William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” features a strong element of the grotesque as Miss Emily’s secret is revealed. Throughout the story, she is seen as a town oddity, unbending in her ways and adamant about keeping everything the same. This represents a kind of madness in keeping with the treatment she had received from her father, who insisted she always remains his little girl and always remembered her high birth status. The world of the present is strange and unrecognizable to Miss Emily, so she struggles continuously to keep it in the realm of the safe and ‘normal’ she knows. This leads her to manifest some very strange and unusual behavior, particularly as it concerns her relationship with the town, her response to her father’s death, and her reaction to Homer Barron.
Miss Emily becomes grotesque in her outward appearance to match the oddity of the old maid
Miss Emily Grierson is introduced as a woman who has never been provided an opportunity to become comfortable or familiar with the world outside of her father’s old-world ideals. “None of the young men were quite good enough to Miss Emily and such. 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” (437). This created a situation in which Miss Emily “got to be thirty and was still single” (437), forced to live in her maidenhood forever and lacking any connection to the rest of the world. The effect this had on her can be seen in a description of her in later life, appearing before the Aldermen as “a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue” (434-435). Through this progression, Miss Emily herself can be seen making the transition from a normal young woman to something of an oddity as a 30-year-old maiden to the grotesque as a bloated corpse.
Miss Emily’s inability to relate to the real world outside her fantasy is first manifested completely when she refused to acknowledge her father’s change of state upon his death. “Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body” (437). This reaction was considered strange and unusual by the people of the town who are narrating the tale but justified by how she’d been treated by this man. “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (437). This shows a recognition of how Miss Emily’s mind must have been damaged by her earlier life with her father and hints at the possibilities in her future. While her preference to hold a dead body within her home indefinitely as it rotted into an unrecognizable mass of skin and bone is decidedly grotesque, the townspeople understand her to need to cling to what is familiar and normal even when that is no longer possible. Her willingness to give in on the matter, in the end, evokes sympathy among her neighbors rather than disgust.
The final conviction that Miss Emily had indeed crossed over the threshold into madness and the grotesque comes only after her death and in conjunction with her relationship with Homer Barron. Rumors had been flying about town that Miss Emily was going to marry the handsome, lively man from the North despite his inherent proclivity to bring about change, something Miss Emily is already known to abhor. However, the arrival of Miss Emily’s cousins in town precipitates a withdrawal from Homer Barron in response. “So, we were not surprised when Homer Barron … was gone. We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing-off, but we believed that he had gone on to prepare for Miss Emily’s coming, or to give her a chance to get rid of the cousins” (440-41). That Homer remained as changeable as the present is evident in that he returned “within three days” as a “neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening” (441). However, Miss Emily was not accustomed to changing and could not overcome the training of her unchanging past. As the narrators tell it, “that was the last we saw of Homer Barron” (441). As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Miss Emily brought Homer Barron into her world in the only way she knew how. When the men of the town broke through the door of the upstairs bedroom following Miss Emily’s death, they describe a grisly scene. “The body had once lain in the attitude of an embrace, … what was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and biding dust” (443).
Miss Emily committed an incredible act of evil, deliberately taking the life of another to ensure he never left her again. At the same time, her actions inspire revulsion and disgust in others as it is realized that Miss Emily slept next to this decaying corpse for many years following his death, as evidenced by the single “long strand of iron-gray hair” (444) found on the pillow beside him. However, in the end, the townspeople seem to have realized a depth of sympathy for the old woman, purposely not investigating the house until after she’d been honorably laid to rest and then telling her story in an oddly respectful manner that enables others to feel for her as well.
Faulker, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Anthology of American Literature – 8th Edition. Ed. McMichael, George, James S. Leonard, Bill Lyne, Anne-Marie Mallon, and Verner D. Mitchell. Boston: Prentice-Hall, 2004. 433-444.