A comparative essay on the use of symbolism in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
Authors traditionally use symbolism as a way to represent the sometimes intangible qualities of the characters, places, and events in their works. In his short story “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner uses symbolism to compare the Grierson house with Emily Grierson’s physical deterioration, her shift in social standing, and her reluctancy to accept change.
When compared chronologically, the Grierson house is used to symbolize Miss Emily’s physical attributes. In its prime, the Grierson house is described as “white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies” (Faulkner 69). This description suggests that the house was built not only for function, but also to impress and engage the attention of the other townspeople. Similarly, the wealthy women of the era, Emily Grierson not withstanding, were dressed in a conspicuous manner. This, for the most part, is because their appearance was perceived as a direct reflection on their husbands and/or fathers. This display of extravagance was egotistically designed by men to give an impression of wealth to onlookers. Emily was regarded by her father as property. Her significance to him was strongly ornamental, just as their overly lavish home was. As the plot progresses, the reader is clearly made aware of the physical decline of both the house and Miss Emily. Just as the house is described as “smelling of dust and disuse,” evidence of Emily’s own aging is given when her voice in similarly said to be “harsh, and rusty, as if from disuse” (70-74). Ultimately, at the time of Emily’s death, the house is seen by the townspeople as “an eyesore among eyesores,” and Miss Emily is regarded as a “fallen monument” (69). Both are empty, and lifeless. Neither are even remotely representative of their former splendor.
Just as their physical characteristics, Faulkner uses the Grierson house as a symbol for Miss Emily’s change in social status. In its prime, the house was “big,” and “squarish,” and located on Jefferson’s “most select street” (69). This description gives the reader the impression that the residence was not only extremely solid, but also larger than life, almost gothic in nature, and seemingly impervious to the petty problems of the common people. The members of the Grierson family, especially Emily, were also considered to be strong and powerful. The townspeople regarded them as regal. And Emily, as the last living Grierson, came to symbolize her family’s, and possibly the entire south’s, rich past. The townspeople’s reveration of Emily soon decayed, however, once it was rumored that she was left no money, only the house, in her father’s will. Also, her scandalous appearances with Homer Barron further lessened her reputation in the public eye. And, perhaps inevitably, the prestige and desirability of the Grierson house fell right along side Miss Emily’s diminishing name.
Perhaps the most significant comparison occurs when the Grierson house is used to symbolize Emily Grierson’s unwillingness to accept change. Emily Grierson held tightly to her family’s affluent past. A good example of this occurred when representatives were sent to her home to collect her delinquent taxes. She completely rejected her responsibility to the town by referring the men to a time when the since departed mayor, Colonel Sartoris, “remitted her taxes” (70). Miss Emily and the house show further examples of their disregard for progress when Emily denies the Grierson house a number, and a mailbox, just as Emily herself refused to be labeled or to be associated with anything as modernistic and common as a mailbox. Even when she was left “alone, a pauper,” and “humanized,” she absolutely refused to be viewed with pity (72). In fact she “demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson” (73). Likewise, just as Emily held herself “a little too high” for what she was, the house is presented as “Lifting its stubborn and Coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and gasoline pumps” (69). The cotton wagons and gasoline pumps in this description are undoubtedly used to symbolize what Emily must surely see as the mostly unimportant and purposeless townspeople. This single comparison by itself provides indisputable evidence that Emily Grierson and her family’s house are strongly related with one another.
So, it should now be obvious to the analytical reader that the relationship between the Grierson house’s and Miss Emily Grierson’s, physical deterioration, shift in social standing, and reluctancy to accept change, is too precise to be construed coincidental. It is precisely this open usage of symbolism, and expert utilization of foreshadowing that earned both William Faulkner and “A Rose for Emily” their places among the classics.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. By Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. New York: W. W. Norton ; Company, Inc. 1991: 69-76.