The Changing Verbal Portraits of Emily in A Rose for Emily
“A Rose for Emily,” by Faulkner, provides not only innumerable details but also a complex structure. Long after the reader has learned to identify and discuss the function of significant detail, they often continue to struggle with the influence of structure on a story. The imagery of changing portraits in “A Rose for Emily” allows the reader to explore both to find meaning. In addition to the literal portrait of Emily’s father, Faulkner creates numerous figurative portraits of Emily herself by framing her in doorways or windows. The chronological organization of Emily’s portraits visually imprints the changes occurring throughout her life. Like an impressionist painting that changes as the viewer moves to different positions, however, the structural organization provides clues to the “whole picture” or to the motivations behind her transformations.
Chronologically, the “back-flung” front door creates the first tableau of a youthful Miss Emily, assiduously guarded by her father. Miss Emily, a “slender figure in white,”1 typifies the vulnerable virgin, hovering in the background, subordinate and passive. The father, “a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip” (CS 123), is a menacing dark image assuming the dominant front position. His turned back suggests a disregard for her emotional welfare as he wards off potential danger–or violation of her maidenhead–with his horsewhip. The back-flung door invites suitors in, but only those who meet Grierson standards. Unfortunately, those standards are unattainable–“The Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were” (CS 123)–and Miss Emily remains…
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…cefully on her funeral bier with a simple image of love and loss, a strand of iron-gray hair resting on the yellowed pillow of an impotent bridal bed. This haunting image is the fianl pen stroke whispering the eulogy of her wasted life.
1 Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Vintage, 1977), 123. Hereafter CS.
2 The southern planter patterned his lifestyle after the English country gentleman (Daniel Boorstin, The American: The Colonial Experience [Random House, 1958]). In doing so, he developed a code of conduct that reflected the romanticism of the medevial age. A feudal mind set–replete with courtly love, a code of honor, and a romantic quest–is evident in several of Faulkner’s male characters, e.g., Sutpen in Abaslom, Absalom! and Hightower in Light in August.
3 The Sound and the Fury (New York: Random House, 1992), 78.