Southeast Missouri State University

Town and Time: Teaching Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Mary Ellen Byrne, Ocean County College, New Jersey

The reading of "A Rose for Emily" is usually a first step into the world of William Faulkner for freshman literature students. Intrigued as they are initially by the story's ending, these unsophisticated readers often remain perplexed by this complex, challenging Faulknerian world where the town of Jefferson is much more than simply the setting:  this town is a character with a voice and values. And this town, understood as setting, character, and narrative voice, controls "A Rose for Emily" from opening through closing sentence. Our role as teacher is to help students sort through Faulkner's interlaced patterns to the discovery that we ultimately know more about the town and its attitudes than we know about Emily Grierson herself.

To assist our students on their "first foray into Yoknapatawpha" (Brooks 107), we can establish the narrative voice by discussing the first paragraphs. We can demonstrate that this narrator, the voice of the town, an unnamed townsperson, present at the funeral of Emily Grierson, knows her life story, one constructed from the gossip, speculations, and legends of the town. We can posit that the narrator constructs this story-telling as a stream of associations, a mesh of dramatic scenes and images. Although this telling is not ordered chronologically, a chronology of events can be detected. Here by the use of Table One (see below) we can begin to delineate with our students, in parallel lines, the actual story line of events and the actual chronology of events. As we move scene by scene on the story line, we can connect the event there to its appropriate place on the chronology line.

This delineation focuses our students on the importance of time for Faulkner. These parallel lines help them fathom that for Faulkner, clock time, man's measure of the chronology of events, is not the essential time. Rather, time is experience, captured and held within the consciousness, is essential. Thus to Faulkner the past is ever present: was is is.

Approaching our teaching of "A Rose for Emily" by discussing the crucial dramatic scenes as they are presented on the story line, the student sees the town as character and voice; the suspension of our accustomed time order; the juxtaposition of past and present time in a narrative strategy; the crucial images; and Emily Grierson as the town knows her and as Faulkner wants the reader to understand her.

The narrative begins at its near-end, at the funeral of Emily Grierson. The voice of "our town" identifies Emily as a "tradition, a duty, and a care."  Men and women of "our town" react differently to her. The men act from "respectful affection for a fallen monument;" the women, from "curiosity."  This sense of "hereditary obligation" triggers a memory. In 1894 Colonel Sartoris had remitted her taxes, but generations change within the story, and their values differ. So the next generation, feeling no "hereditary obligation," attempts to collect these reportedly remitted taxes.

This encounter between the "next generation with its modern ideas" and the aged Emily, now in her 60s, gives our students their first glimpse of her. We should emphasize for students both the visual details here and Faulkner's skill with vividly concrete description, for the crucial images result from this visual artistry. Hers is a dusty, dank, desolate realm dominated by the presence of the "crayon portrait" of her father, long dead but indomitably present. Faulkner describes Emily dressed in black, as though in mourning, her eyes comparable to "two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough."  She is obese, not simply plump. "She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue."  It is important to alert students to the idea that Emily is a Faulknerian death-in-life figure, physically alive but spiritually and psychologically dead. In the confrontation between the generations when she speaks defiantly to community representatives, her taxes remain uncollected, and she triumphs.

This conquest of the modern generation reminds the narrator of an earlier battle when "she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before about the smell."  Students directed toward the battle language--"vanquished, [. . .] horse and foot"--can see the connection when the narrator flashes back in communal memory, recalling a series of images of Emily in her 30s. These images juxtaposed against the image of Emily Grierson in her 60s demonstrate that her was is is. The first scene features Emily "two years after her father's death" and shortly after her sweetheart deserted her as the town interferes after townspeople complain about "the smell."  Four town representatives, reduced to the roles of nighttime prowlers, "slunk" around Emily's house and "sling" lime. Creeping away, they see Emily silhouetted in the window, "her upright torso motionless as that of an idol," ever dominating the community.

By pointing out to students that the narrator connects this "idol" image, they can see a re-enforcement of the earlier statuesque monument reference with another image from the past, which is the crux of the town's perception of Emily:  "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 backflung front door." This reconstructed ever-present scene stands motionless, a frozen moment image of stasis, the tableau vivant. By definition the tableau vivant is a representation of a scene, picture, by a person or group in costume, posing silently without motion, an actual stoppage of human action, "a freezing of time and motion in order that a certain quality of the human experience may be held and contemplated" (Zink 291). Our students can recognize this frozen moment as the most vivid of several key static scenes which emphasize that was is is because the tableau vivant heightens the significance of an event to "its true meaning" (Zinc 299). Here we must explore the vocabulary and analyze the spatial arrangement of the statuesque figures, focusing on the virginal white of Emily's costume and noting the all-important front door as entry for only a few, and a barrier to knowledge and truth. This is an opportune time to remind students that Faulkner labeled this story "tragic" because Emily Grierson was "a young girl that just wanted to be loved and to love and to have a husband and a family" (FIU 185). Students, like the town, must ponder and try to understand.

At this point in classroom discussion, students need to see how the narrator connects the tableau image of father and daughter with the communal memory of the father's death. When her father died and left her penniless, people were "glad" they "could pity" her. Unemotional, denying, possessive, Emily clings to the corpse, then is shattered. With the town, the student reader must understand Emily's plight: "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." For months after her father's death Emily is ill, unseen. When she emerges she appears girlish, although she is actually in her thirties.

