In 1860 the American South seceded from the Union to preserve their Southern way of life this consequently caused the American Civil War. After years of fighting, the South lost the Civil War and fell into the Reconstruction era lasting from the mid to late 1800s, stripping the South of everything but their proud Southern heritage. In William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” he uses his text as a metaphor for the South’s struggle to abandon their traditions for modernity during the Reconstruction era through the life of Miss Emily Grierson. Using themes of control, isolation, and attachment, Faulkner draws from his old Southern roots to illuminate the turmoil the South faced as they tried to prolong their way of life when everything else was out of their control. In the clash between modernity and traditions, Emily’s traditional neighbors control her attempts to evolve into a modern woman turning her private life into the public. The outside forces controlling Emily’s life ultimately push her to insanity and death as she also tries to preserve her way of life through one of the only things she can control: isolation.
Similar to the South during the Reconstruction era, Emily’s way of life is continually stripped away by outside forces until she decides to resist and control her own life. After the horrors of the Civil War, the federal government imposes reconstruction to rebuild the South and modernize its regressive traditions. At the beginning of reconstruction, the old generation of Southerners resisted modernization and clung to their traditions. However, as the era progressed, a new generation of Southerners took control of the modernization and adapted the region to create a New South and expand on their traditions. Being the last of a long line of Southern aristocrats, Miss Emily represents the end of the old generation and is a relic of her time. Similar to Miss Emily, the author descended from a long line of southern aristocrats and used his upbringing in Reconstruction-era Mississippi for the story. Faulkner’s background helps him draw parallels to the townspeople stopping Emily from modernizing to the South, stopping reconstruction from completely modernizing their home.
Due to her family’s high status, Emily is born into the life of a southern belle, which is a well-off woman who is confined to oppressive gender roles, and her value is based on her beauty and femininity. Under gender roles, southern belle’s are controlled by the men in their life and the critical eye of other high society women whose judgments of each other work to control their reputation and how the rest sees them of society. After the death of EMily’s father, the belle abandons gentry for a reconstructionist life like the new generation of Southerners. With her newfound freedom, Emily begins to evolve into a modern woman, and starts with finding a suitor that she approves of. Although her father was gone there were still people who wanted to keep Emily from evolving. Without knowing anything about her life, Emily’s generation or the old generation of Southerners continually works to control Emily’s personal life. Employing the help of the local priest and Emily’s distinct cousins in Alabama, the ladies of the town work hard to keep Emily in line and maintain the image of an idyllic Southern town.
When the ladies of the town notice how out of character Emily is, they work to stop her from ruining her status of being a “disgrace to the town” (Faulkner 1072) by modernizing and marrying a Yankee. These women want to stop Emily from being “a bad example to the young people” (Faulkner 1072) by giving them the idea to modernize instead of conforming to Jefferson’s traditional agenda. After the Civil War, this old generation of Southern ladies never returned to their way of life before reconstruction. However, groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy (Hunter 1) used the next generation of Southerners to keep the fantasy of Antebellum South alive. These groups funded Confederate memorial statues, created museums, and educated their children with their skewed views. By controlling modern figures such as Emily, the old generation was able to shield the new generation of Southerners from reconstructionist ideas and created policies that fought modernization. Even though Emily resisted being controlled by her generation and married the Northerner, it came at a price. Emily lives out the rest of her life in isolation, serving a symbolic life sentence for not conforming to Southern society’s norms. Ultimately, by extracting herself from society, Emily loses all control over how the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi, view her, leaving herself vulnerable to the harsh judgments chronicled throughout the story.
