Last week, I introduced my series on short stories and psychology in writing. I ended by leaving a link to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Here is a summary mixed with a brief character analysis of Emily Grierson from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” While I will admit to not being a big Faulkner fan, I do love this particular story. Although the analysis is diluted to fit time and length constraints, it does hit on the basics of motive: Why does Emily kill the person she actually loves? Why does she sleep near rotting remains? Is she really crazy?
As you read the story and the analysis think of your own characters. What drives them? How does the audience know what provokes them to action or passivity? Are their motives subtle or obvious?
The Pity of Emily Grierson
As characterized by Faulkner, Emily Grierson alternately evoked pity and annoyance from her contemporaries, for just as Emily’s circumstances changed, so did society’s opinion of her.
Born into superior circumstances, Emily was reared on noblesse oblige in an upper-class household. Conducting herself accordingly, she had the tendency to sit atop a pedestal and hide her personality, her mistakes, and her enduring attributes; as such, many of her peers considered her almost inhuman. Perhaps she was shy, or perhaps it was the paternal influence dictating her life; despite the origin, people saw her more as competition, as something to strive to best. Yet she did not help the position, never volunteering to come down off the pedestal which would have drawn people to her; instead she held them back. They were jealous; they were annoyed; they were curious about this high and mighty enigma, Emily, but not enough to really know her.
Yet there were two people who never held back. Emily’s father was an old-fashioned gentleman. When Mr. and Miss Grierson were together (which was almost always), the townspeople believed they resembled a “tableau”. With Emily, adorned in white in the background, and Mr. Grierson, clothed in black in the foreground, their class in society was unmistakable. Unfortunately, in Mr. Grierson’s eyes, they were the only worthy two in the town. No man was good enough for his daughter, and so Emily, abandoned by the town’s men, kept watch and companionship with her father, staying with him till the end.
It is regrettable that only the death of Emily’s father could cause others to see her in a new light. Pity emerged as the women watched her break: from denial to hysterics, they observed her clinging to a dead body; the only person with whom she had a connection had left her alone and penniless. That was when she began to go crazy; that is when people finally felt she was human.
Sick, Emily hid herself from the world and from life. Containing herself in her house, she left the entire maintenance in the hands of one mute Negro. The appearance and smell of the house meant nothing to her. She accomplished the necessary tasks in order to survive, but she never lived. Yet that did not stop Emily from clinging to her past: once reared superior, always superior, and that is how she acted. Whether it was arsenic or taxes, she was Emily Grierson, and she always got her way. Her attitude was the only thing she had left to connect her to the past, to her father. She needed her place atop her pedestal because that was the only object in her life bolted to the ground. Everything else could and would change, but not that altar.
Then one day Homer Barron rode into town. Full of laughs and curses, he brought life back to Emily. Seen riding together about town, the townspeople were overjoyed to see that Emily had entered the land of the living again. Happy and boisterous, the two were always together, just like she used to be with her father. Emily once again had a person in her life, and for the first time, it was a man her age that she could love and with whom she could grow old, but as circumstances progressed, others became more and more anxious.
Whispering gossip abounded. Considering her a fallen lady, the townspeople sent for her distant cousins to help her, rather than investing their own reputations. She was no longer alone, so she no longer needed condolences. She was a scarlet woman who would live with her own choices. Labeled “poor Emily” about town, they no longer thought of her as unfortunate, because even when everyone thought she would kill herself, no one offered to stop her; rather they thought she would be better off dead than alive.
Everyone thought she would eventually marry Homer – until he disappeared. Then once again she was eligible for pity. She had sunk below their level and was once again left alone. Now it was safe to be kind, to offer help, to ease their curious minds about the whole affair. But they did not obtain much information, for once again Emily locked herself in her house. Alone with the precious memories to which she so desperately clung, Emily blocked all else out of her mind. No one else mattered except her father and Homer.
Clinging was a major aspect of Emily’s life. Personally she had so little. The house and money belonged to her father. Women avoided her as much as she avoided them. Her father kept her isolated from all possible suitors, robbing her of the option of marriage and family, so she clung to the only things that were left her. Whether it was a dead body, distant memories, her upbringing, or engraved, silver mirrors, she hung on with all her might because these were the only things that separated her from the reality that she was a poor, desperate, fallen woman with no hope in life.
It was amazing how this fragile lady could outlast generations. How she continued to survive without the light of the sun, but she made it. A few remembered Miss Emily was still alive and occasionally tried to help; others simply forgot her, while to still others, she was just a fleeting thought, a person to be ignored.
If anyone had really know Emily Grierson, it would not have shocked them to find the decayed skeleton of Homer Barron in her bed, to see how she had made a museum of his last night on earth. It would not have surprised them to see that his last gesture was an embrace or to find a long strand of silver-gray hair (hair that perfectly matched Miss Emily’s) on the pillow beside him. Unfortunately, no one knew Miss Emily. They knew the gossip, and a bare minimum of facts, but no one knew who she was inside, and that is the only true fact deserving pity in her whole life.