William Faulkner (1897-1962) is one of America’s favorite authors. Before his death in 1962, he was able to produce 26 books and a difficult to count number of short stories. His tales were full of such character and artistry that he has become recognized as a giant in world literature because of his ability to capture a snapshot of the changing world he grew up in. “Faulkner accomplished in a little over a decade more artistically than most writers accomplish over a lifetime of writing” (Padgett, 2005). Through his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner created a precise picture of what life was like during the turn of the century in the deep American south. Instead of portraying his characters in the same way as the generally accepted and widely held view of the stereotypical southerner, Faulkner presented all of his characters, whether good or bad, with a deep level of sensitivity and understanding (Cowley, 1977). By telling stories from various different viewpoints within the town and thus covering several aspects of daily life in Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner has created an amazing repertoire of characters. Writing primarily from his experience growing up in the south and within his archetypal setting, Faulkner reveals the sense of deep change that had the entire South unsettled as in the disjointed sense of time found in his popular story “A Rose for Emily.”
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Many people are surprised to learn that Faulkner is one of the least educated and least experienced writers of his time. He was born in New Albany, Mississippi on September 25, 1897, the first of four sons born to Murry and Maud Falkner. His original name was spelled William Falkner. It is believed he added the ‘u’ later in life probably as a typographical error to start, but he later included it deliberately because he thought it made him appear more British when he was attempting to join the Royal Air Force in Canada (Padgett, 2005). He moved with his family to Oxford when he was five years old. Although he reportedly showed a great deal of artistic talent at a young age, Faulkner was quickly bored with school and dropped out without graduating from high school. Other than a short attempt at the University of Mississippi, he never returned to school again. He managed to get into the Royal Air Force in Canada, but was honorably discharged shortly after he completed training because the war ended. This had the unfortunate effect of forcing him to return home to Mississippi where he seemed to drift for a while, working on a few odd jobs here and there, making his attempt back at the university and even publishing some poetry and short stories, but nothing seemed to stick and he finally decided to take an offered position in New York. His first published book, The Marble Faun, was a collection of poetry. When he moved to New Orleans in 1925, he found that he was more able to mingle with the educated crowd and his first novel, A Soldier’s Play, made it possible for him to sail to Europe. He spent approximately six months touring Italy, France and England. However, he didn’t start to develop Yoknapatawpha County until his third novel. By the 1930s, he was screenwriting in Hollywood even as he continued publishing short stories and novels. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1939. American interest in him was reawakened with the publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946, he was awarded the Howells Medal in 1950 and the Nobel Prize for literature in December of the same year. Eudora Welty presented him with the Gold Medal for Fiction awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1962. Throughout his career, Faulkner was able to create stories that were filled with allegories that revealed the difficult social changes that were taking place in the South such as the sense of disjointed time in “A Rose for Emily.”
Time is a central theme in “A Rose for Emily” as Faulkner attempts to demonstrate the profound difference in time perception among the characters of the story. So strong that it might correctly be considered a character itself, the concept of time moves through the story in a disjointed manner, always leaving its mark wherever it touches. Throughout the story, readers encounter the unchanging ideas of the past, the necessarily flexible elements of the present and the constant tug-of-war battle fought between them. Many of the older characters in the story are only given enough detail to allow them to function as symbols of the unchangeable nature of the past as they continue to move through the same actions over and over again. The strongest example of this is Miss Emily Grierson herself. She is as inflexible and unchanging as is possible for a living character. According to C.W.M. Johnson (1948), the problem with Miss Emily is simply “her obstinate refusal to submit to, or even to concede, the inevitability of change.” Everything that is associated with Miss Emily is associated with the ideas of inability to change to accommodate the passing of years. The house is a “big, squarish frame house that had once been white” that lifts “its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps — an eyesore among eyesores” (433). Miss Emily’s unchanging nature is supported by the figure of Tobe, Miss Emily’s servant, who has no voice of his own and no change in his basic lifestyle pattern.
