In William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner’s details about setting and atmosphere give the reader background as to the values and beliefs of the characters, helping the reader to understand the motivations, actions and reactions of Miss Emily and the rest of the town, and changing the mood or tone in the story.
The setting in “A Rose for Emily” is Faulkner’s fictitious post-civil war Jefferson, a small town in the deep south of the United States. Faulkner’s use of this particular time-period or genre, is successful in giving the reader an understanding or background to the values and beliefs of the characters in the story. The town of Jefferson is a fallen legacy. The hierarchical regime of the Griersons and the class system of the time where by ordinance of the mayor- Colonel Sartoris, a Negro women could not even walk the street without an apron, had changed into a place where even the street on which Miss Emily lived, that had once been the most select, had now been encroached and obliterated, her house an eyesore among eyesores. Both the town and Miss Emily herself, now looked upon Miss Emily as the only remnant of that greater time. This fact gives the reader an understanding of the mindset of the “town,” who is narrating Miss Emily’s story to us in a form resembling a gossip circle, where stories of various townspeople are pieced together and of Miss Emily, the protagonist who lived alone except for her lone servant.
The actions of Miss Emily range from eccentric to absurd but it is the readers understanding of the setting that keep the story believable. Miss Emily becomes reclusive and introverted after the death of her father and the estrangement from the Yankee- Homer Barron. It is also revealed at the end of the story that she went as far as poisoning Homer, keeping his dead body in his house, and sleeping next to him as well. She is doing what she feels necessary in response to the pressure placed on her by the town. She is still trying to maintain the role of the southern women, dignified and proper while struggling with all the other issues in her life and dealing with the madness that is said to run in her family. She is also not accepting of the changing times and flat out refuses to change with them.
Faulkner’s setting also helps the reader understand the mentality and actions of the town. The townspeople seem oddly fascinated with Miss Emily as a relic of an older time. They have put her in a special position among the others and while they have not maintained any direct contact with her, they are still curious even after her death about her mystery. This could be attributed to the fact that as the times are changing, they need someone to restore or uphold their southern pride or majesty and as she is a Grierson, she is their only link to that past. They even take it upon themselves to try to correct her mistakes by calling on her cousins while she was involved with Homer. They felt that she was setting a bad example and because she was supposed to be of a higher class and epitomize morals and decency in the changing south they felt that they had to do something to restore her moral standing for her.
Besides helping the reader understand the motivations and events in the story, the setting also changed the tone of the story. The descriptions that Faulkner gave and the images he conjured gave the story a very gothic feel to it. The image of the Grierson place with its out of date structure and furnishings, and of Miss Emily herself as a fat old woman resembling death itself also helped to create a clear picture of an old run down town. The physical setting was parallel to the social change that was taking place at the time and could be used to symbolize the breakdown of the old structures that had once held their society up.
In all the cases, the essential element in Faulkner’s story that gave the reader both background and insight into the story, was the setting. The use of a familiar genre supported the actions and motivations of the characters in the story and elevated the tone for the reader’s enjoyment.