Summary and Analysis: "A Rose for Emily"
The Narrator's Point of View
"A Rose for Emily" is a successful story not only because of its intricately complex chronology, but also because of its unique narrative point of view. Most critics incorrectly consider the narrator, who uses "we" as though speaking for the entire town, to be young, impressionable, and male; however, on close examination, we realize that the narrator is not young and is never identified as being either male or female. The character of the narrator is better understood by examining the tone of the lines spoken by this "we" person, who changes his/her mind about Miss Emily at certain points in the narration.
Consider the opening sentence of the story and the reasons given for the townspeople's attending Miss Emily's funeral: ". . . the men [went] through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument." Is the narrator saying that the town views Miss Emily respectfully? Do the men remember her with affection? What has Miss Emily done to deserve the honor of being referred to as a "monument"? Once we discover that she has poisoned her lover and then slept with his dead body for an untold number of years, we wonder how the narrator can still feel affection for her. And why does the narrator think that it is important to tell us Miss Emily's story?
In general, the narrator is sympathetic to Miss Emily, never condemning her actions. Sometimes unabashedly and sometimes grudgingly, the narrator admires her ability to use her aristocratic bearing in order to vanquish the members of the city council or to buy poison. The narrator also admires her aristocratic aloofness, especially in her disdain of such common matters as paying taxes or associating with lower-class people. And yet, for a lover she chooses Homer Barron, a man of the lowest class, and more troubling than his social status is the fact that he is a Yankee. Ironically, the narrator admires Miss Emily's high-and-mighty bearing as she distances herself from the gross, vulgar, and teeming world, even while committing one of the ultimate acts of desperation — necrophilia — with a low-life Yankee.
The narrator, who does not condemn Miss Emily for her obsession with Homer, nevertheless complains that the Griersons "held themselves a little too high." But even this criticism is softened: Recalling when Miss Emily and her father rode through the town in an aristocratically disdainful manner, the narrator grudgingly admits, "We had long thought of them as a tableau" — that is, as an artistic work too refined for the common, workaday world. Also, the narrator almost perversely delights in the fact that, at age 30, Miss Emily is still single: "We were not pleased exactly, but vindicated." After Miss Emily's father's death, the narrator's ambiguous feelings are evident: "At last [we] could pity Miss Emily." The townspeople seem glad that she is a pauper; because of her new economic status, she becomes "humanized."
Moving from admiring Miss Emily as a monument to taking petty delight in her plight, the narrator again pities her, this time when she refuses to bury her father immediately after he dies: "We remembered all the young men her father had driven away, and we knew that with nothing left, she would have to cling to that which had robbed her, as people will." The word "cling" prepares us for her clinging to Homer's dead body.
With the appearance of Homer, the narrator, now obviously representing the town's views, is "glad" that Miss Emily has a love interest, but this feeling quickly turns to indignation at the very idea of a Northerner presuming to be an equal of Miss Emily, a Southern, aristocratic lady. The narrator cannot imagine that she would stoop so low as "to forget noblesse oblige" and become seriously involved with a common Yankee day laborer. In other words, Miss Emily should be courteous and kind to Homer, but she should not become sexually active with him.
Once the town believes that Miss Emily is engaging in adultery, the narrator's attitude about her and Homer's affair changes from that of the town's. With great pride, the narrator asserts that Miss Emily "carried her head high enough — even when we believed that she was fallen." Unlike the town, the narrator is proud to recognize the dignity with which she faces adversity. To hold one's head high, to confront disaster with dignity, to rise above the common masses, these are the attitudes of the traditional Southern aristocracy. For example, when Miss Emily requests poison from the druggist, she does so with the same aristocratic haughtiness with which she earlier vanquished the aldermen. When the druggist asks why she wants poison, she merely stares at him, "her head tilted back in order to look him eye for eye," until he wraps up the poison for her. In the Southern culture of the time, to inquire about a person's intent was a vulgar intrusion into one's privacy. Yet, at this point, despite the narrator's admiration of Miss Emily's aristocratic haughtiness, we question a society that allows its members to use their high positions, respect, and authority to sidestep the law. We wonder about the values of the narrator.
Who, then, is this narrator, who seemingly speaks for the town but simultaneously draws back from it? The narrator makes judgments both for and against Miss Emily, and also presents outside observations — particularly in Section IV, when we first learn many details about her. At the beginning of the story, the narrator seems young, is easily influenced, and is very impressed by Miss Emily's arrogant, aristocratic existence; later, in Section IV, this person seems as old as Miss Emily and has related all the important things Miss Emily has done during her lifetime; and by the story's end, the narrator, having grown old with her, is presenting her with a "rose" by sympathetically and compassionately telling her bizarre and macabre story.
By using the "we" narrator, Faulkner creates a sense of closeness between readers and his story. The narrator-as-the-town judges Miss Emily as a fallen monument, but simultaneously as a lady who is above reproach, who is too good for the common townspeople, and who holds herself aloof. While the narrator obviously admires her tremendously — the use of the word "Grierson" evokes a certain type of aristocratic behavior — the townspeople resent her arrogance and her superiority; longing to place her on a pedestal above everyone else, at the same time they wish to see her dragged down in disgrace. Nevertheless, the town, including the new council members, shows complete deference and subservience toward her. She belongs to the Old South aristocracy, and, consequently, she has special privileges.