by Alyssa Reeves
written for ENGL310 (Introduction to Literary Studies)
Prof. Elizabeth Dodd
7 December 2007
The Woman Behind the Voice:
Narrator’s Identity in “A Rose for Emily”
of the pleasures of reading fiction consists of seeing the world through
someone else’s eyes, it is easy to overlook the eyes that control our view of
the plot, characters, and setting” (Meyer 218).
The examination of formal elements such as language, structure, and tone
often results in a unique perspective of the work. Perhaps the most imperative piece of a brief
narrative is the very component which breathes life into the lexis on each
page: the narrator. By presenting a
unique point of view, the first-person plural and limited omniscient narrator
offers the reader a meticulous examination of the subconscious value behind a
selection of text. The gender of the
narrator is an essential part in how characters are presented and how the plot is
advanced. In William Faulkner’s “A Rose
for Emily” there are numerous hints in the text which suggest the identity and
gender of the unnamed narrator as an aged female observer.
The identity of the narrator in “A Rose for Emily” is left a mystery. By examining the contextual facts presented by Faulkner through the narrator himself, the reader is able to come to certain conclusions about who the narrator is. “The narrator would seem to be a minor character, first-person speaker, an inhabitant of the town where the story takes place, a long-time inhabitant, apparently, since his first-hand account extends back over half a century” (Sloane 75). Events from Miss Emily Grierson’s life are described as early as her childhood when she lived with her father up until the time of her death, proving that the narrator is at least as old as Miss Grierson, if not older.
Also, Faulkner employs the first person plural point of view. While the narrator serves as a voice for the community in Jefferson, he or she is limited to his or her own thoughts. “. . . [T]he first person peripheral narrator evaluates, explains, and interprets the action by his mental power. He reports what he knows and learns about the main hero” (Çakir 460). The voice of the narrator also hints at who he or she is not. Throughout the essay, the narrator tends to use the adverb “we,” but in several places, slips into the use of the word “they”: “They called a special meeting of the Board of Aldermen. . . .They were admitted by the old Negro into a dim hall. . . .The Negro led them into the parlor” (Faulkner 96, emphasis mine). By using “we,” the narrator suggests he or she is part of the community, but makes it clear that the Board of Aldermen is a separate entity. Perhaps the narrator is present and observing during the meetings, but the group is not received as a shared organization.
The author’s style of writing puts emphasis on the narrator and the community as more than just spectators, but as central figures in the story of Miss Emily. Faulkner opens “A Rose for Emily” with a paragraph introducing Miss Emily Grierson’s death and the community’s desire to attend her funeral. Faulkner’s word choice in the opening sentence places the main character as a subordinate object and the townspeople as the subject: “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral. . . .” (Faulkner 95). This style places focus on the community as a unit that plays a major role in the final discovery of Miss Emily’s secret at the conclusion of the story.
In many ways, the narrator is the voice of the community. Rather than introducing the reader to multiple characters and personalities, Faulkner makes use of a single narrator to represent the common actions and opinions of the townspeople. This voice is heard throughout the work, “We did not say she was crazy then. We believed she had to do that. We remembered all the young men her father had driven away. . . .” (Faulkner 98). It is interesting, in this case, how the narrator implies that the town collectively held the same beliefs and memories.
From “our whole town” emerges the narrator of the story who poses an interesting limited omniscient narrating position for Faulkner to control. The author designates this narrator both as part of the “our whole town” and part of the supposed objectivity through whom the reader must envision the story” (Curry 392).
Faulkner must manage the limited view of the narrator to maintain a convincing plot, so the narrator’s accounts of these widespread ideas may simply be collaborative town gossip. Other critics disagree. “We may conclude that . . . the narrator is using the corporate “we” but indicating what he or she, as an individual, thought or did” (Klein 230). If the conveyance of gossip is not the case, perhaps the narrator is simply assuming his or her personal opinions are congruent with the opinions of the majority and does not feel the need to make a distinction.
Faulkner’s decision to use a first-person narrator as opposed to a third-person adds a mysterious element to the work.
The way the story is told is determined by the narrator. In the process of telling it, he implies his own and his society’s cultural values, which influence attitudes and behavior toward Emily in a way that implicates him and the townspeople in her fate. The reader might well wonder why he tells the story at all or why he tells it the way he does. . . . (Dilworth 251)
If the narrator had been someone specific such as Homer Barron or Tobe, the Negro manservant, then a reader would not likely be presented with such a thorough history of Miss Emily Grierson’s life, which seemingly cannot be accounted for by a single person, but by the collective eyes of the community.
