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A Rose for Emily

A Rose for Emily


by William Faulkner

Analysis: What's Up With the Title?

You probably noticed that there is no rose in the story, though we do find the word "rose" four times. Check out the first two times the word is used:

When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray. (1.5)

They rose when she entered – a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. (1.6)

These first two times "rose" (as you can see) is used as a verb, which is why we barely notice the subtle echo of the "rose" in the title when we read. We are concentrating on the image, first, of the inside of Miss Emily's lonely parlor, and then of Miss Emily herself. In both cases, the word "rose" is working on us, maybe even subconsciously, to contribute to the image.

We have to look at a few more things before we can get at why these passages are significant.

First, let's consider the next two mentions of "rose," which occur at the very end of the story:

A thin, acrid pall as of the tomb seemed to lie everywhere upon this room decked and furnished as for a bridal: upon the valance curtains of faded rose color, upon the rose-shaded lights, upon the dressing table, upon the delicate array of crystal and the man's toilet things backed with tarnished silver, silver so tarnished that the monogram was obscured. (5.4)

Things are starting to make sense – here we are talking about the color "rose" – from the curtains to the lampshades, rose was the dominant color of Miss Emily's bridal chamber. We've all heard about the dangers of seeing through 'rose colored' glasses. This was a particular problem for people of Miss Emily's generation in the South.

As we discuss in "Setting," Emily was born in the early 1860s, probably near the beginning of the Civil War. Emily's father basically raised her to believe that nothing had really changed after the war. He instilled in her that being part of the southern aristocracy (those who made money on backs of slaves) was still something to be proud of, and that people like them were above the law.

But, in this moment, we realize just how rosy Miss Emily's glasses were, and that death trumps glasses, rose colored or otherwise. The reality of death cannot be avoided. Now that the bridal chamber has turned into a death chamber, the rose color is bathed in the hues of decay and death, shaded by the "acrid pall as of the tomb." Which might make you wonder just what an "acrid pall" is.

"Acrid" is easy, it's used to refer to something that's nasty smelling. "Pall" is actually a pretty interesting word, and one that isn't normally thrown around in conversation. It usually refers to some kind of covering, like a cloak or a blanket draped over a coffin. We can see how the word works literally and figuratively to thicken the atmosphere of death and decomposition. It works because even if we don't know precisely what a "pall" is, we can hear the deathly, pale tones it holds.

Well, we're not quite done yet. Lucky for us, William Faulkner told an interviewer what he meant by the title:
[The title] was an allegorical title; the meaning was, here was a woman who had had a tragedy, an irrevocable tragedy and nothing could be done about it, and I pitied her and this was a salute…to a woman you would hand a rose. (source)

We think this perspective is very important, not just because it provides a straightforward explanation, but also because it persuades us to indulge in a more compassionate reading. It's easy to judge Miss Emily, and maybe to forget she's a human being who has had a tragic life. For a look at how this explanation exposes the story's irony, check out our discussion of "Writing Style." Needless to say, there are many possible interpretations of the title, "A Rose for Emily," and you can feel free to think creatively when trying to figure out what this title means.

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