Grotesque Reality in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”

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William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” narrates the life of Emily Grierson and the murder that she commits alongside the members of her community. Narrated from a first person’s point of view, the text outlines the formation and death of a murderer whose existence society allowed in order to maintain their beliefs and practices in their community. Faulkner’s text thereby provides a different foundation for understanding the grotesque as it emphasizes the social conditions that enables a specific characterization of the grotesque.

As Fetterley claims, “Faulkner is not interested in invoking the kind of grotesque which is the consequence of reversing the clichés of sexism for the sake of a cheap thrill…Rather, Faulkner invokes the grotesque in order to illuminate and define the true nature of the conventions on which it depends” (616). In line with this, the following discussion elucidates on Faulkner’s illumination of the conventions that enables sexism in “A Rose for Emily.” The discussion is based on the argument that by allowing the text to revolve around the life and actions of a female murderer, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” was able to portray the negative effects of sexism in society.

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The text begins by recounting the events that took place during the death of Emily Grierson. It states, “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years” (Faulkner 1). It is interesting to note how from the very beginning of the text, Ms. Grierson is depicted as a symbol of the town itself. In the beginning she is described as “a fallen monument” which is later followed by a description of her as “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (Faulkner 3). One might note that this is a result of Ms. Grierson’s position in their society.

She was introduced by the narrator as the daughter of one of the most prominent members of their community. As an elite member of the community, her father was depicted as an authoritarian who limited his daughter’s experiences in the domestic sphere. One must assume that the same thing was done to Emily’s mother since within the text itself there is no mention whatsoever of Ms. Grier’s mother. The only relations that were mentioned are her two cousins and her Negro servant whose existence was as hazy as hers. This description of her childhood as well as her immediate home environment presents us with a view of the mechanics in their community.

            As a part of a highly patriarchal community wherein relations are determined by the rank of the members within the community, Ms. Grier was depicted as an individual protected from the world by her family. However, at the later part of the text, one sees that it might be the other way around. Note, for example, that none of the events which took place in the text were ever recounted through Ms. Grierson’s personal accounts. The narrator led the reader to believe that the reason for this may be traced to the elitist characteristics of Ms. Grierson and her family. However, it is important to note that Ms. Grierson herself chose to protect herself from the society in which she lived in. In the latter part of her life, they described her as a “dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse” figure who “like the carven torso of an idol in a niche…passed from one generation to generation” (Faulkner 7). Her refusal to communicate with any member of the community may be seen as her refusal to accept a society which passively accepts the death of a stranger, a non-conformist stranger for that matter, in the form of Mr. Homer Barron, in order to ensure the continuation of their beliefs. In order to understand this, it is important to consider the narrator of the text.

The significance of the first person narrator is evident if one considers that the narrator represent white southern society which is the real protagonist in the text. Fetterley claims, “(I)t is a story of the patriarchy North and South, new and old, and of the sexual conflict within it” (616). In line with this, Volpe argues that within the text Faulkner was able to create “the community as a living entity, a character with a past, a personality, a memory, and feelings by means of the ubiquitous narrator who spans the several generations of Emily’s lifetime” (99). The community as a narrator enabled the community’s implicit justification of its actions within the text as it argues that their actions are a result of the development of their society’s cultural values, attitudes, and behavior. In that sense, the narrator is implicitly telling the reader that they may not be held accountable for Ms. Grierson’s murder of her lover, Mr. Barron.

True enough, one might argue that the community itself did not force Ms. Grierson to commit such an act however it may also be argued that the community’s initial dealings with Ms. Grierson supplied her with a motive for committing the act. By denunciating her relationship with her lover and by allowing her to engage in questionable actions (e.g. purchasing arsenic without providing a valid reason for such an act), they implicitly allowed her to murder her lover. As was stated in the later part of the text, the members of the community did not question Ms. Grierson regarding the status of Mr. Barron as he failed to show any sign of life within their community or even within the house itself. Dilworth states this succinctly as he argues:

The community condoned the killing by not publicly acknowledging it and by not investigating in order to prosecute the killer, whom they must have known was Emily. Legally, the narrator and other townspeople are, therefore, accessories to murder “after the fact”. Worse, they were prepared, as we shall see, to be accessories to murder “before the fact.” (252)

For the community, Ms. Grierson thereby stood both as a symbol of the crime that they have committed as well as the symbol of the strength of their beliefs. Ms. Grierson’s character as well as her life may be seen as portraying the effects of a society that prohibits the existence of an individual with autonomous beliefs. Hence, one is presented with the an understanding of Ms. Grierson who is both protecting herself from society as well as living within the reality which her society allowed her  to believe. In the end of her life, by denying the company of other people, she allowed herself to be deluded in the reality that she chose to embrace. In this reality, her community allowed her to continually exist with her lover despite his death.

            Within this context, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” may thereby be seen as portraying the effects of the dogmatic adherence to certain beliefs and traditions. Within the text, the community used Ms. Grierson as a form of scapegoat which they used to stand both as a monument to their traditions and as a grave for the negative effects of such traditions. The text may also be seen as portraying the effects of society, status, and family in the actions of individuals and how these actions are enabled by society in order to protect their self-image as well as the foundation of their beliefs. Faulkner, in line with Fetterley’s claim, thereby provided an image of the grotesque as the text emphasized that the elements used for emphasizing the grotesque are in themselves negative social beliefs and practices which merely shows that the grotesque is in itself based on a real life manifestation of the grotesque.

Works Cited

Dilworth, Thomas. “A Romance to Kill For: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’”. Studies in Short Fiction 36 (1999): 251-262. Print.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily”. A Rose for Emily. Np: Dramatic Publishing, 1983. Print.

Fetterley, Judith. “A Rose for ‘A Rose for Emily.’” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Alison Booth and Kelly Mays. London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 616-621. Print.

Volpe, Edmond. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse: Syracuse U. P., 2004. Print.

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