Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.
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.
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.
''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.
As it turns out, Emily has not paid taxes since 1894, under the direction of Colonel Sartoris. The former mayor's name says it all. What is he a colonel of? More than likely, he was once a colonel in the Confederate Army. His title, though a disgrace in the North, is apparently still a respected tradition some 30 years after the Civil War ended.
Symbols: The Bodies
Emily's refusal to accept the passage of time and obsession with the past even take a morbid turn when she keeps her father's dead body for three days before authorities come to remove it.
Later on, when Homer Barron enters Emily's life, the town gossips refuse to believe that they could be a romantic pair. Homer is a ''Yankee,'' meaning that he is from the North. Indeed, the gossip proves correct. Homer is ''not a marrying man,'' and he subsequently disappears. As it turns out, Emily has poisoned Homer and has stashed his body in a bedroom in her house.
That Emily holds on to dead bodies further symbolizes the way that the South clings to its ideals. But Faulkner suggests that these stubborn traditions are morbid and grotesque. They are rotting skeletons of the past. And Emily also decays. The gray hair that the authorities find next to Homer's remains demonstrates that Emily, who is a living symbol of Southern tradition, is rapidly decaying and preparing to die.
William Faulkner set many of his works in a fictional county in Mississippi. These texts share an attention to Southern tradition, both positive and negative. ''A Rose for Emily'' is highly concerned with Southern tradition as Faulkner uses symbols to illustrate the reluctance of the South to part with its old ways after the Civil War.
The Grierson family and their home are relics from the past and represent the decaying Southern aristocracy. Emily clings to the notion of what once was, becoming a traditional obligation to the town of Jefferson through her refusal to pay taxes. Finally, she is representative of the South through her unwillingness to accept the passage of time as she keeps the bodies of both her father and Homer Barron after their deaths.
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