristocracy. Faulkner invokes all of the reader's senses, most notably in the narrator's descriptions of Miss Emily's home. The smell is the first thing the narrator recalls, "dust and disuse—a close, dank smell." The "heavy, leather-covered furniture" is cracked. Cracked is an apt choice not only for the mental image it creates but also for it's onomatopoeia quality. A "crack" sounds exactly the way the word sounds, attuning the reader's ears to the noises within the parlor. The sense of sight is invoked at the description of dust "spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray." This brief yet thorough description of Miss Emily's parlor engages all of the senses save taste, pulling the reader deeper into the scene.

How does William Faulkner use foreshadowing in "A Rose for Emily"?

Foreshadowing is a warning or indicator of a future event. In many stories instances of foreshadowing serve as clues to the final outcome of the narrative, and "A Rose for Emily" is no exception. These peeks into the story's outcome engage readers' attention by encouraging them to connect the parts of the story into a cohesive whole. Miss Emily keeps her father's body at home for three days after he dies. This suggests that she is unable to part with the only man in her life and foreshadows what she will do with Homer Barron's body. The smell on Miss Emily's property indicates that something bad has happened there. Judge Stevens's belief that its origin is a "just a snake or a rat" is also foreshadowing. The words snake and rat are also apt descriptions for Homer Barron, who uses Miss Emily's position in the town's society to enhance his climb up the social ladder. This is an indicator that Homer's rotting corpse is causing the smell at the Grierson home.

How do the narrator's biases imply his status and beliefs in "A Rose for Emily"?

Though the narrator's gender and class are never specifically stated, William Faulkner provides several textual clues that help the reader better understand the person who is telling the story. The narrator's age falls somewhere between the older generation and the younger generation. When describing how Colonel Sartoris waives Miss Emily's taxes, the narrator says, "Only a man of Colonel Sartoris's generation and thought could have invented it." The narrator implies that Colonel Sartoris's beliefs are outdated but also praises the cunning behind his thought process. The narrator reveres the older generation but also understands that times are changing. The narrator has an undeniable bias against women, particularly when it comes to their intelligence. In reference to Colonel Sartoris's story about the taxes the narrator says, "Only a woman could have believed it." This is just one of many instances where the narrator reveals himself as a man since no woman would characterize her entire gender as being stupid. This is a common thread throughout "A Rose for Emily." Women, with the exception of Miss Emily, are portrayed as gossipy and silly while the men are decent citizens with the town's best interest at heart. The narrator clearly believes in the strength of a patriarchal society. The narrator is also white, as evidenced by his continued references to Tobe as "the Negro." He does not even give Tobe the courtesy of calling him by name, which reveals the narrator's sense of superiority over African Americans.

How is "A Rose for Emily" characteristic of Southern Gothic fiction?

Southern Gothic fiction is characterized by fantastic events that veer toward the grotesque or macabre. While the stories in this genre aren't necessarily mysteries, there are always elements of suspense. One or more main characters can be classified as being off-kilter or societal rejects. Violence, imprisonment, and a strong sense of place are recurring themes. "A Rose for Emily" meets all these criteria. Suspense: The story's nonlinear narrative structure allows the narrator to share anecdotes that build tension to the final reveal. Outsider: Miss Emily's belief that the Griersons are above everyone else in Jefferson keeps her separated from the rest of the town. She can definitely be considered off-kilter as she uses the body of the man she killed to fulfill her fantasy of wedded bliss. Imprisonment: Miss Emily is imprisoned in her home first by her father, and then by herself. Violence: Homer Barron's death is an act of premeditated murder. The author's choice to omit the scene of his death allows the reader to imagine what happened, which is most likely more violent than the reality of the poisoning. Grotesque: The description of Homer Barron in his faux marital bed is crafted to disgust. The most horrific detail is that "[t]he body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace," which all but explicitly lets the reader know that Miss Emily was definitely sleeping with a dead body for a long, long time. Sense of place: The women gossip "behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin ... as the thin, swift clop-clop-clop" of the horses passes by. Descriptions like this give the reader a good understanding not just of the era of the story but of the way the setting sounds and feels.

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