Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is told from the viewpoint of an anonymous resident of Jefferson, Mississippi, where the Grierson family was the closest thing to true aristocracy. The story presents a powerful argument that privilege can sometimes be a prison.
To the outside world, it might have appeared that Miss Emily Grierson grew up in the lap of luxury. However, it was a lonely existence, for her father ruled Emily’s life with an iron fist, turning away every suitor the young girl had; no one was good enough for his daughter. Not surprisingly, the first thing Emily did after her father’s death was to find a boyfriend, and a very unlikely one at that—a Yankee day laborer named Homer Barron. She went out driving with Homer in a flashy yellow-wheeled buggy, and bought him extremely personal articles—a silver toilet set, a nightshirt. Today our first assumption would be that he was her lover, but this was the small-town South, and another time. The townspeople assumed she had gotten married— secretly, of course, because under the circumstances a big society wedding would be in bad taste.
For a while Emily convinced herself that the townspeople still respected her. After all, she never really intended Homer to supplant her father in the eyes of the town. He couldn’t have, because he was neither a Son of the South nor a pillar of the community; Homer’s role was simply that of a consort, filling a vacancy at Emily’s side. But when Emily learned Homer was gay, she realized his presence would cause her to be pitied and laughed at. This she could not abide, so he had to go.
Who else but a Grierson would be able to stroll into the pharmacy, demand arsenic, and refuse to explain what she intended to use it for? How could the townspeople have failed to notice that shortly thereafter, Emily’s lover disappeared, never to be seen again? How could they have failed to connect Homer’s disappearance with the terrible smell that emanated from the Grierson house? The logical conclusion—that Emily had murdered Homer—could not be incorporated into the myth that the townspeople had constructed around her. It was unspeakable, so no one spoke of it.
Forty years later, after Emily died, the townspeople cautiously entered the house that few had visited since the death of Mr. Grierson. There they were moved, but not really surprised, to find Homer’s skeletal body on a sumptuous bed in a locked room, Emily’s iron-gray hair lying on the pillow beside his head. In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner shows the tragedy that results from our adherence to social roles that constrain, rather than liberate, our true selves.
“A Rose for Emily” can be found in the collection Selected Short Stories.
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