The end of the Civil War in 1865 brought a number of changes to the Southern states: the Old South with its agrarian-based economy, as well as the area’s residents were facing a dilemma, whether they should adapt to these changes or try to continue with their precious social order and economy model. In Jefferson, Mississippi, almost all of the townspeople have made the decision to adapt to the recent changes except for one town resident Emily Grierson, who dislikes the ways of the New South and refuses to adjust to the new way of life.
Emily’s refusal to accept the South’s new reality means that she clings to the social conventions that no longer exist, isolating herself from both the townspeople of Jefferson and their new lifestyle, and reflects the author’s theme regarding the necessity to adapt to changes brought upon us. Faulkner effectively uses the events surrounding Emily to emphasize his theme of adaptation being necessary for us all, and additionally introduces symbols within the story to describe her motivations and emotions behind her actions.
Stability and resistance to change are the main features of Miss Grierson’s character that develop during her younger years and that define her attitudes during her whole life. The only leaders Emily recognizes are the once-and-forever established authorities of her father and Colonel Sartoris.
Even after their death, Emily continues to insist on their existence: she does not recognize the fact that her father is not alive any longer, and she refers the tax committee to the long-deceased Colonel Sartoris who once relieved her of city taxes (Faulkner). Living in the past, Emily denies the present and the innovations it brings. Her mansion is the only building in the city that does not have “the metal numbers above her door and … a mailbox” (Faulkner).
Moreover, it is the only old house in the neighborhood that has become obliterated and turned into “an eyesore among eyesores”, a ridiculous monument to the bygone colonial grandeur. It is noteworthy, however, that Miss Grierson’s commitment to the old ideals is not accidental and is dictated by the conditions of her life and upbringing.
Raised in the attitude of arrogance to the rest of the society, Emily Grierson transfers this attitude to every aspect of her life. She ignores the demands to pay taxes, the scowling glances at her male butler, and the gossip of the local scandalmongers when she enters a relationship with a stranger. Distancing herself from the rest of the townspeople is a way for Miss Grierson to preserve her initial traditions and way of life.
As a result of Miss Grierson’s secluded life, there emerges a paradox: on the one hand, she refuses to accept the new lifestyle; on the other hand, she adapts to the new life conditions by dissociating herself from the Jefferson society. After initial attempts to appear in public with her suitor or to give china-painting lessons, Emily takes up a secluded lifestyle and locks herself up in her mansion.
She becomes a living symbol of Jefferson, “motionless as … an idol” and barely ever speaking to anybody (Faulkner). Despite all the effort to preserve her lifestyle intact, Emily fails in her undertaking since she is mortal as any living being, and all the symbols of her past that surround her in daily life are equally perishable.
The opposition between Miss Grierson’s desire of stability and the inexorable course of history frames up the key conflict of the story, and therefore to emphasize Emily’s belonging to the Pre-Civil War South, Faulkner surrounds her by objects that symbolize that past.
The first and foremost symbol of Miss Grierson’s epoque is the place she lives in: “a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies” situated in the once “most select street” (Faulkner). The splendor of the mansion was almost unsurpassed in its better days, with endless fashionable objects filling its rooms. However, the once grand place is subject to the inexorable course of time and shows obvious signs of decay.
One of the most powerful symbols of that decay is the image of dust that fills the house: not only does dust rise from the old leather furniture when visitors sit on it, but it also defines the smell of the house and its very atmosphere (Faulkner).
Symbolic of the past memories and regrets, dust appears throughout the whole story, acquiring especial significance in the scenes of Miss Emily’s death and the discovery of her suitor’s dead body. Hanging all over the house, dust throws a dense veil concealing the mysteries of the Griersons family.
Faulkner employs 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” ? symbolic of new life and new values — indifferent to the majestic culture of the old society. 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.
Reminding of the Pre-Civil War epoque and its slaveholding system that supported the existence of the rich white upper class is the character of the Negro butler. Faulkner introduces this image in order to enhance the museum-like state of the Griersons’ mansion. The old Negro butler works hard for the Griersons throughout his life and performs a range of quite unnecessary tasks: he shows the visitors in and out of the house and opens the blinds the let some light into the parlor of the house.
Although Miss Emily could have easily coped with those tasks herself, she prefers to keep the Negro butler as a way of emphasizing her high social status the way it was appropriate in her Pre-Civil War youth. Along with performing purely formal duties, the Negro butler constantly reappears with a market basket, which suggests that he is also in charge of the practical aspects of Miss Grierson’s household.
A notable occurrence in this respect is the complaint of the city dwellers concerning the peculiar smell from the Griersons’ mansion: “Just as if a man — any man — could keep a kitchen properly,” the ladies said; so they were not surprised when the smell developed” (Faulkner).
But even though a woman would be more suitable for running the house, Miss Grierson would not replace the Negro butler who is as much of a tradition in her life as she is in the life of the whole city.
On no occasion can he leave his owner, and therefore he grows gray and “doddering” and disappears from the house only with Miss Grierson’s death (Faulkner). Symbolic of Miss Grierson’s commitment to the past ideals, the Negro butler is the part of her mystery which he never reveals.
In order to further emphasize Miss Grierson’s striking adherence to the values of the Pre-Civil War epoque, Faulkner introduces the reader to the enormous influence of her father, who oppressed and dominated her when he was alive and spreads his authority on her life even after he passes away.
After his death (which Emily stubbornly refuses to admit), his crayon portrait is one of the main focal points in the parlor: “On a tarnished gilt easel before the fireplace stood a crayon portrait of Miss Emily’s father” as if overseeing and controlling all the events (Faulkner).
The dominance of Miss Emily’s father over her is clearly show in the way they are portrayed:” Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip” (Faulkner).
It is not accidental, therefore, that she chooses her only suitor according to his looks that coincide with the way the Griersons are depicted, “his hat cocked and a cigar in his teeth, reins and whip in a yellow glove“ (Faulkner).
This action serves as an evidence of how arrogant the Griersons’ attitude to the surrounding society is and how eager Miss Grierson is to show the distance between herself and the society if she makes such a risky choice of a partner. Thus, additional emphasis is placed on the abyss dividing Miss Grierson and the Jefferson townsmen, the past and the present.
Apparently, the dramatic changes take place without Miss Grierson: she remains the same self-willed woman throughout the whole story. However, despite the obvious stability in Miss Grierson’s character, a certain evolution can be traced in her through the symbolic image of her hair.
The first change in her hairstyle comes after her father’s death: “her hair was cut short, making her look like a girl” (Faulkner). By cutting her hair and thus recovering her young looks, Miss Grierson probably attempts to emphasize her girlish nature and her devotedness to her father. With the course of time, she grows older and her hair becomes gray. This decay of Miss Grierson’s reflects the overall decay of the mansion and thus of the ideals that its inhabitants cherish.
In addition, the “long strand of iron-gray hair” found at the dead body of Miss Grierson’s suitor emphasizes the fact that although her body is decayed, her spirit remains strong enough to insist on her way of behavior (Faulkner). Thus a discrepancy comes to the fore between the aspirations of happiness and the inevitability of withering away with the time.
In his short story “A Rose for Emily”, William Faulkner develops the theme of adapting to the changing environment by demonstrating how the character of Miss Grierson opposes the changes.
However, the evolution can still be traced through the symbolic images of her mansion, her Negro butler, and her hair. Those images demonstrate that although Miss Grierson wishes to stick to the past, it is impossible due to the natural processes of decay and lavishing. Thus, the tragedy of human perishability is revealed through the literary device of symbolism.