Changing Portraits in "A Rose for Emily"
Janice A. Powell, Middle Park High School, Granby, Colorado
"A Rose for Emily," the Faulkner short story most often read in high school, is a perfect introduction to close reading, for this rich text provides not only innumerable details but also a complex structure. Long after students have learned to identify and discuss the function of significant detail, they often continue to struggle with the influence of structure on a story. The imagery of changing portraits in "A Rose for Emily" allows students to explore both to find meaning. In addition to the literal portrait of Emily's father, Faulkner creates numerous figurative portraits of Emily herself by framing her in doorways or windows. The chronological organization of Emily's portraits visually imprints the changes occurring throughout her life. Like an impressionist painting that changes as the viewer moves to different positions, however, the structural organization provides clues to the "whole picture" or to the motivations behind her transformations.
Chronologically, the "back-flung" front door creates the first tableau of a youthful Miss Emily, assiduously guarded by her father. Miss Emily, a "slender figure in white," typifies the vulnerable virgin, hovering in the background, subordinate and passive. The father, "a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip" (CS 123), is a menacing dark image assuming the dominant front position. His turned back suggests a disregard for her emotional welfare as he wards off potential danger -- or violation of her maidenhead -- with his horsewhip. The back-flung door invites suitors in, but only those who meet Grierson's standards. Unfortunately, those standards are unattainable -- "The Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were" (CS 123) -- and Miss Emily remains a spinster at age thirty.
The result of Mr. Grierson's intimidation takes visual form after his death as Emily parallels angels framed in church windows: "When we saw her again, her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl, with a vague resemblance to those angels in colored church windows-sort of tragic and serene" (CS 124). The images in this passage reveal a woman stripped of her sexuality. In this portrait, Emily assumes the semblance of a girl instead of a sexually mature woman of thirty. Her cut hair is especially important. Since ancient times, a woman's hair has symbolized her sexuality. Emily's hair, along with her sexuality, has been cut short through her father's pride. The cut hair also introduces religious imagery, for an initiate into a nunnery shears her hair as a symbol of her chastity. In addition, the adjectives "tragic and serene" envisage a Madonna, a holy virgin, as an addendum to the primary image of angels who, although often depicted as women, are asexual.
After she kills Homer Barron, the picture of Emily framed by the upstairs window becomes an inversion of her youthful portrait: "a window that had been dark was lighted and Miss Emily sat in it, the light behind her" (CS 123). With the light behind her, Emily becomes the dark silhouette of her father in the dominant foreground. Since nightshirts were white, Homer Barron, wearing his nightshirt (CS 130), is the inversion of the pure virgin‑‑a decaying corpse hovering in the background, passive and eternally subordinate. This inverted portrait suggests that Emily establishes her dominance with this act of murder.
Later, the shift from an upstairs window frame to a downstairs one is significant even though the descriptions of Emily in both portraits are similar. In both she is a torso of an idol: upstairs, her "upright torso" is "motionless as that of an idol" (CS 123); downstairs, she is "like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which" (CS 128). The rigid torso in both portraits personifies Emily, adhering stubbornly to her "noblesse oblige." The latter portrait, however, is downstairs. In aristocracy, the upstairs connotes private life as opposed to public life displayed downstairs. Emily has shut off the top floor--or her private life--and allows the townspeople to view only her public image. Just as an idol occupies its nook in a wall, Emily continues to occupy her niche as the last Grierson. Whether or not Emily looks at the townspeople is inconsequential, for an idol does not mingle with the masses.
The final portrait of Emily as an old woman, framed in the doorway while discussing her taxes, contrasts sharply with the portrait of her youth:
They rose when she entered--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. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of
coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another [ . . .] Then they could
hear the invisible ticking at the end of the gold chain [ . . .] Her voice was dry and cold. (CS 121)
No longer slender, this small, fat woman presents an incongruous image as her obesity overwhelms her small, spare frame. The virginal girl has been overwhelmed with life. The overall image, however, is one of dominance and death. Emily now wears black instead of white. Black, with its traditional suggestion of evil, also visually transfers dominance in this scene. Certainly, she controls this situation instead of the Aldermen. But the images of death emerge most frequently: her pallid complexion; her drowned, bloated body; her lost eyes; and the cold, dry voice of the tomb. Not only has Emily been living with death literally in the form of Homer's corpse, but something essential has died within her. For Emily, time and its inescapable changes have died. The watch has vanished invisibly into her belt, and her body has figuratively drowned in the motionless waters that connote stagnant time. Time, for Emily, is no longer a "mathematical progression" (CS 129). She has locked herself away from all change inherent in the passage of time. She refuses the outward vestiges of progress, such as metal numbers above her door--a subtle reference to mathematical progression--or a mailbox--a visual representation of the communication she has severed. She even settles the issue of taxes by telling the Aldermen to consult Colonel Sartoris, who has been dead nearly ten years. Instead, time has become a "huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches" (CS 129). As a meadow, all time, past and present, merges into one, and change ceases to exist. Since "no winter ever quite touches" it, this merging allows Emily to control the pain of loss‑‑the loss of her father, to whom she clung; physical and emotional love; and the normal aspects of a woman's life. Perhaps this distortion of time ultimately allows her to sleep with the corpse of her lover as if she were sleeping with the living man. As seen in this portrait, however, the final effect is that Emily herself becomes, figuratively, a living corpse.
