Miss Emily’s Alienation: William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"

Updated on November 1, 2016

William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” centers around the lives of townspeople obsessed with a fellow Southern woman who has shut herself out from their community. Although the lineage of Miss Emily Grierson has deep roots in the community, she is anything but a normal citizen. Dominated by a controlling father, whose death leaves Miss Emily very alone, she ostracizes herself from the town by having limited contact with the outside world for the remainder of her life. The community itself does little to coerce Miss Emily out of her forced seclusion. A few routine visits from the townspeople, companionship from Homer Barron, who is found as a skeleton in her house upon her death, and assistance from her housekeeper Tobe is the only interaction Miss Emily has with the outside world. In a community infiltrated with evolving social standards brought on by an ever changing political and technological country, Miss Emily is left as “the victim of southern tradition and culture” (Fang, 18). Her victimization, and ultimate ostracism, is a result of the community’s inability to perceive Miss Emily as anything but a “high and mighty” (Faulkner, 392) Grierson who became a “disgrace to the town” (Faulkner, 395) when the working class Northerner, Homer Barron, began courting her.

The beginning and end of the story illustrates the townspeople’s almost indifferent opinion of Miss Emily’s death through the narrator’s recollection of events. From the beginning, the community depicts Miss Emily more as an unwanted object they wish to explore than a recently deceased person. Part of the first line reads, “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” (Faulkner, 391). When a person dies, the initial reaction of most people would be to give their condolences to the next of kin or try in some way to put the deceased to rest, and some could argue that the men of the town do this, but most of the townspeople, arguably the women, attend her funeral purely to benefit their own curiosity. This notion is later confirmed at the end of the story when the narrator indicates that after the funeral the first ladies in the house came “with their hushed, sibilant voices and their quick, curious glances” (Faulkner, 396). Here, her death appears to be used to the townspeople’s advantage because it gives them an excuse to snoop around her house to see for themselves how this very private person had lived. At last they are able to enter her sanctuary to scrutinize her existence unsupervised by anyone. Although the townspeople may be indifferent to Miss Emily’s death, it does serve the town’s purpose of being able to force entry into the way she lived and violate her privacy.

Furthermore, the townspeople see Miss Emily more as a spectacle than an actual human being trying to find happiness in life. Miss Emily’s “show” begins with her father “depriv[ing] Emily of her woman's happiness and isolat[ing] her from the outside world” (Fang, 20). Consequently, her father driving away all of her suitors with his controlling nature alienated her from society because the community thought the opinion of Miss Emily’s father was also Miss Emily’s opinion. This is why the townspeople thought “when she got to be thirty and was still single, we were not pleased exactly, but vindicated” (Faulkner, 393). Instead of feeling sorry for a woman that is nearing an age when spinster is the term most often used to refer to her, the townspeople are “vindicated” that she is still single. They see her as a snobby Grierson getting what she deserves and they enjoy watching her single status and her resulting loneliness continue. The town’s obsession with observing Miss Emily’s life further unfolds after her companion Homer Barron is believed to have left Jefferson for good. This is confirmed when the narrator says, “We were a little disappointed that there was not a public blowing-off” (Faulkner, 395). Although they believe a wedding is eminent or may have already taken place, the townspeople offer no sympathy for Miss Emily. Alternatively, they are “disappointed” that Homer Barron did not have a public break up with Miss Emily. The town’s inability to show Miss Emily any kind of compassion portrays them as a society that has, for the most part, grown to expect an exciting scene from Miss Emily in which her emotions or outlook on life are insignificant to them.

However, although it is apparent that the town’s lack of kindness for Miss Emily is the reason why she chose to alienate herself from society, at times, the townspeople may have tried to help her cope with her loneliness. Shortly before the narrator announces that Miss Emily’s father has died, he says, “That was when people had begun to feel really sorry for her” (Faulkner, 393). Some sympathy is felt in this one sentence but it is followed by, “People in our town…believed that the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were” (Faulkner, 393). The compassion expressed by the townspeople in the preceding sentence is short lived. The judgmental opinions conveyed in the latter sentence portray a society that is deeply critical of the Griersons. Additionally, after Miss Emily’s father’s death the narrator says, “The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as in our custom” (Faulkner, 393). The words “as in our custom” stress that the only reason the women offer their help and sympathy is because their social rules advocate that kind of visit upon the death of a community member. Their lack of real compassion for Miss Emily and her knowledge of their insincerity is also most likely the reason that later in the story when “A few of the ladies had the temerity to call…[they] were not received” (Faulkner, 392). The townspeople’s false sincerity for Miss Emily led to her alienation and, consequently, her inability to move forward in time.

In an ever changing world, the “tension between the new and the old order arouses great agony in people's mind, as in the case of Miss Emily in "A Rose for Emily'” (Fang, 20). Miss Emily has to overcome her controlling father, a nosy town, and her own social awkwardness; but “because she is penniless and refuses to change, Emily cannot simply be integrated into the modernizing development of the town” (Harris, 176). As a result of her inability to cope with change, both regarding her father’s death and a “modernizing” town, Miss Emily is left to cling onto the past by maintaining a close relationship with Homer Barron, even after his death. She was taught by her southern values at a young age that the man is the head of the household and a permanent part of the household. These are beliefs that the townspeople also shared but instead of embracing her as one of their own, they alienated her from their society by being critical and scrutinizing her existence. Therefore, it can be said that “She embodied their values; they used her, and now use her memory to deflect blame from themselves” (Dilworth, 260). The townspeople are just as responsible for Homer’s death because they ostracized Miss Emily in a way that made her mind susceptible to considering any means to find someone to spend her life with.

Works Cited

Dilworth, Thomas. "A Romance to Kill for: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'." Studies in Short Fiction 36.3 (1999): 251. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

Du, Fang. "Who Makes a Devil out of a Fair Lady? --An Analysis of the Social Causes of Emily's Tragedy in A Rose for Emily." Canadian Social Science 3.4 (2007): 18-24. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 15 Oct. 2010.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Allison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. 10th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. 391-97. Print.

Harris, Paul A. "In Search of Dead Time: Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." KronoScope 7.2 (2007): 169-183. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

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