Symbolism and “A Rose for Emily” sample essay
William Faulkner used many symbols in writing “A Rose for Emily.” There is the omnipresent symbol of time, connecting Emily’s past with her present. Faulkner uses the tax bill as a symbol of the community, from which Emily is removed. Even Emily is herself a symbol. She is, Faulkner says, a monument, albeit one that has fallen at the beginning of the story. These symbols intersect to create a deeper meaning that sets the tone for Faulkner’s surprise ending.
Symbols of time pervade the story. It is clear that, for Emily, time has not moved on at all. The first indication of Emily’s failure to move into the modern world is the external decay of her home and neighborhood. Faulkner tells the reader that the house was big and “squarish” and no longer white, which stood on a street that was no longer a “select” address (91). And yet, inside, the house has a timeless aura. The portrait of Emily’s father is described as “musing profoundly” above her as she is surrounded by the elderly Confederate soldiers at her funeral. Faulkner hints at his ending here when he states that the soldiers talk about Emily: believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years. (96)
The ending of the story should come as no shock to someone who has read carefully. Although time has moved on outside the house, inside the house, time has ceased to move at all–at least for Emily and Horace. In part, the tax bill has to do with the passage of time. Although Emily believes that her tax bill was forgiven in perpetuity, in truth, the town has moved on from the time that promise was made. Because no evidence exists of such a promise to her or to her family, the town hall continues to send Emily a tax bill every year. As long as Emily remains locked inside her house, where time has ceased to move, she belonged to the time that has been preserved inside with her.
In addition, however, the tax bill represents the community. Taxes keep a society running; tax income provides services to the citizens who operate inside of it. Emily, however, has never considered herself to be a part of the community around her. Nor do the townspeople appear to believe that she is a member of their community. Instead, as Faulkner explains: None of the young men were quite good enough for Miss Emily and such. We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the back-flung front door. (93)
In this passage, it is evident that if Emily believes herself to be outside of the town, the townspeople imagine Emily as being barely a real person. Instead, Emily is a statue, an image in the living portrait of a tableau. The community has already consigned Emily to a time gone by, whether they realize it or not, which makes it easier for them to dismiss her and to forget her when she disappears into her time capsule of a house.
Finally, Faulkner himself recognizes Emily as a “monument” of the past. Faulkner often describes Emily as some form of statuary or static image: a monument, an angel from a stained glass window, a carved wooden idol. Neither statues, nor stained glass, nor wooden carvings change with age. And yet, like her house, Emily Grierson’s exterior does age–it is that which is inside her aging body that does not change. In Emily’s mind, Colonel Sartoris still visits her home and she goes to sleep at night with the man to whom she is married.
Faulkner uses symbols in this story to give it a depth that belie its length. They provide a clear foundation for what many readers consider a “surprise” ending, despite the hints that Faulkner provides throughout the story. Time, the house, and Emily: symbolically, all of them are one. Read carefully, it seems almost obvious that Emily’s story could end no other way.
Faulkner, William. Bedford Introduction to Literature 7th edition, Michael Meyers (Ed.). Boston: Bedford-St. Martin, date.
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