The chronological portraits mirror the frozen images of Emily that linger in the minds of the townspeople, the collective narrator. The structural placement of these pictures within the story, however, reveals her motivation. Emily becomes caught between female practicality and the male romanticism of a patriarchal antebellum society. Greatly influenced by her father, Emily apes male romanticism to ensure her emotional survival.
In Section I, Faulkner juxtaposes the townspeople's most lasting impression of Emily, her portrait as an old woman, and the crayon picture of her father. This placement highlights the transference of her father's male characteristics. Just as the father's picture rests on a tarnished gilt easel (CS 120), Emily rests on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head (CS 121). The ebony cane reflects the authority and violence of the father, who is later a dark silhouette clutching a whip (CS 123). Since gilt is a simulated or fake gold, both the gilt easel and the tarnished gold head of the cane connote the tarnished nature of the aristocratic Grierson name, for gold cannot tarnish if pure. The juxtaposition, however, suggests more complex issues. When Emily's father dies, she attempts to retain the corpse and secludes herself when she fails. The townspeople excuse her by saying, "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" (CS 124). Her father, the dominant patriarch, robbed her of a husband and that part of a female's existence that can find fulfillment only through marriage. Emily eventually apes that male dominance by killing Homer Barron. Now robbing herself, she becomes the black silhouette of her father and assimilates his characteristics. After Homer's death, she successfully retains the corpse. And when she secludes herself this time, the townspeople reason that it is "as if that quality of her father which had thwarted her woman's life so many times had been too virulent and too furious to die" (CS 127). That same Grierson pride of her father is too virulent, or poisonous, to die and allow her to marry. The word virulent is interesting in that it not only means "poisonous" or "malignant"-obviously Homer is poisoned, and Mr. Grierson's pride becomes a malignant cancer that spreads to his daughter--but also plays off the word virile, meaning "capable of procreating" or "manly." Mr. Grierson's poison is so malignant that it destroys his daughter's opportunity for procreation and transforms the womanly part of her into manliness. When Emily finally does appear again, she has vigorous iron-gray hair, like that of an active man, until she dies at the age of seventy-four (CS 128). This same hair appears on the pillow next to Homer, whom the unnatural "manly" part of Emily killed, but to whom the "womanly" part of Emily still clings.
In Section II, the juxtaposition of the upstairs window portrait and young virgin tableau (CS 123) emphasizes the inversion of these two images and provides some clues to Emily's motives for murder. If the upstairs portrait is an inversion of dominance through the act of murder, the motive may be as well. Mr. Grierson's motive for driving off Emily's suitors is based on a romantic vision of virginity. Practically, Emily is an economically feasible commodity through marriage, and Mr. Grierson, who died penniless, needs the money. But he rejects marriage to place her on a pedestal as a perpetual virgin: a symbol of courtly love, of a holy quest, and of a long-lost feudal system that prefigures the antebellum South's reverence for a "noble" Grierson name. For Emily, however, marriage is a more practical concern than virginity. As Jason Richmond Compson said in The Sound and the Fury, virginity "means less to a woman [ . . .] It was men invented virginity not women."' For a woman, virginity is an unnatural state maintained merely to assure marriage. Marriage is a practical concern, for it defines her social and economic status for the rest of her life. Virginity is not the issue for Emily. Despite Mr. Grierson's and the townspeople's obsession with her virginity, Emily probably experiences intercourse before the murder. Her appellation throughout the story shifts from "Miss Emily," emphasizing her virginal and unmarried state, to "poor Emily," suggesting the despoiled virgin. The title of the story is "A Rose for Emily." The virginal "Miss" is absent in the title, and a rose is a medieval symbol for vagina. As such, the title would read "A Vagina for Emily." Furthermore, Homer is lying in an attitude of embrace as if anticipating or completing sexual activity. And he is a cuckold, a term that by definition can apply only to a married man, even if married only by deed. Marriage--not virginity--is Emily's primary concern. If Emily marries Homer, she must give up her Grierson name--with all its implied worth--to take Homer Barron's name. "Barron" is a homophone for two words: "baron" and "barren." Homer is not a noble baron, worthy of a Grierson, but a common day-laborer. As his wife, Emily would be barren of social position; but without him Emily is literally barren of childbearing and physical and emotional intimacy. Notably, Homer's initials are tarnished into obscurity on his silver toilet set, a possible betrothal present. Silver is an inferior metal to gold, but, more important, the initials, symbolic of the offending name, are erased. Through death, Emily attempts to keep some semblance of marriage without the transference of Homer Barron's name.