Now the narrator moves chronologically through the events of Emily's life after her father's death to relate the arrival of Homer Barron. In the summer after her father's death this Southern lady and the day laborer Yankee are seen by the townspeople "on Sunday afternoons driving in the yellow-wheeled buggy." The town soon interferes in this so-called scandalous affair. We must clearly discuss with students the reasons for the town's reactions here as they say "Poor Emily," declaring her "fallen" from her high Grierson perch. Finally the town summons Emily's Alabama female cousin to intervene in this supposed affair.

At this time Emily encounters the town druggist; again she defies and conquers. In this scene Faulkner focuses on her eyes, cold, haughty, and black as, uncharacteristically, Emily speaks; she wants "poison"--"the best"--"arsenic." Now our students should notice Faulkner's ability to focus on the crucial descriptive detail--here her eyes--which conveys a key insight into the character. The narrator relates that "we," the town, ever intrusive, knew immediately of the purchase of the poison. This episode of the town's censure and plot to orchestrate a marriage most pointedly reflects the town's values. Focusing on town values can generate lively discussion among students who find here the pattern, familiar to them, of the neighborhood gossip. The powerful, destructive, and repressive presence of the town is heard in the repeated "we said"; "we were glad"; we were "a cabal"; "we were her allies." The women use the force of religion to work their will, but Emily vanquishes the Baptist minister whom they send to her. Then Homer disappears forever from town; Emily retires behind the closed front door.

In a response reflecting the implications of the earlier tableau vivant image and acknowledging the impact of her was is is, the town "knew that this was to be expected too: 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." Emily, more sinned against than sinning, is nonetheless clearly isolated from the community. We can discuss with students Faulkner's own comments about Emily Grierson. "She had been trained that you do not take a lover [. . .] She had broken all the laws of her tradition, her background." She tried to do the best she could with her "desires and impulses against [her] own moral conscience and the conscience of, the social conscience of [her] time and place--the little town [she] must live in" (FIU 58-59). And live she did--on her own terms. Six months later when Emily is next seen by the town she is fat, her hair turning gray. Repeatedly Faulkner emphasizes the "gray" hair, a vigorous iron gray. We should stress that iron connotes for Faulkner determination and resolve against great odds.

When she is fortyish, Emily begins teaching china painting, but after six or seven years her "front door closed" and "remained closed for good." The ensuing final image of Emily in the communal memory is another image of stasis. "Now and then we would see her in one of the downstairs windows--she had evidently shut up the top floor of the house--like the carven torso of an idol in a niche, looking or not looking at us, we could never tell which." This closing image reiterates the previous monument, idol, and statuary images of Emily Grierson held in the town's consciousness. These idol-in-the-window images, which open and close the frozen moment images pattern in "A Rose for Emily," elevate Emily above the town, detached yet dominant. Our students need to understand the impact of this pattern of images.

Repeatedly Emily has vanquished the townspeople. And so "she passed from generation to generation [. . .] and so she died." Thus the narrator returns at the end to the beginning of his tale, to the scene at the funeral of Emily Grierson. Her past is ever present here. Just as it dominated the scene of Emily's conquest of the modern generation over the collection of the taxes, so "the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier" is the focal center here. The ladies of the town are "sibilant and macabre;" the men are reverently sentimental. Again our students should be mindful that a door is central to the scene as the "backflung front door," the closed front door, "the door through which no visitor had passed" were important before. To gain truth the town must break down this door and invade the bridal chamber tomb. In a single-sentence paragraph--the only one of its kind in the short story--Faulkner announces what we have all been awaiting:

"The man himself lay in the bed."

On the pillow beside the rotted corpse, the townsfolk see the telltale "long strand of iron-gray hair," the "picture" Faulkner identified as the origin of this story (FIU 26). Together here are the presences which converged in attempts to defeat her--the town, her father, and Homer Barron. But she has ultimately "vanquished them, horse and foot." On the victor Faulkner bestows a rose of tribute, a rose for Emily.

Finally we can inform our students that through his great novels of the 1930s and into his 1957 Snopes trilogy novel, The Town, Faulkner expanded the force of the community. But here in "A Rose for Emily," our students can begin their understanding of the import of the town as setting, antagonist, and voice. Its voice weaves its associations, accumulated in memory over generations, into omnipresent images and scenes. Students understand these images, frozen in memory, which capture and stop time, when the teacher encourages them to ponder this phenomenon in their own memory bank. In this same reflective pattern the student can obtain partial insight into Emily from bits of information. The natural manipulation of time by the narrative voice enhances the mystery as the reader becomes a detective adding the chronological table to the story line for clues. Then our students may understand the life of Emily Grierson as an early Faulknerian portrait of a woman denied life's chances, a victim of the repression and destruction enacted by the community. Her fight for survival and attempt to stop time distort her, but we might view her not so much as crazy or grotesque but as pitiable and, perhaps, admirable.

Students can be successful in meeting the triple challenge: Faulkner's expansion of the town beyond mere setting to town as character and voice; Faulkner's narrative strategies; the brilliant images of "A Rose for Emily." By our guidance through the patterns of the story, they may then come to understand that William Faulkner's end is in his beginning as Emily Grierson's was is in her is.

Works Cited


Brooks, Cleanth. Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Gwynn, Frederick, and Joseph Blotner,eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia 1957-1958. New York: Random House, 1965. Cited as FIU.

Zink, Karl E. "Flux and the Frozen Moment: The Imagery of Stasis in Faulkner's Prose." PMLA 71 (1956): 285-301.

APPLY VISIT DONATE