The Communal Experience of First-Person Plural in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” - REVIEW
As the first published story of William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” (1930) non-linearly follows the eponymous character Emily Grierson, from when her father was still alive and drove her potential suitors away, to when she was left all alone in her mansion and suspiciously died. The intricate peculiarity of Faulkner’s story— as much as Emily’s ambiguous personality— lies within the first-person plural focalization, the designated “we” (i.e. the townsfolk) as the sole means to propel the story to its shocking conclusion.
Since Emily is the protagonist, nobody would expect the story to begin with her death, but Faulkner does just that and more: “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral.” With this opening, Faulkner lays bare the mechanics of his story and prepares readers for what is to become a communal experience. When people come across the diegetic “we”, they become a part of the story’s community who reminisce about Miss Emily and her strange behavior. This play with perspective also highlights how the people of Jefferson who knew Emily for decades did not in fact know her as a person, only speculating on her character, which is why sheer curiosity and gossip brought them to her funeral and not love. But, to some extent, those reasons are also the reader’s as Emily’s absentee physical persona (and perspective) add to her weird appeal.
The contrast of both admiration and intrigue surrounding her character makes Emily the talk of town; she and her traditional, outdated ways are the story. Emily became a recluse in her home (a symbol of the American past) and watched people from a safe distance, but they watched her back and analyzed her every move. Not once understood, Emily dies just like she lived, an emblem of a past long forgotten, and her revealed secret in the end only adds to her magnetic enigma; readers will not have this mystery resolved. Unsurprisingly, the story’s title also stresses what is ‘unseen’ for the public eye: while it suggests the presence of a rose, no physical rose appears in the text. It is plausible then that Faulkner felt for Emily, for the fact that she died without people really knowing her or coming to her funeral for her, and so he took it upon himself to give her the “rose” she deserves, but this is only one interpretation.
“A Rose for Emily” is as much of an enigmatic story as its titular character, a Faulkner staple in Southern Gothic, and a story so seemingly benign that it might just reach too close to home. What it teaches us is the inherent mystery of people, the part which no one but themselves could know and we could guess. It is a truly arresting reading experience, one that does not use modern narrative tools as gimmicks, but with a clear purpose and effect. The ending is shocking but, more than that, it accentuates the nostalgic sentiment of someone hurting in plain sight and ultimately dying alone. For a first published story and my first literary encounter with Faulkner, this story is not short of a masterpiece in its simplicity with which a more complex world in all of its generational glory comes alive.
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” - W. Faulkner
My Rating: ★★★★☆