A Rose for Emily

Is all of this downtime making you a little crazy? If you are using the imposed quiet time to catch-up on your reading, indulge in some rich short stories by the greats. As an example, try William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.

Here’s a sample:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.

It was 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, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson.  

What is an eccentric if not one standing just a step beyond our expectations? Emily seemed to have it all at first – position, money, and prestige, but in time she drifted outside of society’s blessing by being too opaque. At some point it became impossible to distinguish cause and effect, and it seemed the more curious she became for her isolation, the more she insisted on it.

“And as soon as the old people said, “Poor Emily,” the whispering began. “Do you suppose it’s really so?” they said to one another. “Of course it is. What else could …” This behind their hands; rustling of craned silk and satin behind jalousies closed upon the sun of Sunday afternoon as the thin, swift clop-clop-clop of the matched team passed: “Poor Emily.”

She carried her head high enough—even when we believed that she was fallen. It was as if she demanded more than ever the recognition of her dignity as the last Grierson; as if it had wanted that touch of earthiness to reaffirm her imperviousness.”

In this classic Southern Gothic tale, Faulkner leaves much to the reader. There are almost as many interpretations as there are readers and much of what you take from it will reflect what you brought. In a sense, that’s the heart of the tale. Growth and change come harder for some than most, but we do ourselves no favor by refusing to evolve. Sooner or later, the past insists on being the past.

Isaiah 43:18–20

Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people


A Rose for Emily

Biographical Note

William Faulkner, a creative and innovative American writer, is best known for his imaginary world called Yoknapatawpha County, which he developed through a series of novels and short stories. Faulkner filled this world with memorable characters, black, white, and red, with himself as “sole owner and proprietor,” as he wrote on a map in one book. In the process of translating his “little postage stamp of native soil” into Yoknapatawpha County, he turned the historical South and its people into a legend that has universal appeal. Although popular success long eluded him, he died a public figure with many honors, including a Nobel Prize.

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi, into a prominent Southern family. (He added the “u” to his last name when he enlisted in World War I.) He was the first of four sons of Murry Cuthbert Falkner, a railroad employee and mediocre businessman, and Maud Butler. He was named for his father and his legendary great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, a distinguished veteran of the Civil War and the main developer of a railroad line from Ripley, Mississippi, to Tennessee; he was also a novelist, and his book The White Rose of Memphis was reprinted thirty-six times.

When Billy, as he was called by his family, was about a year old, his family moved to Ripley, where his great-grandfather had lived. When he was about five, the family moved to Oxford, the Lafayette County seat, where his father eventually became business manager of the state university. In Oxford, Faulkner’s home for most of his life, the imaginative boy absorbed the regional legends and family history that became the heart of his fiction.

There he entered the first grade of the public school. Encouraged by his mother, he became a great reader, especially of the works of Charles Dickens and other English classics found in the family library. At eight, when asked by a teacher what he wanted to be, he said, “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.” By the eighth grade the boy was bored and a truant who preferred to draw and to write poems and stories. At fifteen he dropped out of high school. By then he had met Estelle Oldham, a neighbor. Soon in love and dreaming of eventual marriage with her, he worked briefly at his grandfather’s bank.

About the same time, Faulkner met another neighbor, Philip Stone, four years older and about to enter the family law firm. Impressed with Faulkner’s poetry and enamored of literature, Stone became his friend, sponsor, and tutor, guiding his reading into the Symbolist and Modernist tradition. Faulkner read Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce. In 1918, Estelle, bowing to family pressure and Faulkner’s lack of prospects, married a lawyer and moved to the Orient. Faulkner went to live with Stone in New Haven, Connecticut, and worked as a ledger clerk. When the United States entered World War I, Faulkner tried to enlist in the U.S. Army but was rejected for failure to meet the height and weight requirements for flight school. He then invented a British persona for himself and was accepted by the Royal Air Force of Canada and sent to Toronto, but the war came to an end before he finished basic training. The stories he picked up then became the basis of his first novel, Soldier’s Pay (1926), the story of a fatally wounded aviator returning to Georgia.

Back home again, he spent a year studying French and Spanish at the University of Mississippi, accepted “by special dispensation for returned troops,” he said in a letter. He withdrew from college in 1920 and worked at odd jobs to earn enough for “paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey” while he pursued writing.

