Rose For Emily Only when the present has become the past can we reflect on what we could have or should have done. Yet our society is so obsessed with keeping track of time that we spend millions of dollars a year to keep a set of atomic clocks ticking the time. These clocks are so accurate that they must be reset once a year to correct for the earth’s imperfect orbit. Our base-60 measure of time is an abstract idea dating from the Babylonians. All this, and what most human minds intrinsically understand about time is the past, present and future.
I say most minds, because not every mind does comprehend these abstract ideas. Many people are able to survive in the present, but give little or no thought to the future, and these people usually live in the past. Such a mind is the mind of Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. Emily Grierson survives in the present, but lives in the past. The morbid ending is foreshadowed by the story’s opening with Miss Emily Grierson’s death and funeral. The bizarre outcome is further emphasized throughout by the symbolism of the decaying house, which parallels Miss Emily’s physical deterioration and demonstrates her ultimate mental disintegration. Her life, like the house which decays around her is a direct result of living in the past.
Part of living is death, and the future conjures life, the past, and death. Emily’s imbalance of past and present causes her to confuse the living with the dead. Perhaps the most prominent example of Emily’s confusion is the carcass of Homer Barron lying in the honeymoon room of Emily’s house. This division is exemplified by the symbolic imagery of Faulkner. The rose colored room, a color of life, is covered thickly with dust, a symbol of death. Of course, this is not the first time we learn of Emily’s confusion.
Previous to Barron’s discovery, her father dies, and she denies that he is dead. Faulkner gives the reader a taste of this confusion early on when Miss Emily instructs the town tax-collectors to consult with Colonel Sartoris about her taxes, though he had been dead for ten years. At this foreboding point in the story, Emily seems to be a senile old maid; this could not be further from the truth. The external characteristics of Miss Emily’s house parallel her physical appearance to show the transformation brought about by years of neglect. For example, the house is located in what was once a prominent neighborhood that has deteriorated. Originally white and decorated in “the heavily lightsome style” of an earlier time, the house has become “an eyesore among eyesores”.
Through lack of attention, the house has evolved from a beautiful representative of quality to an ugly holdover from another era. Similarly, Miss Emily has become an eyesore; for example, she is first described as a “fallen monument”, to suggest her former grandeur and her later grotesqueness. Like the house, she has lost her beauty. Once she had been “a slender figure in white”; later she is obese and “bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water with eyes lost in the fatty ridges of her face”. Both house and occupant have suffered the ravages of time and neglect. The interior of the house also parallels Miss Emily’s increasing degeneration and the growing sense of sadness that accompanies such decay.
Initially, all that can be seen of the inside of the house is “a dim hall from which a staircase mounted into still more shadow” with the house smelling of “dust and disuse”. The darkness and the smell of the house connect with Miss Emily, “a small, fat woman in black” with a voice that is “dry and cold” as if it were dark and dusty from disuse like the house. The similarity between the inside of the house and Miss Emily extends to the “tarnished gilt easel” with the portrait of her father and Miss Emily “leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head”. Inside and out, both the building and the body in which Miss Emily live are in a state of deterioration like tarnished metal. Finally, the townspeople’s descriptions of both house and occupant reveal a common intractable arrogance. At one point the house is described as “stubborn” as if it were ignoring the surrounding decay. Similarly, Miss Emily proudly overlooks the deterioration of her once grand residence.
This motif recurs as she denies her father’s death, refuses to discuss or pay taxes, ignores town gossip about her being a “fallen woman,” and does not tell the druggist why she is purchasing arsenic. Both the house and Miss Emily become traps for that strongest representative of the twentieth century, Homer Barron, laborer, outsider, confirmed bachelor. Just as the house seems to reject progress and updating, so does Miss Emily, until both of them become decaying anachronisms. Through descriptions of the house that resemble descriptions of Miss Emily Grierson, “A Rose for Emily” emphasizes the way that beauty and elegance can become grotesquely distorted through neglect and lack of love. In this story, the house deteriorates for forty years until it becomes ugly; Miss Emily’s physical and emotional condition dissipate in a similar manner.