Miss Emily Grierson
Miss Emily is an old-school Southern belle trapped by a society bent on forcing her to stay in her role...and an abusive father bent on forcing her to obey his will.
Aww...poor Miss Emily!
But Miss Emily is also a sociopath who kills her fiancee with rat poison, plays dress-up with his corpse until he starts to decompose, and then continues sleeping next to his moldering skeleton until she dies.
Oh. Poor Miss Emily?
Poor Miss Emily!
Let's first channel our energies on analyzing Miss Emily as a truly tragic figure.
As far as we know, Emily is an only child. (The story doesn't mention any siblings, and just like it never mentions her mother.) The narrator wants to emphasize just how much Emily was her father's daughter, and just how alone she was with him when he was alive. From all evidence, her father controlled her completely until his death, and even continued to control her from beyond the grave.
By separating her so severely from the rest of the town when he was alive, going as far as to make sure she didn't have any lovers or a husband, he set her up for a way of life that was impossible for her to escape. The bare sketch we have of her father shows a man who was unusually controlling, domineering, and capable of deep cruelty, even toward his only daughter.
In fact, it's suggested that Miss Emily's father is so abusive that Miss Emily develops Stockholm Syndrome. When he dies, Emily refuses to believe that he's gone—she almost forbids the townspeople from taking his body away.
She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. [...] We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will. (2.13-14)
But her father isn't the only thing holding Miss Emily back. She's also constrained by the demands of society—a society that proclaims that women are weak and feeble and unable to defend for themselves. Had she lived in a more evolved society, the death of her abusive father could have meant freedom. But, bound as she is by the social mores of the turn-of-the-century South, she's expected to do one of three things: marry, live off of her inheritance, or kill herself.
Wow. What a choice.
Since she fails to marry, she's plunged into poverty. The town attempts a bit of generosity: they cook up a lie about how she doesn't owe taxes. This is nice...but check out the way the narrator reports this little white lie:
Only a man of Colonel Sartoris' generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman could have believed it. (1.3)
See, even though the town is being nice, they're only being nice because it's unthinkable that a woman of Miss Emily's social stature get a job and support herself. If Miss Emily were allowed to work—besides hosting the odd china-painting class—she might not have gone so batty.
But instead the society essentially conspires to keep her indoors. Even when she has a flirtation with Homer Barron, everyone seems dismayed—it's not enough that Miss Emily marry, she has to marry a dude who's a well off as her. It gets worse, though: when Miss Emily is seen buying poison, the town thinks she might be planning on committing suicide...and they approve of this drastic action.
So the next day we all said, "She will kill herself"; and we said it would be the best thing. (4.1)
Wow. That's cold-blooded.
So to recap: Miss Emily is kept in isolation by an abusive father, kept out of the workforce and indoors by a restrictive society, pushed away from marrying a poorer man by her relatives and the townsfolk, and then (passively) encouraged to kill herself. No wonder she has a screw loose.
Poor Miss Emily?
But then again...we're talking about a woman who kills her fiancee and then continues to cuddle his rotting corpse for the next few decades. We're sympathetic, but there are limits to our sympathy.
What's interesting when it comes to Miss Emily-as-crazed-killer is that the same societal sexism that drives the townsfolk to think it's "the best thing" that Miss Emily kill herself also allows her to literally get away with murder. After Homer Barron dies, a mysterious (and disgusting) smell starts coming from Miss Emily's house. Everyone seems to agree that it smells like a rotting body.
But rather than go investigate—even though a man has recently disappeared—the townsfolk decide to keep mum:
"Dammit, sir," Judge Stevens said, "will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?" (2.9)
Yup. The only thing worse than the overpowering stench of decomposing flesh (coupled with the disappearance of a local figure) is insinuating that a lady smell like anything but roses.
Faulkner is no lightweight: he's not condemning or excusing Miss Emily. He knows it's much more powerful to write a deeply complex character—one who's equal parts homicidal maniac and abused captive—than it is to write either a straightforward saint or demon.
