During the years following the Civil War, the South went through a period of drastic change. The aristocratic landowning class, who used to prosper from an agrarian economy dependent on slavery, now had to adapt to the New South—a region starting to embrace the North's industrialization and egalitarianism. Many of these white aristocrats, however, were bound to traditions of the Old South and refused to accept their new reality. This inability to adjust spiked criticism from William Faulkner who was one of the most acclaimed southern novelists at that time. In the short story A Rose for Emily, Faulkner criticizes the Old South's reluctance to accept change by showing how Miss Emily Grierson's inability to adapt leads her to live a miserable life.
Miss Emily refuses to conform to a society that does not revere her as noble anymore. After the Civil War, the social stratification, which placed aristocratic families like the Griersons in the highest class, was dissolved. Thus, the townspeople do not perceive Miss Emily as a prestigious figure anymore, but instead as a "fallen monument"(Faulkner 143). She, however, lives trapped in the past, believing she is too genteel to interact with anyone from the town. This behavior becomes evident in the story once the narrator says, "the Griersons held themselves a little too high for what they really were" (Faulkner 146). As a result, Miss Emily is condemned to a life of loneliness until death, rattling around inside an old plantation house for decades with no one to take care of her. She becomes a victim of her own stubbornness to accept change. In fact, many literary critics agree with this interpretation. Cleanth Brooks describes Miss Emily as "a conscious aristocrat who insists on meeting the world on her own terms" and interprets this as "an attitude in which both the admirable and the horrible reside" (qtd. in Jones 107). In these statements, Brooks is clearly referring to how Miss Emily's refusal to adjust to a new social stratification determines her own tragic fate. This fact is important because it helps the reader understand how the author accomplishes his goal through the story. Faulkner chose this unwillingness to adapt to a new society as one of Miss Emily's characteristics because he wanted to criticize his Southern contemporaries who also refused to believe they were not on top of the social ladder anymore.
In addition to refusing to accept her diminished role in society, Miss Emily is defiant towards the modernization of the town. During the time in which the story takes place, the South is becoming a region with innovative ideas and laws. However, since Miss Emily is attached to her antebellum traditions, she refuses to accept these innovations. When the town establishes a postal delivery system, she does not allow the city authorities to attach a mailbox to her house. Also, she refuses to pay taxes, believing the old arrangement with Colonel Sartoris will last forever. These stubborn actions cause the townspeople to have a feeling of antipathy towards Miss Emily, which becomes clearly noticeable when they say her suicide "would be the best thing" (Faulkner 148). Therefore, Miss Emily's reluctance to accept the town's modernization is also another factor that leads her to live a lonely life. Hans Skei, a professor of comparative literature for the University of Oslo, interprets this fact in a similar way. When analyzing the consequences of Miss Emily's refusal to accept innovations, Skei asserts, "the incredible changes around her simply leave her behind as an anachronism" (154). In other words, by not complying with the modernization of the town, Miss Emily, like any other old-fashioned symbol, is slowly being forgotten by the townspeople, who now only see her as "a tradition, a duty, and a care" (Faulkner 144). This interpretation on her life is equally significant to the author's main message in the story. Faulkner created her with this characteristic because he wanted to comment on the Old South's struggle to accept the North's industrialization.
Finally, Miss Emily is so opposed to change that she even refuses to acknowledge death. In order to keep living in her timeless vacuum, she cannot let the dead go as they would be the only ones who would still share the principles and ideals from the antebellum world. As a result, Miss Emily is led to live a perverse life in which she tries to escape change by attempting to live among the dead. Faulkner shows her facing this consequence in the story when he reveals Miss Emily's macabre and bizarre bridal chamber. The fact she keeps the body of Homer Barron clearly shows how her refusal to accept death brings misery and madness to her life as she becomes even more bound to the past. Indeed, professors of American literature draw a similar connection between these facts. Melvin Backman asserts Miss Emily "clutches so deludedly at a dead past that life itself is denied"(81). If this interpretation is analyzed along with the author's historical context, they can represent something even more significant to his purpose in writing this story. Perhaps Miss Emily's reluctance to accept death is an allusion to the people from the Old South who were living a way of life that was also already dead.
Faulkner clearly used Miss Emily as a vehicle to send his main message in the story. Her refusal to adapt in a new society, defiance towards the modernization of the town, and reluctance to acknowledge death all represent the Old South and its struggle with the post-civil war reconstruction. Furthermore, the fact she pays the price of these actions by living a miserable life reveals the author's purpose. Faulkner wrote A Rose for Emily to warn his Southern contemporaries that denying change can only bring suffering to a person's life.
Backman, Melvin. Faulkner: The Major Years. Indiana University Press, 1966.
Faulkner, William. "A Rose for Emily." Portable Literature, edited by Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Cengage Learning, 2016, pp. 143-151.
Jones, Laura. Reader's Guide to The Short Stories of William Faulkner. G. K. Hall & Co, 1994.
Skei, Hans H. Reading Faulkner's Best Short Stories. University of South Carolina Press, 1999.