Modes of Decay in “A Rose For Emily”

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Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is fundamentally a story about preservation. The act of preserving something is to stop it from decaying. So if Miss Emily is understood as a character constituted by her pathological preservation of the past, especially given its historical context in the South of Reconstruction, Faulkner’s narrative can be formalistically examined as discourse on the distance between memory and preservation that emerges with the passage of time. This is a narrative that is also devised with the purpose of imparting irony. “A Rose for Emily” finds its foundational irony in its antagonist: if the story is taken to be about preservation, specifically the preservation of the values of the Lost Cause, the antagonist of this theoretical preservation would be decay. Decay that shows up throughout the narrative in various forms. These modes of decay then, are unquestionably significant, as they signal a failure of the past to remain present because of decay’s inevitable progress. This paper seeks to examine forms of decay that Faulkner’s first published story embodies. These modes of decay, exemplified by observations noting differences regarding the past versus the present throughout the narrative, signal attitudes of the townspeople and by extension, the contrast of attitudes between the Antebellum and Reconstructed South.

The gothic setting of our story is the town of Jefferson, inside the house of Miss Emily––a mausoleum of all the hope that ever was in or behind the Southern Cause but had now succumbed to the degradation of its present circumstances. Our setting is given to us by Faulkner as conventionally as any Faulkner story could hope to get. “In ‘A Rose For Emily,’ William Faulk-ner “imitates associative Southern storytelling style as an unnamed first-person narrator . . . This style is similar to that used in Greek tragedy, wherein chorus and chorus leader provide the reader/audience with information, interpret the characters’ actions, and express public opinion” (Mos-by). An apparent agenda can be pried from the second paragraph––a description of Miss Emily’s house––as a building symbolic of the Antebellum South:

It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies…set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores (Faulkner).

Drawing attention to the suggested temporality of the description, it’s an obvious lapsarian con-notation. The South was once thought of as a gentile and traditional place; much like Miss Emily's house, it was once a privileged homestead of southern aristocracy. Predictably, both decayed over time. But Faulkner’s taxonomy of evolution around Miss Emily’s house, in conjunction with the house itself, reveals that time has not been friendly to the neighborhood, or Miss Emily. The cotton gins and garages, both symbols of encroaching industrialization (signaling the victory of the North), serve to “obliterate” the distinction of the street and the neighborhood as a whole. Yet, despite the evolution surrounding Miss Emily, “Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.” The hierarchical ordering of Miss Emily’s house in vertical relation to the symbols of the industrialized Northern economy categorizes a stubbornness that was also customary in the ever-proud South, even after having surrendered in 1865. “Even this new South, striving for a prosperity based on Northern technology, cannot fully accept the decay of antebellum culture and ideals” (Madden). It’s not enough to view the house merely as a symbol for Miss Emily, her lifestyle, her era, or even the South collectively. The intellectual exercise of thinking through what Faulkner’s narrative does to that house as a symbol is equally compelling. When the house begins to emit a malodorous stench, suggesting something rotting, the town alderman simply co-vers the smell with lime during nightfall. This scene details the problem with preservation: time is an unrelenting antagonist. Things inevitably rot away, and perhaps what Faulkner is suggesting is to not deal with decay pragmatically, is to be at the mercy of the consequences.

Emblematic of this paradigm of irresponsibility when it comes to dealing with decay is the not so subtle episode which details the death of Miss Emily’s father. Townspeople come to honor Miss Emily’s father and pay their respects but are rebuked by a delusional Miss Emily, who maintains for three whole days that her father is still alive. “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. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly” (Faulkner). In a patriarchal South, the death of the patriarch itself has symbolic reference. However, the statement being made about Miss Emily’s mental state is made clear by the narrator. In a moment of introspection, the narrator recollects the event of the father’s death saying, “We did not say she [Miss Emily] 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” . Miss Emily must cling to that which had deprived her of ecstatic happiness all her life, her father. Yet, as is the case so often, people’s attitudes towards events expose more about the larger picture than a single happening might suggest. “Because Miss Emily is associated with the passage of time (her ticking watch is concealed in her bosom — heard but never seen), one might consider her to be living outside the normal limitations of time or, perhaps, simply not existing” (Mosby). Miss Emily desires stasis––a state of present in which nothing changes. As if this desire wasn’t problematic enough, Miss Emily takes pride in her association with the bygone glory of her family name, Grierson.

Readers are confronted with “the insanity of clinging to exposed illusions” when they envision Miss Emily (Madden). The unsettling nature of seeing someone who is outside the realm of rational thought frightens people. Yet, it is Miss Emily’s poverty that humanizes her to the townspeople. Notably though, they are only able to have pity on her out of obligation. This obligatory attention towards Miss Emily turns out to be a strange form of penance the current generation pays to the previous one. “The daughters and granddaughters of Colonel Sartoris’ contemporaries were sent to her with the same regularity and in the same spirit that they were sent to church on Sundays with a twenty-five-cent piece for the collection plate” (Faulkner). The dutiful attitude the community has belies the way they seem to truly feel about her. In a sense, this doesn’t matter to Miss Emily though, as she has already withdrawn from the real world, “Like many women of the defeated upper class in the Deep South, Miss Emily withdraws from the chronological time of reality into the timelessness of illusion” (Madden). Miss Emily’s preference for illusion over the real is problematic for the townspeople who wish to reconstitute southern society. Even though these southerners wish to acknowledge the previous generation and the strife in place culturally, they remain puzzled with how to deal with Miss Emily. Tax collection is a form of participation in government. It could be argued that taxes are the oil that runs the engine of government; without taxes and participation from the citizenry, the government breaks down. Therefore, Miss Emily’s refusal to pay taxes, her clinging to a bogus promise from Coloni-al Sartoris, and indeed her whole life becomes about ignorance. Since taxes are understood by most readers to be something compulsory, Miss Emily’s refusal to pay them speaks to her de-tachment from reality. Perversely as Madden notes, “She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson” (Madden). The gap between her actual dignity and her self-assigned dignity widens with the passage of time, a form of decay that is meant to disturb the audience and make them reconcile the past.

Miss Emily is an idol of southern selfhood. She is a portrait of the old guard. “Emily’s refusal to accept the fact of her father’s death suggests the refusal of some aristocrats to accept the death of the South even when faced with the evidence of its corpse” (Madden) This is a story about dealing with decay, about how preservation of institutions can appear insane in as little time as the passage of one generation to the next. Faulkner's high symbolism promotes a discus-sion on the gothic narrative. With no shortage of symbols to analyze, the audience must also ana-lyze the interplay of these symbols which commingle to exemplify the cultural attitudes of the author. The relationship between decay and preservation exposes relevant societal issues, as the present generation is always being confronted with the decaying cultural infrastructure of the past.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. "A Rose For Emily." Masterplots. 4th ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2011. 566-574. Print.

Madden, David. "Work Analysis A brief synopsis and critical analysis of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily ."Masterplots. 4th ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2011. 566-574. Print.

Mosby, Charmaine. "Critical Evaluation of "A Rose For Emily"." Masterplots. 4th. ed. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2011. 1-3. Print.