Re-reading the Classics: Uncovering the Precision Crafting in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” by Brad Windhauser
One of the best things you can do for your sense of your craft is to read. Even better: taking the time to revisit something that has grown dusty on the shelf, a story or book which you read many years ago, whose characters and story you’ve preserved with some nostalgia (or dread, perhaps). This trip down memory lane should not just remind yourself that you like (or despise) a particular work; no, now that you have more experience writing, you can revisit a story with more informed eyes, searching for what works or doesn’t work and why. This perspective will positively impact your writing.
William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a perfect example of a classic worth revisiting. The story, through its unique use of the plural “we” point of view, examines the life of Emily Grierson, looking closely at her privileged upbringing, sheltered adolescence and early adulthood, judging these factors to have created a damaged life that negatively impacted her connections with people—specifically her ability to find a “suitor,” and the bad decisions she makes as a result.
Through the narrator’s point of view, Faulkner’s human relic from the past has difficulty adjusting to changes in society. This perception gets stood on its head in the famous ending when the town gains access to her home upon her death. On the surface, and with the suspense intact, this is a story that provides commentary about the privilege the upper class feels entitled to and criticizes their inability to embrace the modern world. The classic ending reads as Emily’s twisted response to this inability.
Often assigned to high school students, this story is sometimes written off by more serious writers—it’s too mainstream, etc.; however, a close reading reveals what a seasoned writer can learn from these lines. Once the suspense is removed (when you know how it ends), writers will better notice how the path of the narrative has been laid, not just appreciate the shock the ending earns. The details about who Emily really is (not the confused portrait the people of the town have of her) are in plain sight, and the pleasure comes not in how you missed these from the beginning but rather how the townspeople mis-read the all-too-apparent details that should have told them everything they needed to know about Emily. She wasn’t a stuck-up woman who felt above the town (okay, maybe she was a tad conceited); no, she was a wounded woman looking for the most basic human need: love. Her damaged upbringing instilled a desperation that she pursues in an awful way, true, but if the story is about how her arrogance created a barrier between her and the town (and the men in it), it’s also about how the town’s arrogance about thinking they know and understand her reinforces this barrier.
This effect is achieved through (of course) point of view, but also use of structure, which impacts how the reader pays attention to the carefully selected details and handling of suspense (especially once it’s removed).
Once you set the plot content aside, you’ll notice other important elements of the story, specifically the structure. The story unfolds in five sections, all of which are about the same length. Each section serves as a unit of development, forcing the reader to consider and understand one aspect of Emily’s life before moving on. This provides a useful lesson on space management. This should compel an author to then think about what character elements must be established first, based on what the author is trying to say with the story. Then how do you build on this, etc. It also forces the writer to pare down the content to the essentials: what do I need to include for the reader in each section? This then creates the need to examine why the author chose these five sections? Why in this order? This reveals the purpose for this structure.
The first section
The first section creates sympathy for Emily by showing how the town pities her. We learn from the first line that she’s died and the whole town attends her funeral—a sign of respect, on one hand, as she was a sort of town institution, and a demonstration of how curious everyone was to explore her house, on the other, as if she were a mere curiosity, like the celebrities we think of nowadays that inhabit tabloids. Through carefully chosen details of the “archaic” shaped paper she used to respond to the sheriff’s tax notice, the excessive dust, and the memory of her meeting with to discuss the tax situation with the new generation of town officials, we see her as a frail, non-threatening woman who is so sad that the men come off as bullies. We’re also supposed to see her lack of an invitation for the men to sit as a sign of her rude/snobbishness, which off-sets the sympathy initially created. The fact that the section ends on this rudeness enforces that feeling over the sympathy, as Faulkner emphasizes the town’s perception of her with his ending.
Yet, when we know the whole story, her real reason for feeling anxious by having them in the house is due to Homer’s corpse being upstairs, which causes us to rethink how we interpret her behavior in the scene. Since the narrator is not yet privy to this very important detail, this understandably affected how they characterize her. Therefore, the suspense aligns us with the narrator on the first read but creates a split when it’s removed to more closely examine Emily in future reads. This closer examination reveals how they unfairly belittle her when they suggest that the tax ruse created to allow her not to pay taxes was something “only a woman could believe” (79). As we later learn, she’s much more intelligent and crafty than anyone had given her credit. The fact that she ceased to give china painting lessons was not because she was sad (as the narrator implies by using it to show how she became a recluse) but because she was being cautious about the dead body in her house, as the 8-10 year time line aligns with Homer’s later disappearance (79). Still, the first read of the first section depicts a meek, sad woman we are supposed to pity for seemingly being unable to change with the times.
The second section
The second section builds on the first by showing something else people had to handle with poor Miss Emily: the smell from her house. This fact is cushioned by an additional fact used to generate pity for her: the loss of her supposed sweetheart, Homer. This section shows that, unlike the men in the first section, people are willing to express discontent with her and force the men to treat the smell by sprinkling lime around the house. This demonstrates character growth.