Spending her early years isolated away from everyone in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi but her father no one really knows anything about Emily or her life, resulting in the misjudgements of the local townspeople. As Emily got older, she began to emerge into society, but quickly went back to isolation when she was criticized for not conforming with others. When Emily felt that she had lost almost all control over her life to the outside world, she took charge over one of the last aspects of her life where no one would control her. Lacking the ability to evolve without the critical eye of her generation, Emily isolates herself inside her home, allowing herself to be the only one to control her life instead of the outside world. Now free from the outside world, Emily finally has control to make her own choices within isolation but now in control she chooses not to control her life. Instead allowing everything around her to die, including the modern woman inside her which marks the end of her life leaving her with nothing to do but grow old in solitude. Emily’s grand home which used to be the model of classic Southern architecture and a representation of the past that the old generation longs for, turned into “an eyesore among eyesores,” (Faulkner 1066) consumed with the smell of Emily’s rotting husband. In her isolation, Emily’s life and everything around her begins to rot as the past is revealed to be not as great as it seems.
Clinging to a life they barely know; the old generation is attached to the past throughout the story. Retelling their idea of the lost cause of the Confederacy as if it were good old days, across the South to fight modernization. The townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi work within their best interests to bring back the past and raise the next generation to live in a time centuries before them. Interested in the life of a woman they do not know; the old generation involves themselves in the personal life of Miss Emily Grierson to stop her from modernizing. Both groups attached to their own ideas, causing conflict which ends with both sticking to their own ideas. Both tightly clinging to their ideals without any space for adaptation, leads to severe consequences such as insanity by having no allies or obsession of pushing one’s agenda and pushing others to the side. The attachment of traditions led to the South’s struggle with Reconstruction and ultimate destruction of other people through hurtful policies such as Jim Crow. Evolution is needed to loosen the grip of one idea for future advancement that can occur, but due to the importance of preservation the South was isolated from the rest of America’s advancements. Making their situation similar to Emily’s as those in the South try to modernize while the townspeople represent the rest of the South who work to prevent the success of Reconstruction. Ultimately choosing to kill the idea of ever advancing without possibility of changing and symbolically rotting into the ugliness of the Jim Crow era.
Narrated by those who knew Miss Emily the least, the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi, recall their life through their critical lenses and speculation. As a product of her generation, Emily tries to evolve and break the oppressed Southern Belles’ trend, defined by superficial qualities. Emily’s story is a metaphor for the South’s constant battle due to the Reconstruction-era as they protected their traditions and defeated modernizing forces. Faulkner places all the worst aspects of reconstructionist south in Emily’s character. Highlighting the individuals who controlled the South’s narrative to preserve their traditions alongside their agenda, those who shut themselves into isolation to avoid judgments for modernizing, and the region’s attachment to a distant memory of Antebellum South. Ultimately the Reconstruction era engaged the South in another Civil War, as the majority fought off modernization and the minority faced a silent battle to any hope of a reformed South. With a region fighting against itself, it is easy to understand why Faulkner wrote “A Rose for Emily,” as an “an irrevocable tragedy” (Jelliffe 1) with citizens fighting against the advancement of their home to preserve their comfortable life. There is nothing you can do to stop this tragedy but pity and offer a rose to the neglected South out of pity of what the region could be instead of how it grew to be.
A Rose for Emily. Directed by Lyndon Cubbuck. Performances by Anjelica Husto, John Randolph and John Carradine. Chubbuck Production Company, 1983.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” McDougal Littell Literature: American Literature. Ed. Applebee et al. 6th ed. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2008. 1064-1077.
Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming. Performances by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, Selznick International Pictures, 1939.
Google Images for free and fair use.
Hunter, Alex. “Why ‘A Rose for Emily’ is a representation of Reconstruction South.” Medium. 2018. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@alexhunter365/why-a-rose-for-emily-is-a-representation-of-reconstruction-south-46c4b31978c8
Jelliffe, Robert. “Faulkner at Nagano.” Tokyo: Kenkyusha Ltd., 1956. Retrived from http://admin.faulkner.edu/admin/websites/cwarmack/William%20Faulkner%20speaks%20on.pdf
Oneclick. “Blooming Rose Flower || Time-Lapse Movie.” Youtube. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0TcPkdVsK8