Capturing the Change


By Macauley Breault


English II


William Faulkner grew up in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi.  Change was at its peak, and the world he knew was rapidly transforming in front of his eyes.  His mission was “to capture change in the tip of his pen” (Matthews 20).  As Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past” (Matthews 173).  In many of his early works, Faulkner was able to capture the essence of change by exposing his traditional characters to a new modern society.  He did this in “A Rose for Emily.”  This allegory tells the story of a Southern woman with a secret, who strives to preserve her image of tradition.  By using the knowledge he absorbed as a child growing up in the post-Civil War South and from his family’s history, William Faulkner was able to personify changes he saw through the tragic, pitied life of Miss Emily Grierson.

What once used to be a vibrant, standout house on Jefferson's most selective street, Emily’s childhood home had become “an eyesore among eyesores” (Faulkner “A Rose” 526).  Industrialization was taking over, and only Emily’s childhood home was left standing between garages and gas pumps.  The stubborn house had once been white with a style from the 1870’s.  When the town was being updated with a post office and house numbers, Emily refused to conform.  Thus her house remained mailbox-less and numberless.  Inside the rundown mansion lived only Emily and her manservant.  The interior was covered with dust, and the dark traditional furniture had cracked leather seats.  Only a thin ray of sunshine pierced through the curtains that lined the windows and would outline the silhouette of the airborne dust that coated every object in the household.

Emily herself represented the traditional southern way of life.  She was, in a way, the enforcer of tradition in the town of Jefferson.  Emily was born and raised in the generation of the Civil War veterans, at a time when “no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron” (Faulkner A Rose 526).  She was joined in her traditional ways of thinking by Jefferson’s mayor, Colonel Sartoris, and her father.  After the two men died, Miss Emily was the last person to represent the old generation.

Emily’s aging and her home’s decay represent the decay in the Southern traditions that the new generation lacked.  The house was in bad condition just as Emily was also in bad condition.  She represented the southern aristocratic stereotype that once dominated this region in the Civil War era.  As the aristocrats died out, so did their traditions.  The newer generation, which did not grow up with the strong southern pride its parents and grandparents possessed, began to embrace the new, up and coming innovations that the new century had to offer.

It could be said that Emily grew up in a very sheltered household.  Emily’s mother died when Emily was a child (Brooks 68).  Thus, her father was her primary caregiver, but her father was a very selfish person.  As Faulkner wrote, he was “a selfish man who didn't want her to leave home because he wanted a housekeeper” (Gwynn 185).  He was an intimidating character, which is clear in the portrait of Emily and her father, with her father front and center clenching a horsewhip and Emily in the background.  Her father sheltered her and kept the boys away from her up until his death, at which time Emily was in her thirties.  Once he died, Emily was allowed to go out and experience life. However, by then it was too late, for “When she found a man, she had had no experience in people” (Faulkner, Faulkner 70).  So when it came time when her man decided to move on, Miss Emily had to act quickly.  She felt threatened and saw her life flash before her eyes, seeing herself grow old alone in solitude.  Because of this fear, she reacted immediately in order to keep what was dear to her.

The summer after her father’s death, the town council initiated a contract to pave the sidewalks.  Thus entered Homer Barron, a foreman from the North, sent to Jefferson to oversee the project.  Homer became the center of attention of the gossip hounds in Jefferson, especially after he and Miss Emily were seen on a Sunday afternoon drive.  Soon it appeared as if Homer had moved in with Emily.  Too bad, though, he was “not a marrying man” (A Rose 530).  Then, one day, Homer just seemed to vanish.

Miss Emily and Homer Barron were in some ways alike.  They both felt like outsiders in the town.  Miss Emily grew up with the Civil War veterans and absorbed their old ways including hatred of the North, while Homer was a loud, outspoken Yankee.  He also brought change to Jefferson and to Emily.  Emily didn’t do well with change, and perhaps she felt threatened by him, or maybe by the fact that he was going to leave her.  So in “an expression of moral outrage,” Emily did what only Emily could do and defended her town and stopped the change herself, by getting rid of Homer (Carothers 22).