Ultimately, it's up to you to pass judgment on Miss Emily...that is, if you can make up your own mind whether she should be pitied or pilloried.Miss Emily Grierson Timeline
A Rose for Emily Character AnalysisGet Your
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Miss Emily Grierson, the protagonist of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” is an unusual character in the sense that she is depressed, withdrawn, and ill. Isolated in her father’s decaying mansion in Jefferson, Mississippi, unwilling to accept the passing of time, Miss Emily shows several symptoms of a mental illness. Throughout the story, Miss Emily is living all alone (except for her servant, Tobe) in her deceased father’s decaying mansion. Miss Emily’s story is told by the townspeople, who are very interested in the unusual traits that Miss Emily shows.
Miss Emily refuses to change with the town and the times, and stubbornly clings to the past. She is a lonely woman because her father scared all of her suitors away when she was younger. All alone and mentally ill, Miss Emily shows that she is mentally sick through her sad, stubborn efforts to cling to the past. Miss Emily shows her first signs of being unable to change with the times at the beginning of the story, when she refuses to pay her taxes and give her house a mailbox. The members of the Board of Alderman visit Miss Emily to collect her taxes, she is very offended at the action.
Miss Emily insists that she is not required to pay taxes in the city of Jefferson and that the officials can speak with Colonel Sartoris about the issue. However, at the time of this conversation, Colonel Sartoris has been dead for nearly a decade. Miss Emily struggles with moving forward with time because she does not want to change. She does not want to face the fact that she is all alone and unhappy. Miss Emily is unable to cope with the loss of her father, who was the only man in her life, and this is the main cause of Miss Emily’s mental illness.
The story then jumps forward about thirty years, and the townspeople recall another incident of Miss Emily being visited by town officials. At this time, Miss Emily’s father, Mr. Grierson, has just passed away, and there is an awful smell coming from the mansion. Judge Stevens, the town mayor who pity’s Miss Emily decides to solve the problem by sprinkling lime in her yard, rather than to confront her. At this point in the story, the townspeople feel sorry for Miss Emily because she is thirty years old, and still single because her father never allowed her to date or marry.
The next day, the women from Jefferson pay a visit to Miss Emily to offer condolences from her father’s death. Miss Emily refuses to admit that her father is dead, and holds on to the body for three days before finally turning it over for the funeral. The smell coming from the Grierson home, most likely from her father’s decaying corpse, shows Miss Emily’s inability to let go of the past and move on with the future. Later in the story, Miss Emily becomes very friendly with a construction foreman, Homer Barron.
The townspeople assume that Miss Emily is spending time with this gentleman because she was never allowed to date when her father was alive, and the pity her because Homer is below her social class. As Miss Emily and Homer Barron continue to see each other, Miss Emily goes to the local drugstore to purchase arsenic, with no explanation. The next day, the package is delivered to her home with a note saying the arsenic is for rats. After Miss Emily purchases a sliver toilet set that is monogrammed with Homer’s initials, the townspeople assume that Miss Emily and Homer have gotten married.
Soon after, Homer comes home one day, and never leaves again. Miss Emily’s appearance soon decays along with her home. No one from the town ever saw Miss Emily or Homer again, until her death at age seventy-four. When the townspeople come into the Grierson home for the funeral service, the townspeople find a room that appears to have been untouched for a number of years. Inside the room, the townspeople see Homer Barron’s dead corpse laid in the bed with an iron gray hair on the pillow next to him from Miss Emily’s latter part of life.
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Miss Emily was unable to admit to the loss of both her father and Homer Barron because she had a hard hold on the past, and refused to let go of it until she finally died. Miss Emily was a sad character, because she was depressed, mentally ill, and unable to grasp the passage of time. It is seen by the townspeople through her actions that she was very sad and lonely, and willing to go to great lengths to keep from being alone. Faulkner showed the struggle that Miss Emily had with this through her lack of upkeep to her home, her inability to change with the town of Jefferson, and her refusal to let go of her deceased loved ones.
Author: Brandon Johnson
A Rose for Emily Character Analysis
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