Written by Eva Milanovic  

What does the story imply about the relationship between past and present, illusion and reality, permanence and change, death and life?

            In “A Rose for Emily”, Faulkner addresses several subjects and establishes relationships between them such as juxtaposition, contrast, and convergence. Past and present, illusion and reality, permanence and change, and death and life are the subjects that will be discussed and through which links will be formed.

            The past and the present come up in the story in two different ways. First, Faulkner provides a graphic description of Miss Emily’s physique towards the end of her life. She is described as a “small, fat woman”, “bloated like a body submerged in motionless water”, and her eyes are like “two pieces of coal” that are “lost in the fatty ridges of her face” (484). He puts great emphasis on the fact that she is not thin. However, this image is juxtaposed with the one from the past in which Faulkner refers to Emily as being slender (485). Second, the author brings the past into the present through Homer Barron, Emily’s so-called suitor. Although they were seeing each other, she knew that they would never get married because of his preference for men. She could not bear the thought of losing him; therefore, she killed him and kept him close to her for forty years as if nothing had happened. It is her way to cling to the past by making sure it is part of the present. In short, the two relationships between past and present are first juxtaposed and then overlapped.

            The author also likes to play with the idea of illusion and reality. He begins by reporting a reality, such as the smell around her house, a putrid smell that the neighbours complain about (485). Their solution is for the judge to suggest that she have her home cleaned, to which he replies that it is not the way to treat a lady. To avoid this reality, an illusion is created. In the middle of the night, men are sent over to her house to sprinkle lime everywhere. By doing so, the smell disappears after a while, giving the illusion that indeed she had her house cleaned. Another example is the way she carries her head high to give the impression that she is dignified (486). In reality, she is alone and poor, which makes people pity her. Finally, Homer Barron’s disappearance was an illusion: people simply thought he had left town (487). The truth is that she had poisoned him, a fact that we learn only at the end of the story (489). In this narrative, illusion and reality are sharply contrasted to emphasize the difference between what is not real and what is.

            Faulkner accentuates the fact that over time, things change such as physiques and points of view, making a difference between permanence and change. Emily’s house used to be white with cupolas, spires, and scrolled balconies (483). Since it was a house located on the “most select street”, one could think that it would always be that way; but with time, the house fell into decay. Also, Colonel Sartoris made sure that Emily would never have to pay taxes “into perpetuity” (483), thus laying stress on the idea of permanence. However, people change and so do situations. After the death of the colonel, the new mayor insisted that she pay her taxes. Furthermore, Faulkner establishes a relationship between permanence and change through comparison. When Homer Barron was alive, he was said to be big, implying that he was strong and perhaps healthy (486). Forty years later, he is found in Emily’s house and his body has rotted (489). In these three instances, everything seemed permanent when in reality change was unavoidable.

            Contrary to the other elements, death and life are not juxtaposed or compared, but rather combined. Through Emily’s eyes, it is as if there was no difference between the two as she lives in the face of death. She did not mourn her father’s death because she was in denial for three days (485). He had to be snatched from her to be buried in a proper way or else she would have probably kept him in the house. The same parallel can be drawn between her and Barron’s dead body. Even though he had been dead for so long, she kept him close to her and acted as if he were alive, such as lying next to him in the bed (489). Death and life converge towards one meaning: Emily is a mixture of both worlds. She is alive, but lives among the dead.

            This story is considered to be gothic because of its sinister atmosphere and the strange events that lead to a mounting suspense. Among the combined subjects which are past and present, illusion and reality, permanence and change, and death and life, relationships are established. However, when each subject is taken individually and analyzed, there is a recurring idea: death. For this reason, it cannot be argued that this is not a gothic story as death is one of its major components.   

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