Binary Opposition in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Aug 27th, 2020


The struggle between traditions and progress has always been a thrilling thing to write about. The events of William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, like many other his works, take place in the South after the Civil War. The primary purpose of the author is to demonstrate that, despite the defeat, the South would not give up its traditions so easily. To transmit the message, Faulkner uses three binary oppositions: death – life, the old – the new, and the North – the South.


The background of W. Faulkner has had a significant effect on the key message of the story, as well as on the binary oppositions that he uses to transmit this message. Faulkner was born in the South and impressed by the stories of its Confederate past. His great-grandfather of the same name was a Confederate officer and also a writer and had an impact on the imagination of his descendant. Faulkner was interested in examining the fading traditions of the old South, which was reflected in his works. The writer made up an entire Mississippian district, Yoknapatawpha, as a stage for the events taking place in his works. One such work is A Rose for Emily.

Death and Life

Death and life are opposed but at the same time intertwined in the story. The narration begins with a death: “And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson” (Faulkner par. 2). In this passage, Emily is compared to the soldiers who fell in the Civil War since both Emily and the soldiers have passed to the domain of death. Even when Emily was still alive, it could not be called life: she was mentally dead. Her world was “high and mighty” (Faulkner par. 17), but her house was in decay, and the deathly smell could be sensed near it. One of the manifestations of this opposition is the contradiction between a cold and remorse Emily and her lively black servant who has no trouble socializing with people.

Also, Emily herself does not distinguish between life and death. She has been refusing to recognize her father’s death for three days and did not want him to be buried. She told an official to “see Colonel Sartoris” (Faulkner par. 14) who had been dead for ten years. Emily did not want to acknowledge that Homer died, even though she killed him herself.

The opposition between life and death creates a dark, macabre atmosphere, as well as it makes a reader perceive how tragic the depicted events are, even though they are described in such a calm tone. Such an attitude prepares a reader for the understanding of the central message of the story.

The Old and the New

The binary opposition that draws attention from the very beginning is the opposition between the past and the present, the progress and the tradition, the old, and the new. This juxtaposition is enforced by the structure that Faulkner developed for his story. First, the story has a changing timeline: it begins with the speech about the funeral of Emily, then the narration turns back to the times when she was alive and proceeds gradually to the time of her death, and then it goes back to the funeral and the examination of Emily’s house.

Furthermore, the story is divided into five parts; Emily is separated from the community and each time when she has a visitor, it is in a new part. In the story, Emily represents the old; the townspeople and Homer Barron, i.e. those trying to invade her personal space, represent the new. The effect is strengthened by the fact that the narrator speaks for the townspeople.

Emily lives in her old house, maintaining its traditional atmosphere, keeping her Southern aristocratic pride, and treating others as non-equals. She denies progress and refuses to acknowledge that times have changed. For instance, she does not allow a “new guard” to attach a number to the surface of her house, even though it would help her to receive mail more quickly. She lives in her world where she can refuse to pay taxes because of a gentleman’s agreement that happened a decade ago. In the meanwhile, everything around her is changing: the Southern economy, technology, and even social relations. By juxtaposing the old and the new in such a startling way, Faulkner makes a reader focus on his main message and feel the tragedy of the central problem of the story.

The North and the South

As it seems, the opposition between the North and South is central for the story while the other two oppositions are intended to emphasize it. Emily and Homer Barron are the embodiments of the South and North, respectively; more than merely representing the parts of the country where they are from, the characters represent the spirit and traditions of these parts and their historical fate.

Proud, aristocratic, well-bred gentlewoman, Emily is juxtaposed to the immigrant and laborer Homer, who is depicted in a hasty language and portrayed as a man of action with somewhat questionable morals: “A Yankee – a big, dark, ready man, with a big voice and eyes lighter than his face… Whenever you heard a lot of laughing anywhere about the square, Homer Barron would be in the center of the group” (Faulkner par. 31). Thus, the author presents the noble South with its tendency to respect tradition and the changing North with its self-made men and the American dream.

One of the debatable questions that arise when it comes to analyzing A Rose for Emily is the meaning of “rose.” An opinion exists that, since rose, being noble and beautiful, fades but leaves the memory of its beauty, it symbolizes the Southern traditions (Barani and Yahya 158). Being damaged by the Northern victory, they fade but are preserved in the memory of those who want to remember.

At the end of the story, the South gains a small victory over the North. Unable to stop the hasty, ever-changing Homer by other means, Emily kills him. Even though the South is defeated, it is still strong, and its traditions are not easy to destroy. This central message of the story is conveyed through the binary oppositions.


At history lessons, we are taught that in the Civil War, the North was a progressive force that was to defeat the South. However, the reality is much more complicated. William Faulkner allows his readers to get an insight into the manner of thinking of a person devoted to traditions rather than progress. Perhaps the writer wanted the readers to learn that a manner of thinking is not changing easily, and sometimes it makes a person do things that may seem odd or cruel.

Works Cited

Barani, Forough, and Wan Roselezam Wan Yahya. “Binary Opposition, Chronology of Time and Female Identity in William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily”. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature 3.2 (2014): 155-160. Print.

Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily. n.d. Web.

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