Life is an ongoing process, and in its ever-changing rhythm people have to adapt to new conditions and assume new view and attitudes. Flexible people generally succeed in following the right way in the developing course of existence, while more conservative ones find themselves stuck in the past and too outdated to be full-fledged members of contemporary society.
The necessity for moving forward and not clinging to the past was voiced already in the biblical story of Lot’s wife, and the topic has been actual ever since. The misery of those who are unable to accept the reality and to get free from the influence of the past is the main theme of William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”, where the protagonist, Miss Emily Grierson, becomes a white crow and an object of both ridicule and pity due to her fanatic devotion to the ideals of the past.
The theme a person trapped in old time is developed by Faulkner through a whole set of literary devices, among which symbolic images play a substantial role. To emphasize Miss Grierson’s belonging to the Pre-Civil War South, Faulkner surrounds her by objects that symbolize that past. The first and foremost symbol is the house she lives in: a large mansion situated in the once “most select street”, it is furnished with once fashionable objects that now start to decay (Faulkner 90).
This miserable decay prompts an idea that the whole bygone splendor was not due to the owners themselves, but due to the everyday slave labor which once eliminated left the house to sink into the past. Faulkner implies bitter irony to describe the pitiful state of the Griersons mansion, the only neighbors of which are now not the estates of same grandeur but simple “cotton wagons and gasoline pumps” indifferent to the majestic culture of the old society (Faulkner 90).
Enhancing this museum-like state of the Griersons mansion, Faulkner introduces images and symbols of the same past into the house. Representative of the Pre-Civil War epoch is the Negro butler who had worked for the Griersons throughout his life and left only with Miss Grierson’s death. The influence of Miss Grierson’s father, who had oppressed and dominated her when he was alive, did not recede with the time, as after his death (which she stubbornly refused to admit) his crayon portrait was one of the main focal points in the parlor.
This dominance and arrogant attitude of the Griersons towards the surrounding society (they had always “held themselves a little too high for what they really were “) can also be traced in the fact that Miss Grierson’s only suitor came from a society different than that of Jefferson and that the description of his ways quite coincides with the way the Griersons are portrayed in a picture: “his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove“ (Faulkner 93–94).
Miss Grierson’s conflict with the present unfolds itself through her interaction with the contemporary society. She demonstrates a total obsession with old-fashioned ideas and principles when she refuses to pay taxes, motivating it with permission obtained from Colonel Sartoris — a man long dead but still alive in Miss Grierson’s imagination (Faulkner 92).
She opposes and rejects new postal rules, refusing to put up a number and a post box on the front door of her mansion (Faulkner 94). Last but not least, she ignores the public opinion and has things her own way secretly poisoning her disloyal suitor and thus preserves the reality the way she wants to see it.
Desperately fighting for preservation of her bygone past, Mrs Emily “prefers rather to murder than to die” (Fetterley 57). Thus she reveals her helplessness in face of contemporary society which she can neither accept nor put up with. Her conservatism is her tragedy, since it leads to her misery and destructively influences everything and everybody that gets in Mrs Grierson’s way.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing (8th ed.). Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 90–96. Print.
Fetterley, Judith. “A Rose for “A Rose for Emily”.” William Faulkner: Critical Assessments (Vol. I). Ed. Henry Claridge. East Sussex: Helm Information Ltd, 1999. 50–58. Print.