Emily Grierson: Beyond Time and Sanity

By Arlena Rodriguez

Most individuals are rooted by a sense of time, place, and circumstance, which ultimately dictates one’s deepest sense of identity. In the United States, the Civil War era conjures up myriad images of gentility, honor, pride, and lives of relative wealth for many Southern families. Indeed, growing up in the pre-Civil War South solidified people’s identities. They knew what grounded and defined them. Suddenly, in the post-Civil War period, vanquished Southerners were left with nothing but two choices: moving forward and acquiescing to Northern ideals or desperately attempting to cling to their cherished Antebellum ipseity. Such struggles were explored by William Faulkner in his gothic short story “A Rose for Emily,” where—perplexingly—his main character chooses neither. Faulkner’s protagonist, Miss Emily Grierson, is presented by a cumulative narrator as a monumental character, which in many ways was representative of the old Southern customs embraced by the Grierson family. However, as the story timeline unfolds in a non-linear nature, it exposes the troubling reality that Emily belongs nowhere. She is suspended in a world where time does not dictate her reality. William Faulkner illustrates Miss Emily Grierson’s dilemma of being entrapped in a timeless vacuum by using the neighbors’ contemporaneous assessments of Emily, her own resistance to inevitable change, and the macabre consequences of her own fractured sense of time.   

The populace’s gossip, evident throughout the story, is a primary way in which Emily’s dilemma is disclosed. Over the course of the narrative, Miss Emily’s character is portrayed as impenetrable and mysterious. In reality, there is not much that can be learned about the protagonist herself other than through the speculative observations of the cumulative narrator of Jefferson, Mississippi, where Emily’s tragic life unfolds. The opening sentence of the narrative sets the stage for what would be later analyzed in the story—namely, the timelessness implied by Emily’s bestowal as a “fallen monument” and the townspeople’s perennial inquisition, which reveals the extent of her dilemma (Faulkner 765). The very essence of a monument is that of a solid structure that stands as a remembrance of a person or event—static in space and time. Hence, it is not surprising this term is used to define Emily’s representation of the Antebellum South but also as metaphor for her severance from time. Indeed, the whole idea of the “fallen monument” indicates the expectations the neighbors have of Miss Emily. The Grierson name had been, for several generations, an august and elevated ideal of the traditional old Southern culture to which the Jefferson town had grown accustomed. In a sense, Emily retains a few relics of her predecessors—her stubbornness, pride, and a black servant, who is evocative of the old ways of slavery. However, to the town’s disappointment, she is not the amiable, approachable, charismatic Southern belle; instead, she is a rude, overbearing, and grotesque woman who “looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water” (766). Clearly, her anomalous peculiarities do not suit either the past or the present. Faulkner’s word choice is indeed an adequate representation of her motionless character—stagnant in time. In addition to Emily’s idiosyncrasies, the townspeople’s incessant observations highlight Emily’s refusal to flow along with time. For example, the citizens of this little town portray the protagonist’s only material inheritance from the once-wealthy Griersons as “a big, squarish frame house that had once been white… lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps” (765). The derelict house stands as an old, abandoned museum amidst the modern and progressive amenities: the gasoline pumps, post office, and sidewalks. Later, as the townspeople enter the abode that had been closed to the public for almost a decade, they ruminate and are struck by the house that “smelled of dust and disuse—a close, dank smell” (765). After her burial, the neighbor’s final invasion of Miss Emily’s seclusion brings about the recurring key observation of decay—recounted as an “even coating of the patient and biding dust” (771). Once again, the townspeople’s verbal judgment of Emily’s surroundings heightens her compulsion to remain in a timeless vacuum, where everything remains static. Lastly, it becomes evident that the neighbors are also aware of Emily’s time dilemma. As they consider the possibility that the protagonist’s sweetheart Homer Barron might have left her, they conceive the idea that she might commit suicide, allowing her some control over time. Thus, the townspeople’s nosy blather gives witness to Emily’s deteriorating state of mind and distorted sense of time.

Another facet of Emily’s dilemma is her reluctance to internalize the organic changes in time revealed through the few brief dialogues she is forced to endure. Emily’s reaction to the town’s importunate demands confirms the collective narrator’s observations of her bizarre time dissociation. The first time young Emily is presented with the inexorable cruelty of time’s passage is when she loses her father. In complete denial of the situation, when the town’s ladies present themselves at her house, “she told them that her father was not dead [which] she did for three days […refusing] to dispose of the body” (767). Nevertheless, this time she complies with the neighbor’s practical persuasions and “she broke down, and they buried her father quickly” (767). For Emily, this is a traumatic moment. It seems as long as she can keep her father’s remains in the house, she considers him to be “alive.” As William Faulkner himself asserts in his play Requiem for a Nun “the past is not dead. It’s not even past” (qtd. in Donovan 14). As a result of Emily’s disregard for the new generation’s Board of Aldermen’s written request to pay her taxes, they proceed to pay her a visit. Although they are admitted to her house, Miss Emily insists she has no taxes in Jefferson and commands them to “‘See Colonel Sartoris.’ (Colonel Sartoris had been dead almost ten years.)” (Faulkner 766). At this early moment in the narrative, it is evident that Emily has a fractured sense of time reference. Not only does she insist upon enforcing the bygone ways of an alleged past agreement between her dead father and Colonel Sartoris, she eerily speaks of the Colonel as if he were still alive. There are two immediate possible reasons for Emily’s referral to Colonel Sartoris: she is unaware of his death—being that she has remained in seclusion for the past ten years, or she is suffering the same fate of “her great-aunt, [lady Wyatt, who] had gone completely crazy” (767). Furthermore, she seems to believe that a person long since dead is still the sheriff and that these impertinent young men are mere impostors, when she mentions “Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff” as she refers to the new generation’s city authorities (766). Either way, both theories show she is living in a parallel universe, where time does not exist.  According to University of Wisconsin English Professor Gary L. Kriewald, Emily “wages a battle to the death with time and change in the town of Jefferson” (3). She almost challenges the world to “fight” her, relying on her own “immovability” to protect herself. As a result of Emily’s fear of being left by Homer Barron, she finds herself resorting to drastic methods. In her final dialogue, she finds herself at the apothecary with a very odd request. She asks the druggist for poison—“a good one” (Faulkner 768). Interestingly, the warning on the arsenic box she manages to seize could be interpreted as an absurd, yet comical symbol for Emily’s revised opinion of Homer Barron—a rat—who would leave her as soon as his business in Jefferson concluded. She could not bear the thought of losing control as she had years before, after her father’s death. Ultimately, Emily’s rejection of the organic changes in time dooms her to living in a prison of her own making.

