Traditions and Conflicts in ‘A Rose for Emily’: Post-Civil War
Emily’s House and the Social Hierarchy
The Antebellum society had clear status demarcations. On the top were the aristocrats, the slave owners, and the masters of large plantations. They formed the cream of society and did not associate with the working middle class, who were usually considered as ‘commoners.’ The lowest rung of the society was occupied by the slaves. The description of Emily’s house, a once grand and imposing edifice, and the fact that she still employed a slave bear testament to her aristocratic origins. Also, her proud and haughty demeanor throughout the story also shows that she was brought up believing that she belonged to the top level of society and everyone else was beneath her.
Emily’s Complex Relationship
Emily’s entire life appears filled with conflicts. The first to appear is her relationship with her father. It is clear from the story that they were very close, and as per Southern tradition, the father needs to approve the person that Emily wishes to marry. The inflated pride that the father has for his family is the main reason for Emily to stay unmarried, as he keeps rejecting each suitor. Faulker describes this state of affairs beautifully – “We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door” (Faulkner, II, para 12).
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Emily is slender and dressed in white, which is suggestive of her youth and virginity. Her father, on the other hand, is described as a guardian who is literally keeping her captive. Faulkner describes Emily’s father as a silhouette, something that is faceless or in the shadows. This is suggestive of the father’s influence and holds on Emily, and her values, throughout her life. Scherting, in his analysis of the short story, declares that Emily had an Oedipus complex (Scherting, 397).
Her heavy dependence on her father causes Emily to suffer a psychological setback when he dies. The climax comes when she tries to prevent the town from burying her father for three days in an attempt to keep him with her. Emily could have honestly loved her father, but he was definitely a huge influence in her life. She feels empty without him and becomes sort of a recluse and a subject of pity among the townspeople until Homer Barron arrives, and her conflict is resolved, albeit temporarily.
Love, Conflict, and Poisonous Secrets in Emily’s Life
The next major conflict is between Emily and her family over Homer Barron. Homer breezes into town as the foreman for the construction company that is charged with paving the sidewalks. His big voice and gregarious nature soon make him the life of any gathering in the town. When Emily and Homer begin to be seen around town, the townspeople are relieved that she might finally marry. Emily’s motives are not evident behind seeing Homer, who is a “Northerner, a day laborer” (Faulkner, II, para 3), and therefore beneath her socially.
It is possible that Emily felt desperate and needed a male companion to fill the space that her father’s death had vacated in her life. It is also possible that she saw a little of her father’s domineering and ‘take-charge’ attitude in Homer (Gray; Dilworth, 251). Either way, it is clear that she wanted to marry him. However, Homer professes homosexual tendencies, and the townspeople, in an attempt to dissuade the alliance, write to Emily’s cousins in Alabama to talk to her.
However, Emily, in her usually haughty, headstrong way, continues to see Homer and her cousins finally leave. The conflict of the matter reaches a climax when Emily buys poison from the town druggist. She does not disclose her purpose behind buying the poison but stresses that she “want[s] the best you [the druggist] has” (Faulkner, III, para 9). Her old-South attitude and haughtiness manage to completely bowl over the druggist who issues the poison even though she does not give a reason as to why she needs it.
The townspeople, after hearing of this purchase, believe that Emily is going to commit suicide. However, when nothing happens for a long time, they forget about this incident, and the conflict in this matter gets resolved only after Emily’s own death several years later and the finding of Homer’s dead body. This is when all the mystery becomes evident – the bad smell, the poison, the absence of Homer, and the social reclusiveness of Emily. It is because of her old-South attitudes that the town considers her a relic and allows her strange behavior. And it is for this reason that she was able to get away with murdering Homer Barron.
A Rose for Emily is a widely read and critiqued piece of literature that portrays the struggles of a woman with firm roots in old-South traditions in the post-Civil War period. Emily hails from the aristocratic class and hence has all the self-importance and haughty behavior that goes with her origin. The townspeople clearly feel that even after her father dies and she sinks into poverty, she shows all her old-South habits and values.
From Emily’s viewpoint, it may be said that she was heavily controlled by her father, and after his death; she seeks to fill the void by trying to romance Homer. When Homer declares his homosexual tendencies, her upper-class upbringing helps her secure poison with which she kills him. Her desperation to cling to her old-South traditions and the attitudes of the townspeople allows her to get away with her crime. Her conflicts are ultimately resolved with her death.
- Dilworth, T. ‘A Romance to Kill For: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner’s ‘a Rose for Emily’.’ Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2009, p. 251, https://search.proquest.com/openview/e82b682a5ec8a58adaff3731f486f8da/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=48008.
- Faulkner, W. ‘A Rose for Emily.’ http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/wf_rose.html. Accessed November 20, 2018.
- Gray, K. L. ‘Comparing Faulkner’s a Rose for Emily and Porter’s The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.’ Inquiries, vol. 5, no. 3, 2013, p. 1, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/750/comparing-faulkners-a-rose-for-emily-and-porters-the-jilting-of-granny-weatherall.
- Scherting, J. ‘Emily Grierson’s Oedipus Complex: Motif, Motive, and Meaning in Faulkner’s ‘a Rose for Emily’.’ Studies in Short Fiction, Newberry, vol. 17, no. 4, 2000, p. 397, https://search.proquest.com/openview/f8716ea3c301da4268ad4ce91e9ce86e/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820858.