Equally important is the narrator’s relationship to Miss Emily Grierson. The community’s attitudes toward Miss Emily are reflected in their motivations for attending her funeral. “. . . 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. . .” (Falkner 95). The men view her as a symbol of traditional Southern womanhood which has withstood the changing times. The women are unpleased with the neglected nature of her house and her withdrawn customs. “Despite their bitterness toward Emily, the ladies of Jefferson feel some degree of sympathy for her. After her father’s death, the ladies reminisce: ‘We remembered all the young men her father had driven away. . . .’” (Burduck 210). Emily Grierson did not make social events a routine, yet no one felt as though they could blame her for being withdrawn since she had grown up under the suppressing hand of her father.
Even Faulkner’s label for the essay reveals the narrator’s connection to Miss Grierson. “The ‘Rose’ of the title extends far beyond any one flower or literary allusion in its implications for the story’s structure. [It] represents secrecy: the confidential relationship between the author and his character, with all of the privileged information withheld” (Getty 232). In this short story, it is apparent that the narrator leaves out details of Miss Emily’s life and the community’s notions. In his article, “A Romance to Kill For,” Thomas Dilworth suggests that the community may have known about Homer Barron’s murder and just pretended not to. “The narrator . . . conceals his and his neighbors’ collusion with Emily by presenting evidence selectively and by focusing attention, at the end of the story, on necrophilia” (Dilworth 252). Also, instead of confronting Miss Grierson about haste disappearance of Homer Barron, the townspeople attempt to cover it up with lime.
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?” So the next night, after midnight, four men crossed Miss Emily’s lawn and slunk about the house like burglars, sniffing along the base of the brickwork and at the cellar openings while one of them performed a regular sowing motion with his hand out of a sack slung from his shoulder. They broke open the cellar door and sprinkled lime there, and in all the outbuildings. (Faulkner 97)
This act displays not only the community’s respect for Miss Grierson but also their refusal to accuse her of murder. The narrator seems to be content without knowing a solid truth. “And that was the last we saw of Homer Barron. And of Miss Emily for some time. The Negro man went in and out with the market basket, but the front door remained closed” (Faulkner 100). Faulkner’s image of a closed door draws at the community’s inability to access Miss Emily’s personal affairs, and they are shut out from her furtive routine.
In addition to the importance of the narrator’s link to the main character, the gender of the narrator offers a unique perspective for viewing the events in Miss Grierson’s life. Faulkner purposefully avoids identifying the narrator by excluding gender-related pronouns such as “he” or “she.” Despite the story’s particular vagueness, other clues exist to suggest the true gender of the unnamed narrator.
From the beginning of the story, we notice several curious things about this voice. First, the narrator studiously avoids identifying his or her own sex. . . .Similarly, the narrator avoids signaling allegiance to a particular generation, comprehending both the town’s older citizens . . . and its younger inhabitants. (Klein 229)
In the story, this is visible in numerous places. After Miss Emily Grierson presents herself in public with Homer Barron on a Sunday afternoon, the narrator offers the town’s opinion of the matter:
Then some of the ladies began to say that it was a disgrace to the town and a bad example to the young people. The men did not want to interfere, but at last the ladies forced the Baptist minister . . . to call upon her. (Faulkner 99)
The narrator does not blatantly associate him- or herself with the men or the ladies, but in many cases is characteristic of both. “The men in the town are portrayed as respectful of Emily, while the women are curious. The narrator is both. . . .” (Curry 391). This leaves gender identification solely to the analytical reader.
The first clue to deciphering this mystery lies in the opening page of Faulkner’s short story. Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric at the University of California, Thomas O. Sloane, gives his thoughts on the narrator’s gender:
Perhaps the narrator is female. After all, the second paragraph of the story begins “It was a big squarish frame house . . .” This could be quite revealing, considering the division the narrator has already offered between the reasons why men and the reasons why women were interested in going to Miss Emily’s funeral. (Sloane 75)
No further explanation is given for the men’s view of Miss Grierson as a fallen monument. If they respected her for her former days of prestige and beauty, the narrator does not mention it.
In addition, evidence is found in the narrator’s use of pronouns. These elements may simply be overlooked upon first reading “A Rose for Emily,” but close examination reveals they are of utmost importance.
Already we knew that there was one room in that region above stairs which no one had seen in forty years, and which would have to be forced. They waited until Miss Emily was decently in the ground before they opened it. (Faulkner 101, emphasis mine)
Had the narrator been male, she would have claimed membership as part of the group who most likely forced the heavy, old door open. Instead, she describes the Negro first allowing the ladies to enter the home, where they pass curious gazes about the rooms. The curiosity of these ladies would allow the reader to assume it was the ladies who knew about the room upstairs.
