A Rose for Emily

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does the structure of "A Rose for Emily" contribute to the mood of the story?

A story's mood is the atmosphere created by the author to elicit specific feelings from the reader. William Faulkner is a master at crafting mood. One of the ways he does this in "A Rose for Emily" is by straying from the traditional chronological narrative structure. Faulkner begins the story at the end of Miss Emily's life then relies on flashbacks to form the plot. This structure is disorienting to the reader. With each new section, and sometimes each new paragraph, the reader is forced to take a step back and assess the ever-evolving timeline. The reader never truly feels comfortable, which heightens the feeling of suspense. Because the story is told out of order Faulkner is able to steadily ratchet up the tension with each new revelation about Miss Emily's life. First the reader learns about the smell; after that Emily meets Homer and later purchases arsenic. By the time Homer disappears the reader knows how the murder happened but not why. At this point the air of suspense is so thick that the reader begins understanding just how horrifying the ending will be.

How does William Faulkner's choice of narrator affect the reader's understanding of "A Rose for Emily"?

Faulkner chose an unusual narrator to tell Miss Emily's story. The unidentified, first-person narrator is a resident of Jefferson. He or she (most likely he) speaks in the collective voice of the town, using the words we and our instead of me and mine. This stylistic choice establishes the citizens of Jefferson as an impenetrable, like-minded group. By grouping the entire town under one voice, those whom the story is about—Miss Emily and Homer Barron—are automatically classified as worthy of having their story told. This also positions Miss Emily and Homer as outsiders, a trait that later became a hallmark of Southern Gothic fiction. Because the narrator speaks in the collective voice, it seems as if all eyes are on Miss Emily and Homer at all times. This gives the story an eerie, voyeuristic quality that helps the reader understand the type of scrutiny Miss Emily faces throughout her entire life.

How does the genre of the short story impact William Faulkner's telling of "A Rose for Emily"?

Short stories, generally classified as narratives of 10,000 words or less, are curious pieces of literature; many authors find them far more difficult to write than the traditional novel. With so few words to play with authors must tell their stories concisely while still triggering the reader's imagination. Through flashbacks Faulkner keeps the focus on action that moves forward in a predictable way, carefully concealing that all is not what it appears to be. Along with not knowing what is happening behind closed doors, Faulkner also provides examples of duplicity with his characters. Each character represents a larger societal force Faulkner wishes to explore. Colonel Sartoris and Judge Stevens are the Old South; the younger generation of Jefferson is the New South. Homer Barron represents the North, and the Board of Aldermen represent the patriarchal Victorian society. Miss Emily represents the struggle between traditional female roles and personal freedom. Focusing on characters instead of plot gives Faulkner the opportunity to show these forces interacting with one another instead of just reacting to the events at hand. Short stories are generally meant to be read in one sitting, which puts enormous pressure on the author to keep the reader engaged. The compact format is perfect for maintaining tension and suspense without exhausting the reader.

What are William Faulkner's thoughts about class as depicted in "A Rose for Emily"?

Faulkner pays specific attention to the subject of class in "A Rose for Emily" as a means of showing how outdated the southern class system was after the Civil War. Fortunes dwindled, land was ruined, and slave labor was no longer an option by the war's end. Those who had once found themselves at the top of the South's social structure were left clinging to its tattered remains. This is the case with the Griersons, who, according to town lore, had historically presented themselves as better than they really were. In the Old South everyone had an assigned role in society. It was comfortable and comforting, and to those who lived through it it made sense. That's why the news of Miss Emily's poverty makes such waves through the town and why Miss Emily clings so desperately to the tatters of the family's reputation. Losing the family's status is the same as losing her own identity. She continues to cultivate the air of aristocracy after her father's death because it is the only thing she has left. Faulkner shows that Miss Emily's efforts are futile at best. She is the last of the Griersons, and with her death comes the end of the family legacy. Her story is reflective of many of the old families of the South following the Civil War. The Old South had fallen, and the gentile lives of the aristocracy went with it.

How does William Faulkner's use of figurative language make Emily Grierson seem less than human in "A Rose for Emily"?

Figurative language is the use of words in a nonliteral sense to describe a person, place, thing, event, or idea. Similes, metaphors, personification, imagery, and hyperbole are all types of figurative language. In "A Rose for Emily" Faulkner uses figurative language to make Miss Emily seem less than human. Faulkner makes good use of similes and metaphors to describe Miss Emily's physical characteristics. In her old age her eyes are "lost in the fatty ridges of her face," then they are compared to lumps of coal. She is obese and looks "like a body long submerged in motionless water." These revolting descriptions make Miss Emily seem more dead than alive. Faulkner continues that theme by frequently comparing Miss Emily to inanimate objects. She is, at different times, a "fallen monument" and "the carven torso of an idol in a niche." To the narrator she seems more like something to be studied and artistically appreciated than like an actual human. Miss Emily's lack of humanity is even more obvious contrasted with the narrator's personification of inanimate objects. The Grierson home is "stubborn and coquettish"; the dust in the parlor rises "sluggishly." In the bridal-suite-turned-tomb Homer Barron's shoes are "mute" as he is "cuckolded" by the "long sleep that outlasts love." The settings and objects in "A Rose for Emily" are given more human characteristics than Miss Emily herself.