Faulkner’s first published writing was a poem, “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune,” in the New Republic magazine in 1919. In 1921 he went to New York City and worked as a clerk while seeking publishers for his writing. His first book, published in 1924 mostly with financial backing from Stone, was The Marble Faun, a series of pastoral poems. Reviews and sales were equally scanty.

In 1925 Faulkner spent six months in New Orleans, associating with the literary group headed by writer Sherwood Anderson, whom Faulkner called “the father of all of my generation” of writers. The older writer encouraged Faulkner’s writing, suggested that he use his Mississippi material, and recommended Soldier’s Pay to his publisher. The novel received good reviews but few sales. Faulkner’s readers, his Oxford neighbors, and even his family were appalled by the work’s violence and often depraved characters and his subject matter, which included incest and rape. His second novel, Mosquitoes (1927), alienated Anderson with its repudiation of the New Orleans literary circle. Flags in the Dust, his third novel, was rejected by the publisher in 1927 but two years later was brought out by another publisher under the title Sartoris. Its main figure, Colonel John Sartoris, was based on Faulkner’s great-grandfather. Hurt and surprised by the novel’s rejection, Faulkner was convinced his work would never be published again. Feeling freed to work to please himself, he began writing what became his first major novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), the novel for which he felt “the most tenderness.”

Faulkner also wrote many short stories. Each was sent to national magazines; most were returned, rejected. But the critical success of The Sound and the Fury spurred editors to take another look at his short stories. In 1930 and 1931 Faulkner kept a record of his stories: forty were sent off and twenty published, beginning with “A Rose for Emily.” Considered one of his finest, the story was rejected initially but accepted by The Forum in April 1930. The story was included in a collection of short stories under the title These 13 (1931).

Determined to write a popular and commercial success, Faulkner in 1929 wrote a draft of Sanctuary, which he called “the most horrific tale I could imagine.” His editor at first rejected it, fearing it would land them both in jail. Later the editor changed his mind and published it in 1931 after the novelist had extensively revised it, although without moderating its horror. It was his first popular success and the only one until his last years. Between 1930 and 1942 Faulkner published two collections of stories, a last book of poetry, and nine novels, including As I Lay Dying (1930). To increase his income he began work in 1932 as a Hollywood scriptwriter, work that stretched intermittently over twenty-two years.

Over the years Faulkner’s friendship with Estelle continued, renewed during her visits home without her husband. After her divorce, Faulkner married her in 1929, becoming stepfather to two children. Their first child, a daughter, was born in 1931 but died after a few days. There was also a second daughter. The family’s homes included Rowanoak, a dilapidated antebellum home purchased in 1930 and which Faulkner worked on himself, and a 320-acre farm purchased in 1938 named Greenfield.

Faulkner’s reputation as a writer seemed close to extinction in the early 1940s, except for the U.S. critics and the French who appreciated his work. His U.S. reputation began to pick up again with the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner, which presented the entire Yoknapatawpha legend. It was the brainchild of Malcolm Cowley, critic and literary historian, and included a long critical essay that aimed to “redress the balance” between Faulkner’s worth and reputation. The Portable received rave reviews and led the publisher to reprint Faulkner’s works, one after another. In 1948 Faulkner was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, another sign of his reassessment. His novel Intruder in the Dust was also published that year. The following year he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His last book, The Reivers, was published to great acclaim a month before his death on July 6, 1962, the birthday of his revered great-grandfather. Faulkner was an avid horseman and hunter who had sustained numerous injuries in falls. He had been thrown from a horse June 17th and died in a sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi.

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily,” in Imaginative Literature: Selections from the Twentieth Century, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Philip W. Goetz, Second Edition., vol. 60, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Robert P. Gwinn; Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 383–386.


Published by

Rick Wilcox

Rick is an ordained minister who is voraciously interested in the holistic transformation of people individually and in an organizational context - enabled by technology, educated continuously through multi-channel systems and informed by the wisdom of history's greatest thinkers. He is a Ph.D. student at Faulkner University, focusing on English Literature in the context of Classical Education. He earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Management from Sam Houston State University. His undergraduate studies earned a BA with double majors in Sociology and Theology from Houston Baptist University. Rick is Deputy Director of PACES PAideia Classical School and leads the Parenting Teens Adult Community at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands Texas.

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