A Rose for Emily
by William Faulkner
Miss Emily Grierson
Miss Emily is an old-school southern belle trapped in a society bent on forcing her to stay in her role. She clings to the old ways even as she tries to break free. When she's not even forty, she's on a road that involves dying alone in a seemingly haunted house. At thirty-something she is already a murderer, which only adds to her outcast status.
Miss Emily is a truly tragic figure, but one who we only see from the outside. Granted, the townspeople who tell her story know her better than we do, but not really by much. This is why Emily is called "impervious." We can't quite penetrate her or completely understand her. But, perhaps there is a little Emily in all of us. In the spirit of finding the human being behind the mask, lets zero in on a few aspects of Emily, the person.
Daughter and Woman
As far as we know, Emily is an only child. The story doesn't mention any siblings. It also doesn't mention her mother. It strikes us as odd that the narrator doesn't say anything about her mother at all. We can't really think of a reasonable explanation for this, other than that the narrator wants to emphasize just how much Emily was her father's daughter, and just how alone she was with him when he was alive. From all evidence, he controlled her completely until his death, and even continued to control her from beyond the grave. By separating her so severely from the rest of the town when he was alive, going as far as to make sure she didn't have any lovers or a husband, he set her up for a way of life that was impossible for her to escape, until her death.
We might think of her as weak, or as unwilling to take a stand against her father in life. This assessment is kind of like blaming the victim though. The bare sketch we have of her father shows a man who was unusually controlling, domineering, and perhaps capable of deep cruelty, even toward his only daughter. This theory also disguises her behavior after his death, when she tried desperately to shed the image of dutiful daughter, and, probably for the first time, at thirty-something, pursued her own desires for love and sex.
When this attempt at womanhood failed miserably, she reverted back to the life her father created for her – a lonely, loveless, isolated life. Except now, with Homer Barron rotting away upstairs, there are two men that haunt her.
We don't know for sure if Emily's artistic ability extended beyond china-painting. Some readers and critics seem to think that Miss Emily is responsible for the "crayon portrait of Miss Emily's father" (1.4) that sits on an easel in the parlor. This may well be the case. (Also, it should be noted that "crayon" here could refer to black or colored charcoal, chalk, or oil crayons.)
Even though we don't have the full lowdown on Emily's art, thinking of her as an artist helps us to see the tragedy of her life, and also provides us a bit of a hopeful angle of vision. On the tragic side, we see that while Emily's art was at first a link to the town, a way to be a member of the community and to have some contact with the outside world. Once the "newer generation" pieced together her secret, even this last link was gone. On the hopeful side, there is some possibility that Emily was able to turn to her art as a source of comfort and for something to do. Maybe after the townspeople found Homer Barron's corpse, they found a houseful of Miss Emily's art as well.
Miss Emily's Legacy
In "What's Up With the Ending?", we discuss that the townspeople aren't at all surprised to find Homer Barron's body rotting in the closed off room. They broke into the room to confirm what had probably become common knowledge over the years. When Emily didn't kill herself with the arsenic, and when the smell appears, they drew the logical conclusion (passed down from one generation to the next) that Emily must have used the poison on Homer. There is some indication that the townspeople were surprised to find Miss Emily's hair on the pillow beside his body. The imprint of a head in the dust suggests that she might have lain there in the not so distant past.
It's possible that she left this "evidence" there on purpose, her final comment on life before she died. It's not much of a will, but perhaps it's still an important legacy for the townspeople, whose parents had cruelly interfered in Emily's happiness, and who themselves further isolated her out of fear, disgust, and general spite. Everyone pitied Emily, but that's a lot different than loving her. What she left them was the legacy of just how human she was, of just how much she wanted love, and just how warped and twisted the desire for love can become when it is declared off limits.