In what sense is "A Rose for Emily" a ghost story?

"A Rose for Emily" is sometimes referred to as a ghost story despite the fact that ghosts are never mentioned. That has something to do with the mood of the story—dark, spooky, and tense. But there is also merit to the notion that it's an actual ghost story. In this case the ghosts are metaphorical, or not literally real. In "A Rose for Emily" both Miss Emily and the townspeople of Jefferson are forced to deal with the ghosts of their past. Miss Emily's "ghost" is the memory of her father. His selfish desire to keep her to himself under the guise of there being no suitable gentlemen callers haunts her for her entire life. Even after she has been in charge of the family home and legacy for 30 years, Mr. Grierson watches over everything from the crayon portrait in the parlor. He controls her life even after his death. The people of Jefferson also have to deal with their own ghost: the memory of Miss Emily. They and society as a whole failed Miss Emily during her lifetime, pushing her to conform to arbitrary societal standards. She dies poor and alone, her only companion a hired servant. This is something the citizens of Jefferson will remember for their rest of their lives. The narrator tells the story, in fact, to make sure that no one forgets the cost of chaining oneself to the past.

How does the Grierson home in "A Rose for Emily" reflect the changes in the South caused by the Civil War?

Much of the South had a difficult time recovering after the Civil War. Cities and countryside alike had been the site of numerous battles, and entire areas were virtually destroyed. Confederate money was worthless, and banks didn't have enough U.S. currency to give loans. Cotton production had been halted during the last year of the war so foreign nations found other suppliers. Put simply the southern economy was a disaster. This is reflected in the state of the Grierson home. Formerly a jewel on the "most select street" in Jefferson, by the time Miss Emily dies in the 1930s it is completely run down, the only house on a street now filled with cotton gins and gas pumps. The Griersons have somehow lost all of their money, and they are unable to take care of the once stately home. Its slide into decay is representative not just of the Grierson family's fall from grace but of the fall of the South as a whole.

What role do the townspeople play in "A Rose for Emily"?

The townspeople in "A Rose for Emily" are the story's Greek chorus. This term refers to a group of people featured in ancient Greek dramas that comment on the events happening on stage. Greek choruses are usually passive—they don't interfere with the main characters' decisions and interactions. In "A Rose for Emily" the townspeople's role as Greek chorus becomes clear when Miss Emily begins dating Homer Barron. Though the minister's wife contacts Miss Emily's cousins, nobody in town talks directly to Miss Emily herself. Instead the townspeople gossip about Homer's intentions and comment on Miss Emily's virtue "behind their hands." Their hushed commentary alerts the reader that Miss Emily's actions are not acceptable by Victorian society's standards.

How is dialogue used in "A Rose for Emily"?

Dialogue is used sparingly in "A Rose for Emily." Nearly all of the information the reader gets about Miss Emily, the town of Jefferson, and the interaction between the two is hearsay. This adds to the narrator's hushed, secretive tone while giving readers the feeling they are hearing this story from a friend of a friend. The instances where Faulkner does provide dialogue are extremely important. The first, when Miss Emily speaks with the aldermen at her home, establishes her as "dry and cold." The verbal ping-pong game does not rely on "she said" and "they said" to show the rapidity of the exchange and because the speakers can easily be identified by their choice of words. Dialogue is used in Part 2 to show the speech patterns of the characters, something Faulkner is notoriously good at. In Part 3 the dialogue between Miss Emily and the druggist shows her extreme confidence and his crippling sense of intimidation. It is notable that Homer Barron is not given the opportunity to speak. That's because Homer's personality doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of the story. He is a means to an end both for Miss Emily (who needs a husband figure) and Faulkner (who needs someone crass enough that Miss Emily, unless desperate, would never choose).

How do some of the themes of "A Rose for Emily" resonate with readers decades after the story's publication?

"A Rose for Emily" explores several themes, including tradition versus progress and patriarchy. Though the story was published in 1930 its themes resonate with today's audience because they are universal to human experience. Tradition versus progress remains an ongoing debate between generations. In Jefferson the older generation reveres southern manners and good breeding while the younger generation feels no need for the pomp and circumstance of the past. Today's generational divide is often centered around technology. For example, young people are more likely to rely on cell phones while older people refuse to give up their landlines. Arguments can be made for and against each, just as when the aldermen debate the best way to approach Miss Emily about the smell in her yard. This is still the case in the 21st century where youth leads the way in innovation while the old and staid prefer time-honored traditions. Though "A Rose for Emily" takes place during the 19th century, its message about the strength of the patriarchy, and what it takes to overcome it, is still relevant to readers. It would be easy to look at the Western world and say that women have made great strides in securing personal freedoms, but there are still places in the world where women are beholden to their fathers and then their husbands. Though women have made great strides since Miss Emily's day, the patriarchy is still king in many parts of the world.

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