The South, The Smell and The Societal Moral Descent in William Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.
"Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town".William Faulkner’s 1930 short story, ‘A Rose for Emily’ is an example of Southern Gothic. Lloyd Smith (2004, p. 21) describes Southern Gothic as a tradition that sees “the return of the past […] whatever the culture does not want to know or admit, will not or dare not tell itself”. He claims that this is due to the fact that, historically speaking the South is haunted by “tensions between a culturally sanctioned progressive optimism and an actual dark legacy”. Faulkner’s story tells the tale of one of the most iconic southern belles in literary tradition. Set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawapha, in Mississippi, the tale opens with the funeral of Miss Emily Grierson. Emily is an elderly southern woman whose funeral is attended by the entire populace of the town. But alas, she is no Scarlet O’Hara. ‘A Rose for Emily’ features one of the darkest Southern Belle. She is very much a Southern Belle in decline.
‘A Rose for Emily’ can be read as a metaphor for the dematerialization of the ‘Old South’. References to the legacy of the American Civil War manifests in the character of Homer Baron. Homer is a Yankee carpetbagger whose purpose in coming to town is to install “sidewalks”(Faulkner, 2012). ‘Carpetbagger’ was the term used to refer to the Northern Republicans who migrated to the South after the Civil War. Local residents often viewed them as intruders who were looking to exploit the South’s post-war turmoil for their own gain. The fact that Emily, as a southerner, murders the Yankee carpetbagger, means this text can be read as a revenge story. The revenge Emily exacts on the north and its inhabitant derives from an unsettled and unforgotten culture clash of the American Civil War. In particular, in his novel Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner claims that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”(2011, p. 85). This attitude is focalized through Emily’s depiction. In describing how Emily “vanquished them, horse and foot”, Faulkner establishes her behavior as indicative of a re-fighting of the civil war (2012, p.7). Emily’s identity as a “fallen monument”, establishes her as a representative of the ‘Old South’, a way of life that was destroyed (p.3). Moreover, Emily is seen to preserve an image of the ‘Old South’ by her insistence of being called a “lady” (p.8). Here, she is hoping to retrieve and preserve an image of herself that no longer exists. Her once familiar mode of address as a ‘lady’ is no longer applicable. She is determined to preserve an image of herself that has already been destroyed by her grotesque depiction as “bloated” and simultaneously “skull-like” (p. 6). Her change in appearance is indicative of the change of time. Like the progress of time, where the customs of the ‘Old South’ no longer survive due to the way it was destroyed in the war. Time has changed not only herself but the world she exists in. Emily resists this change. The fact that she preserves only an image of the past, as a “tableau”, suggests that seeking to preserve the past is impossible. It is a futile effort that will only inspire an artificial copy of a bygone era (p. 9).
The town locals are also complicit in the act of seeking to preserve the past. Society clings to an idea of Emily that can no longer sustain itself. For instance, when the governor implores, “would you accuse a lady of smelling bad to her face?”, he reveals an inherent contradiction about Emily (p. 8). There is a disconnect between the way people think about her, that she is a ‘lady’, and the reality of how she presents herself- as unhygienic. In identifying Emily as a ‘lady’, the governor reveals his idealization of the upper-class. He would rather keep silent and endure her unpleasant scent than offend her. In offending her and admitting that there is such a disconnect in her characterization, the governor would be deconstructing the romantic image of the past. Here, the signifier of a ‘lady’ is empty. A lady by definition would not smell ‘bad’. As a member of the upper-class, with unlimited access to wealth and comfort, a lady would be hygienic. Thus, they deny the progression of time and hang onto an image of the past- an image untouched by the brutalities of the Civil War. To admit that she now ‘smel[t]’ and fell short of her previous persona, would lead to the unpleasant realization and acknowledgment of the ‘new’ South as one that has fallen from grace. In particular, Rutherford (2010, p.32) claims that during the Civil War, the Old South was largely “destroyed” by the Northern Army. Property was burnt and confiscated, and the collapse of their economy, brought about by the abolition of slavery meant that the South could no longer sustain itself. The South had to then enter into a struggle for survival.
The town’s decision to remain ignorant about Emily’s decline has wider moral implications. The extent to which the town chooses to overlook Emily’s decline, and by proxy the decline of their own existence, takes a sinister turn. In ignoring her unpleasant smell, the town are unwillingly made complicit in the act of ignoring Emily’s potential as a murderess. To acknowledge the ‘smell’, which is the decaying body of Homer who the town, upon Emily’s death discover has been “lay[ing] in [Emily’s] bed” for all these years, would reveal that which they seek to resist (Faulkner, 2012, p. 20). Society would rather uphold its traditions than admit to the potential moral depravity of the once matriarchal figure. The town squash their anxieties concerning the decline of their respected ‘monument’ when they seek to further distance themselves from this realization. This occurs when they take it upon themselves to sprinkle “lime” in Miss Emily’s garden so as to avoid the embarrassment of confronting her directly (p. 16).
Therefore, society’s denial is a resistance to modernity. The more society embraces the additions of ‘sidewalks’, the further they transgress from the once powerful image of the ‘Old South’ as the land of plenty and gentle manners. Thus, Emily murders Homer because he represents progression. Progression and modernity reveal an uncomfortable truth about the broken and destroyed existence they now lead.
Faulkner, W. (2011) Requiem for a Nun. London, Penguin.
Faulkner, W. (2012) ‘A Rose For Emily’. Logan, Tale Blazers.
Lloyd-Smith, A. (2004) American- Gothic Fiction: An Introduction. London, Bloomsbury Academic.