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The Symbolic References in A Rose for Emily

It is a story of the conflict between the old and the new south;alll represented through symbolic references


Mahmood Azizi,
English Department of the University of Mazandaran
[email protected]

A Rose for Emily takes place after the Civil War and into the 1900?s in the town of Jefferson,
Mississippi-a town very similar to the one in which William Faulkner spent most of his life. It is a story
of the conflict between the old and the new South, the past and the present-with Emily and the things
around her steadfastly representing the dying old traditions and the present expressed mostly through the
words of the narrator but also through Homer Barron and the new board of aldermen. The issue of racism
also runs throughout the story.
In part I, Faulkner refers to Emily as a "fallen monument", a monument to the southern gentility
that existed before the Civil War. Her house is described as having once been white-the color of youth,
innocence and purity, and also of the white society-but decayed now and smelling of dust and disuse. It
stands between the cotton wagons (the past) and the gasoline pumps (the present)--an "eyesore among
eyesores". Emily comes from an upper class family and grew up privileged and protected by her father.
An agreement between her father and Colonel Sartoris-a character we assume was a veteran of the Civil
War and who also represented the old South with his edict that no Negro woman should appear on the
streets without an apron--exempted her from paying taxes. The authorities decide to pay Emily a visit to
try to collect the taxes due the town. When we are introduced to Emily, she is described as being in
black-the color of death-and her eyes are lifeless?"two small pieces!
of coal". The description of Emily is not unlike that of her house, and I thought of a corpse when reading
that "she looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue."--the
dying old traditions. The tarnished gold head on her black cane is the one reminder of her affluent, upper
class position of years ago. And the invisible watch hanging from her neck but hidden under her belt is
symbolic of her living in the past--time at a standstill in the Grierson house. When asked if she got the tax
notice from the sheriff, Emily claims she has no taxes to pay and refers them to Colonel Sartoris who has
been dead for ten years--another indication of Emily?s living in the past. Referring to the sheriff, she says,
"Perhaps he considers himself the sheriff?I have no taxes in Jefferson." This implies that Emily still
considers herself superior to the rest of the town. Emily has difficulty accepting the death of her father, and she hangs onto him and the past for three days after he dies until she finally allows the body to be taken away for burial. Her father had overprotected her throughout her life, chasing suitors away because they weren?t good enough for her. And when her sweetheart deserts her, she becomes a virtual recluse. The "only sign of life" is the young Negro servant who gardens and cooks for her. In fact, it is apparent that Emily would have died years earlier if he had not taken care of her. To me, Faulkner is suggesting that the South will die, or certainly not progress, unless its culture changes and it accepts the Negro as a vital part of society. I wonder if the smell of Homer?s rotting corpse represents racial prejudice: the 80 year old mayor refuses to directly confront Emily about the odor-just as he would not deal with the immorality of racial repression--and after several complaints, four aldermen take it up on themselves to do something about it. Three of them are "graybeards" representing the old South; one of them is a "younger man, a member of the rising generation".

I think the three older men helped to find the source of the stench, but they didn?t really do anything to stop it-I believe it is the young alderman who spreads the lime in a "sowing motion" in an effort to get rid of the smell-the lime perhaps representing tolerance. After her father dies, Emily disappears within the house for some time; but when a construction company comes into Jefferson to pave the sidewalks, the crew foreman begins courting her. He is Homer Barron, a Yankee, described as a big, dark man (could he be part Negro?) who drank with the young men (the new generation). Homer represents the Yankee attitudes of the time. But Faulkner also places Homer in a buggy with yellow wheels, and even though he carries a whip like Emily?s father did, he wears yellow gloves.

I?m not sure of the author?s intent here--using the yellow color of cowardice--except maybe that
Homer was afraid of marrying Emily. Perhaps the North afraid of trusting the South? The town pitied
"poor Emily" --they thought she was going crazy, seeing a Yankee and forgetting about proper behavior
fitting a lady. A year after she starts a relationship with Homer, she asks the druggist for the best poison he has--arsenic, which is the color gray in its most common form. Gray, like the Confederate uniform. When the druggist looks at Emily, she stands erect and looks back at him with "her face like a strained flag". Is Faulkner referring to the Confederate flag?The minister?s wife contacts Emily?s cousins presumably to come to Jefferson to bring Emily to her senses.

When Emily begins buying men?s clothing and a silver toilet set monogrammed H.B., the town
assumes she has finally married Homer. Faulkner describes Emily?s cousins as "even more Grierson than Miss Emily had ever been". They represent the staunch old Southern culture, and Homer disappears while they are in town. Homer is seen entering the house three days after the cousins? departure, and that is the last that is ever seen of him. Emily too disappears for some time, and when we see her again, Faulkner effectively uses the color gray to describe her:When we next saw Miss Emily, she had grown fat and her hair was turning gray. During the next few years it grew grayer and grayer until it attained an even pepper-and-salt iron-gray, when it ceased turning. Up to the day of her death at seventy-four it was still that vigorous iron-gray, like the hair of an active man.

To me, Faulkner has strengthened his symbolic reference to the old South and by comparing her
gray hair to that of an active man, he is even suggesting a Confederate soldier. The gray used throughout
the story could also represent aging and eventual death. Emily remains inside the dark house except for a
period of six or seven years when she teaches china-painting to the daughters and granddaughters of
Colonel Sartoris? contemporaries--the last of the old Southern community. This was the only time in over
forty years that Emily was a part of society, when she clung to those who represented the past. When the
new generation takes over Jefferson, Emily retreats into her house for the rest of her life. She dies there--but she had been dying and only existing in the dark, moldy old house for a long time.

The old men who come to Emily?s funeral dress in their Confederate uniforms and imagine that
they had danced with Emily. They, too, are living in the past, the "huge meadow that no winter ever quite
touches". But unlike Emily who totally retreated to the past, theirs is separated by the most recent decade,
described as a "narrow bottle-neck" --progress is slow in Jefferson, and the past won?t be forgotten but
change will come.When the authorities break into the locked upstairs room they discover the skeleton of Homer Barron lying on the bed. The bedroom is decorated in rose, the color of life and love, but everything is covered with dust and the room is both a tomb and a marriage suite . A strand of Emily?s iron-gray hair
lies on the pillow beside Homer. Rather than endure Homer?s leaving her, she had tucked him away just
like one would preserve a rose in order to bring back memories. The rose-colored room could also
represent optimism. Perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that the old attitudes of both the North and the South
must die in order for the two to be one. This is supported by the fact that the old Negro servant disappears
upon Emily?s death and after the new generation has entered the house.

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