The Long Life Story of Emily Grierson in A Rose for Emily, a Short Story by William Faulkner
In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, the narrator tells the story of Emily Grierson, a woman who lived an incredibly long life and was known to everyone throughout the town. The story also tells the reader of Emily’s mental deterioration as time goes on was not known or acknowledged by the townspeople. Mental illness, especially in the South, was masked by eccentricities and a tolerant attitude toward those who were socially consider high class (Phelan 188).
The first part of this short story describes Ms. Emily Grierson as a popular woman in the town, mostly because she had been around for so long. “When Miss Emily Grierson died our whole town went to her funeral: the men went through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one had seen save an old man-servant-had seen in the last ten years” (Faulkner 299). In the story, she was tax exempt by Colonel Sartoris after the death of her father in the year 1894. There was no written record of this however, and the newer generation of elected officials tried to send her a notification that her taxes were due. The first sign we see of her mental illness comes when the city authorities arrive to collect her taxes, and she repeatedly states that they need to see Colonel Sartoris, who at that time had been dead for nearly a decade. For Emily, the passage of time doesn’t seem to matter at all as she has spent many years of her life hidden away in her home.
Part two takes place approximately two years after Emily’s father died, and just a short time after she was abandoned by her would be husband. At this point in the story we see further deterioration of Emily’s mental state as she is rarely seen outside of her home. “After her father’s death she went out very little; after her sweetheart went away, people hardly saw her at all” (Faulkner 301). As time passes a horrible smell begins to be emitted from Emily’s house. Many of the citizens complained about it. Eventually Judge Stevens says he refuses to accuse a lady of smelling bad, so four men snuck onto Emily’s property at night and sprinkled lime around the house to prevent the foul odor. The reader later finds out that Emily had pretended everything was normal, as if her father hadn’t died for three days before she finally allowed the body could be disposed of. The reader then realizes that if the smell wasn’t coming from her father where could it be coming from? No one in the town thought she was having serious mental health issues; They thought it was her father had driven away many men from her and seemed to be overprotective. “We remembered all the men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would cling to that which had robbed her, as people will” (Faulkner 302).
During part three of the story, Emily was sick for a long time and makes a reappearance with short hair making her look tragic and serene (Faulkner 302). The town had hired contractors to repair the sidewalks. Homer Barron, the foreman of the labor operation, soon became a well-liked man around town, as he seemed to bring laughter to everyone. Shortly after coming into town, he was seen riding around with Miss Emily in a buggy. Everyone in the town seemed thrilled that she had found someone to make her happy at last. Many of the older people in the town recalled that no one had come to her father’s funeral and felt sorry for Emily, about what had happened and how she had reacted to her father’s death. This further proves that mental illness was not something talked about in the open during this time. At the end of this part of the story the reader finds Emily at the drug store for rat poison.
In part four, the people of the town began to suspect that Emily is going to commit suicide because Homer Barron, was homosexual and was often seen drinking with younger men at the Elks club in town. The ladies of the town eventually forced a Baptist minister to call upon Emily. The residents of the town were sure there would be a wedding now, as Emily had ordered men’s toiletries and gifts from the jeweler. After this, Miss Emily seems to develop severe agoraphobia; the fear of leaving one’s home, and is only seen in windows, having grown obese and grey. The only person who came and went from the home was the servant. She continued to receive tax notices that remained unclaimed. At this point, Emily has completely lost her mind, “She was only occasionally seen in the downstairs window looking through people” (Faulkner 305).
The final part of the story takes the reader to the opening of Emily’s house after over ten years of only the servant being inside. After the servant opened the house, he was never seen or heard from again. He just ran away indicating that he felt shame for what he had been hiding for all the years he had worked for Emily. He also may have left for fear of being blamed for the murder of Homer Barron, because as previously stated mental illness in the early 1900’s was very taboo, especially for a woman. The room above the stairs in Emily’s home, was a very mysterious place for the townsfolk as is hadn’t been opened in over forty years. The room was furnished as a bridal suite, and inside the toiletries of Homer Barron laid near a folded suit and shoes. The townspeople then found Homer Barron’s body lying in the bed rotted to the point where he couldn’t be removed from the mattress, “The man himself lay in the bed” (Faulkner 306). Next to him, on the recently laid upon pillow was an iron gray hair. This is the final showing of Miss Emily’s illness; she seems to have suffered from delusions and agoraphobia, as she spent forty years sleeping next to a man that she had killed.
After reading this story closely the reader comes to realize, that while the individual events on their own do not seem to out of the ordinary, looking at the big picture with all the events in order we see the slow progression of Miss Emily towards a complete mental breakdown.
Writing Process Summation
I chose this short story, because I felt it was the easiest for me to understand. I arrived at my understanding of the story after reading it a few times. I realized that the story seemed to be about the decline of Miss Emily’s mental health. I made the points that mental illnesses and degeneration were widely ignored and feared in the early 1900’s. I revised the thesis of my essay to be more definitive. I want the reader to see that mental issues were not always as widely accepted as they are today. While there are still problems with accepting them, people seem far more tolerant now than in the past.
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