Southern Tradition in A Rose for Emily

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Southern tradition in William Faulkner's ~''A Rose for Emily,~'' taking a look at the way Emily Grierson and the South suffer from a denial of progress. Updated: 05/08/2021

Faulkner and the South

Many of William Faulkner's best-known works are based on Mississippi where the author was born and raised. However, the setting for Faulkner's works, though based on a real place, is fictional. Faulkner named it Yoknapatawpha County. ''A Rose for Emily'' is set in this fictional county, alongside The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner taps into the heart of Southern culture. His representations of the South, including its people and its traditions, are defined by a mix of reverence and criticism. Faulkner's South is sometimes magical, sometimes monstrous.

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  • 0:04 Faulkner and the South
  • 0:42 Southern Postbellum Nostalgia
  • 1:46 Symbols: The House
  • 2:26 Symbols: Taxes
  • 3:26 Symbols: The Bodies
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Southern Postbellum Nostalgia

Before the Civil War, also known ''antebellum,'' the South was associated with agriculture, while the North was known for industry. This difference is at least part of the reason that the Civil War erupted. The South wanted to keep slave labor at its plantations, among other things.

Following the Civil War, also known as ''postbellum,'' the South struggled to restructure. Once an economic power, it began to erode. Industrial manufacturing was a boon for the North, which meant that products could be created and distributed efficiently. Job growth skyrocketed in urban areas of the North. But the South struggled to adapt to a new system. It had survived, in great part, on free, backbreaking plantation labor, and its cities were not equipped to compete with the North for industrial productivity.

Faulkner suggests that Southern nostalgia for the antebellum ways is morbid. The South clings to what is dead, just like Emily Grierson holds on to her decrepit house, the traditions of the past, and, ultimately, the dead bodies.

Symbols: The House

The Grierson family is a relic of the antebellum South. At one point, their house and family name were a respected part of Jefferson, Mississippi. But by the time that the story's lead character, Emily, reaches old age, the Grierson house sticks out like a sore thumb in a neighborhood that is now based in sales and manufacturing. The rest of Jefferson has seemingly accepted the progress of industry, but the Grierson home is a decaying monument of the old South. The house is a symbol for the erosion of Southern ideals and the aristocracy. Its dilapidated, dusty nature suggests that Southern tradition has fallen into irredeemable disrepair.

Symbols: Taxes

''A Rose for Emily'' begins with a disagreement between Emily and some Jefferson city officials. These officials arrive at Emily's house to collect taxes that she has never paid. The narrator defines Emily's position in Jefferson: ''Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town.''

In her old age, however, she overstays her welcome. The new Jefferson of progress no longer accepts her as a necessary obligation. Emily clings to the notion of the way things used to be in the face of rapid change, further illustrating the stubborn refusal to part with Southern tradition.

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