“In order to understand the whole world, one must first understand Mississippi” (). This thought was penned by William Faulkner, author of a Rose for Emily and several other stories set deep in the American South. Faulkner is considered to be one of the foremost Southern writers, and his work takes place almost exclusively in that region. The customs of this area are incredibly distinct- through a rich and unique history, the South has created for itself a geographical identity quite unlike any other area on Earth. This said, A Rose for Emily is set in a particularly tumultuous and uncertain time in the South’s past. While exact dates are rarely given, it is implied to take place in the late nineteenth century in the decades following the Civil War. With the Confederate Army defeated, the region as a whole is struggling to find its place and sense of character in a new era. The title character belongs to a somewhat obsolete Southern ‘aristocracy’, a group of rich and revered families that are now in decline. The passage studied details the aftermath of the death of Emily Grierson’s father, as the townspeople try and take him away from an unwilling Emily for burial. The townspeople account Emily’s reluctance to relinquish her father as “[clinging] to that which that had robbed her”, referring to his keeping her confined away from suitors. The death of Emily’s father provokes a deep stubbornness in her to relinquish her old way of life and face reality, an attitude that upon exploration is similar to the townspeople’s inability to relinquish their pre-War ideals. The relationship and conflict between Emily and her father serves as an allegory for the relationship between the townspeople and their Southern traditions.
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The scene occurs while the townspeople are trying to persuade Emily to depose of her father’s body, despite her firm refusal to admit his death: “She told them that her father was not dead…She did that for three days” (323). They made allowances for this stubbornness, justifying her actions as an inability to deal with the loss of her previous, if tragic, way of life: “We did not say she was crazy then…We remembered all the 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” (323). Earlier in the story it is described that her father is an elitist, a domineering patriarch who thinks that Emily is ‘above’ marrying any men from the town; “None of the young men were quite good enough for Emily…” (322). Her father’s actions isolated Emily from her fellow townspeople and barred her from the Southern feminine ideal- the ability to marry well and have a respectable family. As such, her father deeply debilitated Emily’s ability to connect with her surroundings and kept her captive from her peers. Despite this, she refuses to allow the townspeople to remove her father’s corpse, implying that she still wishes to maintain the situation that had been so negative for her life.
Southern ideals are what kept the townspeople captive in the years preceding the Civil War, and it is these ideals they allow to remain in the decades after. The social construct of the early nineteenth century created a hierarchy in the South that was reminiscent of feudal times- a nobility of rich and exclusive landowning families, and a peasantry of the general public. This class divide is evident in a Rose for Emily– even in the opening lines; her death is represented as a “fallen monument”, instead of a personal tragic loss (321). Although there are no laws or rules to keep this classification in place, the townspeople choose to maintain this paradigm of Southern hierarchies long after the Civil War has ended. Their awareness of this class divide is evident in the passage, as the ‘aristocratic’ Emily is always referred to as ‘other’, a separate entity. The inferiority and resentment that the townspeople feel is evident “When her father died, it got about that the house was all that was left to her; and in a way people were glad” (323). Instead of sympathizing with a fellow citizen, they are excited for her to be brought down in the social hierarchy- yet it is the townspeople who prop her up in her ‘aristocratic’ position. Although this class system was not beneficial to general citizenry, making them feel inadequate and lesser-than, they still operate under the system that socially diminishes them in the years following the Civil War.
When her father dies Emily is not only emotionally bereft, but financially strapped as well “Being left alone and a pauper…Now she too would know the old thrill and the old despair of a penny more or less” (323). It is implied that the Griersons once had both land and money, but time and idleness has squandered it away. This state of poverty stands as an allegory to the townspeople and the South, dealing with economic well-being before and after the War. The Civil War destroyed the economic foundation of the Deep South for several reasons- one being the sheer amount of resources funneled into the war effort, another being the loss of slavery as a low-cost labor force. The citizenry were faced with a collective economic crisis and were forced to readjust with alternate sources of income. It was the rich families of the South that had a vested interest in fighting in the Civil War, and therefore it was this ‘aristocracy’ who created poverty for the general citizenry. It was the late Grierson’s inability to adjust his lifestyle that led to his legacy of debt to Emily, and it was the inability of the Southern upper class to adjust to changing times that led to the economic hardship of the entire region. Yet just as Emily clings to her father’s corpse, the people of this fictional town cling to the social institutions that were so obstructive and ineffective in the past.
The last line of the passage characterized a powerful social phenomenon “…and with nothing left, [Miss Emily] would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will”. When the narrator refers to ‘people’, there is an element of self-awareness there- an acknowledgment that the townspeople themselves are guilty of the same thing.