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In today’s day and time, it is not as shocking when women become pregnant out of wedlock, people of the same sex get married, and people date out of their race. However, these occurrences used to cause quite a stir before today’s time. Often times when reading literature we fail to realize the role the time period plays in the underlying meaning. This is the case in William Faulkner’s story, A Rose for Emily, which takes place in the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a very southern town in Mississippi. During this time period many things that are acceptable in 2017 were then frowned upon. Reading this story that is set in an era much different from today, it is revealed how much things have changed. William Faulkner uses Emily’s relationship with Homer and the other members of society to reveal the theme of tradition versus change.
Throughout the story it is evident that Emily represents change, while the townspeople embody the established traditional values. The contrast between the two, reveals the effect that societal rules can have on a person. It is mentioned in the beginning of the story that “Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town”(Glaspell 205). Emily Grierson, even when dead, is not seen as a human being with feelings or insides, but is instead simply seen as a fallen monument. Throughout the story her value and reputation to the town is recognized more than the hurt and pain that she endures as a person. Even after her father’s death she is not seen as a grieving human being going through something traumatic, but instead the town is quick to get on her about her taxes. According to Terry Heller, “Emily, as improverished asirsocracy, is somewhat like the former slaves; she becomes a duty, obligation, and care. The Colonel’s apparently charitable action is qualified by his motives, which appear to be based more on the maintenance of a rigid class order then on respectful affection”(Heller). Through context it appears as though the town has more importance and life than the people in it.
It is revealed later in the story that “none of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such”(Glaspell 207). This brings up another aspect of Emily’s relationship with the townspeople: the societal views on women. Although it may be briefly discussed in History Class, the societal views on women during the Victorian era is most thoroughly revealed through literature such as “A Rose for Emily.” The way the townspeople go about in a gossiping uproar due to Emily’s lack of a husband and kids, shows the emphasis that society has on family. During this era, women were expected to be married mid 20s and to have already started working on kids. Therefore, Emily being 30 years old and without neither a husband nor kids, goes against the established tradition of the town. William Faulkner’s use of Emily’s lack of a family, shows that rules are meant to be broken and tradition is meant to be changed. He does not use Emily to represent a woman who does not want to start a family, but instead, he uses her to represent a woman who wants to go about starting a family on her own terms. She is a character who wants what she wants and will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means breaking the tradition that she once represented before her father’s death.
Emily Grierson refuses to confide with the townspeople and their set traditions, but instead completely goes against them when her affair with Homer begins. The relationship between Emily, a wealthy white woman, and Homer, a poor black man, symbolize the glorious pre-war between the north and the south. During this time, blacks were not seen as anything more than slaves even those like Homer, who were from up north. It is when their relationship is first mentioned that the phrase, “poor Emily” begins appearing in the text. Emily’s affection toward Homer is seen as nothing more than her settling for whatever she can get, but her actual love for him is not taken into consideration because it is not what societal rules say is acceptable. Faulkner throws in a curve ball when he begins to address Emily’s purchase of rat poisoning, which leaves the readers guessing the purpose of it. It is through the gossip of the townspeople that we discover that Homer is in fact, gay, but this statement is pushed aside when it is revealed that Emily bought a man’s toilet seat and men’s clothing, which somehow signifies her marriage to Homer. The surprising thing is that after assuming Emily’s marriage to Homer, the townspeople respond with, “We were glad. We were really glad because the two female cousins were even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been” (Glaspell 209). This gladness found in the townspeople shows their disapproval and therefore, removal of Emily. Her previous breaking of their tradition which dents her reputation, is finally set off the edge due to her assumed marriage to a black man. It is then that other people are seen more as a Grierson, a prized tradition, than she is herself.
It is toward the end of the story that we discover the true story behind Emily and Homer, which leaves a gruesome feeling. Emily’s anger fueled from Homer’s confession of his sexuality, leads her to kill him. However, not only does she kill him using their rat poisoning she previously purchased, but she still goes along as if they get married and sleeps with his dead body until she dies herself. Although this plot twist of an ending leaves a reader feeling overwhelmed and somewhat taken back, it is the underlying symbolism that strikes a cord. In Homer, Emily found someone she could marry and start a family with, someone who would finally give her what a woman was supposed to have. However, Homer’s sexuality deprives her of these things and thus, robs her of her womanhood. The traditions bestowed upon her, leaves her so set on achieving society’s perception of womanhood, that she loses her sanity along the way. According to, Emily spent most of the time of her life through isolation both mentally and physically. It seems that Emily started fading with time” (Mohsin 3). Another symbolic meaning to the gruesome tale is Emily’s inability to cope with death. When her father died it was from natural causes, which left Emily with nothing to do about it. However, with Homer, by killing him, she gave herself control over his death. By sleeping with his corpse, she was able to keep him near her even in death, which was something she could not do with her father. Emily’s death plays a very significant role in the story because it leaves the townspeople without a say in the matter of Homer. Throughout the entire story we are told the townspeople’s reactions and gossip to Emily’s entire life, but due to her death, they are unable to say anything about Homer. They finally shut up.
The title itself, “A Rose for Emily,” reveals the theme of tradition verses change, because traditionally we would not applaud Emily for what she did to Homer or recognize it in an honorable way. However, William Faulkner looks deeper into the real reason why she did what she did, and presents her a rose to give her the happy ending she truly deserves. The rose that the author figuratively bestows upon Emily, is the final and well-awaited recognition of her as a human. It is through the title that Emily is finally humanized.
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