From the unchanging characters representing the past, Faulkner makes the present tense voice very immediate by placing it in the plural form of his narrator. The story opens with the statement, “our whole town went to her funeral” (433), establishing that more than one person is telling the story. Faulkner cleverly allows the tone of this plural voice to change somewhat throughout the story as a means of demonstrating that it is a group voice that is undeniably in the present, still growing and changing as they learn. This is shown through the narrator as it constantly reveals where it has changed its mind or learned something new: “at first we were glad” (438) and “the next day we all said, ‘She will kill herself’; and we said it would be the best thing” (440). They also switch from being in favor of Miss Emily’s happiness when she first starts seeing Homer Barron to being in favor of Miss Emily’s demise in keeping with the news of the day. Although he’s left mostly undeveloped, Homer Barron also helps to symbolize the present point in time as it is compared against the unchanging past. He is a Yankee who is immediately recognized by those in the south as bringing about change and unwelcome new ideas. It is through her association with Homer Barron that Miss Emily comes closest to entering the present world.
The opposing relationship between the past and the present can be seen in the relationship shared between Homer Barron and Miss Emily. As soon as Miss Emily’s cousins arrive in town to enforce the past, Homer Barron leaves town in response. That Homer is a changeable part of the present is shown as the first disappears and then reappears “within three days” of the cousins leaving proved by a “neighbor saw the Negro man admit him at the kitchen door at dusk one evening” (441), but then never seen again. However, Miss Emily could not overcome the training of her unchanging past. Even though Miss Emily was able to halt Homer’s changing nature, in the end she was unable to stop the processes of time. Not only did she grow old herself, but time has drastically changed the still decaying corpse they find lying on her bed. “Miss Emily emerges as a historical figure frozen in a sort of stasis, though throughout it all, Faulkner never makes her any less complex and ambiguous. Resistant to change though she may be, even she cannot hold back the effects of aging, growing steadily older” (Knickerbocker, 2003). Although Faulkner painted the past as unchangeable and the present as unstoppable, the conflict presented between past and present awards victories to both sides. Miss Emily’s triumph over Homer Barron and most of the town while she’s alive illustrates the victory of the past in overpowering the present by bringing things to a sudden stop. However, the repeated allusions to decay in describing the house and the characters who represent the past indicate that time cannot be stopped. “Emily’s decision to regulate the natural time-universe by taking Homer’s life and not allowing him to pursue his own decisions ultimately forces Emily to become captive to her own life” (Keith, 2004).
Thus it is through this kind of careful interplay of characters and events that Faulkner is able to weave together elements of time, character and setting to present a uniquely well-rounded story that delivers a careful analysis regarding widely held ideologies from the American south. Many of these stories are not unique to the south, though, as the ideas expressed can be translated into other portions of the globe. The idea of an old woman struggling with all her might to stop time can be found elsewhere, such as in Charles Dickens’ character Miss Havisham, but Faulkner adds a distinctive American South flavor in giving his character the strength to do something about it and the town a unique approach to her eccentricities. With stories such as “A Rose for Emily,” he illustrates the strongly held conceptions of the South and analyzes them in ways that work to break stereotypes, examine motives and explore relationships among a wide variety of people. A shining example of American ingenuity, Faulkner emerges as one of the country’s most talented and prolific writers despite the fact that he was one of the least educated and worldly.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Introduction.” The Portable Faulkner. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
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Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Portable Faulkner. New York: Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 433-44.
Johnson, C.W.M. “Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” Explicator. Vol. 6, I. 45, May 1948.
Keith, Amy. “Reality: Fact or Perception.” Dalton State College. (2004). Web.
Knickerbocker, Eric. “William Faulkner: The Faded Rose of Emily.” Mr. Renaissance. (2003). Web.
Padgett, John B. “William Faulkner.” University of Mississippi English Department. (2005). Web.