Emily’s dilemma ultimately erupts as a gruesome murder, a grim consequence of her longing for a loving human connection and need for control. Thus far, Emily, the “fallen monument,” has stood the test of time and to some extent, met the townspeople’s quixotic ideals of “noblesse oblige” and tradition (768). Although they critique her involvement with Homer—the Yankee—they are genuinely happy that after much struggle and heartbreak, she seems to have finally found someone with whom to share her life. However, not long after she started to show herself around town in the company of Homer, he makes a sudden and puzzling disappearance, having been seen last at Emily’s “kitchen door at dusk one evening” (769). Thereafter, the neighbors are left with the only logical assumption that Homer has abandoned her—“Poor Emily” and “She will kill herself” (768). In a similar manner, Faulkner explains his feelings towards his fictional character, almost as if he too is amazed at her thought process and resulting course of action:

I feel sorry for Emily’s tragedy, […] when she found a man, she had had no experience in people. She picked out probably a bad one, who was about to desert her. And when she lost him she could see that for her that was the end of life, there was nothing left, except to grow older, alone, solitary; she had had something and she wanted to keep it, which is bad—to go to any length to keep something; but I pity Emily. (Faulkner at Nagano)

In her final attempt to control time, Emily prepares herself for the ultimate act of defiance. She buys a few items as if preparing her marital layette: a man’s outfit, nightshirt, and silver toilet set engraved with the initials H.B. To her dismay, her suitor did not share her ideas of marriage, but she refuses to let Homer Barron slither from her grip. Frustrated at the failed attempt to accomplish her life’s goal in a conventional way, Emily decides to take matters into her own hands by means of violence. Her willingness to murder someone is her ultimate manifestation of possessiveness. As notable feminist writer and professor Dr. Judith Fetterley states “‘A Rose for Emily’ explores the ‘consequences of violence for both the violated and the violators’” (qtd. in Herring 215). Using her last resort—rat poison—she kills her beloved and keeps him as a supplemental accessory on the top floor of her decaying house. Ironically, she lives up to the townspeople’s expectations—embracing the dead memories of the past. Oddly enough, in the face of her unspeakable act, their persistent gossip throughout the whole story falls strangely still. They are left to unwrap her final mystery; she has been sleeping with a dead man for over forty years. Finally, they are silenced by the horrendously repulsive secret she has kept from them; there is no denouncing her on the streets. By choosing to create her own highly unorthodox reality, Emily comes to the realization that in order to fulfill her need for love and control, she has to become disconnected from all societal mores.

In reality, Miss Emily Grierson’s story tells a larger tale than just the mystery of an unfortunate woman, a victim whose life is ruled by a lost sense of time, place, and circumstances. She is an ineffable enigma, a woman who explodes every paradigm. She is not a particularly feminine or masculine character; nor does she fit the forgotten old South, the acquiescent post-Civil War society, or any idea of a futuristic woman. Indeed, one cannot even truly understand the nature of her insanity. Emily’s identity is composed of bits and pieces from antithetical eras that collide with one another. Ironically, she seems to reach some sort of disconcerting happiness by creating order from chaos. Essentially, the only true human connections she manages to achieve are both disappointing. As a result of her disillusionment, she creates her own present—a timeless vacuum in a parallel universe where she achieves a brief but deluded state of control over time. However, chaos eventually seeps back into her ordered universe through her death, attesting to the certitude that control is a futile idea, even more so when applied to time.



Works Cited

Donovan, Gregory. “Several Denials and a Few Confessions: Southern Poetry and Southern Journals.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1, 2007. ProQuest Research Library: Literature & Language,  proquest.com/docview/222202028?accountid=15152.

Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, 9th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton, 2017, pp. 765-71.

 —. Faulkner at Nagano, edited by Robert A. Jelliffe, Kenkyusha Ltd., 1956.

Herring, Gina. “The Beguiled: Misogynist Myth or Feminist Fable?” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 3, 1998, pp. 214-219. ProQuest Arts & Humanities Database, proquest.com/docview/226993273?accountid=15152.

Kriewald, Gary L. “The Widow of Windsor and the Spinster of Jefferson: A Possible Source for Faulkner’s Emily Grierson.” The Faulkner Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, 2003, p. 3+. Literature Resource Center, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A171020102/LitRC?u=nclivewtcc&sid=LitRC&xid=6d98e21f.