The narrator does, however, take ownership of the ladies’ actions after Miss Emily’s father dies. “The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom” (Faulkner 98, emphasis mine). This sentence directly supports the conception that the narrator is indeed female.
A final authentication of the narrator’s gender is the sympathy she shows toward Miss Grierson.
The narrator does suggest that the community women at least understand the viability of secrets as regards Miss Emily and her house. These women encourage the men to act upon their suspicions. . . .One of the neighbors (and Faulkner makes a specific point of its being a female neighbor) makes an issue of the smell to the judge. (Curry 393)
In his essay, “Another View of Faulkner’s Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily,’” Michael L. Burduck offered his own support for this theory: “Despite their bitterness toward Emily, the ladies of Jefferson feel some degree of sympathy for her. After her father’s death, the ladies reminisce: ‘We remembered all the young men her father had driven away. . . .’” (210). The narrator appears to be very concerned about every detail of Miss Emily’s life. This is perceptible throughout the entire story as the reader is presented with the most fastidious recollections of Miss Emily’s life including her conversation with the pharmacist when she purchases poison, the movement of the men who sprinkle lime outside Miss Emily’s home, and the discussion of taxes between Miss Emily and the Board of Aldermen.
The conclusion of the story presents an element of surprise which finds the narrator at a loss for words. The story feels almost incomplete until the reader recalls the full circle of events which then relates back to the beginning of the story where the chronology picks up at the time of Miss Emily’s funeral.
Although the story closes in the sense that its words cease, no mention of restoration of any order reveals itself through the language of the tale. Faulkner stops writing, and the narrator stops narrating at the sight of the unlikely coupling of the skeleton and the hair. The narrator sees but ceases to narrate at the sight. (Curry 396)
The shock of the discovery immediately pulls the narrator back from the scene into a more distant position. By avoiding direct involvement, the narrator dismisses any responsibility to account for the experience.
This narrator, even when confronted with the most exciting part of the mystery, refuses to participate on the front lines. When the door to the bedroom housing the skeleton of Homer and the gray hair of Miss Emily is finally to be forced open, the narrative “we” changes to the distant “they.” (Curry 397)
In some ways, the reader may feel dissatisfied with the ending, but Faulkner sets the reader up:
Faulkner subtly prepares the reader for the narrator’s failure to relay what he sees in the mock-closing gesture by gradually dismantling his or her perspective from a limited to a decidedly unwilling omniscience. The details required to know something begin to evade the narrator. . . . (Curry 396)
The very anonymity of the storyteller is a major factor which repeatedly draws the reader into the plot and leaves him asking a number of questions at the conclusion of the work. By using a first person plural narrator with limited omniscience, Faulkner creates a voice for the Jefferson community which adds another mysterious element to this short story. Both the narrator’s gender and relationship with Miss Emily Grierson supplements a unique perspective to the story that leaves the reader with sufficient information but still curious for more. Faulkner’s lack of detail at the most quizzical times in Miss Grierson’s life creates a narrator just as mystifying as Miss Emily herself.
Burduck, Michael L. “Another View of Faulkner’s Narrator in ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The University of Mississippi Study in English 8 (1990): 209-211.
Çakir, Hasan. “An Analysis of Point
of View In Five Short Stories.” Directory
of Open Access Journals. 2006.
Selçuck Üniversitesi. <http://www.sosyalbil.selcuk.edu.tr/sos_mak/makaleler\Hasan
Curry, Renee R. “Gender and authorial limitation in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’.” The Mississippi Quarterly 47 (1994): 391-402. Gale Group. Hale Library, Manhattan, KS. 4 Dec. 2007 <http://
Dilworth, Thomas. “A Romance to Kill for: Homicidal Complicity in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” Studies
in Short Fiction 36 (1999): 251-262. Literature Online. Hale Library, Manhattan, KS. 23 Nov. 2007
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” In The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th
ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 95-101.
Getty, Laura J. “Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” The Explicator 63 (2005): 230-4. ProQuest. Hale Library,
Manhattan, KS. 23 Nov. 2007 <http://proquest.umi.com/>.
Klein, Thomas. “The Ghostly Voice of Gossip in Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily.’” The Explicator 65 (2007):
229-232. Literature Online. Hale Library, Manhattan, KS. 23 Nov. 2007 <http://lion.chadwyck.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 218.
Sloan, Thomas O. “Readers Theatre Illusions and Classroom Realities.” The English Journal 66 (1977): 73-78. JStor. Hale Library, Manhattan, KS. 4 Dec. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>.