As time went on, her house decayed at the same rate as Emily did.  After the disappearance, or rather murder, of Homer, Emily let herself go.  She became pale and her hair turned to an iron-gray; her body had the bloated appearance of “a body submerged in motionless water” (A Rose 527).  This was at the same time when her old stubborn house was surrounded by gasoline pumps and cotton gins.

One man who never left Emily’s side was Tobe, her man-servant, cook and gardener extraordinaire.  He had always been loyal to her, as was evident in the fact that the townspeople had given up trying to get any information from him (A Rose 531).  And he would have to be very loyal to keep her little secret.  He was also the only indicator of Emily’s presence.  As time went on and Emily’s presence soon receded, the only way people in the town knew she was alive was the fact that Tobe was seen carrying groceries into the house.  The women in town wondered how a man could keep a kitchen properly (A Rose 528).  Perhaps this is why the house was so dusty.  Tobe was not forced to serve Emily, however.  He was willingly committed to her.  He, too, was part of the old generation, along with Emily.  Perhaps they even had some sort of brother-sister bond, especially if Tobe was born a slave to Emily’s father since that was a traditional southern custom.  If they grew up together, then perhaps he and Emily served her father together; she would clean the house and he would cook and garden.

The presence of the dust in the house indicates that the items it covered had not been touched for quite awhile.  Dust is often found on preserved historical items such has things in museums and old relics in an old household, and indicates the presence of the past and that time has gone by.  Emily had preserved her mansion in a way that reminded her of her childhood.  Dust plays a significant role in the description of the crime scene where Homer Barron lies.  The dust that coats his body and his pillow is “patient and biding” and left the investigators with a “faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils” (A Rose 532).  The dust shows that Homer’s body has not been moved or touched in a very long time.  It also plays into the sensory atmosphere that left its mark on those investigating.

The townsfolk of Jefferson referred to Miss Emily as “a tradition, a duty and a care” (A Rose 526).  She was their “fallen monument” (A Rose 526), a historical figure for the town to scrutinize and observe over many generations.  She was the town’s endless mystery, but none of their questions got answered until she died.  Miss Emily was the last of her generation in her town as well, as the last Grierson.  She was buried amongst the generation of soldiers who fought in the battle of Jefferson, her kind of people.

How did William Faulkner come up with such a tragic character?  William Faulkner grew up with a strong, well-educated mother, a weak father, and three younger brothers.  One could say that some of Miss Emily’s story was based on his mother’s life.  His mother, Maud Butler Falkner, lived a private life due to her father’s criminal record and social indiscretions (Sensibar 135).  Her father also believed that women did not need a formal education because they were meant to cook and take care of the house (Sensibar 155).  This sounds a lot like Miss Emily’s father.  Finally, Maud’s father left his family, leaving them in financial distress, unable to pay for their house (Sensibar 154),once again similar to Miss Emily’s situation when she claimed that she could not pay taxes in Jefferson.

William Faulkner’s true inspiration for writing “A Rose for Emily” arose from a “picture of a strand of hair on the pillow in the abandoned house” (Sensibar 123; Carothers 9; Gwynn 26).  He incorporated his inspiration for the story into the very end, when the people investigating Miss Emily’s home found a strand of her hair left on the pillow next to Homer’s body.  Faulkner’s interpretation of his own story was that “‘A Rose for Emily’ was an allegorical title, the meaning of which was “here was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute... to a woman you would hand a rose” (Faulkner 71).  It is safe to say that Faulkner was successful in “capturing change in the tip of his pen” (Matthews 20) in the short story “A Rose for Emily,” but he was also successful in creating a pitiful character to whom we’d also hand a rose.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. On the Prejudices, Predilections, and Firm Beliefs of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. Print.


Carothers, James B. William Faulkner's Short Stories. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1985. Print.


Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." Literature: The Human Experience: Reading and Writing. By Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 526-32. Print.


Faulkner, William. Faulkner at Nagano. Ed. Robert Archibald Jelliffe. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1956. Print.


Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph Leo Blotner. Faulkner in the University. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1995. Print.


Matthews, John T. William Faulkner: Seeing Through the South. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.


Sensibar, Judith L. Faulkner and Love: the Women Who Shaped His Art. New Haven Conn: Yale UP, 2009. Print.

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