Other details related to this smell incident are significant. Of course, when the narrator mentions her erect, motionless silhouette in the window, their point of view suggests that she doesn’t move when other people deal with an issue on her property because she expects it. “At last they could pity Miss Emily,” the narrator says (81), because she had fallen so far she could not even maintain her property. We also see an additional dimension to character depiction. When her father died, she could not acknowledge this fact. Then, they “did not say she was crazy” (81) as they likely do now.
But of course, a closer read reveals that the smell is likely due to Homer’s rotting corpse. Therefore, the reason she was frozen at the window when she heard noise can be attributed to concern over the authorities coming for her in light of her crime. After all, this event was only a “short time after [Homer…] deserted her” (80). Well, technically he had not deserted her, he was dead in her bedroom, and something of course the narrator does not yet know. In the absence of this knowledge, this second section acts as a second layer to show how she further slips in the eyes of the community and she looks even more pitiful, now earning the label of crazy.
The third section
With Emily’s emotional impression established, the third section offers how she became sad and pitiful by exploring her supposed last shot at love. Because Homer is a “Yankee,” we get a sense of the community’s reluctance to embrace him—an ironic twist, as now they are the ones unable to embrace the change brought about by the Civil War. The fact that he is a “day laborer” also tests their ability to condone the pairing. In any event, they are happy for Emily, as the two spend a lot of time together and seem to be courting. Could this be love? Yet they still can’t help feeling sorry for her, that she’s fallen so far to think seriously about such a man. This sense of pity continues as they see her attempt to hold her head high when she buys the rat poison (arsenic) and seemingly refuses to lower herself to answering the druggist questions about how she intends to use it.
This section invites a better understanding of why one would sympathize with her—we can tell based on her behavior with Homer that she is interested, and since we know how unlucky she’s been in the past, we want to see her succeed. When we sense that the town will not afford her this one opportunity, we pity her and also judge the town—what’s their problem? With this in place, we don’t think she would have any unsavory plans for the poison, in part because the picture the narrator has painted has not suggested she would do such a thing—furthermore, the scene with the druggist is designed to show her (from the narrator’s point of view) that she’s stuck up, that his questions are beneath her. But of course, from her point of view, perhaps she simply does not want to lie, so she keeps her mouth shut. Furthermore, by understanding her longing and despair, we better understand (even when we don’t condone) her killing of Homer where we understand that that is what’s happened. This section, therefore, creates a split between seeing Emily in a slightly different light and now reassessing what we think of the town.
The fourth section
Because the narrator pities her, we are made to understand how they rationalize the purchase of the poison in the fourth section: she will kill herself, they believe (82). The union with Homer was doomed, for he was said not be the marrying kind—perhaps his interest in men and always drinking with younger guys was part (all?) of the problem. Their seeming sadness was compounded when they learned she’d purchased the men’s silver toilet set with his initials. Oh, she got her hopes up…Yet after returning from a short trip up north, he disappeared, never to be seen again. And so we sympathize with her seeming broken heart, a feeling cemented by the physical description we get of Emily: overweight, greying hair—she’s let herself “go.” When this section ends with her death, we feel a mercy has been committed, as that is how the town feels, a sense of relief. Yet this “letting go” could just as likely be attributed to feeling like she no longer has to pay attention to her appearance because she has attained what she wanted: Homer is not going anywhere, as if they were married.
The fifth section
The action returns in the fifth section to where the story began: the say of her death. When people arrive at her home, the lone Negro who had attended to the house vanishes—which, given what we are about to learn, makes perfect sense. Then the people explore, and on the second floor, they find the room with Homer’s decaying corpse, his tarnished toilet set, and an indented pillow with a strand of greying hair on it.
There’s no need for further commentary from the narrator, for this final discovery clearly recasts everything that precedes it. The meek Emily was far more capable of getting her way than people realized, and seemingly went to any length to make it happen. Furthermore, the structure of the story reveals that Faulkner got more mileage out of these sections than mere moving of the events forward: he created a dual examination of Emily and the town, with both impacted by the plural “we” point of view. His careful choice of what happens in each section as well as their ordering reveals just what he believes the audience needs to know in order manipulate our impression of Emily as well as how we should reveal the town. Ultimately, the story provides commentary about how people’s perception of people they think they know allows for obvious signs to be ignored. This is not clear if the reader focuses on the endings punch, which often what people remember from the story.
As you can see, this story is an excellent example of how going beyond your previous thoughts of the story—whatever they might have been—and re-reading the story from a writer’s perspective reveals the true mastery of craft present. And if you still thought of any story the way you did when you read it a while ago, you can miss all you can learn by revisiting it with an open mind.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford, 2002. 79-84. Print.