A Rose for Emily | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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A Rose for Emily | Part 4 | Summary

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Summary

The townspeople are convinced Miss Emily is going to kill herself with the arsenic. It is known around town Homer Barron isn't a "marrying man," and their yearlong relationship hasn't resulted in any public plans for the future. This is too much for some of the ladies. They think Miss Emily is "a disgrace to the town," and they force the Baptist minister to talk to her about her conduct. The talk obviously does not go well as the minister refuses to talk to anyone but his wife about it. His wife writes to Miss Emily's cousins in Alabama.

The arrival of the cousins seems to fix things. Miss Emily purchases a man's toilet set—traditionally a comb, a mirror, and a brush—and has the initials HB engraved on each piece. She also buys "a complete outfit of men's clothing, including a nightshirt." The townspeople take this as a sign Miss Emily and Homer are married. Then they realize Homer is gone. They figure he is preparing a new home for Emily's arrival or at least laying low until the cousins depart. Sure enough three days after the cousins leave Homer is seen on Miss Emily's doorstep. He is never seen again.

Miss Emily, too, seems to have disappeared. When she finally emerges six months later she is overweight, and her hair has started to turn gray. A few years later she offers children's china painting classes at her home to "the daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris's contemporaries." The lessons last a handful of years but are cut short by a lack of students. Miss Emily becomes a recluse again. The town gets free mail delivery, but Miss Emily refuses to have a mailbox or house numbers installed on the family home. A tax bill is sent to her every December, and every December it remains unclaimed at the post office. At 74 she dies in a downstairs bedroom, "her gray head propped on a pillow ... moldy with age and lack of sunlight."

Analysis

The townspeople of Jefferson are sympathetic to Miss Emily's plight. They understand the stress and loss of reputation associated with spinsterhood. Yet instead of offering to accept her the way she is, they collectively decide "it would be the best thing" if she killed herself. This seems barbaric to today's reader, but in the 19th century suicide was one of the more acceptable means of reclaiming one's dignity after being labeled as "fallen." Though men were actually three more times likely than women to commit suicide, Victorian literature was filled with stories of female suicide. These fictional suicides were a product of the cultural belief that women were weaker than men and thus less equipped to deal with the hardships of life. Thanks to these stories people in the Victorian era (1837–1901) believed it was natural for a woman to want to kill herself if she couldn't uphold the ideals of a society obsessed with the virtuous woman.

The narrator dances around the reason Homer won't marry Miss Emily. It was "known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks' Club," and he said himself that "he liked men." Today's reader understands these clues to imply that Homer may be gay, but readers in the 1930s wouldn't have automatically jumped to that conclusion. Homer is portrayed as a man's man, a burly beer drinker with a cigar clenched in his teeth. He doesn't fit to the stereotype of the effeminate gay male still widely in circulation in the 1930s. Homosexuality was considered an abnormality during Faulkner's time. That's what makes his inclusion of a sympathetic character who may be gay so surprising. It would have been easy to cast Homer Barron as the villain based on his implied sexual orientation alone. Instead he is Miss Emily's prey.

Part 4 sees Miss Emily transform from a target of speculation to being "a tradition, a duty, and a care," as she is introduced in Part 1. The disappearance of Homer Barron proves to the townspeople Miss Emily will not have a happy ending, and the older generation feels an obligation to help her in any small way they can. They send their daughters to china painting lessons, but the daughters go "in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sundays" with money for the collection plate. This southern sense of obligation disappears when the older generation's daughters and sons grow up and become "the backbone and the spirit of the town." Their daughters do not take lessons from Miss Emily; china painting, like the teacher herself, is useless and outdated. The younger generation's attitude indicates Faulkner's thoughts about the cost of progress. Social and cultural advancements—such as door-to-door mail delivery—come at the expense of the things that make a place or people so singular. In this case the values and customs that gave the South its distinct character are pushed aside for generic American ideals.

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