Until the angel portrait in Section III, the picture placements are reversed chronologically, moving backward to the structural center of the story that returns Emily to her most innocent state. She is a girl again even though over thirty. Her father is no longer alive to drive off suitors. She doesn't need to protect the Grierson myth, for the money is gone and her poverty "humanizes" (CS 124) her. And even though Homer has professed that he is not the marrying type, he does return after the cousins leave. Why, then, does Emily choose to kill her only chance for physical and emotional intimacy? The whip is the final pictorial clue, and a very practical one. Her father held the horsewhip when she was a young woman; however, when she and Homer go buggy riding, Homer holds the whip, along with the reins. To marry Homer would again transfer control into the hands of a man, one whom she could not trust with her well-being any more than she could trust her father, for Homer liked men, drank with the younger men at the Elks' Club, and was not the marrying type (CS 126). Through the violence (whip) of murder, Emily figuratively takes over the reins of her life.
The downstairs window in Section IV restores Emily as the town icon -- the last Grierson, a nomenclature that reflects the romanticism of the townspeople themselves. Even when successive generations veer from their fathers' more romantic notions, Emily remains "a tradition, a duty, a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town" (CS 119). As part of their "hereditary obligation," the townspeople not only remit her taxes, but perhaps condone murder. At her funeral, they know there is a door they will have to force (CS 129), implying they suspect Homer's demise. Yet they do nothing during her lifetime. Why? Despite all evidence, the townspeople place Emily on a pedestal. When they believe she is "fallen," they declare that she "carried her head high enough [ . . .] as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness" (CS 125). And the "older people," representative of the antebellum South, aver that "even grief could not cause a real lady to forget noblesse oblige-without calling it noblesse oblige" (CS 125). This term elevates a penniless, eccentric old maid to the status of nobility merely because her lineage links her to the Old South. The townspeople force Emily, as part of her obligation, to conform to their romantic vision of the "last Grierson," effectually depriving her of both love and responsibility. To that end, they are no better than Mr. Grierson, for neither her needs nor her deeds matter.
Section V returns to the first and only literal portrait mentioned in the story, the crayon picture of the father, as he "muses profoundly" (CS 129) at his daughter's funeral. This inclusion insinuates Mr. Grierson's tremendous influence. By dooming marriage, he triggered death. Marriage and death become as inextricable in this passage as Homer is from the bed in which he and Emily lay (CS 130). The rose from the title finally emerges in the form of the rose-colored room that is both bridal chamber and tomb. And Homer is both groom and corpse. The epitaph is written. Death has cuckolded Homer, stolen his bride, because death outlasts love and conquers "even the grimace of love" (CS 130). Emily chooses an affair with death rather than marriage to a living man because her father taught her the pain of love. Throughout the story, the father and the potential groom are parallel: both are dark men, both carry whips, and both desert Emily. All images associated with them are metaphors of pain and sorrow. Marriage and death are inseparable because love and pain are inseparable.
Throughout this story, Faulkner, the master artist, verbally paints the portraits of a tragic woman. Through his images, the reader watches Emily transform from a virginal victim to a "manly" murderess to a corpulent corpse. More than a portraitist, however, Faulkner unveils interior complexity through external appearance, using both imagery and structure. Just as the impressionist painter Seurat places colors next to one another for the viewer to mix and interpret the hues, Faulkner juxtaposes and scatters images and information throughout the story for the reader to mix and interpret the various colors of Emily's character. At the end, the artist contrasts the pictorialization of a genteel Emily resting peacefully on her funeral bier with a simple image of love and loss, a strand of irongray hair resting on the yellowed pillow of an impotent bridal bed. This haunting image is the final pen stroke whispering the eulogy of her wasted life.
- Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Vintage, 1977), 123. Hereafter CS.
- The southern planter patterned his lifestyle after the English country gentleman (Daniel Boorstin, The American: The Colonial Experience [Random House, 1958]). In doing so, he developed a code of conduct that reflected the romanticism of the medieval age. A feudal mind set--replete with courtly love, a code of honor, and a romantic quest--is evident in several of Faulkner's male characters, e.g., Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! and Hightower in Light in August.
- The Sound and the Fury, (New York: Random House, 1992), 78.